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Opinion: Why Indies Can't Thrive On Consoles

Are independent game makers are getting a raw deal from Sony and Nintendo? Our editorial discusses the possible "chilling effect" on indie game innovation, thanks to lack of unified standards for converting downloadable games between PS3, Xbox 360, and Wi
[This editorial, written by Game Developer and Gamasutra EIC and Independent Games Festival chairman Simon Carless, was originally printed in the May 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine.] Imagine the following unlikely scenario: the movie theaters of America are divided into three groups, each of which requires a different aspect ratio and delivery format for any movie showing in it. Perhaps the three different formats don’t actually encourage easy conversion between them. Just think what a chilling effect that would have on some filmmakers who wanted a shot at showing their independent movies nationwide. Sure, independent filmmakers might be able to do fairly well with only one-third of the American market at their disposal, but what if a certain target market just wasn’t able to get to a theater that played the right movie format for the film they wanted to see? Let’s say only a third of all art house movie chains were actually equipped to show that film. This scenario would force independent filmmakers to have much smaller budgets for their films since their chances of success are drastically reduced by 66 percent. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the movie available everywhere? Fatal Flaw The ham-fisted point I’m trying to make is that the same chilling effect is currently happening with downloadable games for consoles. While Microsoft has a clear outreach channel for independent games with Xbox Live Arcade, the company hasn’t been working with Sony or Nintendo to create standards so that those games are available to PlayStation 3 and Wii owners. In my view, an independent game studio should be able to make a downloadable game for the Xbox 360, sell 50,000 copies at $10 each, convert it to PlayStation 3 and sell 50,000 more copies at the same price, and do the same on Nintendo’s Wii. The incremental conversion costs should theoretically be much less than the cost of developing the game from scratch. This would all contribute to a much more viable downloadable games scene. [UPDATE: Of course, this is presuming that the indie in question self-publishes, and there are getting to be an increasing amount of indies who are going through major publishers even for XBLA titles, and getting a much smaller percentage of the raw sales revenue as a result. This is a tricky and unfortunate trend, in my opinion.] I understand that hardware manufacturers want to have exclusive games, but that doesn’t stop them from making it easy for classic titles, or relatively platform-agnostic indie games, to appear on multiple platforms at the same time. This point is especially important for smaller and more independent developers because they ride a very fine line between viability and non-viability right now, since they pay their own development costs. Neutral is as Neutral Does It seems that Sony’s PlayStation 3 E-Distribution Initiative is keenly focused on first-party or second-party exclusives, such as Super Rub-A-Dub, fl0w, and Blast Factor, which take advantage of the PlayStation 3 hardware in some way. These are all fine titles, but they’re emblematic of a Sony-centric portfolio. I want to see a mass of compelling indie titles, like Worms or Alien Hominid, making its way from PC or Xbox 360 to PlayStation 3. I’d even want to see completely independent titles emerging from scratch from non-Sony funded developers who are free to publish their games on multiple consoles. Why isn’t that happening? I can only presume it’s because Sony has not set up a good mechanism for more loosely tied indies to easily and swiftly convert their games. Things are even worse in Nintendo’s corner, where retro titles are spouting out by the gallon, but new downloadable games are completely absent as of press time. My fingers are crossed that some developers are secretly working on downloadable Wii games, but as far as I know, there first needs to be an announcement and decision from the senior level within Nintendo before the company will commit to such titles; to which I say, come on, Nintendo. You’re missing a great opportunity for a mass of awesome content from innovative people! I wouldn’t even care if an indie game on Wii didn’t use the motion-sensor remote in a unique way, as long as it worked well with a normal controller and cost $10 or less. The Yoke Oddly, both Nintendo’s and Sony’s reluctance to come out swinging in this area seems to be down to insularity or issues relating to corporate control. Why not relax a little and give the consumer a bit more choice and make indie development much more viable along the way? Having a base of cool downloadable games would serve a couple of purposes. First, there would be a new non-retro download every week on all three next-gen console platforms. Second, it would empower indie game makers because they could get their games into all the console households in the country, not just a select one-third. I don’t see what anyone has to lose, as long as unique titles still stay on the console that they were more specifically developed for.

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