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Homebrew + Money =
by Wyatt Epp on 10/12/09 01:08:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Yesterday, Daniel Punch stated that, "Platform holders need a way to monetise homebrew..." with the argument that otherwise it would be just be a way for commercial games to be released royalty-free.  It got me thinking and, well, words came out.

Monetising homebrew is... well, it would simultaneously be a major step forward and backward.  It's a step forward in that it legitimatises a segment of software developers that have long suffered an undue amount of persecution in their pursuits. 

I can't honestly think of any group of hackers that has a harder time even making a small amount of forward progress; even the people hacking on the Linux kernel at least have standards and best practice they can look to when it comes time to reverse engineer a driver for the latest poorly-documented (or more often, not documented, publicly or with NDA, in the slightest) piece of hardware that will inevitably be supported for the next three decades. 

For example, look at Silverspring's work on the PSP firmware, with his long struggle to decipher Sony's misleading NIDs.  He'd probably buy Sony a round of drinks just to get a list that was sanely and descriptively named.  Given the skills that some of these people have developed through their exploits (tee hee), they really do deserve more respect than they get.

 So then there's the other half.  In what manner might this be seen as a step back, then?  It stems from what I tend to call the "You must be this tall to ride" disease.  Homebrewers don't pay royalties.  They don't have the thousands of dollars to blow on a license to put out a useful little Google Maps app that took a weekend of furious coding (it's still buggy as hell, but it works, at least, and people can use it).  They're not "tall" enough.  Of course they don't make money on this, either. 

That's important, right there:  homebrew is free on both ends.  Aside from the initial outlay in the cost of the unit and what it takes to get it set up for running homebrew, the programmer invests time and energy; the enthusiast receives a free application or game that provides some entertainment or utility; the community will sometimes receive a library or new tidbit added to the body of research. (libgba, Allegrex toolchain, video hardware documentation, etc.) 

So while the legitimacy of homebrew would be nice, that almost certainly comes with a price set infinitely higher than the magic one where people are actually independently productive and build a community that fosters growth of skilled individuals.

If we look at the original platform for homebrew (the PC platforms), you have a very different landscape:  libraries, documentation, entire (professionally made) engines with source!  And not a bit need be paid for any of it!  No one in their right mind would dream of saying someone can't develop whatever the heck they want with whatever they happen to get on the PC.  Granted, a PC is a "general purpose" computing platform but, lets be realistic here: there's no such thing as a specialised "gaming device" anymore. 

I haven't met a platform in years that was "just for games."  The PS3 and 360 are everything-boxes, the DS and PSP have wifi and browsers, the PS2 and Xbox are DVD players, the PSX kicked things off by playing CDs.  Why, the last "pure" gaming platform was...you know, I think it was actually the Gamecube.  So let us disabuse ourselves of this notion that these things can't be used for general purpose applications because that's BS:  we've been doing it for a decade now.  Legitimately.

So essentially the problem is thus: even though it's a nice thought that some people could possibly make some money by selling something good or useful, the homebrew movement as a whole shares a lot more blood with the open source world than the commercial industries.  So if there is an added expense; any price at all, even a small one; to develop sanctioned homebrew beyond what is paid up-front to acquire the unit (i.e. a DS and Slot-1 card), it will end as a purely-superficial publicity move.  Sony can tell you all about how those go.

Likewise, there is value to the homebrewer in being able to run unrestricted code.  Sony can tell you all about that, too.  Homebrew is powerful and wild and, at times, a little dangerous to the developer (and in suboptimal cases, the user).  It's rewards come in unusual forms and at unexpected times, and people approach it with the attitude that is fascinated by a world of new possibilities.  I'm all for allowing people to make money, but causing harm to that attitude is more that simply "not the answer"; I would consider it close to reprehensible.


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Comments


Daniel Punch
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Interesting post. I have to admit, I was surprised when I read it. Then I re-read what I posted yesterday. It was longer when I first wrote it, but I ended up editing it down to the basic couple of points.



As a developer and end-user I would be thrilled if platforms were opened up freely for homebrew. I’m aware of the fact that homebrew developers have delivered some terrific utilities and games on many platforms. I wish they could be openly and officially available. They've allowed users to turn their PSP into a GPS navigator. They’ve revived old games on new systems. They can indulge us with new, very small game play snippets that show off a cool idea but could never be turned into a full product.



My post yesterday was not really meant to be endorsing the current policy. I was trying to think like the platform holders and describe why, from their point of view, enabling homebrew developers does not make sense. If you only make money from the software used on your system and not from the system itself then you can't just open it up to everyone.



If you think back to the early 80's it was basically an open playing field. The courts said it was legal to develop games for other people's systems and sell them, so everyone did. The majority of the games were less than good and it lead to the Video Game Crash (see Wikipedia). It took almost two years before Nintendo revitalised the market with a new platform, quality titles and the ability to rigidly enforce standards. The console manufacturers aren’t going to forget something like that quickly.



I just don’t think we can expect the major players to completely open up their systems under their current business model. It makes no sense for them to do so. There’s every possibility that I’m wrong, but I think that the XNA and iPhone “almost open” model is the closest we’re going to get for a little while to come.



There are some awesome open gadgets out there and I hope they do fantastically well. People should support things like the Android platform and devices like the GP2X, because they are legitimising homebrew. They’re just not the mainstream players that get most of the world’s attention.

Sherban Gaciu
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@Daniel Punch:

I don't think the major players /should/ "completely open up their systems". Just looking at the video game crash makes me love the way XNA Indie games appear on the 360: in a separate segment, with user ratings, sorted in any number of ways (title, genre, etc.). Although I am currently 'home-brewing' something for XNA, as an end-user of the Xbox 360 as well, I would not want the actual Arcade games to be crowded with buggy, unpolished, and mostly unfinished games. And that's from a game dev who sifts through a lot of that stuff in order to get to the gems, not Madden-playing Joe Shmoe or his Halo playing son Jimmy. If homebrew was to be legitimized by a completely open system, I would buy the closed one.

David McClurg
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good post.



i would agree that having thousands of homebrew applets available for zune and iPhone help them sell hardware. that makes sense. sony might even be wise to re-think the psp and come around to opening that up as well.



but for ps3 and xbox 360, i don't see how thousands of applets would increase profits since hardware margins are thin. The wii, on the other hand, makes a hardware profit and has a way to download applets like the Mii channel. I love that. But Nintendo shouldn't change a thing -- they are too successful. :)


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