This year, an increasing trend favoring open platforms -- plus loads more new hardware options -- could form the new frontier for indie developers. A developer that manages to nail a great game in the emerging hardware market will enjoy near-unprecedented ubiquity, and the opportunity to have a say in the emerging landscape.
That's what Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester believes, suggesting today's independent developers would be well-served by focusing on new platforms and taking advantage of that openness in what's being described as a microconsole boom.
Wester's in a unique position as CEO of the PC-focused, independent developer-publisher, able to analyze business trends in the games industry without being beholden to the usual industry partners in the console space. He remembers a Game Developers Conference just three or four years ago when the Nintendo DS was the platform of highest interest to publishers. Two years ago, the same amount of attention had turned to the mobile space; a year ago, it was social gaming, in his view.
This year, Wester is curious to hear devs talk about new hardware and platform developments like Valve's Steam Box, Nvidia's Shield, Razer's tablet and the Ouya, to name just a few. By themselves most of these platforms are just one more thing to keep an eye on.
But collectively, juxtaposed against unprecedented retail disruption and a climate where the viability of fully-featured traditional home console platforms (like the ones Sony and Microsoft are expected to start revealing later this year) is an open question, they highlight one of the industry's most relevant hardware trends: Device convergence.
"I think what we'll see on the market is four OSes that will compete against each other," Wester says. "It's going to be Windows, iOS, Android... and we'll see more Linux as well, as Steam starts to support that."
It's unclear how open Nintendo's Wii U, which one could argue serves as the company's flexible testing bed for the new game hardware audience, will be to developers, Wester adds. But other arenas that have been especially hospitable to emerging developers have rapidly changed.
"The trend in the market for the past few years is that it's been a golden age for indie developers, and it's been that way up until a year or so ago," he says. "Previously, iOS was pretty open, there wasn't that much competition and anyone would publish for that platform. Same with Windows, because Steam was really open... now, it's really tough for indies to get in there. They use Greenlight to 'screen' what is likely to be a success."
"So I have really high hopes we're going to see more open platforms, with different ways of actually playing the games, and bring more opportunities for game developers," Wester adds. "I see more and more peple seem to be working with either Android, iOS or Windows, and from what I see there's going to be a matrix in the market: You first decide what OSes your game will support, and whether you want your game to be run with a gamepad, a touch screen or a mouse and keyboard."
Over-arching decisions like that will increasingly guide target hardware decisions for developers, Wester suggests. "All the OSes should hopefully support all the different ways of playing a game," he adds, noting that the fact iOS now only supports touchscreens now makes it an outlier. "We could make some of our strategy games for touchscreens, but it would be really cool... [if all] OSes start to actively support new ways to play."
All new devices aren't necessarily created equal, though: "I've been hesitant to support the Ouya, mainly because I see that platform as mostly an Android telephone without the screen. I can't really find any reason to be excited about it," Wester says. "But when I see the Shield, I think it's a really good thing; if I have a controller and you have a controller, and we can play togther, that would be super cool. I think that's what they're aiming for, a portable console with a built-in gamepad, and that is something that really tickles me."
As an independent, PC-focused company Paradox stands to gain from the increasing openness, accessibility and convergence of modern operating system. "It's going to be simpler to develop for different OSes ,and going forward I would not be surprised if you see a couple of ubiquitous games you can play from the PC, Mac, a Tegra tablet, an iPad, et cetera either cooperatively or against each other... you can play a game on your PC and then later you can play on your iPad, through a cloud save."
"That's the kind of game we want to create in the future... that's one of the things we're actively looking at," he adds. "And the more hardware we get out there, the more opportunities there will be for independent game companies to do something cool with these devices. I would focus on delivering something cool in the window of opportunity new hardware delivers. Ten years ago you needed to be a really good programmer. And you still need those skills, but you also need to focus more on game design."
Amid increasingly-closed gardens and crowded online markets it's innovation and design expertise that will set indies apart as new hardware offers more options, Wester says. Openness becomes increasingly necessary to offer the most fertile ground for innovation, he believes.
"If I had a wish list, I'd wish for Microsoft and Sony to be more open, too, to make it easier for all types of companies to publish all types of material online," he says, pointing to the PC market for evidence of the wisdom of that strategy. "Five years ago the PC market was in a total decline, and the console manufacturers totally missed out on the digital download challenge, because they were worried about retailers. Now they have a chance to make up for that.".
"The reason the PC bounced back so much is because there is endless opportunity, endless amounts of content. A game like Minecraft would never have gotten a publisher ten years ago... I look at games all day, and my passion is games, and I still sometimes can't always say what's going to be successful. The fun part of being in this business is that really unexpected things can happen."
"Content is king for hardware developers," Wester adds. "I want to make games for upcoming consoles; I am stretching out my hand saying I want to do this, and if they have a platform that suits us, it'll be fantastic."