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Open Letter to Microsoft About Indie Games

by Jim Perry on 09/08/14 08:43:00 am   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.

 

Reposted from my personal blog - http://blog.machxgames.com/

Disclaimer for those who found their way here for the first time: this isn’t just another “Let’s bash MS about how badly they’re treating indies on Xbox One”. I’m not a fanboy or MS hater. Quite the contrary. I’m a former XNA MVP with a couple of books about developing games using XNA under my belt, current [email protected] MVP, Xbox gamer, and professional .NET business software developer (and indie game dev by night Smile). I’ve been helping game developers for somewhere around 15 years as an admin on a number of game dev forums, including the unofficial Xbox One indie dev FB group (where a lot of the issues I’ll be talking about have been discussed). I’m a concerned citizen of the Xbox and game development community that is sharing my thoughts and concerns on the Xbox One indie dev situation.

As one of the many indie game developers hoping to develop for Microsoft’s Xbox One, it’s been a frustrating couple of years. You guys certainly didn’t start off on the right foot with the reveal. E3 after that didn’t really clear things up much either, and that was where we expected to get all the game development information the reveal didn’t contain. The vague and often contradictory information, what little of it that has escaped from Redmond, that has flowed from MS spokespersons hasn’t ceased since then. What we were expecting was a next-gen XBLIG to go along with the next-gen console. What we got, it seems to most of us, is a re-branded XBLA. That means the vast majority of us are left hanging out to dry, while the favored few get dev kits and access to the tools to make games for the console.

From what I’ve seen of developers talking online there are a couple of big problems with the program, most of which are easy, relatively speaking, to fix:

  • Lack of dev kits
  • Communication (both ways)
  • The infamous Parity Clause
  • (Seeming) lack of personnel

Dev Kits/Inability for devs to get onboard

This is the biggest problem. You had everyone chomping at the bit to sign up for the [email protected] program and, though actual numbers have never been shared AFAIK (the number that keeps being talked about in public seems to only be the developers with dev kits, which I don’t understand. Why not make yourselves look really awesome by talking about the number of developer that want to develop for your platform, not just those you’re allowing?) I’m sure there are a couple of thousand developers waiting for dev kits. Obviously you can’t give them all kits, but that’s not what most of us are expecting. You did it with XBLIG, so why can’t we get going with deploying and testing on retail boxes? With the supposed flexibility of X1 running all those different OSes, surely this isn’t out of the realm of possibility? Obviously there are a lot of teams that would have to sign off on this, but you made it happen with XBLIG, so I’m sure it can happen with X1. With the big push this generation of getting indies on consoles, it would seem more of a no-brainer than it did with the Xbox 360 and all of the teams involved should want to sign off on this sooner rather than later.

Communication

Email – the last email I can find from the [email protected] team is from March. So much for monthly updates. I understand you guys are probably busy, but if you say there’s going to be monthly updates, you need to follow through. Surely someone could spare a half-hour to draft something. Of course, since there’s such an emphasis on secrecy (why, no one can figure out) I guess there’s just nothing to say publicly. That would be a 2 minute email and would go far to making the community feel like you really care about them.

The other issue with email is the lack of response to developers with questions. From what I’ve seen there’s not even an auto-reply. Compare this with the stories of the ease and quickness of getting responses from Sony for developers in the PS indie program.

Blog – the [email protected] blog, despite being under the developer section, seems to be more directed at gamers than developers. Of the 6 entries on the blog from March ‘14, none of them are really relevant to developers. They all discuss games that are in the works from developers who have been lucky enough to get dev kits. While we love to applaud other indies that are getting games done, we don’t need you to tell us about them, at least not on the blog. There are plenty of gaming news sites for that. What we need you to tell us are things about actually creating games – when more dev kits are going to be available, when the supposed “develop using retail boxes” thing is going to happen (if it does, since many of us think it’ll never happen at this point), when tools like Unity and GameMaker will be available for us to start using (even if we don’t have dev kits – surely testing on our PCs could be possible using them!?), what other tools are being discussed at being able to target X1 that indies will be able to use, etc. Using the blog to pimp other developers games is just plain silly. I doubt few of the people that even know about the blog or visit it are gamers so why use it to talk about games?

Summits – it was talked about that other summits would happen besides the 3 that have. Even for the 3 that happened it was said that we’d be able to get video of sessions. Again, the issue with that seemed to be the lack of ability to keep the info hush, hush. Why couldn’t something like tracking the IP of our dev machine and only allowing a login from that IP to a page that streams the video be done? Get everyone registered to the problem under NDA and make it happen! I highly doubt most would risk breaking the NDA and being banned from the program to reveal the super-secret info from the Summit.

Forums – MS has had developer forums forever so how hard could it be to get one up and running for us? Again, get NDAs out there for everyone and get the forums going. Of course, we’ll need something to actually talk about so access to the tools needs to go along with this. Even without the tools we have developers discussing things on the unofficial FB group that’s been set up and doing it on official forums would be a step in the right direction.

Along with the forums, giving devs some space for PR would be a great thing as well. Even a simple page that can contain developer information, a way to get feedback to the developer, and a list of games they have on the service with links to allow gamers to buy them offline would be awesome.

Parity Clause

While it’s probably not going to be a problem for most of the one or two-man teams, the restriction on when and where devs can release games on X1 as well as other systems has to be one of the worst things MS has come up with. It’s literally pushing devs away from releasing games on the console. Instead of welcoming devs with open arms to make a new console as attractive to both devs and gamers as possible, you’re standing there with a stop sign and clipboard with a checklist on it making sure the developer has followed some arbitrary set of rules to be allowed the privilege of getting their game on the console. What could possibly be the reason for implementing such a thing?!? How was it not obvious that devs would see this as a barrier to want to get their games onto the console? While there have been exceptions to the rule, why not just dump it completely and say “We’re happy you want to get games onto the Xbox One and will do everything we can to make it happen”? You’re already behind on this generation, why make it worse by creating rules that will continue to allow Sony to move ahead of you? I’m guessing the clause was developed by someone with no experience in the game dev or gaming world.

Personnel

Some of the communication problems seem to be a result of not having enough personnel to handle them. Chris Charla is about the only public face we see and that’s fine. However, with a program that has, at a minimum, hundreds of developers that need to be taken care of, emails that need to be sent to answer developer questions, someone to draft and publish blog and email updates, etc., this is going to require people, and not just one or two of them. Surely the person in charge of staffing a team have the monetary resources to put enough people on the team to do the work that needs to be done? MS spends millions on things like events to shows off the program’s games, how can they not spend some to ensure the program is run properly?

If it’s an issue of not being able to find the right people, I volunteer myself as a developer relations person. Open-mouthed smile

The Good Stuff

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, let’s talk about some good things…

Xbox One Hardware

The console itself has more than enough power for most indies and I’ve had no problems with mine since I bought it. It seems flexible enough as well that tweaks here and there should make it even better. Comparing raw power with PS4 is irrelevant since most games and probably no indie game will come close to maxing it out. It’s never come down to power anyway, it’s all about content. It seems that some good work has been done to bring companies onboard with nice apps and content. Just don’t be content with what you’ve done. Keep bringing companies in, it’s a self-reinforcing thing. The more companies you get onboard, the more attractive it’ll look for those not onboard. Bring indies on board and the console will look more attractive to gamers. Winking smile

SmartGlass & Kinect

Kinect never really got used the way it could have been with the Xbox 360. With the improvements with this generation, I hope we’ll see a lot more innovative use of it, and I would expect this to come from the indie devs more than anywhere else. I’ve seen some nice use of it on upcoming games and hopefully what Chris said will include all of us indies, not just the dev kit kind.

SmartGlass is another piece of hardware that has a huge possibility in gaming. From tactical displays in strategy games to things like inventory management in RPGs, there are a lot of things that can be done with it. We’ll have to wait and see once more indies are onboard though.

Tools

The announcements of Unity, GameMaker, and Unreal being available for Xbox One developers has made a lot of us happy. It doesn’t quite make up for the loss of XNA, but it’s a start. Here’s hoping more great announcements like this continue.

Conclusion

Overall, I think the general feeling of the community that Sony love indies and MS doesn’t obviously isn’t true. MS led the pack with bringing indies onto consoles in a big way with XBLIG. We’re just hoping that it can continue into the current generation a bit larger that it is so far. There are a lot of incredibly talented indies out there and they have awesome games that they want to put onto the X1. It’s up to you guys to make it happen though. It’s a win-win for all of us.


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