Indie platform confessional: PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
The internet is kind of like a classic confessional – except it's not a box, it's a lot brighter and everyone can hear what you have to say. Still, we asked a handful of independent developers for their thoughts on what exactly makes a platform effective, and they spilled it all, dissecting the pros and cons of the most popular, current models of distibution.

Today, we feature answers from SpyParty's Chris Hecker, Retro City Rampage's Brian Provinciano, Ska Studios' James Silva, Thomas Was Alone's Mike Bithell, and others. This group of developers had specific thoughts about Sony's PlayStation Network, Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games and Arcade services, the Nintendo eShop, and the dream of having it all.

Tomorrow we'll feature answers from the Steam, Humble Store, iOS and Android camps. Let the confessions begin:

Sony PlayStation Network

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone

"Steam is the platform that made Thomas Was Alone a success. Before that I was on Desura and IndieCity, which didn't work so well for me; direct sales are still my second-best platform. In the last year or so, Valve have really streamlined the behind-the-scenes stuff, so it's about as straightforward as you could hope for. It's early days on PSN. It's a platform that seems to be successful for us sales-wise. Console game releases carry a far higher quality bar than downloadable on PC, so the QA and approval process is a lot heavier, but that's fair given the differences in audience."

Thomas Was Alone is doing remarkably well on PSN, for both PS3 and Vita, and that success butts its head against Steam in Bithell's "is that your final answer?" response.

"If I could choose only one platform for next time, it'd probably be Steam, but that's only because I'm pretty conservative and know that worked for me last time. The way things are going on PSN, I wouldn't be surprised if the choice was harder to make a month from now." So close, Sony. So close.

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Brian Provinciano, Retro City Rampage

"For consoles, Sony and Nintendo provide the easiest routes to getting your game onto the platform. Some platforms veer more towards being distributors, while Sony provides significant hands-on support for developers. Day-to-day, units sold on consoles are higher than PC, but Steam sales compensate with massive spikes."

Yes, Provinciano just said daily sales on consoles are higher than on PC, a phenomenon in direct opposition to everything we've ever thought Steam could be. Provinciano explains:

"RCR moved more units on Steam, but earned more revenue on PSN because the price points remain higher. Most copies sold on PSN were at full price.

"On an average week when no discounts are running, the consoles move more units than Steam on a day-to-day basis. However, when a Steam sale is run with some promotion, the number of units sold skyrocket. Steam is a huge breadwinner, but most developers will agree that they earn by far the majority of their PC revenue from Steam sales. PC gamers are more accustomed to waiting for sales.

"These numbers would depend on the game, of course. Some games are designed for PC players and vice versa. RCR is a very console style game." Blowing our minds, Provinciano.

Microsoft Xbox Live Indie Games, Xbox Live Arcade

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Ben Kane, DLC Quest

"XBLIG is an Incredibly easy and cheap way to get a paid game onto a home console around the world. Despite constant claims to the contrary, it is possible to make a decent income on the service. However, 'service' is used lightly. Policed only by the community and a few die-hard moderators, XBLIG has all but been abandoned by Microsoft. Heaven help you if you have a technical or payment problem.

"Rumors abound of a lone employee who is tasked part-time with monitoring the single point-of-contact email address that still exists for the 'Creators Club.' Even that might be overstating the level of support you can expect from this still-premium service.

"Very limited review codes. No significant improvements or additions to the service in years. Accessible to anyone with a retail console, a Windows PC, $100, and the ability to get through peer review by adhering to some rather loose guidelines."

Tell us how you really feel, Kane.

"I do have to give credit to services like XBLIG for being very upfront with the terms of the service. You know what your membership gets you, what the limitations are, how you are paid, and how the service works as a whole. I have heard a lot about Nintendo and Sony being 'indie-friendly' as of late, but that hasn't amounted to anything beyond a 'Get in touch!' tweet or a web form to apply to be a registered developer. That's not friendly to anyone." Honesty is the best policy.

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
James Silva, The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile

"Obviously we really only have experience with XBLA, so I can't quite compare, but...

"My impression is that Microsoft has higher standards but consistently provides whatever support it takes to reach those standards. I'm a two-time cert survivor with zero experience in the 'real' games industry (have never worked for a game company where offices were involved or, for that matter, any game company other than our own), so something must be working."

This is a common topic for Silva, who wrote a full blog post defending Microsoft, spawned from comments left on our preview of his coming XBLA game, Charlie Murder. Silva writes the following:

"There is currently a 'Microsoft is bad for indies' narrative trending in gaming news. I don't want to sound like a conspiracy nut, but narratives happen. When one indie says they're never working with Microsoft again, the gaming public becomes curious as to whether this is an isolated incident, or part of some sort of ugly truth, and pretty soon everyone wants to know if I've just been secretly hiding my experience with the ugly truth, or if I'll be moving to PS4 because of the ugly truth, when in fact this perceived ugly truth is nothing more than four or five data points."

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so, maybe, is the truth about XBLA. Microsoft will reveal its next Xbox on May 21, and this year we hope to get a good look at its new indie plan.

Nintendo eShop

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Pwnee Studios, Cloudberry Kingdom

"Unfortunately we can't really comment too much on effective digital distribution (since we haven't released yet), but from what we can tell thus far: Steam is really easy to deal with in terms of uploading and support, and Nintendo has been super helpful and easy to get in touch with as well."

Preach it, Pwnee.

All of the other platforms – or just all of the platforms

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Ben Kane, DLC Quest

Some developers want it all, and they'll do what it takes to launch a game through smaller hubs, on their own services, or simply dream about a day when all platforms will work together in harmony.

Kane gives the solitary shout-out to Desura, a quiet Steam competitor:

"Desura is a quiet and surprisingly competent competitor to Steam in the PC/Mac space. Genuine, caring people will come to your aid should you need them. The client and publishing interface is remarkably polished and capable. Unfortunately, the service just hasn't seen enough success to move forward and so features like achievements, leaderboards, stats, matchmaking, cloud services and more remain on the 'to-do' list. It's run by passionate people, just not enough of them. Desura suffers from a lack of customer awareness. I believe it is lightly curated as well – but applying to be on the service is a simple process."

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Colin Northway, Incredipede

For a globetrotting developer such as Northway, an "effective" platform is all about one thing: "Content discovery. For game authors and players content discovery is the only issue left in games distribution – all the other problems are solved and are just boring.

"Mobile's strength and its weakness is content discovery. Apple defined what mobile games were going to be with the App Store. By making the only content discovery process based on top-ten lists of units sold they guaranteed rock-bottom prices and games that appeal initially and immediately to a wide audience.

"Why do people want to be on Steam? Not because their distribution tools are great (although they are) it's because so many players use Steam as a content discovery platform. What game am I going to buy today? Let's check the Steam sales.

"I would rather players didn't overwhelmingly use one source to find their games, but they do, and so when you are considering where you are going to sell your games you consider, almost exclusively, the platform's curatorial power and how your game looks under that lens.

"That is why I still look to the Greater Internet as the perfect store. Millions upon millions of people all chatting and yelling and lecturing and pleading with each other. A raucous, uncontrollable world of pure information, the grotesque jockeying for room alongside the sublime. This is the grand bazaar that I want to sell my games in. I just wish the box-store down the street didn't cast such a long shadow."

That's a beautiful sentiment, but what about the practicality of selling a game today?

"It depends on what my next game is. If it's off-center interesting, looks great and has a long play-time, then Steam. If it's smaller and less off-center, then iOS. Although in the real world I would almost certainly first release a Flash version of any mobile game I ship. That way I can build an audience online where the content discovery problem is solved in a much more egalitarian way."

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Chris Hecker, SpyParty

"As usual, I'm a weirdo. For the SpyParty early-access beta, which is currently only on PC, I've rolled my own system using PayPal's Instant Payment Notification backend and Amazon Web Services for the downloads, and I will eventually add Amazon Payments and Google Checkout.

"The Humble Bundle/Store folks were really helpful with advice and sharing information while I was getting it working. It's not that hard to do since there's so much documentation online, but it is a fair amount of work and testing, so I wouldn't recommend it for other indies unless you're a perfectionist control freak with poor time-managment skills, like me. I'll eventually put SpyParty on all the different platforms, but for now, I like controlling all the variables myself."

All of the different platforms? Really, Hecker?

"All of them. And, my magic wand would allow me to force them all to let me do interplay between all of them, so an XBLA player could play a PSN player while a PC player casts the match and a person with an iPad spectates. This is 100 percent technically trivial – it's just politics that won't let it happen." We're not experts on political maneuvering, but we certainly didn't vote for a closed-platform system.

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Nathan Fouts, Serious Sam Double D

Fouts' next game, Pig Eat Ball, was part of the Ouya Create game jam back in January, and it's a multiplayer experience that features pigs in space. Sounds like a winner, no matter the console.

"I think the ideal platform for Pig Eat Ball would be agnostic, like music or movies, so people don't have to worry about if they have the right hardware. They just get to play it. But I guess that's the rub about video games: The interface matters."

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Anders Gustafsson, The Dream Machine

"We distribute our game online, on our own page, and that's still the most effective way for us to ensure accessibility. All you need is a browser. It's strange that not more developers deploy their games directly in a browser. It can't get easier than that.

"When it comes to updates, the new Steam system works OK. We love small, frequent updates and Steam really caters to that nowadays. Any option that lets me update whenever I feel like it suits me perfectly.

"Having to pay for patches – or having a set number of patches – sounds horrific." And that's coming from the guy who runs a studio called Cockroach Inc.

Indie platform confessional, part 1 PSN, XBLA, eShop, 'all of the above'
Dain Saint, Splice

"We've done App Store, and we've done Steam, and I gotta say it's a toss up. Apple has a great backend, and it's highly accessible, but getting apps properly certified usually involves chicken bones and candles, and getting good visibility takes a virgin sacrifice; Steam has real people to talk to and far better curation as a result, but the backend is aging and getting real people to help you can be vexing when everyone else on the platform has to talk to the same few real people. I'd do unspeakable things for a platform with Apple's backend and install base, Steam's curation and certification, and the Humble Bundle's sale volume and accessibility."

Talk to us more about Apple's backend, baby. Or any backend.

"Honestly, launching your game on only one platform just doesn't make sense anymore. The platform Venn diagrams don't intersect at all: You can sell the exact same game on Steam for $10, iPad for $4 and PSN for $20, and not only would no one care, but you'd make about the same return."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.