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Indie developers cautiously optimistic about self-publishing on Xbox One

Jordan Mallory

Microsoft's reversal of its publishing philosophy for the Xbox One has obvious and wide-reaching implications for the indie development community. While the original plan mandated that developers release games through a third-party publisher or broker a deal with Microsoft itself, indies will now be able to self-publish. Furthermore, retail Xbox One SKUs will function as development units, which historically are more expensive and more difficult to acquire than off-the-shelf models.

"Ideally, this news could have been broadcast more proudly and loudly months ago, giving indies more time to prepare strategies for upcoming games," Minicore Studios founder and CEO John Warren told us, "but I suppose they don't owe anyone that courtesy. We know now, so now we can prepare for life with a Microsoft console, which is something I wouldn't have said yesterday."

Warren and his team at Minicore are in the process of Kickstarting PC, Mac and Xbox 360 versions of their latest project, Laika Believes: The Sun at Night. "I think releasing on Xbox One without a publisher is a big step forward, of course, but the fact that (eventually) I'll be able to use my retail console as our dev kit is huge," he added. "My secondary (maybe flailing and futile) hope is that the fees for publishing won't be insane. It's one thing to only have to shell out $600 for a dev kit, but quite another if we have to spend another $10k on publishing fees. My hope is they'll be content with 30 percent of revenue and be done with it."

Cautious optimism was a consistent theme among most of the indie developers we reached out to, though some had greater reservations over Microsoft's inner machinations than others.

Indie developers cautiously optimistic about selfpublishing on Xbox One
Peter Bartholow, CEO of Lab Zero Games, echoed Warren's concerns that the devil may be in the details: "This change is definitely encouraging, but I'd need to see the final details to really know one way or another," he told us. "This will largely come down to the revenue split and if it's the same for publisher-published titles, but things like the elimination of Microsoft's content parity policies would be factors, too."

"If the playing field is truly level now," he said, "then it's a great move on their part." Lab Zero Games' Skullgirls debuted on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade in April of last year, back when the development team was still housed at Reverge Labs. Over the game's lifetime, the XBLA version has struggled to maintain build parity with its PSN sister, due to Microsoft's file-size limitation on title updates.

While micro-indie powerhouse Vlambeer (of Super Crate Box and Ridiculous Fishing fame) has never released a console game, co-founder Rami Ismail is still affected by and invested in the outcome of Microsoft's decision.

"Of course, this is great news and Vlambeer is happy to hear that," he told us. "Obviously, we'll have to wait until Gamescom to hear all the details and figure out whether limitations are in place. We've been discussing this exact issue with Microsoft for a while and to see them following Sony's lead in an open indie strategy is great for the industry. Anything is better than nothing."

Likewise, Gaijin Games associate producer Dant Rambo is intrigued by the prospect of self-publishing on a Microsoft console. "We're extremely happy that Microsoft has decided to allow for self-publishing on the Xbox One," he told us. "We aren't yet willing to say anything definitive (and certainly, we need to do a little more research into the specifics of their policies), but it makes us feel more optimistic about one day releasing something on the platform."

Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, Gaijin Games' latest console release, was self-published on Wii U, PC, Mac and Linux, but published by Aksys Games on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. The upcoming PlayStation Vita port, however, will be self-published.

"Plain and simple – and I think most developers would agree with this – the less hurdles we need to go through when releasing a game, the better," he said.

Developers mirrored these same sentiments to Joystiq's sister website Engadget, who also took census of different studios and their takes on the announcement.

"Open platforms are good for the health of the industry and unquestionably good for gamers," Monaco designer Andy Schatz told Engadget. "Until I hear the details of exactly what Microsoft plans, though, I'm not yet ready to celebrate. For a more substantial answer from me you'll have to wait until there's more substantial news!"

Philip Tibitoski, president of Octodad: Dadliest Catch developer Young Horse Games, expressed his concerns over how much is still unknown about the Xbox One's digital ecosystem. "I want to be able to see the visual setup of the store and how they're going to be handling discoverability," he told Engadget. "They recently said everything would be in the same store, but how will that store be organized and what does it take to get banner space or notoriety?"

"What are the technical requirements of this? Is there potential to interface with them on marketing and things of that nature? Or will you just be another app in the same way that things released on the iOS appstore can so easily be overlooked? I think it's a step in the right direction, but it's too early to know how large of a step," he concluded.

Meanwhile, Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano was unmoved by the announcement: "After my experience working with them to release on Xbox 360, I have no interest in even buying an Xbox One, let alone developing for it," he said. "The policy changes are great, but they don't undo the experience I had."

"I'm not ready to forget what I went through. Working with Microsoft was the unhappiest point of my career," he said. "Policies are one thing, but developer relations are another. It's important to me that consumers don't see things as black and white. There are still strings attached to this policy change."

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