How to release a console game: inside Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s indie charm offensive

From left to right: Microsoft’s Phil Waymouth, Sony’s Shahid Ahmad and Nintendo’s Ed Valiente.

As has been well documented, the big three platform holders are all (belatedly) doing their best to woo indie developers at the moment, so we went along to an indie outreach session run by the Indie Games Collective and trade body UKIE to find out what had changed and what the indies thought of each platform holder’s approach.

Sony

Speaker: Sony’s indie-wooing was conducted by the charismatic Shahid Kamal Ahmad, a one-man developer-outreach show, who might have a promising second career as a motivational speaker. “We’re in deep shit at the moment as an industry,” he said. “double-A has gone away. There’s triple-A and there’s you [the indies].”

What’s changed: Certification will be much easier, and exclusivity won’t be mandatory.

How they’re helping: Loaning developer kits for a year. A large number of different teams handling different routes to appearing on a Sony platform.

How to sign up: Sony has four separate routes into getting published on a Sony platform (PS4, Vita or PS3). Publisher and Developer Relations is the main route in. XDev works with indie studios in return for rights over their IP, in return for creative support and marketing – this is the route Media Molecule took with LittleBigPlanet. Strategic Content (Ahmed’s team) funds and publishes games that fill gaps in Sony’s portfolio or are politically desirable. Playstation First is an academic initiative run out of Sony Worldwide Studios. For Europe, you should sign up at either companyregistration.playstation.com or sonyxdeveurope.com. For more advice, tweet @shahidkamal. For America, Adam Boyes’ team handle kit loans, funding and support third-party developers.

Potential problems: Getting approved as a developer still isn’t guaranteed, especially for unproven studios. If you do get approved, devkits are free, but you’ll still have to pay for Unity Pro (around $1,500) and a variable price for the specific Unity-PS4 or -Vita licence, which could be rather large. You will also need to get your game age-rated, which again costs money.

What did the indies think?
Most indies were impressed by Ahmad’s talk, though it was lighter on detail than the later ones. “From a presentation perspective, Shahid stole the show,” said Des Gale of Altered Gene. ”I loved his Mario rendition on the guitar at the end and out of the lot of them his presentation was the least salesman-like. I liked his focus on overall game dev rather than just game dev on Sony… I suspect that my lack of reply about my latest game submission is more down to sheer volume of applicants rather than not wanting my game. But still, I haven’t heard anything from them in three months.”

Microsoft

Speaker: Microsoft’s somewhat more considered approach came from Phil Waymouth, the ex-XNA developer. “We’re building easels and paintbrushes and paint and water and a gallery. The other stuff is for you – making art, showing it off to the world. We supply the best materials for you to show off your art and sell it to the consumer.”

What’s changed: Every stage of signing up, certification, updating, Visual Studio, patching, testing, re-certifying, tools, market statistics, licensing, and release will be free on Xbox One.  There will be one marketplace for all Xbox One games, with no indie ghetto, which apparently will be alphabetised. As Phil said, “You could be up [on the Xbox One store] between Forza and Halo… if your game begins with G.”

How they’re helping: Registered developers get two free devkit Xbox Ones. If you publish through Microsoft Studios, you also get your Unity license paid for. Microsoft’s Spotlight editorial team will be curating games on the marketplace, allowing for more discoverability, alongside their recommendations engine. All developers will get access to exactly the same tools, whether it’s a triple-A studio employing 500 developers or a lone developer working from home.

How to sign up: You can sign up at xbox.com/id. Once you’ve done that, you submit your game information (through a game concept form) and get a title ID, go through certification and testing, then publish your game to the Xbox Games Store.

Potential problems: A track record will help you to get approved. Microsoft says that it hopes that anyone with an Xbox One will eventually be able to develop games – but at the moment, the consoles don’t support this, so this is firmly theoretical PR talk. Microsoft also won’t publish objectionable content – but they wouldn’t be drawn on whether that was just adult content and emulators or political content as well. Unity, of course, is the preferred development tool for most indies (because of its ease-of-use and multiplatform capabilities) and, again, the Xbox One licenses for it will be expensive – but Waymouth was clear that Visual Studio Express is free and that developing a 64-bit C++ DirectX 11 Windows Store app is a great start for developing for Xbox One. It’s also worth noting that Microsoft wants to retain distinct price points – so it’s unlikely that there will be any 99c games on the platform – and is taking a wholesale model to the marketplace – so you set the price you sell your game to Microsoft at, and they choose the sale price for the public. However, this doesn’t preclude free-to-play games, season passes or in-app purchases. You will also need to get your game age-rated, at your expense.

What did the indies think?
During the session, there were questions about Microsoft’s track record on the Xbox 360 of not always delivering on promises – notably with Fez and Super Meat Boy. As Byron Atkinson-Jones of Xiotex Studios, who organised the event put it: “The cost of Unity deployment to the Sony and Microsoft platform worries me a lot and at this point in time it rules out using Unity for games I make on Vita/PS4 and Xbox One. As a one man developer that presents a huge risk as I now either have to spend a significant amount of time and cost making a cross platform C++ framework or I simply make games that are exclusive to each platform. Yet the sheer fact that as an indie developer I can now write games and get them published on Vita, PS4 and Xbox One is frankly phenomenal and it’s not one I’m going to pass up.”

Nintendo

Speaker: The disarmingly honest Ed Valiente presented Nintendo’s pitch. “We want to surprise people and put smiles on their faces so if your game can do that, then bring it to us.”

What’s changed: Enormous changes here. Valiente was happy to admit that Nintendo had got it badly wrong in the past – and that the company’s Kyoto-centric culture was to blame. Indeed, he admitted that he got a lot of information on what Nintendo was doing by reading transcripts of Iwata’s investor calls. Jokingly, he said, “There’s a right way, a wrong way and the Nintendo way.”

So Nintendo developers will be able to self-publish, no requirement for a registered office, no restrictions on patching or updating, and no concept approval. There will be no indie ghetto, – “make a platformer, you’ll appear alongside Mario; an RPG alongside Zelda” as Valiente put it – no sales threshold (so developers will make money from their very first sale), and Nintendo will only take the industry standard revenue share of sales (rumoured to be around 30%). You can vary your own price whenever you want, making the Nintendo store much more like the iOS store, and they accept all business models. They do certify their games for free, but it’s not for content but for functionality – and they have engineers on hand to help fix any problems.

Indies can set up their own communities in Miiverse, and Nintendo seems to be encouraging third-party developers to make use of it. You’ll be able to manage your own community through Miiverse, getting yourself tagged as a developer. Smartphone apps will be also available for Miiverse.

How they’re helping: Although they aren’t giving away devkits for free, like their competitors, the cost of a Wii U kit (about the cost of a high-end gaming PC) includes the Unity License you’ll need to develop, which is probably worth way more than the cost of a kit anyway. “We’ve paid Unity to cover all the licenses that we think you will still need.” said Valiente. You can also develop for the Wii U in HTML5.

How to sign up: If you want to develop for 3DS, sign-up at warioworld.com – but you’ll need to be able to develop natively. If you want to develop for WiiU, go to wiiu-developers.nintendo.com. Theoretically you need a proven track record to sign up, but Valiente indicated that it wouldn’t be a huge barrier if you didn’t, and that Nintendo had already approved plenty of inexperienced developers. The key contact at Nintendo for signing up is Tim Symons. Once you’re signed up, you can apply for Title IDs for your games. Once you’ve got your ID, you go through testing, then you set the price, release date and eShop assets for the game. Then you’ve got ten days to launch.

Potential problems: Nintendo are in a tricky spot as far as indies are concerned. First, the Wii U is failing (and is increasingly being withdrawn from supermarket shelves) so isn’t an attractive market overall. Secondly, sales of anything but firstparty games on Nintendo platforms have traditionally been negligible.

The back-end technology for developers didn’t sound wonderfully developed, either – developers’ daily reports will now arrive as Excel spreadsheets, but it sounds like they will still only be paid quarterly. Similarly, if you want to be a firstparty developer or sell your games in Japan (rather than just the US and Europe), then the process is a lot longer – seven or eight months – and you will almost certainly need to visit the Kyoto head office.

What did the indies think?
The indies in the room were wowed by Nintendo’s turnaround. “Nintendo have reversed their opinions about indies expressed a few years ago and were endearingly frank about their process for indies, which may seem slightly obtuse but I know indies are enjoying working with them,” said Rob Davis of Playniac. Des Gayle of Altered Gene added: “Going from personal experience, Nintendo have been great about getting indies onside by recognising that game development in terms of geography and demography has changed. The biggest and most welcome response is the removal of the registered office restriction.”

Concluding thoughts?

Andy Payne, Mastertronic: “With digital distribution now a reality, it’s green lights galore for developers, no more man with a cigar or suited green light committees saying yay or nay. In my view developers can build a fan base far easier than ever before, and once they get to a thousand true fans, then as Napoleon said you have an army, and with an army you can win battles, wars and ultimately build empires.”

Byron Atkinson-Jones, Xiotex Studios: “I’m amazed that we managed to get Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo into the same room to talk to us all on the same day. It shows a great progressive attitude.”

Des Gayle, Altered Gene: “My only negative of the day is that all three platform holders gave the impression that anyone can join in and this simply isn’t the case. Everyone will be (rightly or wrongly, I haven’t decided yet) arbitrarily judged on past output and experience…  the barriers for entry are still very much there.”

Rob Davis, Playniac: “It’s great to see all three platform holders engaging with indies and responding to the demand from developers and audiences alike to make and experience the fantastically original games that indies can offer… Time will tell if they will carry through on their promises. The biggest test will be what is on their storefronts, not just at launch but throughout their lifecycles, and how discoverable indie games are and remain on their platforms. At the moment, naming no names, there are platform holders who do not seem to be actually engaging with indies as much as they would like us to think, but they might yet be able to turn that around.”

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