It’s no secret that indie gaming has been a huge talking point during this year’s console war. Sony hit the indie ground running back in February when they announced a PlayStation 4 port of Jonathan Blow’s The Witness during their original console reveal event. The company made a big deal from the beginning that the PS4 supported self-publishing. Sony then followed up in a big way, presenting an armada of indie titles that are making their console debuts on PS4 or Vita during E3 and again at Gamescom.
Microsoft was a bit slower on the uptake, at least from a PR standpoint. It wasn’t until two months after their original May console reveal that they announced self-publishing would be available on Xbox One. Then at Gamescom, Microsoft finally revealed its own indie support program: ID@Xbox. And though the timing made it seem like Microsoft had put this program together as a hasty response to Sony’s marketing strategy, ID@Xbox has apparently been on the books at Microsoft for months.
So both companies seem to have fairly comprehensive independent development programs for their next-gen consoles. But in the end, who will do more for indie gaming as a whole?
Both companies’ indie programs are accomplishing similar goals. Both Sony and Microsoft are getting dev kits into the hands of smaller developers. Both are promising visibility in their digital marketplaces, whether it’s PlayStation Network or the newly rebranded Xbox Games Store.
Beneath all this external similarity, though, ID@Xbox seems to be more restrictive and reserved. Developers gain access to the program’s benefits through an application process, a process that, according to the developer application page, favors “professional independent game developers who have a proven track record of shipping games on console, PC, mobile, or tablet.” The page goes on to say that a long-term goal for the program is to relax the admission standards to let more developers in on the fun, but for now Microsoft is playing it safe. They’re eager to help the independent development process, but they’re specifically looking for indie devs who have already made successful games.
In contrast, look at some of the indie titles Sony has announced for the PS4 and Vita. Along with investing in several already-successful indie franchises like Hotline Miami and The Binding of Isaac, Sony is putting its faith in games like Secret Ponchos, the very first game from developer Switchblade Monkeys. They’re showcasing games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch, the sequel to a freeware game made by a team of students at DePaul University. These developers aren’t exactly the embodiment of a “proven track record,” but Sony saw their games and felt confident enough to offer them the opportunity to publish on a major console. Sony seems like it’s jumping head first into the indie gaming pool, while Microsoft is still trying to decide whether or not to wade in past its knees.
Interestingly enough, Microsoft’s reserved strategy gives it a distinct, attractive quality for independent developers: discoverability. By maintaining a tighter control over which developers get access to ID@Xbox, Microsoft’s digital marketplace will remain relatively uncrowded. This assures that gamers will be able to find new indie games more easily, which leads to more sales for the developer. Ideally, it also means that Microsoft will be able to maintain a generally higher level of quality in their store’s content. It’s still unclear what kind of certification process Sony will implement for PS4 self-publishing, but having too lenient of a quality requirement could put the PSN store in danger of turning into the iOS App Store, a collection of mediocre-to-okay games that obscure the few legitimately great titles hidden in the bunch.
It’s fair to say that Sony is taking quite a risk in giving new independent developers unprecedented access to console publishing. But maybe that kind of risk is exactly what this sector of the industry needs. Indie gaming has always been a breeding ground for innovation. While bigger studios focus on pushing the limits of processing technology with stunning graphics, epic scales and blockbuster experiences, independent game makers are redefining what we think makes a video game. Indie games give us a cheap yet equally fun alternative when we don’t quite have the cash to drop for a triple-A game. Sony may be rolling the dice here, but if they pull it off, they could change the whole industry, and I think that change would be for the better.