Can Indie Devs Survive on Consoles?

Can Indie Devs Survive on Consoles?

Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn once sang, “Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.” Though every single human living on the planet can identify with those words, they hit independent game developers square in the heart. It’s not just difficult to get a small game published on a digital console platform like Xbox Live Arcade or WiiWare. To hear some devs talk about it, digital publication on consoles borders on impossible.

Rudolf Kremers, one of the designers behind the real-time strategy indie game Eufloria, recently vented some of his frustrations with publishing digitally on consoles, particularly Xbox Live Arcade.

“[T]he cost would be prohibitive,” Kremers said in an interview with PSNstores.com, “as [Microsoft] had all sorts of mandatory features – multiplayer and the like. And of course you have to use their QA… The cost picture would be so prohibitive that self publishing would be impossible.”

Kremers also pointed out that indie developers are under a lot of pressure to surrender financial and creative control of their intellectual property (IP) to Microsoft and publishers in exchange for funding. The PlayStation Network, said Kremers, was the only digital console platform that made it possible to publish Eufloria without having to hand over IP ownership–specifically because of Sony’s “Pub Fund,” a reserve to help indie developers get their works out into the wild.

The dance between profit and artistic expression is delicate, and, at times, violent. Developers want to make games that people enjoy, and publishers want to make money so they can pay their employees and keep existing. A clash of ideals is inevitable, and a publisher’s desire to control IP is understandable, if not always commendable. Nevertheless, Microsoft could afford to make life easier for the young starters who want to publish on Xbox Live Arcade by starting up a fund similar to Sony’s Pub Fund, or by letting indies publish directly on XBLA.

Microsoft did in fact defend itself against Kremers’ remarks by pointing out XBLA indie success stories like The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. While it’s true that XBLA has certainly had its share of indie hits, and while it’s true that game development and publication was simply not meant to be easy, firing back at a complaint with a passive-aggressive response is not helpful.

To be fair, at first glance, it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason for Microsoft to beg indies to publish on XBLA. The platform is already hugely successful, and Microsoft can afford to take the position of, “Hey, if you don’t like it, take your ball and go somewhere else.”

Problem is, there are other places for indie devs to go, like PSN and (more importantly) Steam and the App Store. That may not seem like a big deal, but console games are going to be clashing directly with PC and mobile games on an even more frequent basis in 2012. Not every indie game is gold by a long shot, but there’s no denying that many of the fresh, new ideas we see in video games come from tiny teams of men and women with a unique vision.

If Nintendo and Microsoft don’t smarten up and make it economically possible for small devs to realize those ideas on XBLA, WiiWare, and DSiWare, the console market is going to start to smell a bit stagnant.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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