The next generation of game consoles arrives this year, with both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hitting shelves in time for Christmas. You can expect the graphical upgrades found with any new console generation—the faces of the enemies in Call of Duty will look slightly more realistic before bullets rip them apart. What’s most interesting is what these new systems mean for independent game designers.
Indie games aren’t inherently better than the big-name stuff at the top of the sales charts, but the best of them are generally smarter and more open to tonal experimentation than the latest cookie-cutter shooter or open-world crime simulator. Look at Braid or Bastion or our current favorites Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero (two computer-only games that aren’t available for any consoles). Independent games have grown increasingly prominent and relevant over the last few years, and some of that ascent must be ascribed to Microsoft.
Microsoft helped raise the profiles of specific indie games a few years ago with the “Summer of Arcade” and “GameFeast” promotions on the Xbox 360. For a brief time that system was considered the home of the best independent games, with timed exclusive deals for Super Meat Boy, Braid, Bastion and others making the 360 the only place to play some of the most hotly anticipated games for weeks or even months.
Microsoft’s policies were always problematic for designers, though. Developers still needed to work with a proven publisher to get their games released through the Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft also employs a controversial slotting system that dictates when a game can be released through Xbox Live. This slotting was helpful in the early days of digital distribution, as it kept the spotlight firmly on one or two new releases a week, but it quickly became a hindrance as digital distribution expanded, complicating release plans for developers and publishers. Phil Fish, the mercurial designer behind the popular game Fez, publically disclosed some of the more substantial drawbacks to Microsoft’s digital release plans, including an exorbitant fee to certify and release patches to correct known problems with games.
Microsoft quickly alienated the designers they had previously courted, creating an opportunity that Sony has been more than happy to exploit. Former games journalist Nick Suttner was brought on board to facilitate independent development for Sony’s platforms, turning the handheld Vita into a must-own for fans of indie games. In the past year Sony has easily lapped Microsoft as a developer-friendly company, and devoted a significant amount of time during their E3 press conferences and PlayStation 4 unveiling to a host of upcoming independent games. They even struck deals with Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, and Supergiant Games, the studio behind Bastion, to make the PlayStation 4 the exclusive console at launch for their upcoming games.
This shift to Sony’s platforms seemed almost irreversible after Microsoft’s initial plans for the Xbox One were announced. Unlike Sony, who brought Jonathan Blow out to speak about The Witness when they announced the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One’s debut press conference almost exclusively featured games from major studios. Multiple independent designers who had worked with Microsoft on the Xbox 360 spoke out about how secretive and uncommunicative the company was being about their new system. Sony openly courted acclaimed designers who Microsoft declined to talk to.
Eventually Microsoft revealed that every commercial Xbox One system can act as a development kit. That means designers won’t need to buy or beg for a special dev kit. Microsoft also announced developers would be able to self-publish on the Xbox One. It appears the publisher requirements and slotting system will be no more, which excitingly opens up the Xbox One for independent development in a way that Sony can’t currently match. If Microsoft promotes these games adequately on the Xbox One’s version of Xbox Live (which is a big “if,” based on how poorly the Indie Games section is currently maintained on Live), this could be a huge step towards mainstreaming the notion of independent games.
By making development tools affordable and available to all who own an Xbox One, Microsoft could usher in a gaming renaissance. By working closely with proven designers on distribution, while remaining hands-off on creative decisions, Sony could curate the best collection of independent games ever released for a major gaming system. This might all be a moot point for those who play games on computers, but for those who appreciate the ease and reliability of gaming from the comfort of a living room sofa, the next generation of gaming consoles promise an even greater focus on independent games.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor and the game critic for the Boston Herald.