Successful platforms need to engage niche audiences. With mid-range games in a death spiral, indie titles will rise to take their place
Microsoft’s announcement that the Xbox One will provide some channel for supporting indie developers and self-publishing is an important step for the platform, and confirms a major change in the status quo of the console market. All three platform holders will now, through a number of schemes and in a variety of ways, allow small studios and indie developers to create and sell games on their consoles without going through a major publisher. The details of Microsoft’s programme haven’t been revealed, while Nintendo’s indie support is a promising but poorly heralded work in progress, but the overall picture is clear: self-publishing is set to be a cornerstone of the next generation console business.
“Between the App Store and Steam, the inevitability of an industry with lower bars to entry and direct routes to market has been insanely obvious for several years”
In a sense, the only reasonable response to that “bombshell” is a slightly exasperated, “of bloody course it is” – after all, self-publishing has become a completely legitimate and successful channel in just about every other form of media over the past decade. Even in books, where self-publishing was once an act of deluded vanity, a handful of authors each year become self-publishing millionaires, while dozens more stack away a tidy living from their writing without ever asking permission or handing over control to a publisher. In games, self-published titles have become a core part of the industry’s output while console platform holders napped in between generations. Between the App Store and Steam, the inevitability of an industry with lower bars to entry and direct routes to market has been insanely obvious for several years.
However, only a few weeks ago Microsoft seemed intent on ignoring the indie sector and refusing point-blank to open up its business to the extent required for self-publishing to work. To those insisting that this move has been part of the Xbox One roadmap all along, I must ask – who, exactly, drew up a roadmap whose early stages called for pointless dishonesty, alienating key partners and annoying the core audience, before taking a sharp turn for the better? If indie support really has been on the roadmap all along, then perhaps whoever is dreaming up Microsoft’s communication strategy based on that roadmap ought to be excluded from any future cartographical endeavours, because their map-reading skills suck and the driver is looking very bloody confused.
With regard to the topic at hand, though, the very necessity of a Microsoft U-turn – bafflingly planned or otherwise – demonstrates that the apparent inevitability of self-publishing as a major pillar of the industry has yet to sink in at some companies and at certain levels of decision-making. There is a tendency, I think, for this whole side of things to be dismissed as a niche obsession: a vaguely hipsterish field that occasionally throws up very creative work, far less frequently creates a freak blockbuster (Minecraft, basically), but generally has little impact on the business of games. What’s actually important is FIFA, Madden and Call of Duty; indie concerns and self-publishing aren’t even secondary, they’re simply a vanity project that pumps out some core goodwill for supporters.
There’s some truth to that viewpoint. Right now, it’s actually not a bad description of the indie self-published sector as it stands in relation to the rest of the industry – although of course, it completely undervalues the cultural and creative side of things, a particular short-sightedness that is not uncommon among even in this supposed ‘creative industry’. In terms of the raw numbers, though – the audience, the revenues – it’s quite correct.
“The dawning of the age when self-published content is of enormous consequence to this industry is a matter of simple economic and technological calculation”
But it won’t be. The dawning of the age when self-published content is of enormous consequence to this industry and every other media industry isn’t just a question of optimistic thinking or creative hopefulness; it’s a matter of simple economic and technological calculation. The progress of technology has reduced effective distribution costs to zero, has given creators the ability to access and engage audiences directly and, even though it has inflated the budgets of high-end games and media, it has brought the production of mid-range games within range for even the least well-resourced creators. Increasingly advanced tools are offered, often for free or for a nominal fee, allowing individual amateurs to create games of a quality comfortably in excess of most console titles less than a decade ago.
This progression isn’t going to stop. In fact, its effects are going to become increasingly pronounced. Even as tools like Unity and the simple power of online collaboration bring the creation of ever more impressive games within the reach of indie developers, the evolution of distribution channels and increasingly nuanced ways of engaging an audience and making a living from their support are ensuring that this revolution will be no flash in the pan. On the contrary – without ever actually supplanting the likes of FIFA, Madden and Call of Duty, all of which will remain perfectly secure as multi-billion dollar cultural touchstones, the self-published indie sector will quite inevitably grow in scale, reach and revenue. Even as we bemoan the slow, gasping death of the “A” and “AA” sectors – games which never matched AAA in quality or audience but still matched its price tags – the successor to those sectors is growing, expanding and maturing.
For Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, faced with what some believe to be an existential threat to the entire notion of a games console, embracing this future isn’t a matter of being nice to indies or giving props to creativity – it’s a matter of survival. I simply don’t believe that any console platform can survive and thrive on blockbuster AAA titles alone. The most successful console platforms in history, such as the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo DS, have been notable for the sheer breadth and depth of their software libraries. Each had their truly outstanding best-sellers, but the extraordinary success of each console was founded in its ability to offer a vast range of A and AA level games that appealed to a whole host of different niche audiences. Anyone familiar with the App Store will recognise the pattern. Beyond the best-sellers, Apple’s remarkable iOS ecosystem has built its appeal on the huge range of games and applications that bring together a wealth of niche audiences into a single, gigantic customer base. In fact, Microsoft of all companies should know the value of this. The Windows hegemony was built not on the success of blockbusters like Microsoft Office, but on the vast number of small applications, essential to various kinds of business or hobby, which often don’t run on anything other than Windows. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Microsoft’s Road to Damascus conversion to indie support occurred so soon after a former Windows boss took over the Xbox division?
“The cost of creating increasingly impressive games will keep falling, and the knowledge of how to do so will continue to spread – so more people will be making games”
There are many different scenarios for the future of the games industry, and nobody whose opinion is worth listening to can honestly pick just one and say with certainty that it will come to pass. It’s hard to say whether consoles will continue to exist beyond the current generation – I vote yes, personally, but with the full understanding that it may be as much an emotional as a rational vote – although anyone keen to dismiss the emotional component of consumer decision making in the games business doesn’t understand the games business very well. It’s tough to say what shape exactly the dominant business models (plural, for the existence of several is one thing of which I am quite sure) will take. There are wild-cards in the pack, like the intriguing idea that indie developers could start to work co-operatively and end up, accidentally or on purpose, creating a United Artists of sorts. The role of publishers is very much up in the air.
Yet there are certainties – absolutes that simply won’t change, no matter how wildly you choose to speculate on the future. The cost of creating increasingly impressive games will keep falling, and the knowledge of how to do so will continue to spread – so more people will be making games. The audience will grow, because more creators means a more diverse spread of content, which means addressing wider demographics. And much of this – the new creators, making and distributing their cheap yet impressive games to audiences who exist in niches we have yet to explore – will take place not in the confines of the existing business model, but outside, in the world of self-publishing and direct audience engagement. That’s certain. Indie development isn’t a fragile flower that needs to be nurtured by platform holders; it’s a train that’s gathering pace. Their choice is to be on board, or to attempt to stand in its way.