Self publishing on consoles is the new hotness; you can’t avoid hearing both Microsoft and Sony saying that they are going to do it. But what does it mean?
The truth is it means several things, but you would be hard pressed to know that going by just what is being reported. There’s a big answer and a small answer.
The big answer is that you don’t need to use a publisher as a middleman between you and platform holder. At this point they effectively become your publisher, you hopefully get a bigger share of the profits than you otherwise would and there are less people getting in the way with you getting on with making a game. The problem with this is that you need to be selected by the platform holder in the first place, which means you need to have a proven track record somewhere, probably on PC or at otheir studios. Calling this self publishing really isn’t true as you do still need to impress a publisher in the first place, it’s just that they happen to also make consoles and probably aren’t giving the support you would usually get.
The small answer is the one that I think a lot of people are more familiar with, and the one that I think is more useful for the term. This is the model that Google, Apple and Microsoft use for their phones and Microsoft and Apple use for their stores built into their operating systems. In these cases they are more distributors than publishers; they give you a place to sell your software in return for taking 30% of your cash. The only selection going on here are ones for basic quality (hopefully) and “objectionable material”, which is a vague concept that trips up people wanting to make political points.
They are both truly useful things that benefit all of games, and gems come out of both models. In the previous generation it’s probably safe to say that Microsoft had more success with the small model and Sony had more success with the large one.
Looking forwards the PS4 is going all out with the large model it seems. There’s no sign at all of the small one going by what I’ve seen said, and that’s fine. Sony really aren’t a development tools provider like Microsoft, Apple and even Google are. It’s a big ask to spool up a massive program that lets anybody code however they want, and they sure have a track record of supporting some fantastic games already. Long may it continue.
The Xbox One is interesting as Microsoft have made some very vague announcements about the One supporting self publishing. The question is if it’s the small or large model. The 360 went full out with the small model with the Indie Arcade and despite it being hidden away on the dashboard for a lot of the time I would say that it did its job well, which was to allow anybody to publish a game on the Xbox. There was some true dross on there, but that’s the point: it’s an open field that anybody can join in on. Discovery is a problem, just as it is on iTunes or Google Play and that really does need to be addressed on all the platforms but a certain rose tinted view can dismiss that as a problem to be solved, not one that is a problem with the idea. Every 360 could be used for development; every 360 could be used for debugging a live game. You just had to live in a sandbox that didn’t let you see everything. It’s much like the sandboxes that “full” games live in, just a lot, lot smaller.
So what is this new Microsoft self publishing thing? Is it the small or big model? Is it a replacement for Indie arcade, or is it a sweeping new publishing policy for the large model in competition with the shortcomings that Sony have pounced on with the PS4?
It’s hard to say really. On one hand it really does sound like a new Indie arcade. We know that it is going to return on the One as Microsoft employees let it slip more than once over the course of the Build conference last month. Is this that happening? If so this isn’t a spontaneous u-turn as it has to have been in development for a long time as it’s a big job that will involve Windows phone and Windows 8 as well. I’ve suspected that the timing will be around the Windows Phone 8.5 release next year, but that’s only my gut feeling.
Or is it the large model and not related to the Indie arcade at all? The thing that makes me think that this could be the case is the fact that you get access to achievements. We know that Microsoft are relaxing the rules around achievements considerably with this new release, but will they go as far as letting bedroom coders making Minecraft clones add them? I’m not so sure, there’s the risk of devaluing achievements like Apple did with Game Center. How many “easy 100points”, or whatever the limit is, games would we see just to boost your score? I just can’t see them doing this, we’ve seen it go wrong with things like Cryptic adding the Foundry to their games and XP farming levels being made. People will always try and take it to that extreme.
If I had to call it, I would say that it was the big model we were talking about, but even so we know that the small model will return at some stage. We can all just hope that it does return sooner rather than later.
The interesting final note on the replacement for the Indie arcade is that Microsoft have already said, probably accidentally, that those games would be in the main store alongside Arcade and digital versions of retail games. That’s the exciting thing when it does return. Combine that with the promised discovery tools which apparently will recommend things based on what your friends have played, or what people with similar tastes have played and you start to stand a chance to get noticed no matter if you’re a bedroom coder on your own or a middle sized studio whose publisher isn’t pulling their weight. That is, of course, that those guides are fair and true and not influenced too much by the big players.