The Next Generation Should See a Change in Developer Relations

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Last time I posted about the upcoming console generation I made a big deal about how social features might define that generation for consumers. I still largely stand by that, but I also think console gaming is hitting an important impasse regarding developer relations.

You’ve had guys like Cliff Bleszinski and the president of Sony Computer Entertainment talking a bit about it, how platform holders need to be more flexible with developers. I think this could turn out to be one of the biggest changes going into the next generation. Really it’s been one of the most important aspects of console gaming for its entire history.

In an interview with Eurogamer, SCE head Shuhei Yoshida noted that Sony will allow indie developers to self-publish games on the PS4. SCE America head Jack Tretton also mentioned that they’ll allow PS4 games at various price points ranging from 99 cents (and likely free-to-play) to $60, letting developers set prices. Trine 2 Developer Frozenbyte a while ago also noted how they were able to self-publish the Wii U eShop version of the game, as opposed to going through an outside publisher for XBLA and PSN.

I think that’s a pretty big deal. It’s probably one of the biggest differences between the console digital distribution services, and other stores like Steam, iOS, and Google Play. Finding a full publisher is one of the biggest barriers for indies and probably why a lot of PC and mobile indie games don’t come out on consoles.

The price variation thing is a big deal too. The console game market during the current generation was almost cleanly bifurcated between $60 retail games — too many of which struggled to sell at $60, and small indie games for $15. If you look at, say, the PC during the same period, you see a lot of games in a nice place in-between that. You see $20 games like Amnesia and Strike Suit Zero that you don’t see on consoles at all. There are also cases of $1 iOS games like Angry Birds that for some reason had to be priced much higher on consoles.

I think Blezinski put it pretty well at the 2013 East Coast Gamer’s Conference. “Right now he suggested the console market is 80 percent $60 retail titles and 20 percent cheaper downloadable offerings, but it needs to embrace virtually all genres and all price points,” Gamesindustry.biz reported. “That means $20 horror games, $40 shooters, $60 AAA blockbusters, free-to-play, and everything in between, all easy to find for the audience who would be most interested in them.”

A third important element of publisher relations that seems to be changing next gen is platform holder policies on patching. I think a lot of developers have complained about all the bureaucracy involved in patching console games. “When Gears of War 2 launched and we found out that our netcode wasn’t working right, it took us three months to get an update out,” Bleszinski said. “By that time, the majority of users had moved on to the next game or had traded it in.”

In contrast, Steam and I think Apple have put the onus entirely on the developer to QA each patch, and they let developers release those patches without charge. I think the difference shows in how often software get’s patched on Steam or iOS as opposed to Xbox and PlayStation.

I think the developers of Dungeon Defenders basically gave up updating the console versions, but my Steam copy of the game seems to be downloading a patch all the freaking time. The number of content updates Valve has released for Team Fortress 2 on PC is in the triple digits — it’s hardly even the same game it was in 2007, but they gave up on the Xbox version after running into Microsoft’s policy on how many free updates a developer get’s. That same policy has forced Valve to charge for Left 4 Dead DLC on Xbox while offering it for free on PC. There’s also the infamous case of how Polygon declined to patch FEZ on Xbox because of the costs Microsoft imposed.

In contrast, developers have already confirmed that Nintendo let’s Wii U developers patch for free and as often as they want. Sony and Microsoft definitely need to follow suit.

A Wired article puts all these factors together pretty well in what it and the Penny Arcade Report call “The Minecraft Test.” Basically, it asks if a phenomenon like Minecraft could have occurred on a particular game platform. Minecraft happened because Mojang was able to “release” the game in a proto state, switch up its pricing model as the company pleased, and update it whenever they wanted without having to go through approval processes. I don’t think a console will ever be as completely open as the PC (unless Ouya really takes off), but the current ones are probably still a little bit too closed.

And that’s really the whole point: If consoles really want to fight off mobile gaming, tablet gaming, and the resurgent PC, they need to be more flexible with developers. More flexibility will probably get a platform more software, and more software increases the value of the hardware.

That’s how it’s been since basically forever. Sony overtook Nintendo with the original PlayStation by offering third party publishers a friendly alternative to Nintendo’s then-draconian certification policies.

On the other hand, platform holders should still remember the reasons why they have content curators in the first place. Nintendo’s draconian policies resurrected console games after the 1983 crash that occurred because too many crappy games flooded the market. iOS is the perfect modern example of too little management, with good games struggling to stand out in a sea of shovelware along with a price ceiling so low as to prohibit full games.

A third party relations system built around big third party publishers has worked up until the current generation. With the resurgence of garage development though — with which mobile and PC have gotten along well and quickly, console’s are gonna have to find a new balance to accommodate them properly.

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