Microsoft finally released some information on where Xbox One is going with indie games — a list of developers who will be self-publishing Xbox One games starting early next year. Some people are a bit miffed at the list’s inclusion of Crytek — a company with hundreds of employees responsible for several AAA games. GameSpot even just had a whole roundtable on what you can really call the company. I think Crytek defies this whole “indie” description because the kind of studio it is has become a lot less common on consoles since a time before Crytek was prominent.
Before the current console generation, a company like Crytek probably would have been called “independent,” because it isn’t owned by any larger publisher but must seek those companies to publish its games. Crytek may be capable of building full-scale $60 games, but it still lacks the ability to publish those games at retail, having to sign with EA to release the Crysis games and Ubisoft to release the original Far Cry. This is what developers like BioWare and Pandemic were before publishers like EA bought them out. Large independent developers used to be fairly common before so many either died, got bought out, or both. Similar developers today include Insomniac, Platinum Games, and CDProjekt.
What’s important to note here is what “indie” actually entails. I’ve started to think it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense to call an entire company in and of itself “indie,” but rather to refer to games as having been released independently. That is, without going through a publisher. That doesn’t really set any rules regarding how big the game’s budget is or how many employees the developer has.
I think that also brings up a peculiarity of how many digital games were handled on Xbox 360 and PS3. A lot of Xbox Live Arcade games had to go through Microsoft as a publisher which, in a way, defeated the point of being indie. Even if some those games were from two-man teams they still had to go through a publisher to actually get released — hoops similar to what larger developers go through. Many of the PSN games that Sony published are the same.
This is what’s so different about the advent of self-publishing on consoles. Essentially, you’ll start to see more games, especially on Xbox One compared to its predecessor, that are truly independently released with no publisher affecting the content. The guy behind that Oddworld remake chastised Microsoft’s original decision to not allow self publishing on Xbox One by basically saying developers didn’t need publishers on digital marketplaces. The whole purpose of a publisher is to print the discs and get them on store shelves (and arguably advertise the game), which you don’t need to do in a digital environment, but Microsoft and often Sony on current-gen consoles were acting like you still do. What we’re about to see on PS4 and Xbox One is quite a bit closer to how developers have been independently releasing games on PC for a long time, even developers with 100-plus employees.
Crytek’s example is Warface (which could very well be the game it’s self publishing on Xbox One). If a developer like Platinum or Insomniac wanted to release a digital-only game on PC or next-gen consoles they would be independently releasing that game because they wouldn’t need to go through publishers, effectively making those games “indie.” Just compare the different dynamics behind how CDProjekt releases the Witcher games.
CDP needed Atari to print the disc versions of the first two games (in North America), but released the digital PC versions independently. CDP has already said it’s going through Warner Bros. for the retail versions of The Witcher 3 but will independently release that game on Steam. Now under GOG CDP of course isn’t indie because that’s its own distribution channel on which other publishers release games, but GOG doesn’t extend everywhere. Let’s just say for instance CDP didn’t care about retail discs for TW3 and went digital-only with the game. It could then self-publish that game everywhere and it would essentially be an indie release, despite having a multi-million dollar budget.