I've lambasted Microsoft in the past (several times, in fact) for its policies regarding the Xbox One. I've watched in dismay (along with the rest of you) as the organization pig-headedly blundered its way through E3, then clumsily backpedaled in a desperate attempt to save face (and fans). I've trumpeted the Xbox One's vices (and ignored its virtues) so often that the casual reader might think I hate the console.
I don't. And I'm willing to admit when Microsoft is doing something right. What they're doing with independent developers? That's definitely a step in the right direction.
Gamescom: kind of a big deal.
For those of you who aren't aware, this past week Cologne, Germany hosted Gamescom 2013; Europe's largest gaming expo. Microsoft was in attendance (along with most of its rivals and allies), and the organization had some very exciting things to reveal about its plans for independent development on the Xbox One.
I'll start with the best news first: eventually, Microsoft's goal is to enable every Xbox One to be used as a development kit. This means that literally anyone - from seasoned developer to enthusiastic teenager - would be equipped with the means of creating their own content on the console. Not only that, this could open up an avenue for something which has long been absent in the console ecosystem; a hobby which has long been one of the strongest aspects of the PC's dominance: modding.
Morrowind before modding...
I'll give you folks an example here. I play Morrowind on PC. It's a fantastic game, on its own, true. But the mods I've got installed let me perform as a musician in taverns across the world. They pepper the wilds with new creatures and quests, add new weapons and equipment, up the graphics to the point that they're almost more beautiful than Oblivion's(its successor), and even unlock entire new continents for me to explore at my leisure.
Imagine for a moment if this sort of stuff was available on the typically closed ecosystem represented by consoles Suddenly, one of the largest gaps between the PC and the console has forcibly closed. Pretty awesome, right?
Morrowind after modding. See the difference?
We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. That milestone's well down the road for Microsoft (we don't even have a target launch date for it yet). For now, it's unveiled its independent games program, called ID@Xbox. The first stage starts this fall; developers who sign up for the program will receive two Xbox One devkits completely free of charge. In addition, Microsoft will also waive all application and certification fees.
For the time being, the organization is focusing on developers who already have experience creating and shipping games on consoles. As such, though they will eventually branch out to the larger indie community, the program is currently more or less restricted to 'qualified' developers with a track record and an Xbox ID. Console newbies need not apply.
They'll likely be eaten alive if they do, anyway.
It's an understandable move, truth be told - this represents Microsoft's first real foray into independent development (the Xbox Live Indie Games Store doesn't really count; Microsoft never really seemed to take its seriously), so the folks there are obviously going to want to put their best foot forward. What's more, I get the feeling that this program might, to some extent, be experimental - they want to see what their best and brighest can do with it before they make it available to the general public.
Perhaps that's just meaningless guesswork on my part, though.
Now, the the program does have a number of potential weaknesses which might rear their ugly head at any point. First and foremost is the fact that Microsoft is completely ridding its store of categories. According to Xbox's Marc Whitten, the company is banking on more organic, social methods of game discovery.
By now, you should be expecting this picture to make an appearance.
"Games are games," explained Whitman. "There's no longer a section for arcade or a section for indie or things like that. We want all the content to be available on the store on equal footing so that all the natural ways of discovery work in the system regardless of content."
Also slightly troubling is that, unlike with Sony and Nintendo, developers aren't going to have total control over the pricing of their game: they'll be able to set the wholesale price of a title, but Microsoft will have the final say in what each game on the marketplace retails for. This, I feel, could potentially create some very big problems for independent developers in terms of price points - that is, assuming Microsoft doesn't price titles intelligently. Here's hoping they will.
We've already come a long way.
I'd hate to see all Microsoft's efforts - and the potential those efforts represents - go to waste.