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On One’s Own: Machinarium, XBLA and Why It Matters

MachinariumOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

Machinarium from Amanita Design recently made some waves because of word getting around that they had been refused from Xbox Live Arcade. While this statement may sound like hyperbole, it actually is not. Jakub Dvorsky, the lead designer for Machinarium, has confirmed that they were refused from being published to Xbox Live Arcade. Cue shock and awe from the major outlets as they pick up the story and syndicate it.

The original quote from Mr. Dvorsky, via XBLAFans, which has a wonderful interview up as well, that seems to have stirred up so much controversy in the gaming world is as follows:

“Microsoft just refused Machinarium for XBLA after a half year of talking with them. They like the game and know it would be very successful on their platform, but they don’t want to support games which aren’t Microsoft exclusives. Machinarium isn’t, since we’ve also released versions for Mac and Linux. We have another option to approach some big publisher to bring the game to XBLA, which is quite absurd to do and lose maybe a large part of revenue because of that.”

This then prompted Joystiq to do a little digging as well, which received this response:

“They told us, ‘It’s not Microsoft-exclusive, we don’t want it.’ They didn’t cite the Mac and Linux versions but it’s quite clear that’s the reason.”

machinarium_04_bigger2The details, as many responses have indicated on the various stories, point out that they were only refused publishing by Microsoft. In effect, Microsoft said, “Hey, no dice, you have already published your little game elsewhere and we do not deal with such nonsense. Good day!” But that does not stop them from being released on the service; it merely restricts them from having Microsoft publish them. There is still the slim chance that someone, somewhere, will pick up the title and bring it to the platform. That does not seem to be the case in the minds of the developers, however, who predict that nearly all profit would end up going to the publishers in that scenario so they won’t be seeking it out themselves.

None of this, however, is the truly baffling part of this little debacle. What really boggles the mind is the fact that Microsoft has passed on a game, a winner of multiple awards, simply because it also has a Mac and Linux version available. Not that any of this behavior is news to people who have followed Microsoft for any length of time, but the strict application of the same old paradigms is incredibly archaic. It feels like Microsoft has taken two steps backward for every one forward.

It’s not even that Microsoft should be forced to publish bad games that also have competitor versions; nobody’s forcing them to publish anything they don’t want to publish. Where is the sense in denying Machinarium, though? If Sony has Product A and Apple has Product A, shouldn’t it stand to reason that Microsoft should also want Product A in order to better pitch their merchandise to consumers?

MachinariumApparently not, though. Instead, it looks as if 360 owners might go without being able to play Machinarium, which is a damn shame. It seems Microsoft is focused on adding exclusives to the ever-growing list of titles it supports. It just doesn’t make sense, though. Having a complete exclusive is great. That draws attention to the platform of choice. Denying an existing brand simply because it decided to branch out seems similar to shooting yourself in the foot: all you are ultimately doing is hurting yourself.

Not only has Microsoft shot themselves in the foot, but they are shooting the feet of their fans at the very same time. Not publishing a game simply because it’s already been published elsewhere does not exactly breed confidence in continuing to bring the best of the gaming industry to the Xbox 360. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened either, as Golgoth Studio was also denied publishing for Toki HD. This is just the first time, in memory, such a popular game has been given the cold shoulder.

To be fair, Toki HD is a remake of a 1989 platformer from Tun Corporation, which was, prior to announcement, completely unknown to at least one Destructoid writer. Adding me to the same list, that makes two writers. Microsoft giving them the big N. O. to a publishing deal certainly doesn’t raise many eyebrows. Not to say that Toki HD is not a game worthy of being published by Microsoft or anything, but Machinarium won ‘Best Visual Arts’ at the 2009 Independent Games Festival. If they will not publish an award-winning game, what will they publish?

Toki HDThis seems to be the point that the majority of those commenting on the related articles seem to miss. Sure, they have the right to deny publishing and Machinarium could always seek another publisher, but this appears to hint at a developing trend. Microsoft will pay for exclusivity but heaven forbid you reach beyond the borders of Bill Gates’ reach. For such an offence, you will surely pay the price.

The entire debacle sets the stage for yet another generation of platform exclusivity battles where only those companies developing consoles come out as winners. For such a consumer-based industry, consumers themselves are probably third or fourth on the list of priorities. First come the platforms themselves, then publishers, then developers, then consumers and possibly last come the developers.

To reiterate, it is not shocking that Microsoft should deny a game that has already been published for its competitors. Strictly in terms of the overall goal of business, it makes sense. On the details level, though, the entire thing stinks and paints a stark portrait of the future of downloadable games, content and especially anything indie. Independent developers that are not willing to bow to the will of the almighty Microsoft will instead have to seek out publishers who will suck them dry or just give up on the whole idea altogether.

So begins another decade of the same old business model, delivered in a new way, is on its way. We, as consumers, can look forward to continued exclusivity of downloadable indie titles simply because Microsoft has the gall to demand it. Well, that and the backing to pay for it.


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  • Jeremy

    I’m pretty sure that Microsoft refused to PUBLISH the title, not that they refused it from being published on Xbox Live at all. (e.g. not published by “Microsoft Game Studios”, but maybe by, say, EA)

    I don’t love Microsoft, but I don’t blame them. I don’t think I’d choose to pick up the costs and responsibility for a product if I am also a platform holder and the product doesn’t specifically promote MY platform.

    Anyway, there’s still a good chance for this to show up on Xbox 360, but “brought to you by Ubisoft” or something.

    • Geoff Gibson

      Unfortunately, Amanita has already confirmed they are not willing to go that route. Look at it from their point of view:

      They’ve released a pretty successful title on PC, OSX, and Linux. Now they want to take it to XBLA to further the game’s audience and profitability. If MSG published the title (which really all that means is allow the game on XBLA without an official publisher) then Amanita and Microsoft would go the route of the traditional profit margin split, I don’t know the exact numbers but lets say 70/30.

      If Amanita were to go with a third party developer then the profit split, at the best case scenario for Amanita, would be 35/35/30 (which is probably pretty gracious for the publisher).

      At what point does it remain economically viable for Amanita to put something on Microsoft’s platform?

      I won’t join the hate-fest against Microsoft because it’s their choice and they can publish whoever they want. But I can totally understand why Amanita wouldn’t want to go through a third party publisher as well.

      Besides, according to reports, Amanita is now in talks with Sony and the PSN store, where a game does not require a publisher. Hopefully something works out there as Machinarium deserves a wider audience.

  • James Bishop

    I don’t think I say otherwise in the article, Jeff, and I’ll let it speak for itself. :)

    But to clarify: I’m not trying to say Microsoft refused the game entirely. I’m saying they refused to publish it, which sets a rather unfortunate precedent.

  • Jeremy

    Once you decide you want to distribute through a closed platform like Xbox or Playstation, you have to deal with licensing fees and other conditions. It’s just not a feasible “indie” situation anymore where you can call your own shots.

    It then becomes a matter of choice for Amanita. Things may not be as lucrative for them if they publish through a third party, but they’re in the same boat with hundreds of other developers who have to make the same decisions.

  • Wusthof

    Hi just thought i would certainly let you know something.. It is 2 times now i’ve landed on your blog in the last 2 weeks searching for totally unrelated things. Spooky or what?