Way back in 2004, Microsoft launched a, then practically unknown, digitial distribution channel on their popular Xbox gaming platform known as the Xbox Live Arcade. It was the very first digital distribution platform on a major console and, even today, it continues to be the best. But that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect.
Earlier this month, we reported on a highly controversial news piece that claimed Machinarium was refused by Microsoft be allowed onto the Xbox Live Arcade platform, citing that they (Microsoft) did not want to publish a game that was not exclusive to their own platforms (Machinarium was released on OSX and Linux as well as PC, originally). What was not widely known at the time was not that Microsoft was simply disallowing Machinarium from appearing on the channel, it was that Microsoft requires a publisher in order to be on the platform, whether it be through themselves or a 3rd party publisher ala Activision, EA, etc.
What this essentially means is that Microsoft, based on the rules it had set for everybody putting games on the XBLA, hadn’t really acted in the wrong, it had simply acted in its own best interest. After all, do we expect Sony to publish a game that appears on the Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii? No. Microsoft is competing in the desktop OS space just as much as Sony is competing in the console space. So, naturally, it should be their choice with whom they publish.
But why does an XBLA game need an established publisher at all?
Microsoft has made no qualms about it, XBLA is for higher valued, better established franchises and Xbox Live Indie Games is for hobby games/unknown smaller titles. This is how Microsoft has seemingly divided up the digital downloadable titles over the years. But there’s two problems with this method of distribution.
1. There is a middle ground in between the established developer/publisher titles and the hobby/unknown titles that are getting the shaft with this method. A game like Machinarium is easily of XBLA quality. It has the charm, the appeal, and the production values. It also has a raving fan base and an established PC version to back up it’s sales claims. Beyond even that, however, Machinarium was created by an established developer, Amanita Designs, whose been around for years creating high quality games.
Now sure, Amanita could simply go to a new publisher and use them to get their game onto the channel, but at that point they are now allowing both Microsoft and, let’s say EA (just as an example) to each take a significant cut. This would make sense in the physical retail world where Microsoft supplies the console and EA supplies the distribution, packaging, disc making etc. but in the XBLA world what would EA do? There’s no physical distribution or packaging or anything. They would simply be a name that is leaching money from Amanita simply because Microsoft requires it.
This means that if Amanita wants to keep the majority of the profits and continue to be on the Xbox console it has only one other option, Xbox Live Indie Games. And here is where our second problems lies.
2. Xbox Live Indie Games is not meant for high production valued games. There I said it. It’s not and probably won’t ever be. I love the XBLIG channel, but I’m not going to pretend that the service is offering anything comparable to the XBLA in terms of production value.
But this is also a good thing for many gamers. With XBLIG we get an awesome channel filled to the brim with plenty of hobby/small games of which most are a single dollar and where the most you’ll ever spend there is either $3 or $5. That’s awesome! Dollar gaming on a console is something that was unheard of prior to the XBLIG channel launching.
Unfortunately, Machinarium (like Braid and ‘Splosion Man before it) is not a $1, $3, or $5 game. I know many of you are probably hoping that it would be, but it simply is not. The game is a masterful work of art filled with puzzles and gameplay that far surpass most things on the XBLA channel, let alone the XBLIG channel. And if it were priced higher on the XBLIG channel, it would be ignored, criticized, and lamented because we’ve been trained to think otherwise about XBLIG pricing.
Going beyond even simple pricing issues, Microsoft simply does not market their indie channel enough to really make it a viable option for anything larger than a hobby game. So many games get put on the service each week, and so little money is used to market them that often times games sink below the fold before ever being noticed by gamers. Additionally, I’m not even fully convinced most gamers even know about the service. I’ve mentioned it a couple times to a few of my Halo/Call of Duty friends and they didn’t even really know what it was, and had never been there prior.
This makes the channel completely unusable for self-published titles the size of Machinarium.
So there’s my argument, and really, who is going to lose out by doing this? I’m not saying Microsoft has to allow every game that wants on the service and I definitely believe in having a continued approval certification process for the XBLA. But why should independent games of high production value be rejected simply because Microsoft doesn’t want to publish it themselves? They don’t have to at all!
Microsoft had a lot to gain by allowing Machinarium on the channel. Perhaps monetary, perhaps not. But what it would have done was seriously shown that Microsoft does not just pay token lip service to indie developers. It would have shown that they are truly interested in titles that portray the kind of production value as is the standard on Xbox Live Arcade.
Nobody is asking Microsoft to put their name on the game, market it, or do anything else. All they have to do is allow the game on their channel (of which still shares many games with the Playstation Network) and then take their share of the money as gamers buy it. It’s as simple as that.
Microsoft, it’s time to allow self published games.
P.S. And yes, I’m well aware that Amanita or whoever else can simply go to the Playstation Network where Sony allows self-published titles. That is a bright spot for the PSN, but there’s also a reason developers want to be on XBLA. It’s a proven distribution channel that consistently receives better marketing and higher sales.
What do you think? Should Microsoft allow self-published titles or should they continue the way it is now?