How Microsoft went from Indie game hero to villain without even realizing it

Xbox One (Console) Screenshot - Xbox One

True heroes are the ones who do good deeds without any fanfare. They don’t need to brag about their accomplishments, and you may never even be aware of the way they change the world. That’s probably not what was going on with Microsoft during the Xbox 360 era, but they did quietly stumble into being an indie development hero way before it was cool. Microsoft developed the XNA platform, a toolset that simplified game development and allowed small-time indie crews to make real PC, 360, and Windows Phone games. It even brought about some truly inspiring indie game success stories. Anyone remember Bastion, Fez, Terraria, Dust: An Elysian Tail, Ilomilo, or the Dishwasher series? All XNA-developed at one point or another.

That’s not to mention Xbox Live Indie Games, a channel where anyone willing to pay a $100 subscription fee, learn XNA, and submit through a peer review system can have their game released on Xbox 360, for real. People talk about how great Sony and Steam have been for indie development, and it’s absolutely true, but man, did Microsoft really provide for the small guy with XNA and XBLIG.

The problem, and why I think Microsoft probably doesn’t earn their hero status, is that it all seems like an accident. XNA has quietly existed as a helpful suite for many developers, but Xbox Live Indie Games has languished as a sort of bastard child shoved into a quiet corner of the Xbox Marketplace. By the time Indies got their own tab the damage had been done, and rather than being a place for great games to rise to the top, it’s become notorious for cheap knockoffs of Minecraft, gimmicky controller massage games, and everything with zombies.

Xbox Live Indie Games channel

Still, XBLIG has hundreds of games, including everything from obvious student projects to first-runs of more popular indie titles like Zeboyd’s Cthulhu Saves the World and the Penny Arcade RPG’s third episode. Most of the better games go on to Steam fame, but they were made possible through XNA and got to test the waters on the Xbox 360. Sony may have courted some big-time indie guys like Jonathan Blow, but their XBLIG-like PlayStation Mobile has made all the mistakes MS did but without the hundreds of games to make up for it.

The bigger press, and the reason that Microsoft has become a sort of indie game villain, has come from those larger indie publishers looking for prime-time fame on Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft established a caste system on their marketplace, with XBLA’s more curated selection and XBLIG’s “anything goes” mentality. The problem is that neither were ideal for the best and brightest indie devs. XBLA requires too many hoops and red tape, while XBLIG can feel more like tossing your baby into a cesspool and seeing if anything bites.

This leaves Microsoft in a potentially terrible position. They’ve seemingly done more for the smallest indie devs than any other publisher, but no one really acknowledges it. Not even Microsoft themselves, who still don’t do a great job with XBLIG and have actually talked about dropping active XNA development. Meanwhile, they’re going into the next generation with the popular notion that they aren’t a great destination for indie development. You can Call of Duty ‘til the cows come home, but the writing is on the walls -- indie development and smaller games are the next big thing, and MS needs to fix their image.

Don Mattrick and Xbox One

Thankfully, they already have a blueprint. XBLIG wasn’t a breakout success story by any means, but with a new life on Xbox One it could be a better road to indie success than anywhere else. Xbox One’s game marketplace will be unified, according to Microsoft, meaning that everything from big-budget AAA games to XBLA-sized offerings and a potential XBLIG equivalent could get equal footing. As with most Microsoft news though (they tend to get their wires crossed), the state of indie development on Xbox One has been murky so far.

One side of the story is that Xbox One will be more locked down and less indie friendly than ever, but most recently Kotaku reported quite the opposite. They interviewed Xbox Chief Don Mattrick, who stated that, “We're going to have an independent creator program... There's no way we're going to build a box that doesn't support that.” Note he didn’t simply say that Microsoft will support indie developers, but that they’re going to have a specific program. He even went a step further, stating: “We're going to sponsor it. We're going to give people tools. We're going to give more information.”

Could that mean an XNA successor is on the way? Could it mean that Microsoft will have a much-improved XBLIG-style program on the Xbox One? We probably won’t know more until E3, but I have some hope. Microsoft has a lot mixed messaging to clear up with the Xbox One, and for all we know they may once again stumble through a mess of quiet indie game heroism and high-profile indie villainy. Then again, they might be gearing up to give the PS4 a run for its indie game money.

If you like to read the latest movie reviews, or random thoughts about whatever is going on in gaming lately, follow me @JoeDonuts!

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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Games: Xbox One (Console)

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