Has Sony’s PS4 lost its indie advantage over the Xbox One?

When the PlayStation 4 was first revealed, it was marketed as the home for indie developers. With favorable publishing policies and the willingness to work with smaller studios, Sony has shown a clear commitment to indie developers. It’s a good thing considering SCE Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida believes indie games are the future for the industry. And at one point, it was a future that Sony had clear control over, given Microsoft’s once-strict publishing policies for Xbox.

Those days are in the past now. Microsoft has learned, and appears to be bridging the gap. In July of last year, Microsoft confirmed it would also support self-publishing for the Xbox One. What’s more, the system would double as development kits, meaning any Xbox One can be used for game development and testing purposes.

Through a program called “Independent Developers @ Xbox), Microsoft offers game developers “the same great benefits” that existing Xbox developers have access to, including the full power of the console, cloud services, Kinect, and the Xbox Live toolset. Microsoft now works with developers to help with the certification process. The company no longer charges publishers or developers to update their games on Xbox. Microsoft is finally treating smaller developers as equals. And while that’s a good thing for gamers and consumers, it’s bad for Sony. Sony and PlayStation no longer have a clear cut advantage in the field of indie games.

Last month, Microsoft revealed over 60 new indie developers that have joined as ID@Xbox partners. This week at GDC, Microsoft briefly highlighted 25 indie games headed to the Xbox One. One such game was Contrast, Compulsion Games’ 2D/3D platformer that was available at the launch of the PS4 for free through PlayStation Plus. Sony lost the game’s console exclusivity and now Xbox owners will have a chance to play it. Again, great for gamers and the developer, but it weakens the PS4’s advantage over the Xbox One, especially when it comes to exclusives.

With both systems featuring similar hardware, most multiplatform games are indistinguishable on Xbox One and PS4. Yes, there are some subtle differences and the whole resolutiongate, but to most gamers the two systems are pretty much equal. It comes down to exclusives and though Sony has had favorable publishing policies since the beginning, Microsoft is quickly catching up. Microsoft’s launch parity policy may annoy some, but it’s genius in that it ensures the Xbox One will have exclusives. And judging by the number of indie games headed to Xbox One and ID@Xbox partners now signed on, it doesn’t appear to be hurting Microsoft too much.

To Sony’s credit, the company’s commitment to indies early on has paid off (especially with PS Plus for PS4 owners). But to maintain a competitive advantage over Microsoft, Sony must work harder than ever to court indie developers. This week’s announcement at GDC regarding more middleware solutions for developers was a good start.