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June 25, 2013
Platforms & the Industry
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Welcome to the second Indie Corner. Today, we return with much of the same crew as last time to talk about platforms. Which is best for these indie devs? Is it the PC? Maybe they've found a way to break into the console market? What about portable platforms? We discuss that and the move toward the future with next gen just around the corner. How will the indie arena shape up with the upcoming release of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One? Will the Wii U become something of an indie darling during the upcoming gen? Lots of questions to ponder over, so let's see what the devs think fresh off of E3.

Name: Ben McGraw
Studio: Breadbrothers Games
RPG Project(s): Sully: A Very Serious RPG (Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation Mobile (Vita/Android))

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

Originally, I planned for PC/Mac/Linux because the PC gaming market is demonstrably the biggest of any gaming market. Realistically the golden ticket to aim for is a Steam contract and to be in a Humble Indie Bundle, so I always intended to have them as my core platforms.

I was originally going to start on XBLIG because there was precedent for JRPGs selling acceptably there (Hi Zeboyd!), I was fond of the Xbox 360, and I had a strong desire to see my game on a console as well for personal "nostalgia" reasons. As such my engine started as XNA with an intent to make a move to Monogame after the prototype. (For the non-technical: they're both based on a language called C#.)

However, Microsoft's become increasingly indie-unfriendly in recent years and XNA has become unsupported. The future of the Indie Marketplace is ambiguous and possibly doomed, so it felt foolish chasing that rainbow.

Around the time I was realizing this, the lovely gentlemen at Muteki Corp. informed me that Sony's PlayStation Mobile platform was C#, and they weren't being jerks to indie developers! An introduction was made, I cut a deal with them, and now my game's going to be on the Vita. And, true to form, it's been the most pleasant and direct experience I've had with a first party. (My limited interactions with XBLIG were...impersonal.)

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

Consoles: Sony, and to a lesser extent, Nintendo seem the most willing to play ball and create friendly environments for us! Yay! Microsoft seems to be, at best, ignoring us. Nobody I know in the indie space (RPG or otherwise) is considering making anything for the Xbone. Nobody.

Handhelds: I can vouch for PSM's friendliness, and I think that 2D JRPGS may actually be the ideal game solution for the platform for performance reasons...especially if you can get your hands on an engine that's already gone through the trouble of working out the local kinks. The 3DS eShop seems friendly, if you chase that road, but difficult to code for.

PCs: It's the biggest marketplace to sell games and the easiest to develop for. However, unless you get into Steam (and Greenlight seems rather adversarial to JRPGs), you're going to have to do a lot of advertising and interviews to get the relatively unfocused PC Gaming Master Race (tm) to notice you.

(Also: I personally think the whole "JRPGs aren't for computers" argument is dumb, since there's not a single one of you RPGamers that doesn't have a computer as well.)

Mobile: I generally do not advocate indies trying to "make it big" on mobile anymore. It's hard to get attention, it's hard to stay on the charts, and it's hard to make sales. It's a land saturated by cross-promotion, big-brand efforts. All the indies that made money early on in the mobile space did so because they were the only ones in the mobile space at the time. It's a really big crapshoot now.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

I personally don't think tech advancements matter to 99% of indies. We're small team, small budget operations and are never going to be able to afford giant AAA tech-shattering releases.

What we as indies need to strive for, presentation-wise, is uniqueness. Whether it's things like Incredipede's woodcut art or Bastion's narration, it's a presentation hook that's going to really set you apart and propel your title into success. Also, if you do something unique, you have the added benefit of having made something unique!

By making good, unique, stylized visuals, you compete with the crazy 3D arms race. Nobody actually cares about how many polygons are in that gun, they just care that the game looks good.

    

Links: Breadbrothers Games Official Site

Name: The Brothers (Brian & Andrew) Allanson
Studio: AckkStudios
RPG Project(s): Two Brothers (PC, OSX, Linux, Wii U), Project Y2K (PC, Wii U, PS4)

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

As an indie developer, you really need to use what is available to you. The most open platforms are PC, Mac, and Linux, so for us that was the obvious first place to start. Working on major consoles can prove difficult if you don't have a connection already, so for us it was important to start where we knew we could release. After our Kickstarter, a few places took notice of our game Two Brothers, and thanks to Emily Rogers at NotEnoughShaders we were put in contact with the radical Dan Adelman, who is responsible for bringing lots of great indies to the Wii U eShop. Once we had that attention and bragging right, people started to take notice of Two Brothers a bit more, which was great, but also a bit sad that it took that for people to look at it as more than "just another garage game."

So officially the game is coming out for: PC, Mac, Linux, and Wii U eShop, but we're working on potential PS3, PS Vita, iOS, and Android releases, but ONLY if we can make it feel just as good as the original versions. Xbox 360 proved to be very difficult...so it may only appear on Xbox Live Indie Games, if at all.

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

Sony and Nintendo are both playing some serious ball with indies, with Microsoft not even trying. So to me it seems that Nintendo and Sony are going to be very good homes for indie developers to begin their career, as well as a great permanent home for indies.

PC will likely stay the pillar of indies for a while, as ANYONE can release a game on there. As for handhelds, the PS Vita seems to be getting a lot of great indies, and I would like to see it stay that route. The system has a lot to prove, so it may just take indies to help it along.

iOS and Android devices are quite easy to develop for, however no one has yet to make a truly great RPG for these systems with the exception of ports of already great games. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery comes the closest I think. Although it's not technically an RPG, I think it's the most brilliant iOS game.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

As we're developing Project Y2K with next gen consoles and high end PCs in mind, we haven't found it hindering us in anyway. The ability to push more polys is great, but I don't know if it's necessarily a selling point for all indie developers. The majority of great indie games do not require a huge amount of processing power to make them work, as games with AAA poly counts take huge teams to assemble. The option is there for anyone who wants to make that undertaking. I don't think it's going to push indies away, but you just may not see them adopting the technology in the same way as Naughty Dog. That being said, it comes in handy when you make a boss that clones itself almost infinitely if you don't kill it in time, but thankfully that didn't require any more artists than what we had, but it wouldn't have worked too well on Wii.

     

Links: AckkStudios Facebook, AckkStudios Official Site

Name: Adam Rippon
Studio: Muteki Corporation
RPG Project(s): Dragon Fantasy Book I and II (PS3/Vita)

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

For a long time, our primary platform was iOS. iOS was a joy for us to work with from the very beginning in 2008 up until about a year ago, when we came to the realization that there was just too much cheap or free competition to be able to justify funding projects of any size. Android was pretty much always that way, and so like it or not we could never really put focus there. PC and Mac are of course much easier to distribute on, but unless you've got a deal with Steam finding success is extremely difficult. And of course, getting through Steam's Greenlight process is, to put it charitably, an ordeal. These days, the platforms I'm most interested in supporting are Sony and Nintendo. Both have opened their doors to independent developers wide enough that basically anyone with the skills necessary to build a game can find at least some success on their systems. But perhaps more importantly, both seem to be willing to take the time necessary to look at the games submitted to them and build relationships with the developers who show the most promise. That's something other platform holders don't take seriously, with some choosing to outright ignore independent developers.

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

Mobile is a great place to experiment as a hobbyist, but the days of finding sudden success in mobile are long, long gone by now. I whole-heartedly recommend it as a secondary platform, and I see no reason to stop porting every single thing I do to mobile, but from now on they will simply be ports. I've moved all of my focus to console and handheld development, which seems to go against the prevailing sentiment of the industry, but I feel there is simply less blood in those waters. I think dedicated game systems have dedicated game audiences, as well as dedicated game developers. Having to compete with hundreds of developers on consoles is much less scary than having to compete with *hundreds of thousands* of developers on mobile and PC platforms.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

I am honestly really excited about the PlayStation 4. It is absolutely overkill for most indies, but at the same time, having 8 gigs of RAM and tons of processing power means one doesn't necessarily have to know how to manage their game's resources very well. Having a console that is basically a powerful PC, but with a marketplace that is curated by a team that actually cares about working with independent developers is magnificent, and I think it will be a huge boon for a lot of people. Personally, I'm very excited about bringing Dragon Fantasy Book III to PS4 in the future, because I've been itching to get back into 3D game design for a while now. And honestly, making 3D games is easier than making 2D games, at least for me, so I'm excited to make my life a little easier by not having to worry about tile layering or sprite sorting or hand animating hundreds of frames of animation! So, yay next gen!

Links: Muteki Corporation Official Site

Name: Dave Welch
Studio: Experimental Gamer
RPG Project(s): Boot Hill Heroes (PC, Xbox 360)

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

I'm certainly no expert, but at the time we started development XNA was great because it allowed developers to develop for Xbox Live Indie Games and PC at the same time. Plus, there was a strong development community and a precedent for RPGs set by Zeboyd. Fast forward to today and XBLIG is all but dead, but at least it got us to pull the trigger on game development. As it stands today, PC will be the primary platform for Boot Hill Heroes.

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

I have the luxury of answering this question after the E3 Press Conferences. My personal impression, and the impression I get from other indie devs, is that Microsoft is becoming increasingly less friendly to indies while Sony is embracing them. Even Nintendo, which has been reportedly standoffish to indies in the past, is now taking a friendlier approach.

Developing for the mobile market (iPhone / Android) is like buying a lottery ticket: you'll either hit the jackpot or you don't. And without a huge marketing push, it can be tricky to make a dent in the app store. I wouldn't recommend putting indie RPGs on the platform unless it's not too much trouble to port them.

PC is really the hub world for indie development. Most people have them and anyone can make a game on the platform. Once you do, you can consider porting it to other platforms.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

I think a constant push to improve graphics may actually help indies. Think about it, if every game has the same photo-realistic high tech graphics, then an indie game with a unique art direction is going to stick out even more and get noticed. I generally advise indie developers to not try to compete with the realism found in today's AAA titles. Best case scenario, they make something that blends in with everything else. Instead, indies can make up for a lack of resources to create realistic graphics by going for a unique art direction.

Links: Experimental Gamer Official Site

Name: Craig Stern
Studio: Sinister Design
RPG Project(s): Telepath Tactics (PC)

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

To date, I've released exclusively on PC/Mac/Linux. PC has a number of advantages: virtually everybody has a personal computer (i.e. it's a really huge potential market); there's no gatekeeper (i.e. it's really easy to release a game--there are no fees to pay, no dev kits to buy, and no one to ask for permission); there are a lot of choices as far as distribution (direct sales, Steam, GOG, GamersGate, Big Fish Games, etc.); and you're not stuck making games that require a controller for player input (i.e. it's friendly to games with lots of units and complex controls, particularly strategy games).

There are cons too, though. The fact that there's no gatekeeper means you're competing with more games; development is made more difficult by the sheer variety of devices and display resolutions that you have to account for; and a huge portion of the market is locked into Steam.

That last con is kind of a killer, unfortunately. Many Steam users simply refuse to buy games that aren't sold through Steam. Meanwhile, Valve has rendered Steam thoroughly inaccessible to indie developers by forcing them to go through a process called Greenlight, a bottomless pit from which few games emerge alive. (I've helpfully suggested that they rename the service to Sarlacc.)

Going forward, I'd like to release for other platforms (console, mobile) to broaden the number of players I can reach without having to successfully escape Greenlight's slavering maw.

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

As long as Steam remains (1) a near-monopoly and (2) a walled garden, I won't feel very good about the state of the PC gaming market. Gabe Newell has said that he wants to kill Greenlight and allow people to create their own curated marketplaces; whenever Valve follows through on that, I expect things to improve significantly for indie developers on PC.

The PlayStation 4 looks like it's shaping up to be a haven for indie developers in the coming years, which is nice. The Wii U also has promise, particularly since it has a user base starving for quality games; I imagine indies could do quite well there right now.

Meanwhile, the iOS App Store continues to have the same major discoverability problems that have plagued it for years, making it more like a casino than a proper market. I've heard stories to the effect that Android is actually a more stable marketplace than iOS these days, but it's apparently still plagued by users too cheap to pay for the games they want -- and though this ultimately isn't too terrible if you want to make free-to-play games -- that's just not something I'm very interested in doing right now.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

More powerful systems are never a bad thing: they just make it easier to run more ambitious games. After all, I can use that extra processing power for running more advanced AI and more complex simulations.

I don't much care about the graphics arms race, personally. It sucks up studio resources that could be going toward making the core game more interesting, but unless you're a AAA developer, there's no requirement that you get sucked into that. As long as there is a market for games with less resource-intensive graphical styles and superior gameplay, I'll be happy.

Links: Sinister Design Official Site

Name: Ryan Vandendyck
Studio: Eden Industries
RPG Project(s): Citizens of Earth (PC)

1) To date, how have you decided on which platform to release on and why? What have been the pros and cons of each system you've worked with?

PC has been my go-to platform so far. Mainly because I have everything I need to develop for it! With a barrier to entry that low and generally not having to worry much about limited system resources as on other devices, PC is a pretty big no-brainer for me. The vast landscape of different system configurations can be a bit of a nightmare to deal with though.

Wii U has been great thus far. The ease of its graphics API is like night and day compared with the Wii's old fixed-function pipeline. But you do have limited resources to utilize of course, so I do have to re-work some things from the PC build in order to make it run happily on the Wii U.

2) Going forward, how does the game system landscape (consoles/PC/handhelds/mobile) appear to be heading for you in terms of indie development, both realistically and ideally?

I believe PC will always be a strong market for indie games for a few reasons: you don't need dev kits to make games for it, essentially everyone owns one, and you don't have to get approval to release a game for it. That last point, while technically true, can be very frustrating in practice though. I was fortunate enough to be able to release Waveform on Steam before Greenlight was created, but I'm really not looking forward to that process for Citizens of Earth. I do understand why it exists (i.e. having folks at Valve personally evaluate every game for addition into the Steam library is a lot of work), but ideally either Steam or another form of digital distribution will be able to figure out a better method.

Mobile to me is a weird, weird world. I daily get requests to port my games to iPhone/Android, but the reality of the platforms is pretty discouraging. I don't have huge marketing dollars, and I don't make soulless games that nickle-and-dime players by making them buy energy. And these days it seems like you need both of those to have a successful mobile game. So although I do have some back-burner work porting my engine to these mobile platforms, currently it's not a high priority.

As for consoles, ideally I'd love for them to be havens of indie development. Realistically, I'm not sure if that'll happen. Personally, I prefer playing games on consoles more than anything else, but I think that preference is growing less strong these days with the ubiquitousness of mobile and the surge of digital distribution on PC. That being said, I'm still very interested in bringing my games to consoles. Nintendo has been a great partner thus far, even believing so strongly in Citizens of Earth that they just gave me a Wii U dev kit, with no strings attached other than just to make an awesome game. My experience with Microsoft and Sony has been the reverse of everyone else I think - while my conversations with Sony constantly languish, Microsoft met up with me at GDC, and we had a lot of fun playing Citizens of Earth. So in my personal experience (though I admit this may not be the typical experience), Nintendo has really embraced me as an indie, Microsoft is somewhere in the middle, and Sony seems content to stay at home.

3) Heading into next gen, how do you feel about the push toward higher technology? Do you feel like these higher powered systems will help and/or hinder your development going forward? Do you feel like a push toward constantly improving graphics will help or hurt?

On the one hand, better technology will help in that I really don't want to spend months optimizing the cache and figuring out ways to get the most out of the 64 MB of RAM available to me. New, higher powered systems are generally sufficiently powerful so as to just let me focus on making great games. Regarding the push to improve graphics though, I'm a bit less optimistic that this will be helpful to indies. Although it's true that some people just want a great game (with maybe an interesting, if not graphically advanced art style), I think that a lot of people are becoming accustomed to the advancements in graphics and start to expect it across the board. Of course I'm not trying to make any sweeping generalizations here. But at a cursory glance, if an indie game looks substantially less impressive graphically than other games that someone is used to, it may be disregarded out of hand even if the gameplay is superior.

    

Links: Eden Industries Official Site

And that's it for this issue. As the credits roll, I have to say that I'm not surprised by the strong swing toward Sony considering the push the company has been making toward indies lately. I am very excited to see Nintendo mentioned so often, as it seems like the Wii U might be another good option for console-focused indies. It's no secret that iOS and other mobile platforms are getting harder to break into, but what really caught me off guard is how PC is no longer the bastion of love that it was once thought to be. I've always had more of a leaning toward consoles, so seeing newer systems welcoming indie development is fantastic in my eyes. The PlayStation Vita, and to a lesser extent the PS3, are already great for picking up indie titles. I just hope that as things progress, these systems pick up indie projects much earlier in the game and not as ports over a year after their initial release.

I'm also glad to see that the "graphics arms race" isn't high on the priority list of most of these developers, though as Ryan Vandendyck stated it can still be a concern seeing other games increase in visual prowess and RPGs still looking old school. As a fan of retro graphics, I'm fine with it, but I've heard more than one indie dev get slammed for "looking outdated" or "looking like an RPG Maker game." I still have to fear the pressure that comes from feeling the need to improve too much, too fast. That gets into what I call the Final Fantasy VII jump, and it's hard to ever go backwards after that.

That's all for now, though, so I hope you enjoyed the talk. Hopefully the next issue will come along quicker than this one, as it was delayed by E3. Thanks again and please leave your feedback on the forums.

- Michael A. Cunningham

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