A few weeks ago, I was approached by Games for Windows Magazine to write a short piece for a “Three Wishes” article in the April/May issue. The idea would be to answer the question “If you could make a wish and have a programmer suddenly make any technology, however outlandish, available to you to make games, what would it be — and why?”
I wrote the following:
A Self-Service Digital Distribution Network
Digital Distribution is key to a bright future for PC Gaming. First, it tilts the economics strongly in favor of both the developer and – once retail is challenged – the consumer. Further, with services like Steam or TotalGaming, DRM is a bonus, not a penalty, as players can download their games to any PC in the world with an Internet connection.
However, Valve and Stardock – regardless of their commitment to independent developers – are still acting as gatekeepers; their services are not the same thing as a truly free marketplace. I would love to see a robust digital distribution system that worked something
like Amazon’s WebStores. Developers could sign-up using an automated system to upload their game, set prices, and manage their hosted pages. The owners would take a standard cut from all sales, and updates and support would be the responsibility of the developers. Some would falter under so much freedom, but the best talent – and the best games – would rise to the top.
As if on cue at GDC, Microsoft announced the long-rumored Xbox Live Community, an automated system for amateur game developers to share games built on the XNA framework with the entire Live community, including non-paying Silver members. The system will use peer review to keep out objectionable, copyrighted, or broken content. For the normally restrictive company, this move is quite bold and appears to be the real deal for bedroom coders hoping to find an audience in the console world.
So, did I get my wish? Obviously, my hope was for the PC market, but console environments have the same needs for an open market. The real question is pricing – will these games always be free? If not, what cut will Microsoft take? If the quality of the best XNA games is as high as I suspect them to be, this service will place independent developers of official Live Arcade games in an odd position, especially considering the recent royalty rate cuts. How will new independent IP be able to compete with free? Alternatively, if amateurs can charge for their games, why then should indies go through the much more rigorous certification process for official games? Obviously, Microsoft will put marketing resources and dashboard promotions behind official titles, but – if amateurs can charge for their games – the lines are about to get very blurry.
I fear that Microsoft will never allow the XNA developers to charge for their games, treating the Live Community like the minor leagues, from which they will “promote” popular titles to official status. While Microsoft would still deserve accolades for opening up their system like this, a genuine market ecosystem can only develop if these independents developers are able to make their own decisions and set their own prices. The opportunity here is tremendous, as Xbox Live – with so many users already used to buying MS Points – has already closed the penny gap. The games industry needs markets that are managed in certain ways (Points, distribution, community) and free in other ways (pricing, automated approval). I hope Microsoft finds the right combination.