Exploring the Role of Indie Games on Game Consoles

“Indie games!” is a common exclamation from big and small game publishers. Even companies like Nintendo and Microsoft, which have traditionally kept a small pipe for third-party game studios on their consoles, have been welcoming indie developers to build on their platform. At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Microsoft announced loosening restrictions for the Xbox store. The Xbox Live Creators Program allows anyone to build and publish a game for Xbox Live (and Windows 10). They can use their own device instead of purchasing a dev kit.

Nintendo, a company famous for their first-party games, has been growing friendlier to indie games over the past several years. Though developers still need a dev kit, the process has been reported to be greatly simplified, thanks to greater support for development engines like Unreal 4. Nintendo plans to release indie games every week. This is similar to how NVIDIA has been adding games to their GeForce Now collection each week.

But why are these companies placing less focus on larger studios for these smaller ventures? Google Play and other mobile app stores have allowed for a type of innovation that previously wasn’t possible and has placed greater competition on traditional consoles.

The Value of Engines

If you have gone to an arcade, you have probably seen a lot of different games with different control schemes. Among the first arcade games was Computer Space. The arcade version, designed in the early 70s, could not economically be implemented with an off-the-shelf minicomputer. The cost was too expensive for the performance they needed. Instead, they used custom hardware.

Many early arcade machines had to be redesigned from the ground up using custom hardware and custom software. As C wasn’t created until 1972, everything was written in processor-specific assembly. There was no way to easily use the same code between different devices.

The C programming language was a major improvement, creating a layer of abstraction that could run on different processors with minor overhead. With C, I can run the same (or similar enough) code between several different processors, making it easier to share code or run things on an operating system.

Hardware improvements have also been major. As processors became faster and computers became smaller, developers have been able to add more levels of abstraction that make development easier without losing performance. Today, many games are written using a tool called Unity. I can write a game that runs on phones, PCs, and game consoles without a lot of extra work. Games can also be written in a web browser that run very well even with all the layers JavaScript goes through. The Unreal Engine also makes it easy for anyone to build a game without having to deal with the specifics of each processor and GPU it will run on.

Rise of Indie Developers

While Computer Space was an indie game, it was hard to go viral. The game had to be recreated on different mainframes due to incompatibilities. With simple game engines and operating systems that standardized games, it opened up a wide audience of consumers who could purchase games and play them at home on their PC. Physical stores could purchase small batches of CDs from smaller studios with the help of game publishers.

This also extended to the development of game consoles which allowed for a single computer to run a number of games at a low cost. Again, publishing companies were able to work with small studios to get their content pushed to big game retailers and market it.

The arrangement has worked out pretty well, with the publishers acting as risk mitigation in case it doesn’t sell well. This means publishers have some creative control over the game and its content in order to maximize sales. Disk inventory management has been a key part of the publisher job. However, with the advent of digital markets, the publishers are no longer a key role in the publication of games.

Digital Markets

Anyone can write a game on Android or iOS. This has allowed the number of applications to reach over one million as opposed to the 1500 on the Wii. The cost of production per game is zero, since all games are digital and downloaded from a third-party server. The only costs are up-front, in development time and marketing.

There are many games from big game studios, however the more interesting story are around those who have little to no experience. Anyone, of any age, can build their ideas and express their views.

The retired banker asked a bunch of people to create games for seniors, but no one was interested.

A publisher wouldn’t find seniors to be a large market and likely would not have helped to produce the game. However, due to the low cost of publishing, it suddenly has become feasible. There are more games in the Play Store by an order of magnitude because of the low barrier to entry.

Digital Stores

Indie games have become a big part of ensuring players return to the store every week to find new original games. While a AAA game may be a big deal every quarter, it may not be enough to keep users’ interests. Having new indie games published each week may not generate as much revenue per game, but it is low risk to show them in the store and allow gamers to find new interesting content.

According to SteamSpy, the indie game Blackwake has about 80 thousand purchases. At $18 or $20 per game, without any unit cost, it can be called a successful game.

These indie games can also place faith in these online stores. Where should a game studio sell their game? Why would Steam be better than any other? By encouraging more indie developers to submit their games, it gives larger developers the assurance that the store will see a number of consumers. The same is true for Google Play, which is pre-installed on Android devices and Android TV. If my game is in the store, it gives users an easy way to purchase it. Games that are featured will be visible by millions of potential players.

Game Dev Today, and Tomorrow

As game development becomes easier, thanks to levels of abstractions, a game can be made by a single person. With lower barriers to entry, expect to see more indie games get published. Not all of them will be games. Some will be highly experimental or low quality. However, with enough, there will be gems that capture the imagination of its players.

The Indie Corner on Google Play contains a number of games, some of which work on Android TV. Causality, for example, has gotten thousands of downloads. With the new sales feature available for developers, it is easier than ever for you to publish your own game.

Developer: Loju
Price: $1.99

Nick Felker

Nick Felker

Nick Felker is a student Electrical & Computer Engineering student at Rowan University (C/O 2017) and the student IEEE webmaster. When he's not studying, he is a software developer for the web and Android (Felker Tech). He has several open source projects on GitHub (http://github.com/fleker) Devices: Moto G-2013 Moto G-2015, Moto 360, Google ADT-1, Nexus 7-2013 (x2), Lenovo Laptop, Custom Desktop. Although he was an intern at Google, the content of this blog is entirely independent and his own thoughts.

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