The Indie Gold Rush

I'm pleased to see that Microsoft are living up to their pre-release promise of making the XBox360 "your machine" with the new XNA/Creator's Club dealies. For the last year, the console has felt as closed as any other... even more exclusive to developers than platforms that were supposed to be closed - the PSP, for example.

Opening up any console sees a platform holder walking a narrow line. On the one hand, you'll gain a more avid user base, projects of great imagination undiluted by the mitigating forces of investors/publishers/marketers/crackpots, and utilities that make the console more than just a games console - take the XBox Media Center program, which allowed you to stream just about any type of content off a networked PC, or off the XBox hard drive.

On the other hand, you're opening up all kinds of legal shenanigans - modifiable content undermining ESRB ratings (good grief), pirated software, hacks, exploits, enabling the piracy of games, music, and films - take the XBox Media Center program, which allowed you to stream just about any type of content (obtained legally or no) off a networked PC, or off the XBox hard drive.

As Xbox Media Center demonstrates so perfectly, the opening up of a console, while a boon for the consumer, is a legal mine field for the platform holders. When the hardware they've designed so thoroughly to be a legal platform for media (to satisfy professional content creators worried about piracy) is undermined by the hobbyist, they become obliged to do their best to stamp out illegal use - endless PSP patches are a testament. (Tangent: Every PSP game I've bought has had the requirement of an incremental update to the firmware. As a result, my "first play" experience has always been sullied by the process of charging up the PSP so that it has enough juice to safely install, and then the install itself, and then the restart, and the re-entering of clock times and such).

With this in mind, any move to open up a console should, in my view, be applauded - it takes quite an effort for the platform holder to accept the bad with the good.

Microsoft are trying to find a happy middle ground between the Explicit Openness, and Bullet-Proof Closed-ness by creating a kind of "containment area" for open developers - the "Creator's Club". Developers who sign on (and pay) for this service will be placed along side peers, and will have a similar level of access to the console's workings as a real developer would (minus a few key areas: distribution and networking being the main two).

While this is a good step forward, this means that there's never going to be an easy way to distribute new software to average-joe XBox 360 users (which puts a stop to the mass proliferation Media Center equivalent programs (sadface)), but the cream of the crop (the legal crop, that is) may be picked up, polished, and presented to the masses - possibly through the existing online marketplace, or as part of updates in extenuating circumstances. Microsoft become the arbiter of quality and legality. It's not too much to ask, I think, on their own damn console.

Distribution of these open projects is an interesting matter:

    Q: How exactly can I share my 360 game to other 360 users? Will my game only be available to people with the XNA "Creators Club" subscription? Will it be available to all 360 users that have an XBox Live account?
    A: There is currently no supported way to share binaries on the XBox 360. Currently, there are four requirements that must be met in order to share a game targeting XBox 360 which is developed with XNA Game Studio Express.
    1. The individual you are planning to share the game with must be logged in to XBox Live and have an active subscription to the XNA Creators Club
    2. The receiving user must have downloaded the XNA Framework runtime environment for the XBox 360
    3. The receiving user must have XNA Game Studio Express installed on their own development PC
    4. The game project, including all source and content assets, must be shared with the receiving user. The receiving user then compiles and deploys the game to their XBox 360.

(Source: XboxScene)

In other words, distribution for use on the 360 itself implicitly requires you to be open source: forced sharing. This should have a lot of interesting trickle down effects - Microsoft may see interesting techniques and solutions come up in the "Creator's Club", and start pointing professional outfits to them. In the same way, open-spirited indie developers can happily share knowledge between each other, creating a collaborative community spirit. There will inevitably be "leecher" accounts - those that get in on the creator's club to reap the benefits of custom code jobs, but provide little in the way of input. You also open the door to hackers and crackers who will endlessly probe possible flaws in the SDK, looking for a way to gain greater access to the system. Microsoft can also take a fine tooth comb to anything you want to submit as a professional piece of work, making sure that no damaging exploits or illegally gained libraries etc. are built into the code (assuming they can spare the resources to do this).

Since everything using XNA should implicitly work on the PC, it may be that a game's popularity in the existing PC indie scene is the only thing that gains it MS's attention - a diamond in the rough, lost in all the noise. This grass roots popularity could be the single thing pushing some indie games over into XBLA - (not that popular opinion is always the right way to go).

Is this a happy compromise between the totally open and the totally closed? Time will tell. To me, it seems like a bubble of chaos: internally free, but ultimately restrained (or as friend Mike Nowak suggests: "Closed Open Source"). It'll be interesting to see what happens when the bubble (almost inevitably) bursts, and development becomes unconstrained. Will we see illegally distributed programs on Joe Gamer accounts? Will MS feel the need to deal with a clean up which actually benefits the consumer? Could they not, in fact, claim that such a clean up is an impossible task, while watching word of mouth spread about hardware sales increase? And in the same way, if a game has to rely on grass roots popularity in the PC sector, won't the pirates have already distributed the game to the masses, rendering an XBLA version (somewhat) redundant?

These questions come from my paranoid side. I have a countering feeling (from my GUT) that everything's going to be alright. Optimism: If determinism is to be believed, then the lay of the world is the only way the world can be, and thus, is simultaneously the best and worst possibility thrown up by the universe.

It has been clear for years that the publishers' race for blockbuster revenue (earned by a meager number of titles each year) has by now created a flood plain. Over saturation within genres (and franchise fatigue), increasing budgets (leading to) constrained innovation and burned out workers have created a desire for the polar opposite: sustainable, low budget, innovative crews of indie developers. These crews are springing up to harvest the gaps between the big budget blockbusters. Introversion call themselves "The Last of the Bedroom Coders". Personally, I think it's more a case of "The return of...".

I believe that we are past the brink of an Indie Gold Rush. I believe that it has already begun. So rejoice! But pay heed my brothers: If history is anything to go by, then it is not the prospector who will win out. Instead, it is man who sells the shovels.

Then again, regardless of all attempts to funnel them into some kind of neatly structured, harvestable form, indies in all fields thrive in the cracks between identifyable structure. They exist despite a conventional industry, not because of it.

Let me link Naked War to examplify the Pickford Brothers, who are repeatedly proving this point.

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