Look on the bright side of the dark side

Yesterday, Costik posted about the dark side of digital distribution. Pointing out that Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo Virtual Console are the first steps toward a world where Game Stop and Wal-Mart lose most of their power in the game industry. Microsoft and Nintendo could use their new power in an all-download world to maintain tight control over the games that are available for their respective consoles. This is the world he fears might come:

If the manufacturers control distribution to their devices, they don’t have to be satisfied with $7. They can take basically whatever cut they like. Oh, they still have to ensure that publishers can make money, sometimes–but they can ensure that they themselves earn the lion’s share of whatever profits a title generates.

In other words, it’s possible that digital distribution, rather than freeing us from the problems of retail, will instead concentrate power even more heavily in the industry–concentrating it into the hands of the manufacturers. While this would be good for them, its a prospect that both developers and publishers should be scared about–and an outcome that could only serve to continue the field’s descent into mediocrity and imitation.

While this is a possibility it’s not the only one. Microsoft beat the crap out of Apple (and NeXT, Commodore, and countless other companies) by embracing the Windows development community. Microsoft makes the best development tools in the world, and gives a version of them away for free. If you don’t want to use their tools, they distribute the platform SDK for free and put all their API documentation on the web for anyone to use. They do the same thing for Windows CE and their other embedded operating systems.

Notably, Xbox development tools are absent from this list. Like all the other consoles, these are only available to registered developers who sign lengthy legal agreements and pony up big money for Dev kits. With XNA Studio they have opened up the Xbox 360 to developers who are willing to limited to C#. It also has no real mechanism for Xbox distribution short of distributing all your source code and assets to another member of the XNA Creators Club. They can then compile and run it locally.

These are obviously pretty severe restrictions, but I think the point the direction that Microsoft is headed with hobbyist 360 development. I expect them to announce a service that will enable XNA Creators Club members to share Xbox 360 executables with each other via XBLA within the year. By the end of 2008 I expect there to be a mechanism that allows club members to distribute games (and non-game Xbox applications) to non-members. Chances are that this system will let people sell their games on XBLA (with Microsoft taking a fairly hefty cut, of course.)

Microsoft isn’t doing all of this out of the goodness of their hearts, of course. They have decided that they want to own the living room, and the Xbox is their ticket into that market. However, unless they’ve forgotten the last 25 years of their own history, they aren’t going to shut out independent developers in the process. They rely on independent developers to develop everything between the small and ubiquitous utilities that they roll into the operating system and the massive application suites that they want to develop and market themselves. It’s these mid-sized products that really make the difference between Windows and MacOS as a platform, and it will be this same size of application that Microsoft can use to finish killing off Sony and start in on Nintendo.

That’s pretty good news if you can be one of those mid-sized products. And most games are firmly in that category.


3 Responses to “Look on the bright side of the dark side”

  1. Rich Bryant thought on :

    Absolutely. Also expect a Wii-mote gadget before too long ;)

    MS play catch-up better than anyone.

  2. Joe commented on :

    They certainly see no shame in simply building their own bizarro version of products that are doing well. See the Zune. :)

  3. Rich Bryant said on :

    Not to mention C# for Java.

    Although C# i a considerable improvement of java from the language purity point of view.