Another week, another Microsoft u-turn, maybe even two if the rumours are true about the Redmond company readying a Kinect-less console for Summer 2014 at a price that will undercut the PS3. But today is all about indie games. There was to be no self-publishing on Xbox One, we were all told, preparing ourselves for another generation of Microsoft exacting an extra firm grip on the gateway for developers wanting to publish on their platform. The reasoning has always been that a high, expensive bar with backing from an established name means that only wheat will arrive on XBLA, with the chaff remaining to push their noses up against the digital window.
But we live in an age of Steam and Android and iOS, of variable price points across diverse range of digital platforms. Microsoft can scarce afford to be so naive and conservative when it comes to their digital offerings. As we have already seen, the talent will simply go elsewhere.
But after performing a hilariously clunky 180-degree turn when it came to DRM and daily online requirements, it would appear that Microsoft have listened to the outpouring of developer discontent. It was forged in the media, of course, a long line of established names such as Retro City Rampage's Brian Provinciano, Jonathan Blow, and (perhaps most damningly) Lorne Lanning souding off against the Xbox One. Sony welcomed us with open arms, came the message, but Microsoft didn't want us.
There's previous beef there, and Provinciano in particular holds a serious grudge (though not without reason) when it comes to Microsoft, but that message has been destructive, and Microsoft have been unable to respond sufficiently. Moreover, when the company has moved to do something positive, the good news has been whisked away from underneath them, stolen by sources who've leaked the news eagerly and not allowed Microsoft to savour their own thunder.
Under the new directive, developers can set their own release dates and pricing, which should make the erratic nature of Xbox Live releases less problematic for creators who want to handle their own marketing.
Additionally, we have learned that Microsoft is drastically overhauling its certification process. The company will use a model similar to iTunes and is targeting a 14-day turnaround for an approvals. Instead of extensive code checking, the company will be looking for terms of service violations and significant bugs.
We've berated Microsoft for their failure to communicate properly and they must have been seething at this leak. But where the Redmond company might have previously waiting, silently pouting as the internet went nuts, Marc Whitten issued a statement within 24 hours to confirm and clarify the situation.
"Our vision is that every person can be a creator," he said. "That every Xbox One can be used for development. That every game and experience can take advantage of all of the features of Xbox One and Xbox LIVE. This means self-publishing. This means Kinect, the cloud, achievements. This means great discoverability on Xbox LIVE. We'll have more details on the program and the timeline at gamescom in August."
Let's make no bones about it: this is good news. And it's hard not to feel a little sorry for Microsoft that they weren't able to make this announcement originally for themselves. There have been snide remarks and the usual jeers in the wake of the announcement, and there are still many questions yet to be answered, but it's good to see a company responding to feedback. Mind you, let's not pretend that this has been an overnight thing. We've been clamouring for indie news ever since Microsoft announced that they were shutting down the XNA programme. Moreover, let's not pretending that this is the final destination, for as many have stated, the Windows 8 App store, which is essentially what Microsoft are currently toting, is not exactly the altruistic beacon of open development and creative optimism that Microsoft would like us to think that it is.
Provinciano has already spoken out about it, imploring consumers to note that there are "still strings attached":
"I'm very happy to see this. After all of the developers have spoken out, they're finally listening,” he told Engadget. “However, this is yet another example of them changing policy, but it sounding better than it is when the whole story is revealed. Make no mistake; while this is a great thing, it's again not the equivalent to what other platforms offer.
“On PS4, for example, developers can tap right into the system; use every bit of RAM and all of its power. Indies have access to everything that the triple-A studios do, from platform support to development and release. The indication on Xbox One is that it's essentially XBLIG 2.0. Instead of XNA, it's Windows 8. Windows 8, which is already struggling to gain developer interest, will gain a boost from developers wishing to target the console. However, it won't be as full-fledged as published games on the system.
“After my experience working with them to release on Xbox 360, I have no interest in even buying an Xbox One, let alone developing for it. The policy changes are great, but they don't undo the experience I had. I'm not ready to forget what I went through. Working with Microsoft was the unhappiest point of my career. Policies are one thing, but developer relations are another.
“It's important to me that consumers don't see things as black and white. There are still strings attached to this policy change."
Indeed, much of the reaction thus far has been one of caution. With Young Horse (Octodad) and Pocketwatch (Monaco) both offering up a "wait and see" attitude to the news, though Vlambeer's Rami Ismail has pointed out that "anything is better than nothing".
It's definitely a good step, but it would be churlish to think that this is all that it's going to take. In a statement to Dealspwn today, Stealth Inc. developers Curve Studios highlighted the positives of the news, but said that there was still much work to be done.
"In general, it's awesome news," said Curve Studios' Rob Clarke told our very own Jonathan Lester. "We've been pretty vocal about Microsoft in the past on Twitter and in interviews. We don't do that because we have a grudge against them though, we do it because we hope that if developers highlight problems then as a group we can help change attitudes.
"There's not enough details right now to say whether this is going to be a game changer, but it highlights an attitude change at Microsoft and we see it of as acknowledgement of support for indie games that was sorely missing at E3."
Microsoft have pointed towards Gamescom, saying that much more will be revealed there. In the wake of this morning's swift statement squashing the Kinect-less console rumour, dare we say it, it seems as though Microsoft are finally waking up to the importance of taking control of their own public perception and actually doing some PR. If they can maintain this swift, decisive action in response to leaks and rumours and wrestle back some semblance of competency, then Gamescom could, could provide something of a clean slate for them.
But with regard to today's news, we need answers to questions on whether or not developers will be tied into exclusivity agreements should they decide to self-publish. There are questions surrounding the implementation of the service on the UI: how visible will these games be? What will Microsoft be doing to promote their indie marketplace? What of revenue sharing, too? Whitten gave a vague statement to say that Microsoft are approaching the matter "generally like we think about Marketplace today." As it stands, that means something like a 50-50 split. And then of course there are still a few little queries to be made about the certification process, and the ease of access to one's own game. Microsoft have already announced that they're shifting things around where certification is concerned, but we need more info.
What this does do, however, is make the Xbox One a more intriguing prospect. Many will have already slapped down their deposit for PS4 and won't be looking back, and as Provinciano says, for many Microsoft will have cocked up a few too many times for this move to make any real difference. But for us, it's a ste in the right direction. You have our attention, Microsoft, and this time for the right reasons. Time to use it.