Microsoft came out of this year's E3 with its share of scrapes and bruises. Of the various announcements the company made regarding its upcoming Xbox One console, one that failed to materialize was any sort of coherent policy on independent game publishing.
The Xbox platform has always required small developers to either align themselves with Microsoft Game Studios or an established third-party publisher in order to get their games onto Xbox LIVE. In the age of digital distribution and independent artists self-publishing across nearly every entertainment medium (perhaps most notably Apple's iTunes Store), the policy has become increasingly archaic.
And where Sony's messaging at E3 was clear – indie developers would be able to self-publish on PlayStation 4 using readily available development kits – Microsoft was curiously silent on the issue, aside from some vague rhetoric about supporting indie game developers. The company has finally begun to release details of its plans, and the news appears to be good.
"Our vision is that every person can be a creator," Xbox corporate VP Marc Whitten said in a statement. "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 Gamescon in August."
On paper, at least, Microsoft appears to be leapfrogging past Sony. Xbox One will match PS4's self-publishing policy while doing away with the longstanding barrier of development kits – expensive, tightly-monitored hardware that Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft have required all studios to purchase in order to publish on their respective platforms. Now anyone will be able to buy an off-the-shelf Xbox One, connect it to their PC, and both develop and publish games for it.
E3 was widely considered a clear victory for Sony, in large part because of policies Microsoft announced at the show: namely, that Xbox One would require an Internet connection to play offline games (or an online check-in every 24 hours), and essentially restrict used game sales and trading. Since the resulting PR fallout, the company has done a complete 180, doing away with its Internet requirements and used game restrictions. Earlier this month, it was confirmed that the head of Microsoft's Xbox division, Don Mattrick, was leaving Microsoft to join social game company Zynga as CEO.
This most recent announcement would appear to be yet another instance of damage control, but Microsoft's Whitten insists that this was in fact the company's vision all along, and that the console was specifically designed to allow for this functionality. Important to note, however, is that using an Xbox One as a devkit will not be possible at launch, nor will self-publishing – facts that would seem to imply some sort of late-game wrangling on Microsoft's part. Other significant details, like how the Xbox Live Marketplace will be curated and structured, will be announced at Gamescon in Germany next month.
Regardless, the move appears to be a step in the right direction for Microsoft, and one that will help redirect the rather gloomy narrative that has followed the console since it was first announced in May. It also represents yet another example of game consoles opening up by removing barriers to entry and experimentation – to in some sense become more like home computers and mobile devices that threaten to make them obsolete. Behold the glacially slow, metaphorical unclenching of the corporate console fist.