A recent keynote at the Develop conference by Hello Games’ Sean Murray cast a harsh light on the realities of publishing downloadable games on home consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Nintendo’s WiiWare Channel. He purports that self-published games like his recently-released critical darling Joe Danger (which sold 50,000 units week one on PSN) are both more successful and more profitable than those of major studios.
Arguably the most popular digital download channel, Apple’s App Store offers an extremely low barrier to entry – just $99 for a dev-kit and a revamped review process that sees new apps approved or denied in as little as three days. While a few iPhone gaming giants have emerged, there’s still plenty of room for a basement programmer to strike it rich (or at least make the “What’s Hot” list). In contrast, console gaming depends on the distribution models established decades ago by the book publishing industry. In order to get a disk-based game into players’ living rooms, developers must partner with a publisher who sets up the distribution (including dubious deeds like retailer exclusives). Self-publishing a game with a box and a manual is borderline impossible. But even when it comes to the zeroes and ones that comprise downloadable games, Murray perceives major developers as more of a burden than an asset to young development studios. According to his research, casual card, puzzle and word games make up 31% of the offerings on console download services but less than 5% percent of the sales. This flies in the face of the notion that casual players fuel the download market. In fact, it’s the long-time, hardcore gamers that are driving downloadable game sales, as evidenced by the top three selling XBLA games of 2009 (multiplayer-only FPS Battlefield 1943, oldschool-inspired beat-‘em-up Castle Crashers, and controller-crushingly difficult dirt bike platformer Trials HD). While the EA-published Battlefield may owe part of its success to the series’ long history, the other two titles were created (and published) by tiny development teams.
Murray argues that big publishers offer very little to developers in the downloadable games market, and this stems from both lack of experience and lack of effort or interest. As he puts it, the person in charge of the digital download services at most publishers “is not necessarily the biggest deal for the overall structure of the publisher.” For the time being, Joe Danger is exclusive to PSN – Sony makes their development tools readily accessible, unlike Microsoft and Nintendo. As a passive rebuttal to the PSN Store, Microsoft created the Xbox Live Indie Games channel (née Xbox Live Community Games), and while it’s relatively easy to get a title published there, the games are incredibly difficult to locate, let alone market and promote to fans.
So what’s a developer to do? For PlayStation games like Murray’s Joe Danger, the money saved through self-publishing could be spent on a high-caliber PR agency (ahem) to spread the word and boost downloads. For a game destined for XBLA or WiiWare, write your local congressperson! And be patient. As consumers become more and more comfortable keeping their entertainment in the cloud, the move toward online stores will pressure companies like Microsoft and Nintendo to revise their strategy.
There’s one other major stumbling block – NPD sales data for downloadable games is between difficult and impossible to obtain. As a result, publishers can’t use existing titles as a reference point to gauge the risk and potential profit of developing a new game. If the console giants would relinquish this information and break down other barriers to entry, publishers both great and small could bring more creatively adventurous titles to market. With this capitalistic system, gamers would enjoy all types of new options, from big-screen versions of the $.99 bite-size games that dominate the App Store to $30 small entrées that don’t fit the current pricing/distribution mold. With vibrant, fun-focused games like Joe Danger, the reign of the murky brown über -macho FPS may be coming to a close. It’s simply up to us, as the nerdy masses, to e-vote with our digital wallets.