Question Block : Xbox One and Going Indie

Welcome to this edition of Question Block. As always, send your questions to rdonaldson@vfs.com or post them in the Comments section below. Thanks for reading!

 

Why do you think so many people are upset with Microsoft’s announcement of Xbox One?

In general, I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Scattered and confusing messaging;
  2. Disappointing business and design decisions.

Leading up to the event, there were rumors swirling. Microsoft responded in various ways, generally just creating more confusion. The announcement event could have gone a long way to clearing up some of these concerns, but unfortunately just served to fan the flames among most gamers.

Always On. Sometimes On? Once a day On? Huh?

Perhaps the biggest backlash has been around the ‘always on’ requirement. Although this was one of the top issues on gamers’ minds before the reveal, Microsoft ignored the point entirely during the conference. When journalists asked executives point blank following the conference, Microsoft’s messaging was all over the map. Some said it was absolutely untrue, others said it required a connection once every 24 hours, and still others said that the requirement was up to third party developers. This served to make matters worse, leaving gamers feeling that at best the console required a connection once a day to play even single-player games. In any case, this kind of roughshod communication is disappointing from such a revered company as Microsoft.

All Used Up

The second biggest issue revolves around used games. On every previous console, gamers have been able to lend games to friends, sell them secondhand, or take them for trade-in to popular stores like EB Games, GameStop, and even Best Buy. For some players, this is the only way they can afford to buy a new game: get a $30 credit for the last game they bought, and apply it to the $60 price tag on the new game they want. Microsoft announced that games will need to be installed to the Xbox One hard drive. Once installed, the game will be locked to that particular account. If you were to lend that game to a friend, your friend would simply be given the option to purchase the game – the disc would be a coaster to anyone but you. There’s a system that lets you play the game if you, the owner, are at a friend’s house, but only if you’re signed in with your profile. If we look at the messaging around this issue, again the water was muddy, with comments to the effect that Microsoft is still investigating different approaches.

Watch It

We’ve all known that Microsoft wanted to make a big play for the center of the living room for some time now. But we didn’t expect them to push games to the backseat. Now that they’ve held their E3 press conference, we’ve seen a taste of the games they have in store, which should alleviate some of the pain. But gamers should still be concerned about the balance of Microsoft’s efforts on the games vs. TV front. Personally, I don’t think Microsoft has a shot at winning the living room. If you look at most peoples’ living rooms, Sony is actually in a better position, already supplying many of the TVs, stereos, and Blu-Ray/DVD players around. I think it’s more likely that the mainstream would buy a Sony product as a living room hub than an Xbox One. Does that mean I think Sony will win (or even really try to fight in) the war for the living room? My answer is no, but that topic is better left for another day…

Xbox ONE, with mandatory Kinect.

Dis-Kinect-ed from Gamers

I’m personally not a big fan of Kinect, so perhaps this flavors my impression here. From a business perspective, I can understand Microsoft’s original decision to jump on the motion control bandwagon during the Wii’s heyday. Not that I think it was a good decision, mind you, but it was a fairly predictable big corporation ‘me-too’ move. What I couldn’t understand was that after seeing the lackluster performance of the PS Move, Wii U, and even their own Kinect, that Microsoft not only bothered to continue with the Kinect, but they are actually making it mandatory. It will ship with every Xbox One and defaults to On. In the days following the announcement, people were already talking of 1984 and coining the term Spybox. With this technology comes a worry that we’ll start to be charged movie rentals based on the number of viewers Kinect sees in our living rooms. Or that we’ll see McDonald’s ads on the Xbox Dashboard when Kinect hears us say we’re hungry. Welcome to the future?

Walled Garden

With plenty of new self-publishing options for developers (both indie and non), and more opportunity than ever to seek alternative funding, many were hoping that Microsoft and Sony would break down the walls of the garden and allow developers to self-publish. Well, one company listened. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Microsoft. This decision could have longer-term impacts on where gamers go for original content and to support the growing indie movement. It’s arguably another example of big company old economy thinking.

Xbox One Big Mess?

With the company’s recent E3 press conference, we’ve started to see more of Microsoft’s plans on the game front. I’m excited, but the decisions outlined above still worry me. I kind of feel like Indiana Jones at the beginning of the first movie. I’m staring at the idol, but with its hefty price tag of USD $499, I think I’ll need to see what happens between now and its November launch to decide if it’s worth the risk.

Sony pounces on Microsoft’s unpopular approach to used games on Xbox One.

Sony has clearly been following the gaming press and forums, pulling no punches during its E3 press conference. Directly calling out that the PS4 will not require an internet connection to play most games, used games will be fully supported with no console or account locking, and a focus squarely on games. To top it all off, Sony really threw down, knocking a full $100 off the Xbox One’s price, marking the PS4 with a launch price of USD $399.

Many are already calling Sony the winner of this upcoming console war. I think it’s still too early to tell, but from a gamer’s perspective I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft sure seems to have lost round ONE.

 

If you are thinking of ‘going Indie’ or starting your own studio, what are the most important things you should look into or do first?

You should take the Business of Games course at VFS Game Design! Okay, self-promotion aside, here are a few things I would recommend as first steps. There are many steps after these, and going indie is extremely challenging, but it can be incredibly rewarding!

First, you need to have an idea worth pursuing. As creative people, we tend to have plenty of ideas all the time. But what are the ideas that have stuck with you for a long time? Those ideas you just can’t shake. A persistent idea isn’t necessarily a good one, but if you keep coming back to it, it shows a certain dedication to it on your part, and you’ll need that dedication to complete your vision. And assuming you want to create an ongoing studio, make sure you know how your game will make money! I’ve heard so many game concepts that sound cool but just wouldn’t reach a big enough market to make money, or free to play ideas that have no clear monetization component. Be sure you know how you will pay the bills!

Rovio’s Angry Birds has spawned an IP empire. What’s your great idea?

Second, you need the right team. There are a few people who have all of the skills needed to execute on their own, but it’s rare and they’ll probably take forever to get their games out. Be sure you round out your team with people who have the technical skills needed to perform the work, but more important than technical skill is your ability to work together. And the number one thing you will need in order to work well together is trust. This is especially true if your team members will be co-founders (people who own shares in the company at its inception). You need to trust these people with your life. Be sure you know them inside and out. Countless companies are destroyed by problems between founders. In an indie studio, you will probably be spending more time with your team than your significant other, and it will be almost impossible to dump your business partners if things aren’t working out, so think long and hard about who you really want to involve at that level.

Thirdly, get organized. Don’t spend time writing a 50-page business plan, but do a short one. Understand the purpose of your studio, figure out your expenses and revenues for the next year or two. Think about how you will market and promote your game, and how much money you will need to do so. Figure out where you will sell your game, and if it’s a service that requires approval, what is your backup if your game doesn’t make the cut? Create a production plan and make sure someone on your team will fill the role of producer to make sure you all get your tasks done. Share your plans and your game ideas with others you trust to get their feedback. Try to find people who have succeeded in doing what you are setting out to do, and see if they’ll be your mentors or advisors – and if they’re really valuable, give them a slice of the pie if need be!

Take the time to really figure out what will make your studio and your games special.

Of course, you’ll need to make sure you get incorporated properly, in which case you may need to pay for a lawyer’s help. You will also want to find an accountant to help with keeping your financial books in order and preparing your taxes at the end of the year.

And now the fourth and most important step: Start! It’s important to plan so you know where you’re going, but don’t get stuck in that state. You need to grit your teeth, stack your hands in the middle for an awesomely dramatic team rally cry, and jump in with both feet. Don’t flinch. Keep pushing forward. You will make mistakes. You will succeed; you will fail. There will be times you’ll want to quit, but push through those times. There will be times you’ll want to celebrate – do it (but don’t spend all your cash!). It will be a crazy ride, but you’ll be glad you took it.


Ryan Donaldson teaches the Business of Games course at VFS