Originally Posted by The GuardianWith the PlayStation 4 already out in North America and the Xbox One arriving in major territories on Friday, the console war has begun. But what does that even mean in this age of smartphones, cheap gaming PCs and Steam Machines? And will it all lead to more interesting games?
To find out, we spoke to a group who have been at the very centre of the next-gen publicity skirmish: indie developers. While in the past, console manufacturers fought to sign exclusive deals with huge Triple-A publishers, the success of the indie sector has focused attention on smaller offbeat studios. Here, Sony and Microsoft hope to find projects that can be grown cheaply, from tiny operations to major franchises. Everyone wants the next Minecraft.
Joining me for this discussion are:
Adam Saltsman: Creator of formative 'endless running' game Canabalt, as well as smartphone puzzler and intriguing new tunnel/puzzle game, Grave.
Dan Marshall: UK indie responsible for comedic adventure Ben There, Dan That and brilliant PC shooter Gun Monkeys.
Caspar Field: Ex-Edge Magazine writer, now game developer and co-founder of Brighton-based Wish Studios, working on unannounced projects.
Brian Provinciano: Creator of excellent GTA parody, Retro City Rampage, now working on unannounced new titles.
Byron Atkinson-Jones: UK industry veteran, ex-Lionhead, EA and Sega, now founder of Xiotex Studios.
Massimo Guarini: Ex-Platinum Games, now co-founder of Ovosonico, currently working on much-anticipated PlayStation title, Murasaki Baby.
Martin Hollis: Ex-Rare designer and co-creator of Goldeneye, now working on smaller indie projects.
So what do you think about the next-gen console 'war' so far? How do you think the machines have been positioned?
Dan Marshall: Oh, isn't it tedious? Wouldn't it be just lovely if one of them had the balls to just stand up and say, "yeah, their bit of kit looks pretty sweet, I'm sure several people will get a kick out of it" and just be a little bit more grown-up about it all? Instead it feels like everyone is involved in this constant pointless sniping and awful back-and-forth and it all just comes across as really juvenile.
The consoles look great! The games look great! It would be amazing to be able to relish the moment and wallow in some exciting new technology and upcoming entertainment, but unfortunately it's all coming loaded with all this woolly, drab bullshit around it.
Adam Saltsman: From inside the weird and cozy indie bubble it sure feels like Sony is "winning" to me, but I am not really sure whether that is even remotely an accurate taking of temperature of what's going on in the real world. The weird thing is that when it comes down to it, I'm pretty hard pressed to point out any substantial differences at all between the XBox One and the PS4, but I think there are a lot of small things that Sony is doing that are adding up, and I think the Steamboxes are going to take a bite out of Xbox's pie too, especially on the hardcore gamer end of the spectrum.
I keep saying this, and I am sure I will regret it in a year, but I think Sony is going to completely dominate the the sort of "living room console" space, but NOT with the PS4. They'll do it with the Vita TV. I think it's going to be the second coming of the PS2, basically, especially if they can beef up their basic PSN services a bit. But, to be totally clear, I am a guy who doesn't get out much and lives in a strange game-making world of his own imagination, so take all this with a grain of salt the size and color of a 1980s VCR
Brian Provinciano: From what I've heard with retailer murmurs, the PS4's still ahead. In fact, there's a game store here having a midnight launch for PS4 but not Xbox One due to low preorders. I'm not shy to admit that I'm rooting for the PS4, but Microsoft's putting a lot of money into marketing.
Massimo Guarini: I think Sony has an undeniable advantage, and not for the hardware or the technical specs of the console itself, but for the way it managed to establish meaningful relationships with new creators and new development studios. Sony is not just shopping around for new games, they truly believe in what they're buying into.
Caspar Field: With Nintendo now clearly in another market segment, this is a phoney war, and I think both PS4 and Xbox One will sell well. Sony has positioned PS4 as the more exciting contender, and I love that, because it is back to the roots of the PlayStation brand edgy, developer-focused, and a home for innovative gameplay.
Byron Atkinson-Jones: In previous generations, the so-called console war was quite clearly defined but this time it's less so. The technology leap is not that great, so this time it's more about services and as such the target market is a bit vague. Is the Xbox One aimed at gamers or the TV market? Microsoft is branching out and making the Xbox One a broader entertainment device rather than just a games console. PS4 is the only console that appears to actually be aimed at the gamer and this could have implications on its survival beyond this current iteration.
Martin Hollis: Sony and Microsoft have engineered good machines, but they represent the most uninspiring next-generation ever. As a game creator, I find Xbox One and PlayStation about as exciting as washing machines. For clarity, I am not a fan of washing machines. I do not cherish a hitherto secret penchant for white goods, although I understand and appreciate that they perform an important service to us all.
Do you see in the architecture of these consoles or in features like motion control or cloud computing any interesting new prospects for game design?
AS: I really, really, really don't think so. I hope I'm wrong and somebody makes something so obviously amazing like Wii Sports that I change my mind, but there are some significant obstacles to making that happen.
DM: I think Steam's controller is probably the most exciting bit of tech, does that count? It seems to me to be a kind of evolutionary leap, taking everything that's ace about controllers and really doing something different with it for the betterment of playing games.
CF: I love the Share button on the PS4's controller what a statement of intent! On the Xbox side, I produced Kinect Nat Geo TV for the 360, and so am super interested in the potential of the new Kinect and that it ships with every single One. Our studio, Wish, is all about games that bring people together, and so both of those features are right up our street.
BP: The development tools are much better, which makes developing games easier, which means we can focus on the game itself and are less detracted by battling technical issues. That's the biggest thing. The PS4's controller does indeed also have some features which could create cool game experiences. I've seen demos which use the shake, touch, vibration and speaker together to great effect, even to me, someone content with standard controllers experiences. It all needs to make sense for the game though. For example, doing the 3DS port of Retro City Rampage, I explored potential touch screen additions to the existing game by prototyping new aiming methods, shooting methods, HUD features and so forth. Some worked well, some didn't. Those which didn't, I'm leaving out of the final version. It's important to think clearly about whether or not a new feature truly adds something to your specific game experience or not.
BAJ: The architecture of the PS4 is the most exciting to me. Not because it's revolutionary, but because for once Sony appears to have not gone done the deliberately obscure hardware route and has instead adopted a more conventional PC-based system. Having worked on all the Sony platforms to date, this is going to make a refreshing change less pain medication required as you struggle to make the best use out of the hardware. It should also lessen the impact of trying to make cross-platform games.
Also, I really like the idea of exploring different ways of interacting with games rather than just the usual joypads. It also possibly opens up the market to a lot more than just the usual gamers. When the Wii came out, my parents came over to visit and saw us playing Wii Sports. That afternoon they went out to buy a Wii for themselves, which was incredible because they are not gamers at all and always viewed them as a waste of time. I can see my 92-year-old father-in-law being able to control a game with voice controls more than I can a joypad. We not only have a possibility to come up with imaginative ways to control games, but also open them up to a wider audience that maybe don't have the capability to use the current methods. If anything I'd like to see even more diversity in controls such as eye tracking.
MG: Game design has nothing to do with the hardware in my opinion. When coming up with a new concept, I never think of the console the game will run on. In my experience, the quality of the game is never dictated by the capabilities of the machines, even though it is undeniable that some new features or technologies may lead to new ideas and of course even new constraints, which are always good for creativity.
Technology for me is a transparent tool. Cloud or not, persistent or not, a bad game is just a bad game. New technologies, and the media buzz associated with them, has the magical power to turn any mediocre/bad game into some must-buy masterpiece just because everyone is so excited about the technology itself. You see, I hate it when I feel our industry is still so dependent on and chronically attached to technology. It is obviously understandable because of its very nature; nevertheless, think about how much more focused on content quality everybody would be if they were not to deal with new gadgets every month or so.
DM: I maintain that motion controllers are brilliant tools that could really enhance game experiences if used properly. You could detect if a player is frustrated, or tired, or if their partner has suddenly started talking over an important cutscene. You could custom build content based on their body language, or react to how they're playing the game! Instead, all we've seen so far is waving and waggling, and that's not for me. I'd love to see the tech used in a clever way.
MH: I sometimes suspect Microsoft are targeting their machine at television executives who like dogs, and who think there should be a CCTV in every living room. It is an aggressive strategy to make the living room soluble and transparent to 21st-century panopticism.
Sony's positioning is more conservative, lacking the complete embrace of the possibilities of the internet, information flow and surveillance, but it continues to represent Trojan horse strategy and is '360-degree commissioning' friendly.
But the idea of the cloud as a venue for persistent online worlds is quite interesting, no? That could have a genuine impact on design
BAJ: The idea of the cloud technology is the one thing that does excite me about the next generation and was the primary reason I was looking forward to working on the Xbox One. To have some kind of technology in place that allows me as a developer to create huge persistent worlds gets the creative juices flowing and I have lots of game ideas for it. In reality though, as a coder I'd want to know just what's involved in it and are there extra costs i.e. do you have to rent that processing power like you do with Amazon EC2?
CF: I've long wanted to build a completely 'drop-in' game world, where AI characters can be possessed, Matrix-style, by human players, at any time. We talked about doing it when I was working at a publisher back in 2006, with a title we were thinking about building. So yeah, I would love to experience that kind of game, and all the crazy ambiguity about identity that it might create.
DM: As someone who generally plays and loves single-player, story-driven games, the idea of persistent worlds kind of freaks me out a little bit. I'd have loved the idea when I was younger, some sort of persistent Elite or Batman world where you need to be there or it all goes to pot. These days eh, I don't like the idea of being penalised in a game because I've got to spend the weekend away from my console.
Why do you think indies have been courted so deliberately by both manufacturers? Is this a PR thing, or is there a genuine desire to support offbeat talent and ideas?
AS: That's a really good question. I think there are a lot of things going on here. I know there are people within both organisations that are deeply, emotionally passionate about weird games. Chris Charla, who is heading up ID@XBox, just loves this stuff. Nick Suttner, Zach Wood and other Sony staff on both sides of the Pacific I think have a genuine love of indie weirdness as well. There is definitely support from above that is really pure.
At the same time, there is a kind of practical, almost cynical benefit to indie games for these consoles I think it was someone from Sony who explained, maybe accidentally, that indie games were at least partially a way to release games more than a few times a year. If consoles were pure AAA right now, you'd rarely get anything new to play. Games take too long to make now, and cost too much. So being able to release a new indie game or a few new indie games every week or every month allows the consoles to kind of ugh continue serving their customers new products or whatever, in between the big holiday releases. So yeah, I think there are a lot of dynamics at play in these decisions. The good thing is that all this stuff seems to be serving independent developers really well right now, which I see as pretty win-win.
CF: I suspect that the whole 'supporting indies' thing started as a nice idea that someone at Sony thought of, to attract small developers back to console from mobile, and then it just fucking exploded in this huge game of PR ping pong. But hey, as an indie developer, I ain't complaining!
BP: I can say from my experience working with Nintendo, Sony and Valve that it's absolutely genuine. Dan Adelman of Nintendo, the whole PlayStation crew I work with, and those I work with at Valve are among the most genuine people in the industry. They live and breathe indie games and want to help indies succeed. Just as importantly, they've been warm and welcoming to me from the beginning, years before this big indie support movement, before my game had won awards, before I'd made a name for myself in the indie scene, and most of all, before it was even a topic in the press. Microsoft on the other hand, I've had a different experience with.
MG: I think this is the inevitable course of any entertainment industry. It already happened in movies. It is constantly happening in the music business. It's not a matter of genuine desire to support offbeat talent, it's rather the necessity to renew the offer, cater to an expanding audience, and renew the menu. New ideas are the vital blood of any market. And what we now call the "indies" is nothing but the new generation of creators that will redefine the market in the future. And this will happen for every generation. If I were a publisher with any sort of long-term agenda in the business, I would court those creators.
It seems the idea of social connectivity is big with the new machines the idea of getting friends to play together, rather than strangers on a vast public lobby. Do you think this has any ramifications for game design will multiplayer experiences change, or move on from endless death matches?
DM: Ha ha. Well I tried it with Gun Monkeys and it just didn't wash! The game was designed and set up to be played against friends, that you'd invite someone to play, meet up and play some rounds, but that was just too alien a concept. People want to swan onto a server at 3am and get a game with a complete stranger. If that is a movement the console manufacturers are after, I suspect there's a lot of work to be done changing the average gamer's mindset.
AS: I don't really see a huge shift coming there, but I think these social features could be huge for streaming, casting, e-sports, etc. I'm hoping and expecting to see that whole thing basically explode on home consoles and I'm really, really excited about it.
MG: I don't think social connectivity will radically change multiplayer experiences. People like to play with friends as well as with perfect strangers. One thing won't necessarily exclude the other. What I'm more worried about is that social gaming is proving to be the most anti-social form of gaming interaction ever experienced. The exhilarating beauty of LAN parties or split-screen multiplayer experiences lay in the fact you could actually interact with real people, in the same room, you could see their reactions, touch them, joke around and laugh.
Social connectivity brings all that into the virtual world, adds anonymity if you want it, turns you into a solitary person who believes they have thousands of friends. Technology is not always the right answer. Even though we have Facebook, who said I am not interested as a player to play with my buddies in a room? Well guess what, that's not trendy anymore. As an industry, we are sadly addicted to mutual exclusivity: a sort of immature teenage mind-set that has us believing there is no room for two different approaches in our business. Well this is probably the biggest mistake we could possibly do, paving the way to a bubble-prone economy where the only merit allowed is to be the first.
Is there mileage in this whole idea of, ugh, 'mingleplayer' - the integration of single and multiplayer modes (a la Destiny)?
AS: There's a lot that I'm looking forward to, though I'm not sure how much of it is truly next-gen, whatever that means. I think Titanfall looks like a blast. Like everyone else, I'm eagerly awaiting The Witness and Below, but also stuff like Galak-Z, Samurai Gunn, and the new Infamous, off the top of my head.
BAJ: From a technical point of view, I can imagine this being a bit of a pain to get right. Games will have to be built with this capability in right from the start. It will also affect the design. Could you imagine a really emotional scene and suddenly a friend pops in and says, "wotcha" it would be a bit of an anti-climax. Games would have to be made such that it doesn't matter if somebody pops in and out of a game. It should be interesting to see what people come up with.
BP: The biggest successes in regards to friends playing together seem to be asynchronous games, whereas, you don't play at the same time. We're often busy people and being able to play with our friends at our own pace opens the doors for more of us to end up playing together.
MG: I think this whole new "mingleplayer" thing is one of the most interesting and challenging approaches to online gaming ever conceived. Probably my favourite example of superbly executed mingleplayer is Journey. Mingleplayer is all about the experience and, as such, I believe we will definitely see more and more engaging examples of this approach in the new generation of games created by younger designers who couldn't care less about discussing the difference between single-player, multiplayer and mingleplayer.
With indies being enthusiastically approached by Sony and Microsoft, and lots of interesting smaller projects on the way, are you considering developing for the new consoles? What sort of thing?
AS: Yes, definitely, I am involved with multiple projects that I hope to see on the new consoles. This has never been true before (laughs).
BP: I've had a PS4 devkit for a long time, as well as Wii U. My next game will definitely be on PS4, PS Vita and Steam. I've done pre-production on a couple of new open-world titles, but am at a crossroads right now nailing down things such as the art direction, so it's very early.
BAJ: I'd love to develop for PS4, the sheer raw power of the beast really appeals to the tech geek in me. I want to make use of its virtual texture capability to create vast procedurally generated worlds, stuff I can't currently do with the hardware available to me now. I still want to make simple games, but I'd love to explore more emergent gameplay, which is what that power would allow me to do. Sure, I can kind of do it now, but only a few with very powerful machines could experience it. With a console, you know everybody is working from the same starting line and has the same hardware, so it allows you to be more creative without having to worry about supporting lesser hardware.
DM: I'm building my next game with consoles in mind, it'd be great to get it on them. There's something a bit magical and special about seeing your game running on a console, and the vast majority of indie games I've really enjoyed have been slumped on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon, I think indie games are really nicely placed for that setup.
Can consoles still survive in a rapidly changing business where smartphones, tablets and smart TVs, and now Steam Machines, are threatening?
AS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, name one video-game thing that died overnight. That said, yeah, I think both public and private perception that big powerful game consoles are still somehow the crux or core focus of videogames will go away over the next few years, but even with the Vita TV and iPad Whatever and Steamboxes, I don't see these cannibalising enough of the existing console audience to actually make these things go away. For a PS4 to make sense for Sony, I don't think it needs to sell 200m units or whatever. I don't really know the maths there though, maybe they will be ruined if they don't grow their audience by X% or whatever. I think it's crazy to count on that though.
CF: Consoles offer something no other platform can match - a stable piece of hardware that allows developers to maximise the effort spent on building great games. Relatively, Android is an absolute nightmare; PC is helped by Steam, but is still fiddly; and even iOS now has multiple OS versions, screen sizes and hardware specs to build for. So I think that it would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal for developers of these new, fixed platforms, both of which are backed by large, focused companies with a huge motivation to make their new hardware succeed.
BP: I really hope consoles survive. I'm a console gamer first, so I enjoy developing for them. The biggest risk comes from the decisions big publishers make and where they decide to put their money. We've already seen publishers swap their budgets previously used for XBLA titles to mobile titles. I admittedly stopped playing my DS once I got an iPhone. Despite preferring DS experiences, my iPhone was always with me and fit nicely in my pocket. It was pure convenience. However, once I got my PS Vita, I've almost entirely stopped playing iPhone games. The experience is so much better. It makes it worth it to carry the larger device with me.
MG: Yes, consoles can definitely still survive along with tablets, smart TVs and what else will pop up in the future. Nothing is threatening. I believe the market is simply expanding and this is simply natural. As a young industry, we are not used to thinking in terms of expansion, that's why everything always boils down to a "this or that" approach, rather than a healthier "this and that".
And because the market is expanding, ironically consoles may even have a larger customer base thanks to tablets and mobile devices: in a broader market, the 10% slice may end up bigger than the 100% slice of a smaller, niche market.
BAJ: If anything, this generation will be the tipping point. In this regard, I think Microsoft made a smart move trying to make the Xbox One more attractive to the TV crowd. They are attempting to manoeuvre the Xbox franchise into something more than simply a games device, making it an all-round entertainment system. If they succeed, then they will cement their survival for at least one more iteration. Sony, however, has retained pure gaming at the heart of the PS4 and while that's a good thing, there isn't really much to differentiate it from the PS3 apart from more power. I'm not really convinced today that raw power is enough.
MH: What I would like is a powerful computer which can play games, not a multimedia jack-of-all-trades which gets in my way. My needs are not being met here. I fear the user interfaces will be labyrinths of glistering advertising, festooned with social-media gimcracks, and that the focus of these corporations is dangerously diluted away from producing surprising, novel, fun games.
What I would love would be a machine which supports an exciting new kind of interaction, and to see that interaction demonstrated with one or more great games around launch. I have yet to be persuaded there will be any truly new games or any new kinds of interaction from Sony or Microsoft, the best I think we can hope for is more of the same, only slicker, and with a bigger carbon footprint.
Should you buy PS4 or Xbox One? Flip a coin. Then keep it in your pocket
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PS4 vs Xbox One: Indie Creators Speak
Originally Posted by The Guardian
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