Microsoft would probably be the first to admit it has made a number of missteps this console generation. The company has made several course corrections already, from reversing an unpopular DRM plan to unbundling Kinect. However, one lesser known policy remains in place, leaving many developers annoyed. I think this policy is bad for everyone involved, including independent developers, gamers, and even Microsoft itself.
What is the policy?
The Xbox One independent developer program is called ID@Xbox. When indie developers sign up with ID@Xbox, they agree to something called the Xbox One parity clause, which says that their games must launch on Xbox One on the same day they launch on any other platform.
That means a game can’t come out on PlayStation 4 first and then be ported to Xbox One later. Nor can it debut first on PC, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PS Vita, or any other platform under the sun. If indie developers ever want to bring their game to Xbox One, Microsoft’s console must be among the first platforms to receive it.
Microsoft maintains that the parity clause is enforced on a “case by case” basis, but the company has never made it clear to developers what that means, exactly.
Why is it in place?
Back in March, Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison explained the policy to Edge by saying that, “Everybody in our program … is committed to making sure the best games are on Xbox One. That’s our job, basically, if you boil it all down to the essence of what a game platform is, it’s to make sure that the biggest, best, most exciting, most creative games are on your platform and we are working super hard to make that happen.”
Why is it bad for developers?
Generally, small indie developers work really hard on making a game for one platform, often in their free time while working full-time jobs or living off of money they’ve saved. If the game sells well on one platform, the team lives on that income while they port the game to other platforms. Many small indies simply can’t wait until they’ve prepared the game on several platforms to release it.
That’s why the parity clause has irked indie developers. “I can only speak for us personally,” Capybara Games president Nathan Vella told GameSpot, “but simultaneously shipping is pretty challenging; you need a little bit more time and a bigger team. I do think that it’s not ideal.”
In an interview with IGN, Rob Clarke, the marketing manager for indie developer Curve Studios, said that, “For us, it’s an annoyance. It’s preventing us from bringing some of the older stuff through and doing what we want. There’s 40 of us … so you can imagine how hard it is for smaller developers in one and two man teams who are faced with having to release on PlayStation and Xbox simultaneously.”
The four-person studio Heart Machine is working on a game it had hoped to bring to both PS4 and Xbox One. Heart Machine’s Alex Preston told Edge that, “Sony was great to us initially so I don’t think we’re going to push the Xbox version before we do the Sony platform versions. The parity thing is a problem. It’s not a good policy for Microsoft and I definitely don’t think it helps small developers.”
Why is it bad for Microsoft?
When Microsoft first instituted the parity clause, it made sense for the company. Back then, Microsoft expected the Xbox One to be a top-selling system, and that indie developers would have to play by its rules. The policy still would have been bad for indie developers and gamers, but Microsoft would have reaped many benefits.
Now, however, with the PlayStation 4 vastly outselling the Xbox One, Microsoft is losing leverage to make indie developers play ball. The Xbox One market simply isn’t as appealing to indie developers, because fewer people own Xbox Ones. If fewer indie developers choose to make their games available on Xbox One, that’s bad new for Microsoft.
Why is it bad for gamers?
The drum Microsoft has been beating to sell this policy to the public is that it’s good for gamers. What they mean, of course, is that it’s good for Xbox One owners who, theoretically, will be able to play the best indie games the day they’re released. However, if more and more indies decide to skip the Xbox One because of the parity clause, that’s actually bad news for Xbox One owners.
Microsoft should ditch the policy
The parity clause has never benefitted anyone except Microsoft, and in the current gaming climate, I don’t even see it benefitting Microsoft. No other console maker has a similar policy in place, and most of them have thriving indie game marketplaces.
It’s time for Microsoft to ditch the parity clause. That way, indie developers can make the games they want for the platforms they choose, in whatever time frame works for them. In all likelihood, that will work out better for indies, gamers, and even Microsoft.
Follow Chris on Twitter @_chrislreed
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