With each of the big three console manufacturers releasing tools and offering distribution to independent developers, the homebrew scene offers real opportunity
"I think that consumers as creators, or the creative community, is a reality of a creative medium moving forward," says Chris Satchell, general manager of Microsoft's game developer group. "There are so many amazing ideas in the community that go undeveloped because there is a lack of the right tools and distribution channels."
It would appear that this is a matter of considerable change. Quite suddenly, it seems, each of the big three console manufacturers is promoting a growing acknowledgement of the homebrew community, putting together apparently egalitarian schemes to help democratise console development. Yet, while all have described their intentions in similar terms, their various efforts to empower the hobbyist developer have taken very distinct routes.
The acceleration of the homebrew development community correlates directly to the ever-increasing spread of the internet. Interconnectivity has enabled rapid communication between like-minded types, fostered communities, accelerated the sharing of technology, and opened up new distribution methods. As you would expect, among all the possible gaming platforms, the PC has had a big head start in this respect and, with its few restrictions on access, the internet's Flash gaming community has become a hotbed of ingenuity.
Console gaming has always been tougher for the indie scene to crack, not least because it has been substantially slower to find its way online. Additionally, unlike the PC, developing for consoles has previously required a much greater degree of direct co-operation from manufacturers: except for a clutch of industrious hackers, only the manufacturers can grant access to their machines through proprietary programming interfaces.
Yet, suddenly, we are seeing a universally professed enthusiasm for nurturing indie development—Microsoft has XNA, a paid-for development and distribution service, Nintendo has WiiWare, a means of publishing indie content and making it available to the Wii's entire audience, and Sony brought Linux to PS3 with the intention of encouraging individuals to create applications for it.
"Because we have plans for having Linux on board [the PS3], we also recognise Linux programming activities," said the head of the software platform division of SCEI, Izumi Kawanishi, in an interview last year. "Other than game studios tied to official developer licences, we'd like to see various individuals participate in content creation for the PS3."
The power of homebrew development will of course be familiar to Sony—besides the fact that it remains one of the major forces sustaining its PSP, the company was one of the first to bring home console development to the notice of the wider gaming audience with the release of a PlayStation development kit in 1997.
"Clearly part of our desire to open up our hardware was to respond to the enormous interest from consumers, students and academic institutions who wanted to access the power of PlayStation," says Sony's president of technology, Paul Holman. "The decision was driven by those in the company who had grown up with access to the Amigas, Spectrums, Atari 800s and BBC Micros."
Called Net Yaroze, meaning 'Let's Create', the kit was available through mail order at the price of $750. For that sum, an aspiring developer could get his hands on a debugging PlayStation, connect it up to a PC and start programming using a package of proprietary tools—cut-down versions of the more expensive tools that professional developers were using. Net Yaroze's lifetime saw increasing levels of support for third party tools, like Codewarrior and Lightwave 3D, as well as dedicated Usenet groups.
"We had to manufacture a special variant of the console and provide cables and software for the PC," says Holman. "It was costly and complicated—but we saw amazing results in terms of the games and ideas from the community that grew up around the project. PlayStation 2 Linux built upon the lessons of Net Yaroze—the PC was no longer necessary, and a standard consumer unit could be upgraded, much reducing the cost—although we carried out the work of porting Linux in-house.
"PS2 Linux is still widely used in universities across the globe, and the industry overall benefited from waves of people who had familiarity with modern console development environments, and could bring their ideas and skills to games companies. Many game developers today started out by having Net Yaroze game demos on the cover disc of the Official Playstation Magazine."
Despite distribution via mag cover disc, however, Net Yaroze projects would always struggle to reach a commercial audience beyond its core of enthusiasts. It is in this respect that the indie development community has undergone fundamental change: with the increasing connectivity of successive generations of consoles, and the adoption of broadband, indie coding projects have the opportunity to achieve mainstream success like never before. The appearance of online marketplaces and the rapidity of peer review through web 2.0 applications have coalesced to create an irresistible ground for independent development.
Digital distribution is by itself a huge boon for the indie development scene, and it is no surprise that these are the terms in which Nintendo has outlined its WiiWare service. Delivering games from start-ups, independents and established companies alike, WiiWare is a distribution platform that allows developers to sell a game without the costs of storage media (discs or cartridges), packaging or shipping, substantially cutting down the overheads for such projects. As Rob Saunders, Nintendo Europe's head of PR, says: "Mr Iwata has for a while now hinted about downloadable content: that we want to help young, promising developers overcome the limitations of small budgets and team sizes to bring their games to the Wii."
The emphasis from Nintendo is on WiiWare as a means of avoiding the thorny problem of commercial liability: that many games are doomed forever to the drawing board because it's not obvious they will turn a profit when presented to a mainstream audience. Games that are not commercially viable in the current marketplace will become so via WiiWare's minimising of extraneous production costs.
However, while it's clear that Nintendo is courting the untapped potential of small budget development, WiiWare neither intends to establish a community of developers nor offers any shortcuts regarding development itself—if Nintendo has ambitions to expand in this direction, then the firm is keeping them to itself for the moment. It would seem the obvious thing to do: although the ultimate role of such indie development communities in the bigger picture of console gaming is still being formed, it's clear that the console manufacturers' decision to harness and shape this force of creativity could easily have a profound impact on the success of their systems.
Encouraging indie development on a console has benefits beyond training a new generation of programmers to use your tools and systems: the creative communities themselves have a huge commercial pull, as proven by their many internet analogues—YouTube being the obvious paradigm.
Holman is cagey about what Sony's next step will be in this regard: "It's very early stages so far—but clearly we are considering a number of web 2.0 options. PS3 is still a young platform—opening the platform to a wider range of Linux distributions was an important way to give consumers a free and easy way to dabble with Linux and harness the PS3's processing capabilities. We're carefully nurturing this first stage, but we have many ideas for the future, too."
For the moment, however, homebrew development on PS3 will be restricted to the console's Linux component—there are not, as yet, opportunities for individuals to create games to run directly on the PS3's native operating system, or distribute them over PlayStation Network.
"In terms of the Linux environment, there are no barriers for application developers, other than that their users must have installed Linux," says Holman. "However, to make applications for more general distribution to consumers, our normal licensed developer programme is available."
A similar situation, creating distinct boundaries between homebrew and professional content, has existed for those developing Xbox 360 games—but it is something that Microsoft appears to be increasingly keen to change, taking the lead among the big three in its engagement with the indie development scene. Already offering both a means of distribution and affordable access to tools geared towards 360 development, Microsoft's intention is to add another tier to this scheme—one that will bridge the gap between professional and amateur, giving the homebrew community the same access to Xbox Live Arcade as professional developers.
Last year, Microsoft released XNA, a free-to-use software development kit for Xbox 360 and PC. A powerful sense of community spirit has already formed among XNA developers, exchanging information and helping one another, and thanks to the increasing support by third party products, like the Torque X 3D engine, Microsoft's indie nurturing strategy has already begun to yield impressive results.
"Everyone can create 360 games for the first time," says XNA veteran and lead programmer for exDream studios, Benjamin Nitschke. "Thanks to the XNA framework it is also much simpler to write Xbox 360 and PC cross-platform games than it was before. XNA covers a lot of cool tools like XACT for audio creation and co-operates nicely with existing tools to create graphic shaders. Thanks to the content pipeline it is also easy for beginners just to drag in some textures and 3D models and they get imported and converted to the best format automatically for you."
While you can't publish your creations straight to Xbox Live Arcade, XNA has its Creators Club, accessible with a subscription costing $99 (£49). The Creators Club then gives you unlimited access to the community's games and the ability to publish and promote your own non-commercial efforts within this reasonably restricted environment.
"It makes sense for the Xbox 360 team, which is obviously involved in the XNA development, but it is a bit of a hassle for the indie developer," says Nitschke. "The problem is that you can't share XNA games with your non-developer friends, since they won't have the club subscription. Even if they have it, you have to give them your whole source code and let them compile the games themselves. On the PC you can freely distribute and use XNA like the DirectX framework with no limitations, but on the Xbox 360 it is more or less just for yourself and the community."
Joseph B Hall, developer and author of a forthcoming book on XNA Game Studio Express, suggests why Microsoft might have initially taken such a route: "By restricting the production of XNA titles, Microsoft is protecting its partners' investments as well as ensuring that the quality of released titles meets some minimum standards, providing a better experience for the end user.
"Not just anyone can get their hands on the full commercial 360 development kit. It's reserved for established game development houses, whose ideas and final product must pass Microsoft's scrutiny and stringent quality control processes. Assuming that you meet the qualifications, and you get approval from Microsoft to purchase an official development kit, you'll be looking at spending around $10,000 (£4,900) for the privilege."
As you might expect, XNA's free-to-use toolset, Game Studio Express, is somewhat cut-back by comparison. Nitschke explains: "Since the framework is so new and there are limitations on the 360 side, you are currently not able to do any network code or access hardware like the DVD drive or soundcard yourself, which limits your possibilities."
XNA's other limitation is more technical in nature—currently, it only officially supports C#, a managed programming language. The significance of this lies in the trade-off between the language's accessibility and the speed at which it runs.
XNA developer and technical director of Torpex Games, Jamie Fristrom, explains: "While C# on the PC is almost as fast as native code on the PC, C# on the Xbox is definitely slower than native code on the Xbox, so we're not at the point where we're going to have a Halo-killer written in C# yet."
That 'yet' is pretty significant—Fristrom is quick to evangelise C# and XNA. He has reason to be optimistic about XNA's potential given that Torpex Games is one of the first companies to make the leap from the XNA community to commercial distribution on Xbox Live Arcade with its co-operative title, Schizoid.
"The learning curve is so shallow you can make your game really quickly," says Fristrom. "Because C# is simply a much better language than C or C++ it continues to make you more productive all the way up to ship. There's no reason why you can't ship a commercial game with XNA—we're going to. Although XNA really only officially supports C# right now, some clever guys have done more with it. Generally, the people who are saying: 'You can't make a real game in C#' are the same sorts of people who, 15 years ago, said: 'You can't make a real game in C'."
While Schizoid's commercial release is currently an anomaly among XNA titles, it is a path that is likely to become increasingly welltrodden, with Microsoft intending to remove many of the restrictions. Hindrances like the lack of support for network code are liable to change with the release of the successor to Game Studio Express in the coming months.
"For the first release of XNA Game Studio we wanted to focus on getting great tools into the hands of the community and taking the unprecedented step of giving them development access to their retail console," explains Satchell, Microsoft's own XNA evangelist-extraordinaire. "The second release will focus on enabling games to be built that could be shipped as either Xbox Live Arcade or retail titles. This is another big step, but still requires a publishing contract.
"For those developers who have a publishing agreement in place, we will be making additional libraries available which support the full Xbox Live feature set including matchmaking, Achievements and leaderboards into their games. These approved games will also have the ability to get certified and distributed electronically via Xbox Live Marketplace. Having this level of consistency in our offerings and the ability to take a game 'all the way' will really open up avenues for the community to showcase their creativity even wider."
Between this and the recent Dream Build Play contest, in which budding developers competed to win an Xbox Live Arcade publishing contract, it's clear that Microsoft is keen to see individuals use its tools to create games of professional quality, and directly funnel these amateur ambitions into commercial products.
"We were so impressed with what the community created that we ended up awarding two first place prizes, both of which may become XBLA games," says Satchell, pointing out that the winners produced every aspect of the games themselves while holding down day jobs (one as a grocery store clerk, the other a Java programmer). "Given the number of entries that showcased innovative gameplay and overall quality," Satchell adds, "I wouldn't be surprised to see more of these games picked up by publishers at some point."
Satchell's ambition for XNA is an egalitarian one, certainly. "In the future," he says, "our vision is to open this up and allow members of the XNA Creators Club to share their games with the millions of people on Xbox Live." But, like Holman, Satchell is acutely aware that what benefits the indie community brings prosperity to the industry as a whole: "If you can make gaming more socially relevant by having timely, topical content, recommended and ranked by the community, you can draw more people in."
The measured strategy with which Microsoft has approached this task suggests that it doesn't view encouraging the indie scene as simply a matter of democratising development. The increasing power of the homebrew community is an inevitability that all three console manufacturers will have to recognise; though their efforts to engage with it may be an investment of considerable significance, the results will have profound effect upon their bottom line and the vitality of the industry as a whole.