If this year’s E3 was any indication, Sony and Microsoft seem to be at odds on the philosophy of indie games. Rather than bringing out another showcase of indie exclusive for PS4 (and occasionally Vita), Sony’s E3 press conference last month was bursting with triple-A properties and VR titles.
It was a marked difference from previous years, when Sony basked in the afterglow of a press briefing victory – largely from a dizzying number of independent projects it has helped shepherd to fruition. With the start of this console generation, PlayStation has, for most small developers, appeared to be the platform you wanted your game to land on; while the at E3 2015 Microsoft’s own ID@XBox program boasted over 1000 games in development – minus a few prominent, press-grabbing examples like Cuphead – PS4 had Xbox One beat when it came to public image.
Sony’s change in tactics this year would certainly suggest as much, given the dominance of big-budget games shown. There were still a significant number of indie titles inside the PlayStation booth at the LA Convention Center, but for the most part, they were dwarfed by games like God Of War and Days Gone.
Microsoft is well aware that Sony has up until this point been beating them almost two to one in current-gen console sales. Interestingly, its own presser still featured a shout-out to ID@Xbox program with a new trailer, a montage of several smaller projects still in the works to come out for Xbox one. Microsoft’s booth was the same way.
For Microsoft, there’s no reason not to highlight this – if Sony’s lack of focus on indies is the result of the company thinking it’s the reigning champions for this round of the console wars, Microsoft loses nothing by still making its console appeal to players who might be interested in, say, Below as well as fans of Gears of War or Forza. But the question is, will it make a difference? Does it matter?
On Sony’s end, it’s too early to tell if it’s winding down or lessening the amount of indie projects – or will the company support PlayStation platforms? Colloquially, some conversations with developers seemed to suggest that, though there’s no evidence of it yet.
On the flipside, out of the number of indie projects coming to Xbox, few may end up as console exclusives. Microsoft needs games like Cuphead and We Happy Few, both of which will be released on PC. Cuphead has been pledged, for all intents and purposes as a game that will only ever be on Xbox One; the developers of We Happy Few have said, never say never. If Sony does lessen its indie support now that the developer feels it’s no longer necessary – which at the moment doesn’t seem terribly likely – at least Xbox will still be a home for a number of indies on console.
Yet, given that artistically the very idea of console agnosticism is important if not outright vital for an small developer to survive – not just in terms of sales but also for the sake of getting as many players to experience what they’ve made first hand, maybe the perception of the PS4 or Xboxs indie superiority was always just a game.
Microsoft badly botched the lead-up to launch of the Xbox One with a slew of poorly-received decisions that smacked of anti-consumerism – the original plan was for a system that required constant online connectivity and didn’t allow for used games, among other issues.
When Sony was able to counter with the PS4’s player-friendly approach to its business at E3 2013, it was the finishing blow that Microsoft couldn’t come back from. Its dominance of indie games, something that only expanded in the years after the new consoles launched, it just seemed to widen the gap.
Regardless of how the rest of this generation plays out, or which games may end up on what platforms eventually, it’s unlikely that indie titles won’t be a major part of it, if perhaps not the centerpiece they seemed primed to become a few years ago. Will Microsoft broadcasting its support be enough to surpass any competition on its own? Probably not – but it doesn’t hurt either.