The reason OUYA, Boxer8’s proposed $99 Google Android game console, sounds so appealing to video game developers in comparison to Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Nintendo’s platforms is that it’s a conduit to living room players without restrictions. Restrictions abound on Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo’s devices, something that isn’t likely to change on the next round of consoles. The size of games like Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath keeps them off of Xbox Live Arcade. Nintendo’s byzantine submissions process has killed releases like La Mulana on WiiWare. On Sony’s machines? It’s the company’s insistence on taking ownership of developers’ intellectual property.
Speaking at the Develop conference, Pete Smith of Playdead said that his studio’s eerie indie hit Limbo was at one time going to be a PlayStation Network exclusive. It certainly fits with Sony’s stable of independently developed downloadable titles. The grim and subtle game is of a piece with Sony-backed titles like Journey and the PixelJunk series. Limbo eventually went to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade well before Sony’s PlayStation Network. Why? Because Sony wanted to keep the IP.
“I maybe shouldn’t say this, but we had issues when we were trying to sign Limbo because of the IP,” explained Smith. “There are obvious benefits to keeping [IP], but also to giving it up: You’re way more likely to get the deal. Remember: 100 percent of nothing is still nothing. A publisher is much more likely to commit to marketing and merchandising if they own the IP. Sometimes all we want is protection so [devs] don’t make a game, finish it then go to one of our rivals. We look at IP on a case-by-case basis. With a bit of common sense, you can find common ground.”
Smith’s words carry a certain logic; thatgamecompany’s Journey became the fastest-selling PlayStation Network game ever when it released in March, but that game had the full might of Sony’s international marketing machine behind it, guaranteeing promotion to press, directly to consumers through the PlayStation 3’s most visible advertising slots, and broader mainstream media coverage.
That support put thatgamecompany on the map as much as Jenova Chen’s signature ethereal style as evidenced in previous PlayStation exclusives from the studio like flOw and Flower. Eventually though, it seems that greater control of intellectual property is more appealing. thatgamecompany did not renew its exclusive contract with Sony upon completion of Journey, seeking a broader audience and greater control of IP on different platforms.
Greater support of digital distribution isn’t the only thing console makers need to embrace to survive. They have to fundamentally change their relationships with developers.