The machine, due for release by the end of the year, is being touted as an “all-in-one home entertainment system” with voice-activated controls, video-conferencing capabilities and a built-in Blu-ray player, but some within the industry are concerned that Microsoft is chasing blockbuster games at the expense of smaller players.
While rivals Nintendo and Sony allow developers to create their own downloadable games, rules for the current Xbox 360 mean firms have to deal directly with Microsoft or an established third-party publisher to make their content available on its Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) download service.
The US software giant currently has an outlet for independent and “hobbyist” game makers, called Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG), but it will drop this separate channel for its new machine, leading to fears that small teams without the backing of larger studios will be sidelined.
Gordon McLean, technical director of Dundee-based Beartrap Games, said: “In the lead-up to the unveiling, we were hoping Microsoft would become even more open, but they seem to be determined to keep it closed off.”
McLean was a programmer on the “world-building” adventure game Minecraft, which was the best-selling XBLA title last year, but he said Sony – which is expected to launch its PlayStation 4 console by the end of the year – now appears to be more supportive towards the independent sector.
He added: “We’ve already got very good connections with Sony, but in general terms it seems to be much easier to get on their console. They’ve had some good hits with smaller, more quirky games. There seem to be more challenges for a company of our size to get on Xbox.”
Dan Hinkles, chief executive of fellow Dundee firm Serious Parody, said: “Sony are definitely very friendly towards independent teams, and they’ve spent years cultivating this sector.“
Serious Parody, launched in 2010, employs 15 people, and Hinkles said the company was looking to add five more staff as it prepares to launch a wrestling game for Sony’s current PlayStation 3 in the coming months.
“The biggest problem for our industry is that it’s getting harder to get exposure, and gamers expect a lot more for a lot less,” he added.
However, Hinkles said there was a “stigma” attached to Microsoft’s XBLIG, because many users think games available on the service will be less polished than those on XBLA, so it may prove beneficial in the long run for all titles to appear together under one banner.
Jonathan Jackson, head of equities at Killik & Co, said Microsoft has sold 77 million Xbox 360 consoles since its launch in 2006, although games account for just 7.5 per cent of total revenues.
Microsoft is expected to reveal more about its support for the games industry at the annual E3 trade show in Los Angeles, which starts on 11 June, and a spokeswoman insisted the group was keen for all developers, “regardless of team size”, to take advantage of the new device’s capabilities when creating games and apps.
She added: “Xbox pioneered digital distribution of console games, with XBLA opening up the console to entirely new classes of independent developers. Later we introduced XBLIG to provide an outlet for the hobbyist creator. We are committed to ensuring all Xbox platforms are the best platforms to help developers realise their visions and we look forward to sharing more details later.”