Pid is a self-published game coming to XBLA, PSN, and Steam. How do you do that? Rent an XBLA slot!
“Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self—protection which bordered on mechanical paranoia.”
-Ray Bradbury, “There Will Come Soft Rains”
Might and Delight is a developer started by ex-Grin employees, the team behind Bionic Commando: Rearmed. “We like to joke that this is an HD remake of a game that was never released,” Adam Boyes, co-owner of Might and Delight, told me as I played Pid, the team’s first game. A boy falls asleep on a bus and wakes up on a desolate planet, and finds himself at a bus stop with robots that have been waiting for the next bus for a very long time. The game’s tone is sad, and it reminded me of the short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury. The idea of abandoned technology continuing to run through the absence of people is lonely, but effective in creating tone. I began to feel like an intruder in a dying land.
Nine months were spent on the platforming and jumping mechanics, and that devotion to detail paid off; the game felt wonderful. I played with an Xbox 360 controller connected to a laptop, and I rarely grew angry at the game’s mechanics. You gain the ability to drop gravity fields that allow you to float up or across the levels, and you survive the often hostile environment by throwing these gravity bombs strategically and using the other items you gain during your journeys. Your goal is the simple act of returning home. Think of Pid as a take on Portal where you can throw gravity at any surface in order to float around the level, or trap enemies. The levels are cleverly designed mazes complete with obstacles, aggressive robots, and environmental dangers. It’s a puzzle game that plays like a platformer, with a high level of polish.
The video below shows how those ideas were prototyped and evolved into the game I played.
The real surprise here is the lack of publisher, a move that usually keeps games from appearing on Xbox Live Arcade. There are ways to gain a slot on the service, however…
One team, three platforms, no publisher
Might and Delight is self-distributing and publishing the game; a number of publishers met with the team and kept asking for more time to see how the game progressed. The publishers grew interested again once Might and Delight had found their own funding, but by that time there was little reason to sign with another company; there was already a plan in place to get on all three platforms.
“You can self-publish on the PlayStation Network, and you can obviously self-publish on Steam,” Boyes told the Penny Arcade Report. “On the Xbox Live Arcade you can rent a slot off a publisher. Which is what we’ll be doing.”
This is how it works: publishers are given a set amount of Xbox Live Arcade slots by Microsoft to do as they please. Publishers can then fill those slots with their own games or games they’re publishing, or they can offer the slots to other games in exchange for a slice of the profits. So the publisher that is offering Pid its slot won’t be publishing the game or offering the team at Might and Delight any money, it will simply be renting one of its slots to the smaller team in exchange for a cut of the profits. It’s a weird sort of gray market and, after speaking to a few other developers who were aware of the practice, I found it could be more common than I assumed.
“There’s this new culture of self-publishers who don’t have slots, they just rent slots from other publishers,” Boyes explained. “[Developers] publish games, but they don’t have the ability to publish themselves, because they’re not approved XBLA publishers.” The cut given to publishers who sell or rent these slots is apparently less than what Steam takes, but that cut given to the publisher is on top of the percentage given to Microsoft, so anyone who rents a slot in this manner is on the hook to share their profits with both Microsoft and the owner of the Xbox Live Arcade slot.
Without having to pay the developer any money, the percentage earned from the rented slot is pure profit for the publisher. The only risk is in the game potentially underperforming, in which case the publisher won’t see enough profits to justify the loss of the slot. This is what happens when a company like Microsoft artificially limits the number of games that can be released on its platform; the ability to publish a game at all becomes tremendously valuable. When things have value, they will be sold, or traded.
Interesting business model, intriguing game
It may seem odd to jump through these hoops to get the game onto Xbox Live Arcade, but Microsoft requires you to either have a publisher or be a publisher if you’d like to sell your game through their service. They may also be interested in publishing your game themselves, but that would remove your ability to sell the game on the PlayStation Network. For Might and Delight, a developer that decided against bringing on a publisher, renting a slot was the only way to launch on the Xbox Live Arcade. “Once we secured our investment, we just went back and said we’ll [publish] ourselves,” Boyes explained. “Sure, you give up a little bit, but unfortunately that’s Microsoft’s way of operating. They want to only be able to award slots to their close, dear partners I guess. I don’t get it.”
I played the first thirty minutes or so of the game and enjoyed my time with it, and a self-published game appearing on three major platforms is a triumph for Might and Delight. We reached out to Microsoft to ask about the business of buying and renting slots on Xbox Live Arcade, but didn’t receive a response in time for publication. We’ll update the story if we hear anything. For now, we’re happy that so many gamers will be able to play something that looks and feels so good.
Update: A Microsoft representative responded to this story with the following statement: “There are no ‘slot allotments’ to speak of. Ultimately, it’s a relationship between the developer and the publisher – the publisher comes to us with a game they want to publish, and Microsoft looks at the calendar and work with them on a release date. Hope this helps.” My theory is the system detailed above works out for everyone involved, so Microsoft is willing to look the other way.