Microsoft's ID@Xbox program has come a long way since it first started in 2013. While the curated self-publishing program's first titles included smaller indie games such as Drinkbox Studios' Guacamelee and Nicalis' 1001 Spikes, it's now home to some of the biggest and most ambitious independently developed titles the industry's ever seen, including Tequila Works' beautiful puzzle-adventure game Rime, Sumo Digital's 3D puzzle platformer Snake Pass, Rebellion's Sniper Elite 4 and even a preview version of Studio Wildcard's Ark: Survival Evolved.
It signals a huge evolution in the size and scope of ID@Xbox's remit, but for the program's EMEA regional lead Agostino Simonetta (pictured right), this shift is a reflection of where the industry's heading as a whole, rather than just Xbox striking out on its own.
"The entire ecosystem is changing," he tells MCV. "When we started ID, we planned for studios to launch a title and then maybe come back in a year. When we look at the industry today, we have ID@Xbox developers of every size and shape, from Rebellion and MercurySteam to Mad Fellows and Cavalier [Game Studios].
"We've also got ID@Xbox partners who are publishing other ID@Xbox developers like Team17, Curve [Digital], Tequila Works and Devolver [Digital], and then you have ID@Xbox titles, going back to Rebellion, self-publishing Sniper Elite 4 in a digital format, but working with Sold Out on the retail version.
"More and more we're seeing Koch [Media] and 505 [Games] and EA – they're all traditionally considered the bigger guys, the retail publishers – they're actually publishing content that might have started a journey as an ID@Xbox title. So I think we're looking at a very, very different ecosystem to what we had in 2013. It's a good evolution. I think the balance of, call it power, or just the relationship between developers and publishers today, is nothing like it used to be pre-digital revolution."
The Sexy Brutale (releasing today) was developed by UK studio Cavalier Games but published on ID@Xbox by Rime developer Tequila Works
That being said, even Simonetta's surprised by how much ID@Xbox has grown since it first opened its doors four years ago. As of GDC this year, the program has now launched over 450 titles, with over 1,000 more in active development, and over 2,200 studios in more than 60 countries have received free development kits through the program to work on Xbox content. Perhaps the most revealing statistic, however, is the number of hours Xbox players have spent playing ID titles.
"We looked at the amount of players – so we had tens of millions of our Xbox and Windows 10 customers – playing ID@Xbox titles over the last 12 months, and they've played over a billion hours, so the level of engagement with ID@Xbox titles is incredible," says Simonetta. "Hundreds of millions of dollars have been generated by the titles in the programme, revenue generated by independent games on our store, so I'm very proud of where we are today."
It's not just the number of developers, games or hours played that have been climbing higher since ID@Xbox first started, either, as Simonetta says the ID brand itself has also morphed into its own seal of approval for consumers, something the platform holder hadn't anticipated back in 2013.
"Our players love the kind of games that are coming via the ID@Xbox programme, and it is getting more and more consumer recognition as a brand, which I'm not sure was the plan originally. I mean, ID was a developer programme, but now in the comments section of Neogaf or Reddit, ID is now a term people recognise, so I think it has proven to be very, very important.
"Over the last two or three years, ID has always been present at E3 in one form or another, and we also do a lot of ID@Xbox events, so we have a lot support from throughout the organisation. It's not just the central [Microsoft team], but local offices are very keen to showcase the products as well, so yes, ID is a core part of what Xbox is today."
Sumo Digital's Snake Pass is an Xbox Play Anywhere title as well, allowing Xbox One owners to play the game on Windows 10 devices at no extra cost
ALL FOR ONE
Raising awareness of independent titles is all well and good, but ultimately Simonetta wants to eliminate the boundary between triple-A and independent content altogether, arguing that games should be judged on the experience they provide rather than where they come from.
"A game is a game. That's a very strong mantra at Xbox," he says. "It doesn't matter whether you're an ID@Xbox title or you're a title coming from the retail publishers. People need to feel good about the amount of money they spend with the experience they get. I don't think indie should come into that. I've spent plenty of time playing Ark: Survival Evolved, or playing Overcooked – does it really matter that it's an independent game, or that it's published by Ubisoft or EA? It's just about the enjoyment you get out of the product."
Microsoft's been making great strides to achieve this goal in the wider Xbox landscape as well. In 2015, the platform holder not only upgraded Xbox One's operating system to Windows 10, but it also launched its Universal Windows Platform (UWP) games initiative, allowing developers to create just one version of their game or app that would work across all Windows 10 devices. Then, last year it undertook what Simonetta calls "a massive engineering task" to merge its Windows and Xbox One stores, creating a one-stop shop for all of its gaming content, regardless of platform.
The result is a store where, bar the occasional ID@Xbox-branded sale event, all games are sold on a level playing field, something that makes the ID@Xbox program particularly attractive for smaller dev teams (see 'Cavalry Charge' below for more details).
Rime producer Miguel Paniagua (see 'Running Rime below for more details) says that Microsoft's ID@Xbox program is the easiest digital publishing platform to work with
"All the games are sold in the same marketplace," Simonetta explains. "[ID@Xbox developers] have the same pipeline that any other publisher has on the platform, they follow the same algorithmic process and they're part of the same promotions. You always find ID games in Games with Gold. We treat games as a game. We don't differentiate.
"That's very, very important, because ultimately when we get outside the bubble of the industry, the reality is [people like] my wife. When she looks at the store, she doesn't know whether a title is an independent game or from a big studio. When you get to that point, people don't really know, they just look at the experiences, and they buy them if they think they're going to like them."
ANY WHICH WAY
Microsoft's journey to "bring all our platforms together under the Windows 10 umbrella" is far from over, though, as Simonetta says this year is all about expanding its UWP platform on Xbox One and developing its Xbox Play Anywhere feature, which allows Xbox One owners to play compatible titles on Windows 10 devices at no extra cost.
"[Xbox Play Anywhere] is an initiative we really believe in and we're getting a very, very good response from the development community," says Simonetta.
"We're focusing a lot on Xbox and Windows 10 titles [this year] and I'm very excited about what we're going with it. We went all-in with first parties, but ultimately it's a publishing decision – we don't mandate that. Obviously, this is also the year of Scorpio, so we're doing a lot of work with our developers in that space as well."
No matter what shape ID@Xbox takes in the future, though, Simonetta says he remains committed to making Xbox the best place for developers and publishers alike:
"As a platform, independent studios tend to generally have fewer resources than us as a first party, so we feel we have a responsibility to our partners to use our tools and resources to get as much visibility for their products as we can to amplify their message. I always say amplify because ultimately the developers [on ID] are a publisher, so they need to have their marketing and PR strategy. Our responsibility is to work with them to amplify their plans and make our channels available for them."
With two free dev kits, no joining fee, great exposure and an excellent support network, the developers MCV spoke to at an ID@Xbox Preview event last week had nothing but praise for Microsoft's self-publishing program.
"I think there's a huge chance here for everybody that isn't a big dev team," says Tequila Works' producer Miguel Paniagua (pictured left), whose studio is currently working on Rime but also publishing The Sexy Brutale, on which it worked with UK-based Cavalier Game Studios.
"At Tequila Works, we're almost 50 guys, but ID@Xbox is providing anybody starting [out] with the chance of publishing their own project at the same level as the biggest teams in the industry. For small and new teams, that's a huge chance.
"The relationship we have with the ID team has been amazing. It's very quick communication and it's been great and very helpful, because it was our first time publishing a game and we were kind of lost at the beginning because we didn't know that we had so many things to deal with. But I have to say that the submission process with Microsoft is the easiest one of all [platforms]. We're submitting with PS4, Xbox and Steam, and the easiest and most helpful one is ID@Xbox."
For Sumo Digital, the opportunity to self-publish its 3D puzzle platformer Snake Pass using ID@Xbox was the perfect opportunity to put the studio back on the map:
"We just wanted to let people know that we exist," Sumo Digital's designer and PR analyst David Dino (pictured left) tells MCV. "From a business perspective, people know [Sumo Digital] makes good titles for lots of different companies, and that we're a safe pair of hands, but in terms of the consumer side, the games that they've probably played, they don't realise we're the ones who made it.
"With Snake Pass, it's a very special game and making it our first original IP was pretty important, so we wanted to say, 'We are here, even though we have been here for ages.' Doing our own self-publishing, trying to get that visibility, it's still work that we have to do, but without the avenue that ID@Xbox has given us in order to get to this place, that's something we wouldn't have been able to do."
Snake Pass is also an Xbox Play Anywhere title, which Dino says was another great way to broaden the game's audience:
"We wanted to make sure we can get the game to everybody and anybody and if [Xbox Play Anywhere] is an option we can take, then it's really cool to do so. We're glad people who have that option and want to go in that direction can do so. Microsoft has done a good job of attempting to mobilise that process, and obviously working on Unreal Engine 4, with it being so scalable, that almost went hand in hand as something
For smaller developers like the UK-based Cavalier Game Studios, ID@Xbox is an invaluable platform when it comes to support and promotion.
"There have been several ID@Xbox events and it's been very useful when Microsoft host it in their area, because obviously anything as an independent studio, all that stuff in terms of time and setup and cost, it all adds up," says Charles Griffiths, founder and design director of Cavalier Games Studios (pictured left).
"Every little moment of development matters, so when Microsoft says, 'We're going to put the game in the ID@Xbox area,' it's great. They put together little badges and promotional things, and it takes out a lot of the stress of setting it all up and doing it. They've hosted a few events and it's obviously very flattering for us that it's a game Microsoft would like to have.
"It's really, really useful, and ID@Xbox has been a great scheme and everyone involved with it has been really approachable, really easy to talk to. Microsoft has also been very open to listening to our queries and finding any of the problems or frictions in the process and addressing them, so it's been very good."