Interview: ID@Xbox's Agostino Simonetta on Microsoft's evolving indie strategy

The ID@Xbox account manager discusses Windows 10, working with publishers and the new Xbox Live SDK
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It’s been five months since you left Sony and moved to Microsoft. Your role at the former saw you supporting independent developers fairly directly. Now you’ve had time to settle into your role at Microsoft, are you able to continue that work in the same spirit?
Yes. Friday 13th was five months. For me its something like ten years that I’ve been working with different developers in different companies and roles. For me this is probably the most exciting period of the last ten or 12 years.

If you look at what we did at GDC in terms of ID@Xbox, we showed tonnes and tonnes of content; we had so many amazing games at GDC, so much brilliant content. Then at EGX Rezzed we have 22 great games across Windows 10 and Xbox One. In fact half of those games or more were from British developers, Rezzed being a UK event. And there’s a real breadth of content.

What’s exciting for me as a lover of this industry and this area of the industry is that we have a broad range of developers that are the smart ones. There’s Team17, Curve; these more established companies. I mean, Team17 have been around for 25 or 26 years. And then we have couple of developers here that are family run businesses. MakinGames, for example, are a husband and wife team, Nic and Anna [Makin]. They are ex-Rare, and they are making Raging Justice, a beat ‘em up – and an excellent game – from a family-run business.

Then Drop Dead Interactive, which is Jay Adeloye's studio, have been working on Gear Gauntlet. That is Jay’s second job. He has a full-time job, and a family with two twin girls. I have two girls, and I’ve no idea how he does it. And he’s delivering a game on Xbox One.

That really shows how ID@Xbox can attract developers and enable developers of all different sizes to bringing their games to Xbox.

And now Windows 10 is part of ID@Xbox? How is that going in terms of this opening chapter?
We've created the registration portal now at ID@Xbox. We’ve been talking about Windows 10 for a while, and the message is that it is coming, and it is big. It has 1.5 billion devices that can run Windows 10, going from Xbox – which will run Windows 10 in the systems partition of the Xbox – through to PC, tablet, mobile phone and HoloLens.

So we have all those different touch points, and developers will be able to take advantage of the Windows Universal Application platform to bring their game, using effectively a single binary, to all the different form factors. They can target the factor they want. If you want to target them all, great. If you want to target one, it’s fine; that’s up to you. If you want to support cross-buying that is totally fine, so you can actually sell the product once and people can enjoy [your game] on all the devices.

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Gear Gauntlet – Drop Dead Interactive

Effectively we are offering developers the opportunity to use a simple platform for all the different touch points where people engage with gaming.

We were talking earlier about how gaming and gaming experiences have changed, growing from the living room to the handheld devices and PC and so on. There are so many different touch points now, and Windows 10 is putting all of those under the same umbrella, built on the same technology from development point of view, with 1.5 billion potential customers. That’s pretty exciting.

And we’re seeing an update to the Xbox Live SDK in tandem with that. How is that changing, and how does it support developers?
Yes. We’ve announced we have a preview of the Xbox Live SDK for Windows 10, for the new Windows Universal App platform. That was released at GDC. So developers that want to bring over their titles, they can actually start to get their hands on the Xbox Live SDK.

That’s part of the ID@Xbox program. But, if developers don’t want to use Xbox Live, they can totally launch their project on Windows 10 devices on our store, on the one store, without registering for ID@Xbox. So developers again can choose the path they want to take. If they just want to release a game, and they don’t feel they need Xbox Live, that’s fine. It’s an open platform, so they can register on Dev Centre, and get the SDK and launch. If they want to use Xbox Live then great; they can register for ID@Xbox.

Our vision for within the next 12 months is that developers that are not part of ID@Xbox will actually be able to take advantage of most of the features of Xbox Live.

So are indies going for the Windows 10 offering within ID@Xbox? Are they really keen to embrace the platform?
We’ve had a great response, including in terms of the 18 titles we have already announced as part of Phil [Spencer’s] keynote at GDC. The response has been very, very positive, and we’re really excited by where we are at the moment with that. There has never been a better time to bring a title to a platform than there is now with the ID@Xbox program.

Why? Because of the diversity of platforms?
It is because of that diversity, but it is also because of the effort we have put in terms of ID@Xbox having a program that enables developers of all sizes and shapes to bring their content. That was already the case with Xbox, and with Windows 10 we are already simplifying the processes even more. And yes, we are offering a unique proposition, where a company can offer you all those different touch points.

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Raging Justice – MakinGames

There’s been a lot on the process and benefits of ID@Xbox. But what about how indies should get it right? How can they best approach you, work with you and make use of the offering to succeed within ID@Xbox?
Well, we are actually starting soon – dates and locations to be announced – a programme where we’re going to visit a lot of cities across all the different regions with ID@Xbox-focused events. These are going to be open events where developers can talk to us and meet us in person. And the point of that is us being able to deliver the message. We are aware that there are a lot of countries and not all the developers can make it to GDC, and we really want to reach out to them. It’s also for them to come and ask us questions, engage with us and get to know us.

People who know me know it’s very important for me to have a personal relationship with the developers, and we have a good team here, and we can try and stretch ourselves. But if we can actually travel around and every time we visit a location have 50 or 60 developers we can actually talk to, we can get to know each other a lot better. Building that relationship is very, very important.

The indie development space is always evolving, and perhaps now more than ever, and at great pace. How do you make sure ID@Xbox reflects that and meets changing needs?
Everything is changing so fast; the game developers that are successful and the games people like to play, how we showcase content, the events that are important to people, how you market your game. It is all changing so fast.

I think our role as a platform holder is to enable developers to develop games in an easy way, and to bring those games to market with as little barriers between them and the market as possible, and just to allow them to be creative.

That’s where we should focus, because it’s changing so fast. I wish I could predict what’s going to be great in six month’s time. But as long as we enable people to command and use our tools to create something that’s fantastic – something they have in mind – then we can repeat successes that have happened in the past. Would you have imagined Minecraft or those type of titles ten years ago?

But with digital distribution and the tools that we now offer to developers, those kind of ideas can actually happen, without us – or anybody actually – saying we should go there. Things will come up, and some developers will come up with an idea we have seen before, but maybe in a different way, and some will come up with the new, next big thing.

A stable platform for a dynamic user and space, then?
I wouldn’t say stable in that way. The platform keeps evolving and getting better and better over time, so it is changing. But ID@Xbox is a platform that is enabling people to experiment with ideas and push things in many areas without too many barriers. Game development is not the easiest thing to do, so you know, it’s a tough job. But the moment you lower the barrier to entry, effectively you enable creativity.

How should indies be thinking about their independence as they take their games to market through ID@Xbox?
We used to call independent developers ‘indies’, and now we’re finally moving on to ‘independent developers’, but we probably should start to think about moving on to ‘digital publishers’ too. They are publishers and they are companies: an entity deciding on the best path for them.

We get a lot of questions asking for various terms [about who we serve], but many are publishers. They decide what their route to market is. Some developers are self-publishing. More and more we are seeing developers working with collectives like Team17, Curve and so on, and they decide to go down that path.

And we’re seeing more traditional publishers are getting involved. There are so many different ways, and I think it all comes down to the developer thinking about what they are good at, what their strengths are, the product they have, the skillset they can bring in, and what the best approach is for them on an individual basis.

Often developers come to us ‘saying can you give us advice?’, and there’s not a generic answer. But you are an individual company or team, so think about what you can do with your character, and then take the right path.

If you’re great at developing a game, but also feel you are great at marketing yourself. That might be a tall order, but those that are very good at marketing themselves should maybe go down that path. If you’re developer that just wants to think about the creative aspects and you don’t want to think about anything else, maybe there is a different route for you.

And if developers need to know more?
The very important thing for me – and I very personally believe in it – is that developers should reach out to us and talk to us. We are just people; me, Chris [Charla] and the entire ID@Xbox team love what we do, and we love games.

Me and Chris come from an indie development background, so just reach out to us with any question, an opinion, anything you want to know. My door is always open to people that want to talk to me about this. It’s an important thing. That personal relationship; it’s what really drives this sector of the market.

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