The evolution of ID@Xbox - an interview with director Chris Charla

We caught up with Chris Charla, Director of the ID@Xbox program at PAX Australia, to look at some of the new Aussie and international games to hit the platform
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We also discussed the beginning of the program, where it is now and what the biggest hurdles are moving forward.

So ID@Xbox was more than a little inundated out the gate. How have things been since launch?

Yeah, so we were overwhelmed at first by developers’ responses to the program, which is awesome - it’s one of those things where it’s a good problem to have, but still a problem. So we’ve been working really hard to try and make things to smoother for the people between when they apply and when we’re able to send them dev kits.

We do have some constraints: human resource constraints, hardware allocation restrains, but we’re sending out kits as fast as we can. 

We’re also also really trying to increase the level of communication we’re doing with everybody who’s applied to the program whether we’ve been able to send them kits yet or not, let them know exactly what’s going on, exactly what the next steps are as well as just other things which are going on which would be of interest to them.

This is both inside Microsoft (new things we’re doing, beta programs they can get into) or external to Microsoft - the most recent one (and it’s sort of silly) was us sending emails to everyone who’s in the Bay area who’s applied to ID@Xbox to make sure they can get VIP access to the ‘Day of the Devs' event that Double Fine is putting on. 

So we’re trying it as a sort of soft benefit. We’re trying to make sure that we’re improving the messaging, just as we’re trying to improve every aspect of the program.

I’ve read about developers complaining that developing Xbox-specific games when they’ve established contact but haven’t yet signed a contract is a bit risky, especially with Kinect having no easy substitute if a game falls through. Is that something you’ve found is a problem on your end?

We pretty much stay true to our word. If we’re talking to you and we’re excited to have the game on Xbox, we stand by that. Obviously we need a publishing contract to spell out how the money gets distributed and all that, but I can’t think of any situation where anything bad has happened like that.

Sometimes developers have questions about the contracts and we’re always happy to go over them and explain them, especially for some new developers who maybe haven’t done a lot of contract work before.

So maybe these developers can’t afford a lawyer and maybe they’re trying to do the contract themselves. Contracts have legal language in them and they can be intimidating to look at - any contract. We’ll always look to work through them, explain contracts, that sort of thing.

Do you work closely on the game concepts with the developers before the contracts signed?

Not a ton. The way it works is that developers submit their concept, then it gets concept approved, then once it’s concept approved we sign the contract which guarantees them the publishing slot on the platform and spells out all the business arrangements and that sort of thing. If a developer asks for feedback, we always give it and we’re always happy to give it, but it’s not something where there’s this huge iterative process to get your game concept approved.

We think concept approval is really there not so that we can be censors, but so that we can make sure that the content is appropriate for the platform.

So you don’t have people trying to make crap like iBoobs for Kinect or anything like that.

Yeah, exactly.

So the response was overwhelming at the start, but things are filtering through now?

Yeah absolutely. We have games shipping on a regular cadence (I think we’ve shipped three games in October). I think this time of year is typically light for a lot of the smaller games because we have a lot of the big games coming so I think a lot of developers will try and wait until after the holidays, which makes sense, but we’ve got hundreds of games in development right now. 

We have hundreds and hundreds of developers with dev kits (a lot of developers from Australia doing games, a lot of whom are on the booth today). We feel like it’s going pretty well! Obviously we can always be doing better and we’re always working to be doing better, but yeah - pretty well.

Is ID@Xbox an Xbox One exclusive program or would you consider those games for 360?

ID@Xbox is there to enable developers to self-publish their games on Xbox One, but obviously we’re always eager to help developers all across the Microsoft ecosystem. 

It’s really common that we’ll see a game and know that there’s some internal initiative going on at Microsoft on PC that relates to that game in some way (either a hardware feature of some kind of maybe an initiative they’re doing with the cloud), and we’ll immediately hook them up with the tight people at Microsoft.

Similarly, we’re constantly getting introductions to developers from people who are like “Oh, I met these guys at a cloud gaming conference, and they’re doing these interesting things with Azure, and we think they should be on Xbox” and we’re super-excited to get those invites. The program itself is specifically Xbox right now, but certainly we try and we do maintain a really good swath of communication across the company.

One of the places where we’ve been really lucky at ID@XBox (because so many people at Microsoft are excited about independent games) is that we have lots of people talking to us from all over Microsoft all the time, and it’s been a fantastic avenue of information to get knowledge about developers back and forth all across the company.

And people can cold email to get interested in the program, which I’d imagine that’s how the majority of people do…

Yeah, by far!

In terms of kicking it up a gear and trying to reach out if that initial email doesn’t get an immediate response and someone’s not sure whether to progress with development on that platform, what would be, in your opinion, the next best way to reach out? Would it be GDC or something similar?

Reaching out in person is always great. It’s awesome to meet developers. I spend all my free time here at PAX just over in the indie area wandering around talking to people because we’re always talking to developers who might not know about the program or who we can talk to.

But the biggest piece of advice I’d give people when they apply to the program is that we will look at every application very closely. We will go to web links and that sort of thing, but just making sure that people fill out the application robustly. That’s probably the best piece of advice I could give. 

Also if you’ve got a web site with your screenshots of your previous work on it, that’s awesome. We’ve had some situations where there’s a developer which is new, but is made up of people who have left maybe Triple A studios or other developers and have this amazing pedigree that you’d be super excited to have developing for the platform, but when they fill out the application they didn’t mention any of the games they had worked on.

It’s tricky when you get an email saying “I didn’t hear from you and I’ve worked on all this stuff” and you’re like “Well you didn’t tell us!” So the best piece of advice I’d give people is to not be afraid to really go into details on your histories and everything else.

Rami Ismael’s closing address at GCAP this year was him lambasting people to be more confident and outspoken when promoting their games. Would you suggest that as far as getting ID@Xbox goes as well?

Absolutely, and I think it’s really hard. I know, when I was a developer (and even today when I do my own personal projects), that great people are frequently really modest. And even if you’re not great, it’s hard to get out there and talk about yourself because it’s just not what our culture encourages, right?

But you have to understand that when you’re making an independent game (or really any kind of project), promotion is part of what you need to do! You shouldn’t be embarrassed to promote yourself or talk about the things you’ve done. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t be afraid to get out there and tell people what you’ve done.

It’s hard. It might be too hard. And if it’s too hard for you and it’s something you’re really not comfortable doing, well now you know who you need to partner with. Rami might be a good example, because he is certainly a really outspoken, outgoing individual and his partner I think is the quieter ‘just wants to work on the game’ individual, and that’s what makes a great partnership!

If you have trouble telling everybody how great you are, find somebody who doesn’t and work with them.

In terms of the pricing structures on Xbox One, to what extent do developers have the autonomy to set their own pricing?

Well, we work with developers to figure out what the game should be sold at.

It gets really complicated. Legally, Microsoft is the retailer of the game and we set the retail price and the developer sets the wholesale price, and then we make business arrangements based on that. But we are not in the business of doing things that developers don’t want to do.

I don’t think you’d be able to find somebody who’d be able to say that they were unhappy with what the price point of their game is.

I suppose I ask because in other walled garden situations like the App Store, that race to the bottom is one of the defining moments in digital distribution. Are you interested in trying to keep Xbox Live games at premium?

I’m not the marketplace guy, so I can’t really say, but I think that if you look at the price of games on Xbox, they’re fair. And clearly, based on sales, people are happy to pay them, and I think the developers are getting a fair deal at the prices that they’re charging for their games and I think it’s working for everybody right now.

There was a parity clause which was maligned at the beginning of ID@Xbox wherein developers couldn’t have a delay in between the Xbox One launch and a launch on any other platforms. Is that still around?

It’s a tricky thing, because it’s really part of our publishing policies, and it’s not something we talk about publicly, which can be frustrating, and I apologise. 

I can’t talk about it, but what I can say is that while we can’t talk about publicly, we certainly talk about it to developers all the time. And so if a developer has any questions, they should just get in touch, and we’re really not interested in keeping great games off of Xbox. We want to make sure that we have a great path for developers to ship some cool games on Xbox, and if they have any questions about any of our publishing policies they should just get in touch with ID@Xbox.com.

Are there any plans for growth for the program in the immediate future?

I think that like half this booth is ID@Xbox games, so it’s already quite large, but we’ll probably double the number of developers with dev kits on hand by next July.

Developers might be a little fatigued right now with some of the uncertainty around just how much promotion their games will get when they’re brought into other distribution programs. Do you feel you have an edge on competing platforms in that way?

I can’t really comment on other companies’ structures, but I think for developers (and maybe for everybody), the goal posts are always moving. Whatever worked for promotion six years ago or six months ago probably isn’t going to work now because promotion is all about standing out and to be standing out, you kind of always need to be doing something a little bit fresh.

So we really see our job as being to help amplify the developers’ promotion, and that’s why you see half the booth at PAX Australia as ID games. 

Sure, these guys could all get booths if they’re here in Australia already, but it might be tough for the guys from #IDARB to fly down from the Bay area to get a booth. By showcasing the game here we’re basically using Microsoft resources to help promote the game, and it’s something we think is really important, because at the end of the day we want players to have this huge array of sweet games when they turn on their Xbox, and that actually doesn’t matter if they don’t know that they’re there.

So making sure that we display the games on our store front and making sure that we show the games before they come out is something we think is really important.

Thank you for your time!

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