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The give and take of ID@Xbox: Deco Digital's story - MCV

The give and take of ID@Xbox: Deco Digital's story

Pneuma: Breath of Life producer Joe Brammer offers advice on how to get the most from Microsoft’s indie initiative
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In 2014, when I was 21, I applied and was accepted onto the newly-announced ID@Xbox program. Today, we’re currently launching our first game Pneuma: Breath of life on both Steam and next-gen consoles. I’m hoping that this write-up will give people looking to get onto the ID@Xbox program an insight into how we did it and what worked for us.

Some important things to remember: we had no money, we had to work in bars and clubs at night to survive in our tiny office during the day. But, we also had two Xbox One dev kits and a game idea.

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Getting onto the program

Don’t just fill in an application form with your game idea and contact details and expect Microsoft to send you two Xbox One development kits. You may think ‘Microsoft make Xbox’s, why can’t they just give developers them for free?’, but the truth is, they have to come out of somebody’s budget. You need to show ID@Xbox why you should be given a dev kit and why they should spend money on you. It’s free for you, but c’mon, nothing’s free!

When we applied, we decided we would make it so they couldn’t say no. We filled out the form. We also included, a prototype, a design document, concept art, a video walkthrough of us playing the prototype and added a voiceover of us explaining what would be happening if this prototype was the finished product.

Remember, you want to reduce the amount of steps the decision maker has to take to review your game and request. A nice and easy video link can be reviewed almost anywhere.

I think the prototype is important, but sending a prototype video explaining your ideas and plans is the closest you will get to a one-to-one meeting with Chris Charla [head of ID@Xbox] without actually meeting with him. We created this video for all the platforms Pneuma is currently on, which has always gone down well and seems to expedite the process. Sharing the prototype is easy: you could upload an unlisted video to YouTube, you could send over a Dropbox link of your demo build, or you could simply send the game file – but remember, you want to reduce the amount of steps the decision maker has to take to review your game and request. A nice and easy video link can be reviewed almost anywhere.

On top of this, never stop developing your game and work as if you have dev kits already. You can do the Xbox work later. Xbox will be pleased if you keep updating them every month with your progress and eventually if your game is good enough, they’ll make sure you’ve got what you need.

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Marketing your ID title

Marketing is one of the toughest obstacles for indie developers to overcome. There are many angles you can take and lots of developers will tell you what worked for them. I can only share what we did and why it worked for us.

ID@Xbox isnot your marketing department. We have a very ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself’ attitude distilled at Deco Digital. We decided very early on that we would consider the dev kits a gift and we’d run our studio as if we weren’t working with Xbox at all. To us, this meant we’d do all our own marketing, our own promotion, and organise our own interviews. So when ID@Xbox came to us with a bunch of support and offered to help us with promotion, that was a bonus! We made sure we were self-sufficient and that we never relied on Xbox to make our game a success.

For many indies, complete openness throughout the development cycle is a great way of marketing your game. Vlambeer stream the development of Nuclear Throne live on their Twitch channel where they gauge lots of community interaction and interest, which works brilliantly for them. We took a different route.

For many indies, complete openness throughout the development cycle is a great way of marketing your game.

The internet is full of information. If we slowly bled out information about Pneuma: Breath of Life to the gaming community, it would have remained just information on the massive database that is the internet. We decided to make an ‘infosplosion’. We made sure nothing was announced – in fact, we even told people we were working on a robot sports game. Then when ID@Xbox confirmed they would be taking us to Gamescom 2014, we announced.

We released short trailers and screenshots teasing at what the game would be, releasing a big enough amount to make a splash, but also a small enough amount to make people debate about what the end product would be. We created a topic for discussion. The seed for Pneuma: Breath of Life was planted and then able to grow from that initial interest every time we released an announcement.

Releasing your ID title

Console development isn’t easy. ID@Xbox made it a lot easier, but for a group of 22-year-olds, going through certification or ‘cert’ was one of the most daunting tasks we had ever faced. Many indies will have been through cert before either as an indie or with a big studio. If you’re in a similar situation to us, take this quote from one of our team below to summarise your time to come:

“No, I have no idea what happens when you plug in four controllers, do a backflip, unplug the controller and then try and restart Level 6.”

ID@Xbox were great at making the cert process easier. The Xbox cert review team recognised our situation and talked to us. They weren’t going to take our hand and walk us through it, but they acknowledged that we were an indie title that had not been through cert before. Luckily, we have excellent programmers, so although cert was daunting and at times difficult and arbitrary, it’s possible. ID@Xbox supplied us with good documentation and even sent us a booklet explaining the process.

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Ratings

Yes, you have to get your game rated and yes, this costs money. Some indies are in a great position where they have the funds to keep developing their product. But if you’re like us, it can put you in a bind. Luckily, we had a friend who bailed us out. This section is a warning to indies; your title needs ratings for the regions you release in and it will cost over £1,000. Saying that, ESRB for North America is free and that’s 75% of your market.

Summary

ID@Xbox is a great program that has helped us and many studios like us be heard. However, ID@Xbox is not your personal marketing team. Think of it as Microsoft giving you a gift or an opportunity and if you become self-sufficient you’ll thrive in their program.

ID@Xbox is give and take. If you work hard and operate as if you’re alone, so you’re ready to announce your game and you already have a press release with a full press kit available, Microsoft will be able to easily take what you have and turn it into promotion on their pages. Put yourself in a situation where you’re incredibly easy to be supported.

ID@Xbox is an opportunity – make the most of it and give your indie game the care and attention it deserves.

Pneuma: Breath of Life will be released for Xbox One on Friday, February 27th. If you have any questions about ID@Xbox and Deco Digital’s experiences, tweet Brammer via @Brammertron.

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