PlayStation has aggressively courted and attracted huge independent developer support in recent months, and even dedicated an entire Gamescom press conference to showcasing indie-made games.
But now Xbox is fighting back with its ID@Xbox initiative. MCV learns more from the programme’s director Chris Charla...
Why launch this independent developer programme? Is it in response to PlayStation?
The origins of this programme go all the way back to the architecture of the Xbox One. This is something we have been planning for a long time. If you go back to the Xbox 360, and you see what we did with Xbox Live Indie Games, you can see where this started. That was our self-publishing programme on Xbox 360, and I think we got a lot of things right with that. Every retail kit was a dev kit.
The community curation was an interesting experiment that I think was very successful for that programme. We brought a lot of great creators into the Xbox ecosystem. But the things that were challenging were that you couldn’t access the whole Live stack. You didn’t have access to Gamerscore or achievements. The indie games were sold in a separate section on the marketplace, which at some phases in the Dashboard’s history made them difficult to discover for casual players.
Talking to developers who came through that programme and those who worked on XBLA, and just thinking about what’s best for independent developers, was really the genesis of this programme.
Why do indie developers matter? Common consensus is that indie games aren’t system sellers.
Independent developers are hugely important for the entire games industry ecosystem. When I look at everything that is happening in game development as a player, I am massively excited by games such as Titanfall, Call of Duty and Halo. I love those games. But I am equally excited when I see games like Papers, Please, or Gone Home, or Limbo, or Castle Crashers.
"I would argue there has certainly been
system sellers that have been independent
games – Minecraft is a system seller. On
Xbox One, I think Killer Instinct is going
to sell systems. That is by an independent
developer in Double Helix."
Chris Charla – programme director, ID@Xbox
It just speaks to video games no-longer having to be this or having to be that. Video games can be a hugely diverse thing. Independent developers have the freedom to do more quirky titles, and do different things. And at the end of the day, it's about when you turn on your Xbox One, you just see the broadest, most diverse spectrum of entertainment around. That is why they are so important because they bring that spectrum to players.
I got my Xbox 360 on the day it came out, I stood in line in the freezing rain to get it. And my big ‘next-gen’ moment during the 360 lifecycle was when I came home on a Wednesday and turned on my console and suddenly there was a new game to play that hadn’t been there before. Every Wednesday there was a new Xbox Live Arcade game to play. It was like rushing home from school to watch a TV show when you were a kid. That is what was really cool to me about it.
But can they help you sell Xbox One hardware?
I would argue there has certainly been system sellers that have been independent games – Minecraft is a system seller. On Xbox One, I think Killer Instinct is going to sell systems. That is by an independent developer in Double Helix.
It is all about bringing this rich tapestry of diverse content to players.
By removing the indie section of the store, is there not a concern that some of these smaller titles might get lost on Xbox Live?
We are going to have some amazing discovery tools on Xbox One. We are going to have the things you expect: new releases, most popular, best-selling and that sort of thing. But there’s a couple of other bits that I think will be really interesting.
One is Trending, which will surface games that you friends are playing and the gaming community is playing, which is a really interesting way to learn about new games. It is absolutely how I learn about new games the most right now. While I hit all the games media sites, I tend to learn about new games through Twitter. If I see someone mention a game on Twitter, I might not take notice of it, but when I see it mentioned twice or three times, I have to check it out and then you find something special.
The other thing we are doing with discovery that’s interesting is game DVR. We’re all going to be uploading pictures and videos of headshots.
But what’s really exciting about it is that when I upload something from a game that only a few people have seen before, people will see it and go: ‘Oh what’s that?’ I think that is going to drive a lot of sales and be a great viral discovery mechanism.
My friend called me back in 2010 and said there’s this really cool new sandbox game called Minecraft I should try out. I wasn’t sure, so I went on YouTube and saw some Minecraft videos and so then I bought it immediately. I think that is a really important thing.
You’re giving priority to established developers. What’s your message to those indie start-ups?
We are giving priority to established developers at this early phase. That’s really to help us to shape the programme and make sure we get all the kinks out. But we want to open this up as broadly as possible and as quickly as possible.
"We are giving priority to established developers
at this early phase. That’s really to help us
to shape the programme and make sure we
get all the kinks out. But we want to open this
up as broadly as possible and as quickly as possible."
Chris Charla – programme director, ID@Xbox
Mark Whitten (chief product officer at Xbox) has laid out his plan that any retail Xbox One has the capability of being a dev kit, and that speaks to a larger mission about Xbox One. Which is in addition to being the world’s best platform for enjoying entertainment content, whether it is the huge array of games, movies or TV, we really want Xbox One to be a great machine for creating content at every level.
Whether that’s triple-A studios like the guys behind Titanfall, to mid-size studios working with Microsoft studios or have come through the ID@Xbox programme, down to new developers, hobbyists, tinkerers, people who just want to goof around with the retail kit dev kit stuff. And the people that can’t code at all, people like my son who is 12 and can’t programme yet. But there is a game called Project Spark, which anyone can use to make game experiences by using Kinect.
We really had this vision that whatever level you are as a creator, you can use your Xbox to create as well as enjoy. That’s what I find really exciting about Xbox One.
You say it’s fee-free. But is it really free?
There’s no fees with the programme. There’s no hidden fees. We are not saying: “There are no fees for content updates, BUT…” There are just no fees.
Why has it taken so long to get this indie programme out there? It feels a bit late to announce this…
We have a lot to talk about with Xbox One. At E3 and before we had a lot to talk about. We haven’t even released a system yet, so I would say it’s not a late announcement at all, it’s actually quite a timely one.
You’re personally involved in dealing with indies. What made you ideal for the role?
I worked at Microsoft Studios on Xbox Live Arcade Games as portfolio director over the last three years. I was really focused on independent developers and deeply involved in the independent community.
Before I worked at Microsoft I worked at an independent developer. All my friends are independent developers. It is the community I come from and associate with. I have a huge interest in short-form digital content. I love big games, but I really love small games. Games that make sense as XBLA-type games. I was one of dozens of people across the company that was working together to get this programme in shape.