Chris Charla on ID@Xbox, Microsoft’s bid to harness the power of indie games on Xbox One

Chris Charla 1

Clearly, it’s early days for Microsoft’s new indie self-publishing initiative, ID@Xbox. The director of the program Chris Charla cannot confirm when we’ll see the first game released through ID@Xbox, when we’ll be able to turn Xbox One into a devkit or even when the program was conceived – perhaps for fear or confirming that yes, the ID@Xbox announcement at Gamescom was part of several changes to Microsoft’s approach since E3.

Importantly, though, we do get the sense that Microsoft is listening, and ID@Xbox is designed to counter the perception that the platform holder isn’t interested in indie games. Charla was once XBLA’s portfolio director (not to mention a former indie himself), and his team have done plenty for the indie scene in the past; as he says below, breakthrough games like Braid were thrust into the spotlight thanks in no small part to Microsoft’s support. Though that commitment to indies appears to have waned a little more recently, ID@Xbox’s intention is to redouble Microsoft’s efforts in this area. It might be early on in the program, but we know that Microsoft isn’t afraid to invest heavily once it commits to an idea – it’s now Charla and his team’s job to make Xbox One as welcoming to indies as Sony has made PlayStation, if not more so.

Can you tell us a little about how the ID@Xbox program got started internally, and who came up with the idea?

It’s been something that we’ve been planning since we architected Xbox One, we’ve known we were going to do something like this. And there’s been just a huge number of people internally from all different groups, first party, third party, platform, who’ve been meeting about this for a while. I wish I could say it was all my idea but I can’t – it was really a bunch of different people’s ideas, you know, all working to solve this problem with ID@Xbox.

Why announce it at Gamescom, and not before at E3 or back in May?

Honestly, we just had a lot to talk about before. It’s been something we’ve been working on and now was kinda the time to announce it.

So I’m an indie developer and I’d like to release my game on Xbox One – I register with you, what happens next?

Independent developers apply on the website and we started emailing people last week to let people know that the next step is. If they don’t have one already, we’re going to execute an NDA and then we basically send them two devkits at no charge. And then when they have a title they want to release they just send us a really simple game information form – we’re not looking to be censors, it’s really just to make sure it’s not something super inappropriate. And then we get them a title ID and they work on the game. When they’re getting ready to ship they get in touch with our release managers and then we help them through the cert process. And then it goes up on the Xbox Game Store.

Microsoft has been listening to feedback from indies like Capy, which is releasing Below first on Xbox One.

Has the program been subject to much feedback from indies you’re working with, the likes of Capy?

Yeah absolutely. As we were getting ready to announce the program and as the ideas for the program were taking shape in a concrete form, we went out and did a listening tour over several months. We talked to more than 60 different independent developers, we talked to a lot of guys you’d expect – guys like Capy who we work with and are able to give us great feedback.

We talked to as wide a gamut as we could, from developers who are one man shops all the way up to 100 plus people shops. We didn’t want to ship a program that was only fit for one little slice, because our goal is to have it so that when a consumer turns on the Xbox One they see a huge, broad, diverse array of content. And for us that comes from a huge broad range of developers.

During this listening tour, what were the standout suggestions from indies in terms of what they wanted from Xbox One?

One of the biggest ones, and it was good to hear because it was where our heads were too, was all about discoverability and really being in the same marketplace as an independent developer self-publishing their game on Xbox One as any other game is going to be in.

I think the independent development community, just in the last couple of years, has matured and grown so much that the idea that you need some separate marketplace for independently-developed or independently-published content is trending towards old fashioned at this point.

On Xbox One’s marketplace we think some of the stuff we are doing with discovery is going to be super helpful for all games, all entertainment content and for independent developers, especially.

ID@Xbox was announced during Microsoft’s Xbox One event at Gamescom.

So if you’ve been speaking to indie developers all this time, do you feel like you’ve missed an opportunity to emphasise that Xbox One is an indie-friendly console from the start? Coming out of E3 that certainly wasn’t the perception of the console. Do you regret not opening up about this a little earlier?

We’re excited about talking about it and as we’ve been talking to independent developers about it they’re really excited about it too. Before Gamescom we had a ton of talks – and when I say talks, honestly, it was really more listening – and then at Gamescom we had these fantastic meetings. And also at Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, it was this fantastic response and fantastic talks with tons and tons of different developers. We sponsored the indie megabooth and got to know a lot of the guys there and it’s been really great so we’re pretty excited about it.

The timing of this will lead some to suggest that ID@Xbox is a response to what Sony is doing with indies and PlayStation. Do you feel you’re a little late to the party here?

When I look back the history of the Xbox platform overall, we really pioneered downloadable distribution for consoles and I feel back in 2008 we really launched the golden age of indies with what we did with Summer Of Arcade and games like Braid and Castle Crashers. One of the things I’m really proud of was that with Xbox 360 we were able to create a super sustainable ecosystem for independent developers where guys were able to be really successful both critically and commercially. And we’re really excited about bringing that same type of sustainable, awesome ecosystem to Xbox One.

So when you see guys like Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow being very critical of Microsoft on Twitter  – after a lot of their success is down to XBLA – is that upsetting to read? Do you feel like they’re being a little ungrateful?

You know want? We love getting feedback and that’s the bottom line. We’re probably like a lot of companies, we love getting feedback from developers however they want to deliver it and we take it to heart. I would say all of Microsoft – the XBLA team and my new team, ID@Xbox, we want feedback and we want to always do better. Our goal is to lower friction for developers to get on the box.

One indie has an idea for a game involving Kinect, SmartGlass and a cat. Watch this space.

What about Kinect? The tech seems ideal for party games or smaller, quirkier kinds of games and that in turn feels well suited to the indie scene. Are you encouraging indies to use that tech?

Absolutely. If you look at some of the stuff that was done by Kinect hackers right after it was released on Windows, and obviously since then, there’s been some amazing stuff. One of the really cool things about this program is that independent developers who come through the ID@Xbox program are going to have access to every single feature of the hardware – Kinect, SmartGlass, Gamerscores, Achievements, even being able to control the little motors we have in the triggers on the new controller. One of the things I’m personally most jazzed about is going to be seeing what these incredibly innovative and incredibly creative and experimental developers do when they get access to the full gamut of Xbox One’s hardware. And Kinect especially. I think we’re going to see some really amazing things that we almost can’t even predict right now.

We’re not mandating Kinect or anything like that but even in talks I had with developers at PAX, they were super excited about Kinect and they have some super crazy, super innovative ideas. I think I teased this when I was on the Major Nelson podcast – I’m friends with a developer and they’ve already got this crazy idea for a game on Xbox One – it uses Kinect, Smartglass and a cat. They told me the idea and it is, like, out there. I’m excited to see that sort of stuff come to Xbox One.

What I think Sony has done really well is made their platform feel human, in a sense, by being personable and approachable at trade shows, in the media and through Twitter. Do you feel like there’s a job to be done when it comes to ‘humanising’ Microsoft? That is, making sure it’s not seen as this big faceless corporation?

I can assure you that everyone that works at Microsoft is a human being…

We can’t really worry about what other people are doing, just what we’re doing. I think we’re building the absolute best machine that has ever been built for enjoying entertainment. But we’re also not just making a machine that’s just great for enjoying content, but it’s also something that’ll enable anyone that owns one to create content.

To me that’s one of the most exciting things about Xbox One – you’re going to have top teams like Respawn and indie developers like Capy, but then we’ve announced that at some point every retail kit will be able to be used to develop games and I think that that will create an explosion in creativity. Everyone, whether they’re a new developer or a student or a hobbyist is going to be able to use their Xbox One to create content. Even to people who can’t code at all, or have no interest in learning how to code, they’ll be able to use things like Project Spark to make game experiences.

Project Spark will allow Xbox One owners to become creators, with full devkit capabilities to come.

Is there a timeline in place for when we’ll see all of that?

We haven’t announced any timelines on that yet.

What needs to happen before Xbox One owners can go ahead make a game on their console? Presumably you’ll have to line up a load of tools to allow people to do that? Is that where your partnership with Unity comes in?

First things first, please let us ship! But yeah, we’re excited about our partnership with Unity, there’s nothing specific to announce around Unity or anything else, but yeah, we’re gonna get there. But we’ve got to ship a console first and that’s what our focus is on until November.

Are we looking at early to middle of next year for the devkit functionality?

We’re not going to talk about any timelines today.

Let’s talk about launch day, then – is there a dream line-up of indie games you’re looking to have at launch? How close to that line-up are you?

The game that’s coming from an independent developer that I’m most excited about for launch day is probably Killer Instinct from Double Helix – that’s just me personally. In terms of games that are coming through this program, I’m not in a position to be able to talk about games that are coming through right now.

So are there going to be any games released through ID@Xbox on day one?

We’ll have to see. We’ve just announced the program, we’ve got teams that are excited about moving forward, but I can’t really talk about timelines.

I would imagine you have plenty of indie games to sift through right now, how are you prioritising which ones to wave through? Is it more commercially appealing games, more unusual ones? What’s the thought process here?

First if all we’re not looking to be the censors or put up some giant greenlight wall that people have to get over – we’re really looking for independent developers to bring us games that they believe in and that they feel passionate about. If you look at the breadth of content available to players on Xbox 360, then that’s the kinda stuff we’re looking for. Right now what we’re looking at is the developers we start the program with are experienced and can give us really good feedback on how the make it better, and ways to lower the barriers to get great developers onto the platform. So as we start the program, in the very early stages, we’re focusing a little bit more on teams that have a history of shipping games on console or elsewhere, just because those are the guys that are going to give us that early feedback that we need. As we open the program up more broadly, we’ll make a better experience for everybody.

So is this going to be a slow trickle of games for now, until the program gets up and running next year?

We’ve gotten back to several hundred developers over the last few days and we’re continuing to do that. We’re reading a lot of applications per day that are going through and we’re not putting developers on a timeline – like ‘hey, you need to ship a game by X date’. This is a program that enables them to be independent publishers and ultimately they set the dates, so it’s hard to give timelines for that reason.

We ran a story recently in which we quoted Gaijin games, the team behind War Thunder, saying that cross platform multiplayer, online free to play and self-publishing have all yet to be finalised on Xbox One. Are they right?

This is what I can say: any games that come through ID@Xbox can take advantage of anything that any other game that ships on Xbox One can take advantage of. That means business models, that means hardware access, that means discoverability on the dashboard. Our vision is really that a game is a game is a game is a game.