Update: A Microsoft spokesperson has sent us the following statement regards launch parity:
“Our goal is not to limit developers who are interested in Xbox One. In instances where games have signed a timed exclusive with another platform, we’ll work with them on a case by case basis. We encourage them to get in touch at email@example.com.”
Our original report is below.
Microsoft’s ID@Xbox initiative is off to an excellent start, with the first wave of games to be showcased at GDC and released later this month. And yet questions remain over Microsoft’s controversial launch parity clause.
For the last few weeks we’ve been building a picture of Xbox One’s indie self-publishing program by speaking to a large number of studios signed up to the ID@Xbox scheme. What’s clear is that Microsoft is following in Sony’s footsteps, doing its utmost to woo indies to its platform by making processes simpler and offering support at every point of the submission and approval process.
Those efforts will step up a notch at GDC. Microsoft will host a press event at the trade show intended to emphasise its commitment to independent game development, and has invited developers in the ID@Xbox program to showcase their wares on its stand. The first wave of ID@Xbox games is expected to go live this month, with Born Ready Games’ Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut set to be among the first – if not the first – game released through the initiative. Studios have also told us that the ID@Xbox revenue split is the same as its competitors, 30 per cent for the platform, 70 per cent for the developer. We have contacted Microsoft for official comment on these matters and will update this story with any statement offered.
Xbox has become more open, fairer to indies and easier to work with, but it must now clarify its policy on launch parity. Remove the doubts around that, and indie games will thrive on Xbox One, potentially attracting the kind of goodwill Sony has enjoyed over the last year.
When the ID@Xbox scheme was first pitched to developers, studios were offered two Xbox One devkits, a Unity licence and the opportunity to self-publish their games. In return, Microsoft requested that their games would be released on Xbox One on the same day as other platforms – an obvious attempt to weaken PSN’s powerful indie line-up, but also a policy which causes headaches, not to mention additional upfront expense. That controversial caveat remains unpopular.
“Yes, launch parity is still a thing,” says Sixty Second Shooter Prime developer Jamie Fristrom, of Happion Laboratories. “In my talks with Microsoft they’ve shown no sign of backing down on that.” Another developer, who preferred not to be named, said: “I’m still upset about the launch parity, and in ongoing negotiations about that. I just think that is hurtful for our scene.”
Born Ready Games’ Strike Suit Zero: Director’s Cut, part of the first wave of ID@Xbox games to be released later this month, will be released on PlayStation 4 too – when asked about launch parity, studio CEO James Brooksby told us: “For us it’s OK, but for some I guess it could be a big issue – I have no idea if they can change it on a case by case basis. One day I guess it may change, but for now it seems quite solid.”
Zen Studios was one of the first 32 indies to sign up to ID@Xbox. According to vice president of publishing Mel Kirk, the studio’s dealings with Microsoft suggested that it has adopted a looser stance on launch parity of late. “We will soon announce a slate of titles for Xbox One, which will also launch on PlayStation 4 around the same time,” Kirk tells us. “Microsoft asked about our plans for the games up front and we simply shared what we planned to do. There were no issues with what we proposed, nor did they try to keep us from going to other platforms.”
The launch parity clause is up for negotiation, then, an unnecessarily cloudy issue in an otherwise excellent self-publishing program. Ignore that problem and in ID@Xbox we can see a vast improvement over XBLA’s convoluted processes. As suspected when ID@Xbox was suddenly announced at Gamescom 2013, though, the initiative had not really been conceived as part of the launch hardware’s offering, more a response to industry feedback.
“There’s still a lot of stuff that they have been figuring out on the fly, which isn’t ideal,” says Dave Lang, CEO of Divekick developer Iron Galaxy. “But if you gave me the choice of getting this program deployed as fast as possible with some rough edges or waiting in silence until they had everything figured out, I’m glad they opened it up, warts and all.”
Lang doesn’t have firm plans on when Iron Galaxy will release Divekick on Xbox One just yet, but Happion Laboratories’ Jamie Fristrom hopes to release Sixty Second Shooter Prime on Xbox One this spring. He says that while there have been a few hiccups on the way, Microsoft’s processes are much improved. “Mostly things have gone swimmingly,” he tells us. ”We made the decision to [join ID@Xbox] four weeks ago and the game is already running on the box and looks great at 1920x1280x60Hz.
“The process and paperwork, so far, has been a lot smoother and quicker than back in 2008 when I made Schizoid for XBLA,” continues Fristrom. “The new Xbox Live and how we work with it is more complicated than the old Live, and it’s a young program, so it feels like we’re blazing trails a bit. There’ve been a lot of e-mails back and forth as we were getting our devkits working, a process which Microsoft eventually wants to have be more automated. The good news is our DirectX 11 / Xaudio 2 code worked with almost no modifications, so we were able to make a ton of progress just on our PCs while we were solving devkit and online issues.”
Born Ready Games’ James Brooksby praises Microsoft’s efforts, while similarly acknowledging that the program is a little rough and ready. “It is early days and this means that it’s not perfect,” he tells us. “There are a lot of things that are new: new processes, new paperwork, new platform, new team…”
Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, meanwhile, considers ID@Xbox to be “slightly more complex than most platforms,” but still relatively streamlined. “Xbox One now features a relatively slick process that consists out of filling out a form or two, signing some superfluous legalese that every platform has and getting set up,” he tells us.
Managing director of Zen Studios Zsolt Kigyossy is sympathetic to the initiative’s quickfire beginnings, and appreciates that “some things might not move along as quickly as we would like.” “This is totally expected,” he tells us. “I believe Microsoft is taking the necessary steps to create a turnkey program that will help developers like Zen get their game to the Xbox One audience in an efficient way.”
Project Cars studio Slighty Mad, meanwhile, has nothing but praise for the initiative. “In terms of getting hold of devkits, the spreading of knowledge and getting the contacts that we need to make the launch of Project Cars a success, ID@Xbox has been very positive so far,” says creative director Andy Tudor. “When it comes to organising the launch, identifying how we’re going to get players to be made aware of the game, tracking how many people are playing…all that stuff is just a phone call or an email away.”
And alongside greater technical support, there’s a new human face to Microsoft’s indie developer relations: Chris Charla. To a man, the indies we contacted praised his approachability, enthusiasm and – perhaps most importantly – his sway within Microsoft.
The platform holder contacted Vlambeer about the ID@Xbox program a few months before its official unveiling, and it was Charla’s name which piqued the studio’s interest. “He’s the one guy you’d hear about as ‘a good person at Microsoft to talk to’ when you talked to indies that had worked with the platform before,” says Vlambeer’s Ismail. “They’ve been really good about things, although often ‘corporate Microsoft’ will peek around the corner, which means that you can do more silly and creative things with Sony. They’re definitely trying, though, and they’ve got the right person at the right place. If head of ID@Xbox Chris says he’s working on something, you can trust that it’s happening.”
Divekick studio Iron Galaxy also singled out the program’s figurehead for praise. “Chris Charla is great about getting back to us with any questions we might have,” CEO Dave Lang tells us. “He definitely has a passion for getting this thing figured out in a way that’s best for indies.”
Microsoft’s more personable approach to indies has also impressed Ben Ruiz, artist and combat designer at Aztez developer Team Colorblind. “So far it’s been great,” he tells us. “We’ve been interfacing with one individual, and he’s been very supportive. Developer application was smooth, dev kits showed up quickly, and we were up and running on the console within a day.”
So let’s applaud Microsoft for quickly putting together an indie self-publishing initiative which apparently didn’t exist at all until just after E3 2013. It might be considered another sharp detour in policy from the Xbox we first saw in May 2013, but like all of the other revisions to the console, it is a positive one.
Despite all of that, Sony’s PlayStation ecosystem remains the more developer friendly. But Microsoft, Chris Charla and his ID@Xbox program is making a good fist of staging a fightback. “If it is a fight, I don’t even think the first blow has been landed as the second contender has not even climbed into the ring yet,” says Born Ready Games boss James Brooksby.
Expect Microsoft to throw its first punches in earnest at GDC, then. And whatever it announces, it must lose that controversial launch caveat, adds Vlambeer’s Ismail. “Sony still has the better deal, since they don’t have launch parity requirements,” he tells us. “I also think Sony has won a lot of loyalty by having been approachable for the past few years, while Microsoft sort of needs to fight back an image of being terrible to work with.”