Indies praise Xbox One self-publishing – but Microsoft must drop its launch parity policy

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Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program has been received well among the indies we spoke to, but launch parity remains a concern.

The ID@Xbox program is being hailed as a success by indies releasing games through the initiative, but Microsoft must revise its launch parity policy if Xbox One is to become as indie-friendly as rival PS4.

During GDC Microsoft announced that that it has sent Xbox One devkits to over 250 independent studios, and it also confirmed a roster of 25 self-published games to be released through ID@Xbox in the coming weeks and months. While the indies we spoke to at the GDC launch event were delighted with how much friendlier Microsoft has been in recent months, there were still lingering concerns over launch parity.

Many indies have voiced their concerns over the clause, and even Sony has taken a swipe at its rival’s stance on indie self-pubishing – before GDC PlayStation’s VP of publisher and developer relations Adam Boyes tweeted a ‘list’ of platforms developers are not allowed to release their games on before they hit PSN. So, at the ID@Xbox event we asked corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Xbox division Phil Harrison if he’d seen the tweet, and what he thought of it.

“I laughed,” he said. “Taking aside competitive positioning and all of that, the winners in all of this are game players. There are more games coming out for these platforms, there are more developers creating for these platforms, there are more fresh minds coming into our industry than any time in recent memory. And that’s so, so important to the future of our industry.”

Xbox VP Phil Harrison told us he is working to bring as many indie games as possible through ID@Xbox – it’d certainly help if Microsoft dropped its launch parity policy.

Harrison continued to stress the progress Microsoft had made with indies through the ID@Xbox program, but could not give any further update on when or if Microsoft might drop the launch parity clause. “It’s difficult to debate these kind of commercial relationships in a media interview so you’ll forgive me for not going into the details,” he said. “What I would say is that everybody in our program, whether it’s a developer or people on the platform side working with Chris [Charla, ID@Xbox boss] is committed to making sure the best games are on Xbox One. That’s our job, basically, if you boil it all down to the essence of what a game platform is, it’s to make sure that the biggest, best, most exciting, most creative games are on your platform and we are working super hard to make that happen.”

So while Microsoft continues to negotiate launch parity with developers on a case-by-case basis – and it has said it is open to feedback – the fact remains that it’s an unwanted and unnecessary obstacle for many smaller studios. “I can only speak for us personally but simultaneously shipping is pretty challenging, you need a little bit more time and bigger team,” Capy co-founder and president Nathan Vella told us. “I do think that it’s not ideal.”

Hyper Light Drifter creator Alex Preston is head of four-person studio Heart Machine. The studio is looking to release the game on both Sony and Microsoft consoles around the same time, said Preston. “Sony was great to us initially so I don’t think we’re going to push the Xbox version before we do the Sony platform versions. The parity thing is a problem. It’s not a good policy for Microsoft and I definitely don’t think it helps small developers. There’s not really any reason to do it and it’s one of those old relic things…I think we’ll see it disappear eventually.”

“The parity thing is a problem. It’s not a good policy for Microsoft and I definitely don’t think it helps small developers.”
Alex Preston, Heart Machine

Drinkbox Studios’ Guacamelee has already debuted on PlayStation platforms, and a special edition is slated for release on Xbox One and Wii U. Studio co-founder Ryan MacLean summed up the thoughts of several other indie studios at the event. “From the perspective of a developer the ideal thing would be complete freedom to release on any platform you want,” he said. “I can kind of understand the platform holder’s preference – I guess they don’t want to be second in line.”

Hyper Light Drifter will be released on Sony platforms before Xbox One, says creator Alex Preston.

It should be noted that some studios with the time and resources required to execute a multiplatform launch see launch parity as a positive move, however. Nicalis’ 1001 Spikes is ready for submission to Microsoft, says Tyrone Rodriguez, and once it passes will be launched on Xbox One, PS4, Vita, 3DS, Wii U, PC and Mac simultaneously. “For us it’s a good thing because it forces us to be disciplined,” said Rodriguez. “If there wasn’t something like that in place, then we’d release it on different platforms over six months. It’s easiest for me as far as promoting and marketing the game goes to release them all simultaneously, because I only have to do it once and people won’t lose interest in it.”

Dave Lang, CEO of Divekick developer Iron Galaxy, is in a similar situation. “We wanted launch parity – we’re a 70 person studio so we want to maximise our marketing money,” he said. “Getting the games ready all together isn’t the hard part for us, but I know that with someone like [Riptide GP2 developer] Vector Unit, there’s four of them – trying to get games to launch on multiple platforms at once is really hard.”

Born Ready Games’ Strike Suit Zero is set to be the first game released through ID@Xbox, as we revealed several weeks ago. CEO James Brooksby says that his studio was first in the queue for the ID@Xbox program because he’s spent years been lobbying Microsoft for a self-publishing scheme, alongside fellow UK indies Team17, Climax, Rebellion and Kuju. “Every GDC you’d have a meeting with a Microsoft guy and say ‘One day this is going to have to change.’ I think it was a case of grinding them down every year,” he said.

“Every GDC you’d have a meeting with a Microsoft guy and say ‘One day this is going to have to change.’ I think it was a case of grinding them down every year”
James Brooksby, Born Ready Games

When Microsoft hinted at a change in policy last summer, that was all Brooksby needed to step up his crusade again. ”It was clear something was going to happen, so we wrote a whole bunch of campaigning emails with some of the other indies saying ‘let’s do this – because if you do this we can have games ready for you super-quick.’

“There was a quick announcement, the ID@Xbox site went up – and then quickly crashed – but because we’d been campaigning for this to happen we got quite high up on the list. It took a little bit more pushing but the guys over at Microsoft sent us a couple of devkits and in no time at all we had it running.”

Strike Suit Zero developer Born Ready Games has been lobbying Microsoft for a self-publishing program for years, alongside several other UK indies.

With Chris Charla heading up the ID@Xbox program, Brooksby added that Microsoft has made great strides in developer relations over the past few months. “The right kind of people are being put in place around this – it doesn’t feel like we have that kind of bureaucratic, corporate stuffy-suits people. There’s clearly a gathering of people with the right mentality coming in and that makes a big difference. It feels like internally a lot of people [at Microsoft] have been campaigning for this.”

Nutjitsu developer NinjaBee was also high up the list when Microsoft set up its ID@Xbox program last summer, having already released several XBLA games. Michael Purser explains how it took shape. “At the time there wasn’t really a process because it’s the birthing of a new console – they were busy worrying about getting [Xbox One] out the door, they weren’t really thinking about what it means to launch indie games on it. We’ve been making it up along with them, Microsoft is very flexible on just about everything. We haven’t really felt constrained – it’s a very collaborative process, we don’t feel like we’re being dictated to.”

“They were busy worrying about getting [Xbox One] out the door, they weren’t really thinking about what it means to launch indie games on it. We’ve been making it up along with them”
Michael Purser, NinjaBee

Divekick developer Iron Galaxy has also benefited from its existing contacts within Microsoft, and therefore hasn’t been held back by launch parity. It plans to release a special edition of its brawler on Xbox One, having already released the game on PS3, Vita and Steam. “It’s been really good – we’ve been working with Microsoft on other things for years and [Chris] Charla let us know a couple of weeks before it was announced that they were doing it, and they asked for feedback,” CEO Dave Lang told us. “They’re figuring out as they go a little bit, but I couldn’t be happier.”

Contrast was a PS4 launch title through Sony’s PS Plus service, but its developer Compulsion Games will be releasing the game on Xbox One soon, too. “We haven’t been told [launch parity] was going to be an issue, that’s about all I can answer on that issue,” studio head Guillaume Provost told us. “We got devkits in mid-January and we had a pretty smooth experience porting it, it took us about four and a half weeks to get the game running on Xbox One.” Compulsion is working with Microsoft on the exact pricing and date, but Contrast will likely see release on Xbox One before the summer. “The few questions we had to ask Microsoft have been answered, I would say it’s been pretty uneventful,” added Provost. “Which is how I like my launches.”

Launch parity continues to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis – Contrast was released on PS4 through PS Plus last year, but Microsoft has welcomed its developer Compulsion Games into the ID@Xbox program.

Capy’s Super Time Force is slated for release in May or June, said the studio’s president and co-founder Nathan Vella, who praised ID@Xbox’s figurehead. “I’ve known Chris Charla for many years and he’s the reason why Super Time Force got on Xbox 360 with Microsoft Studios,” he said. “When he left to start ID@Xbox he helped us get the Xbox One version through, so he’s been a big help.”

Hyper Light Drifter creator Alex Preston also singled out Charla’s role in how the Xbox division has improved indie relations in recent times. “Microsoft used to be assholes about it, for sure,” he said. “But they’ve become a lot friendlier and that’s to do with Chris Charla and his team. He’s awesome. He’s a major proponent for smaller developers like us.”

Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition will arrive on Xbox One with all of the original release’s DLC plus new areas, enemies, bosses and player abilities. It is also coming to Xbox 360 through a publisher – the ‘old’ system, in other words. “That has worked okay for us but our preference is to be able to self-publish,” studio co-founder Ryan MacLean told us. “It’s early yet but so far it’s gone pretty smoothly. I get the feeling they’re building the program out so there’s still a lot of working out to do as far as how everything works. We definitely appreciate the steps they’re trying to take and the direction they’re moving in.”

Microsoft has proven that it is able to listen and revise its policies throughout the lead-up to Xbox One’s launch, and our brief chat with Phil Harrison suggested that there’s still room for manoeuvre on launch parity. “The support we’ve got has been really gratifying and we continue to engage with the community,” he told us. “Chris Charla and his team are doing a great job listening as well as sharing, and continuing to refine and adapt our developer program so I’m really happy with the progress.”

“Chris Charla and his team are doing a great job listening as well as sharing, and continuing to refine and adapt our developer program so I’m really happy with the progress.”
Phil Harrison, Microsoft

If Microsoft really is listening to indie developers, then it should prove it. We suspect that as the ID@Xbox program continues to evolve, that troublesome launch parity policy will be quietly retired – and Xbox One will be the richer platform for it.