With the ID@Xbox Pro­gram about to help its 500th Indie game into the store, we speak to Chris Charla, head of ID@Xbox, about what comes next

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - START - Stephen Ashby

The indie game has come a long way since Xbox Live first launched, from tiny games that only a few had heard of, to break­out suc­cess sto­ries that ri­val even the biggest main­stream games. You don’t need a team of hun­dreds to make a great game. En­ter ID@Xbox, a pro­gramme that helps hun­dreds of small-scale de­vel­op­ers get their games on Xbox One and in front of an au­di­ence of mil­lions for ev­ery­one to en­joy. We speak to Chris Charla, the man re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing the likes of In­side, Ox­en­free, and soon Cup­head, to your con­sole, to learn what’s in store for fans of indie gam­ing.

The ID@Xbox pro­gram has grown hugely since it launched. What do you see as its biggest suc­cesses, and suc­cess sto­ries?

It’s been awe­some to see the pro­gram grow since we an­nounced it in 2013. We hit 500 games that have shipped via the pro­gram by the end of April, and that’s kind of a cool mile­stone! When we started the pro­gram we said we wanted to pro­vide de­vel­op­ers with a sus­tain­able ecosys­tem and mar­ket­place, and thanks to our play­ers, we’ve re­ally done that. Ob­vi­ously, videogames are a hit-driven busi­ness, and not ev­ery game is a hit, but de­vel­op­ers have made hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars through ID, and it feels awe­some to be a lit­tle part of that. It also means play­ers have bought mil­lions of ID games, and they’re get­ting to en­joy all this di­verse con­tent. So, suc­cess­ful devs and happy play­ers is def­i­nitely the biggest suc­cess!

Of course, com­mer­cial suc­cess is re­ally im­por­tant, too, but there’s a lot of kinds of suc­cess—critical, per­sonal, cre­ative. And there have been some great suc­cess sto­ries in the pro­gram that aren’t just com­mer­cial, where a dev has said “I had this idea, and I was able to ship it on Xbox, and that means a huge amount to me,” and that’s equally as awe­some as some of the com­mer­cial suc­cesses we’ve seen.

I will say in­ter­nally, of course we cel­e­brate de­vel­op­ers’ suc­cess, but when we think about the pro­gram, it’s more about how we can im­prove on what we’ve done, or new things we can of­fer, ver­sus high-fiv­ing and say­ing “we did it!” or some­thing. There’s alot more we can do for de­vel­op­ers, so that’s kind of our fo­cus, day to day.

Are there any de­vel­op­ers that you think epit­o­mize ID@Xbox, and the ideals that you at Mi­crosoft have for the pro­gram?

Hmmm… One thing we kind of got right with ID, is we didn’t say, “Okay, it’s 2013, this game is what ‘indie games’ are, and how do we solve for that,” but in­stead we looked at the space and saw the growth, saw how much things had changed dur­ing the 360 era, and we knew things would hap­pen that we couldn’t pre­dict. So, we re­ally took a de­vel­oper’s eye view, and tried to build a pro­gram that was go­ing to meet the needs of in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers on Xbox and Win­dows, re­gard­less of game type, or com­pany type, or how the in­dus­try might change. And that’s given us the flex­i­bil­ity in the pro­gram to sup­port devs of all sizes, and games of all sizes and com­plex­ity, from sin­gle-player plat­form­ers made by one per­son to free-to-play on­line games made by very large in­de­pen­dent stu­dios.

And one thing I’m re­ally proud of with ID@ Xbox is we’ve had devs ship their first game, and we’ve had re­ally vet­eran stu­dios and de­vel­op­ers ship. So, in a sense, ev­ery­one in the pro­gram kind of epit­o­mizes who the pro­gram is for. Which may sound like a dodge, but it’s re­ally true.

That all said, there are a cou­ple of de­vel­op­ers who in 2012 and 2013 we were like, “these guys should be on Xbox, and they’re not—and that is a prob­lem.” That was the kind of early model for what we should do with ID@Xbox—how could we cre­ate a pro­gram that would en­able them to come to Xbox and be suc­cess­ful. I’m not go­ing to name them—sorry!—but they do know who they are. And they’re on Xbox now!

Okay, so let’s take a look for­ward and look to the fu­ture. Which ID@Xbox games are you most ex­cited about in 2017?

Yes. [laughs] I’m sorry it’s a re­ally hard ques­tion to an­swer. Be­cause I have games I’m just ex­cited for as a player, I have games I’m ex­cited about for maybe a busi­ness rea­son or pro­gram rea­son, like, “I know how much work we needed to do to help the game come to Xbox or Win­dows 10,” or

“De­vel­op­ers have sold mil­lions of games through ID and it’s awe­some to be a small part of that” games that are com­ing from devs from a new ter­ri­tory—we just had our first game pass cert that was de­vel­oped in Africa—or maybe a game uses an Xbox Live fea­ture like Arena in some cool way. So, I get ex­cited about a lot of games for a lot of rea­sons. Per­son­ally, as a player, I am re­ally look­ing for­ward to Be­low,Ta­coma, and Cup­head!

Out of the ID@Xbox games you’ve played re­cently, which would you say have re­ally stood out for you?

Thim­ble­weedPark has been re­ally fun— there’s so much con­tent in the game, and I love ad­ven­ture games. And it’s cool see­ing my friends’ names in the game—they were Kick­starter back­ers! And I’m still hav­ing a lot of fun with Astroneer and Ark. This week­end I played a lot of SnakePass too, which is su­per orig­i­nal and su­per chal­leng­ing (and sat­is­fy­ing!). I end up play­ing a lot of games a lit­tle bit just to try to and play ev­ery­thing.

How do you find new games to bring to ID@ Xbox? Do de­vel­op­ers come to you, or do you go to them?

Both of those things hap­pen. Lots and lots of de­vel­op­ers join the pro­gram and sub­mit games, and that’s how we learn about them, and we also do a lot of outreach at shows like GDC, PAX and oth­ers, on­line, and at small dev events we have. We are al­ways on the hunt for cool games!

How much do you think peo­ple are us­ing cross play to play against play­ers on PCs or other Win­dows 10 de­vices? Are many indie de­vel­op­ers adding it to their games?

Cross play is a fea­ture we’re re­ally ex­cited to sup­port, and if you look at a ti­tle like Rocket

League that sup­ports cross-net­work play with PC ver­sions of the game, it’s re­ally pop­u­lar. For us, Xbox Live and ev­ery­thing we do on Xbox is all about en­abling play and en­abling play­ers. So, from the per­spec­tive of Xbox Play Any­where—which means that once you buy a game on Win­dows 10 or Xbox, you own it for both plat­forms to cross play on Xbox Live be­tween Win­dows and Xbox—it’s some­thing we’re ex­cited to sup­port. We’ve seen some good take up across all those ini­tia­tives, al­though the bulk of games that ship through ID are sin­gle­player, so it’s not al­ways pos­si­ble to sup­port all those fea­tures.

Next we’d like to talk about the Cre­ator’s Pro­gram, which you an­nounced for smaller de­vel­op­ers to bring games to Xbox. When it was an­nounced, ID@Xbox was de­signed to be a way to make it easy for indie de­vel­op­ers to make games. If that’s the case, why do you need the Cre­ator’s Pro­gram?

Look­ing at both paths, we want to give de­vel­op­ers more choice in how they bring their games to Xbox Live. From the start, ID@Xbox was de­signed for pro­fes­sional game de­vel­op­ers who wish to use the full Xbox Live stack and have ad­di­tional marketing and de­vel­op­ment sup­port, in­clud­ing ac­cess to Xbox One and Project Scor­pio de­vel­op­ment kits. Games that come through ID@Xbox get ac­cess to ev­ery­thing any other game can do on Xbox, whether that’s plat­form fea­tures or store pro­mo­tion fea­tures. On the flip side, they still re­quire full cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and full Xbox Live im­ple­men­ta­tion to work.

The Cre­ators Pro­gram is great be­cause it al­lows de­vel­op­ers to quickly pub­lish their game to Xbox One and Win­dows 10, with a sim­pli­fied cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process. And you can in­te­grate Xbox Live so­cial fea­tures into your game with min­i­mal de­vel­op­ment time. The Cre­ators Pro­gram is for ev­ery­one, from pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ers to ed­u­ca­tors, stu­dents, hob­by­ists, ex­per­i­menters, and mak­ers of all shapes and sizes.

All the way back in 2013, we were very clear that any Xbox would be able to be a dev kit, and that we wanted Xbox One to be some­thing that was as good for cre­at­ing as it was for en­joy­ing games. This is why we opened up Xbox One to Uni­ver­sal Win­dows Plat­form (UWP) de­vel­op­ment last year with the re­lease of the free Dev Mode Ac­ti­va­tion app. And we also opened up our app store on Xbox One to all app de­vel­op­ers.

With the Cre­ators Pro­gram, we have now opened the store on Xbox One to all game de­vel­op­ers. This is just an­other op­tion for de­vel­op­ers—a light­weight, fully pub­lic way to ship a game on Win­dows 10 and Xbox One. I think it’s a great com­pli­ment to ID@Xbox and one that en­ables Mi­crosoft to of­fer the broad­est ar­ray of op­tions to po­ten­tial de­vel­op­ers, from large cor­po­ra­tions that man­u­fac­ture mil­lions of discs, to indie de­vel­op­ers who fo­cus on dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion, to folks who turn their re­tail Xbox One to a dev kit and just start cre­at­ing.

“I feel ex­cited be­cause Cre­ators Pro­gram could be a su­per fer­tile place for tal­ent to show their stuff on Xbox”

of games you’d like to see?

I think we’ll see a huge va­ri­ety of stuff. We’ll see things that don’t quite fit the tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tion of “game”. We’ll see hob­by­ist and pro­fes­sional projects… we’ll see a lot! I think one thing that is true of ev­ery plat­form is if you build a space that makes it easy for peo­ple to ship games, you see a lot of stuff! What I’m most ex­cited to see is some­thing I can’t even con­ceive of right now—and I re­ally think Cre­ators Pro­gram has a good chance to be a su­per fer­tile place for new tal­ent to show their stuff on Xbox.

Is this an ‘in-route’ for de­vel­op­ers to pre­pare them for mak­ing a full ID@Xbox game, or are the two things aimed at dif­fer­ent kinds of de­vel­oper?

One re­ally key thing about ID@Xbox, and Cre­ators Pro­gram, is that they are game­based pro­grams, not de­vel­oper-based. So, I’d say it’s a thing that will prob­a­bly be de­cided on a game-by-game ba­sis. You may have a de­vel­oper who starts out, maybe she’s in school, and she has a cool stu­dent project, and it comes out via Cre­ators Pro­gram, but her next game comes via ID.

And you may have a long-stand­ing ID dev who makes a game and wants it out there quickly and just ships it via Cre­ators. From a de­vel­oper point of view, what we want to do is make sure that re­gard­less of where a de­vel­oper is in their jour­ney, or re­gard­less of how they want to han­dle their game, that we have a place for them in our ecosys­tem, from hob­by­ists and ex­per­i­menters, to moon­lighters and rook­ies, to pro­fes­sion­als and vet­er­ans. That en­sures we’re go­ing to get a huge va­ri­ety of games on our plat­form, which is great for our play­ers and helps build just a great ecosys­tem for both play­ers and cre­ators to thrive.

Steam’s Green­light pro­gram suf­fered from a ‘bloat­ware’ prob­lem. Do you fore­see this be­ing a prob­lem with the Cre­ator’s Pro­gram? Do you have a way of cu­rat­ing what ap­pears in the Cre­ator’s Pro­gram Store?

I’ll han­dle these two as one ques­tion if that’s okay! I can’t re­ally com­ment on Steam, but if you’re ask­ing about mar­ket­places, it’s a great ques­tion, and one we’ve thought about a lot. When you think of tra­di­tional re­tail shop­ping, hu­man­ity has had about 10,000 years to per­fect things. On the dig­i­tal front, we’re re­ally only 10 or 15 years in, so we’re still learn­ing a lot. Both cu­rated and open mar­ket­places have ad­van­tages. Curation works to make dis­cov­ery and sur­fac­ing things eas­ier, but you run the risk that the cu­ra­tors miss some­thing. Un­cu­rated mar­ket­places don’t have that risk, but they run the risk—or the cer­tainty—of hav­ing lots of noise-to-sig­nal be­cause there’s no one re­ally polic­ing things.

With Xbox Live Cre­ators Pro­gram we thought about this a lot. And I think the so­lu­tion Mi­crosoft came up with is ac­tu­ally re­ally in­ter­est­ing. So, on our PC store, all games are as­sorted to­gether to­day, whether they have Xbox Live in­te­gra­tion or not, so we’ll keep do­ing that with Cre­ators Pro­gram games—they’ll be as­sorted with ev­ery other game. On con­sole, though, play­ers and par­ents ex­pect a cu­rated store ex­pe­ri­ence. So, we’re main­tain­ing that store ex­pe­ri­ence for them, and we’re putting the open, un­cu­rated Cre­ators Pro­gram games in their own sec­tion. We’re sort of say­ing, “here’s our cu­rated store, and here’s our un­cu­rated sec­tion.” It may seem less el­e­gant than solv­ing the curation/dis­cov­ery prob­lem all up, but I ac­tu­ally think it will give us the best of both worlds, and ad­dress our de­sire to make sure Xbox is truly an open plat­form, while keep­ing the curation that our play­ers ex­pect and like in the store.

And we will def­i­nitely have pro­gram­matic pro­mo­tion in the Cre­ators Pro­gram sec­tion of the store, with things such as col­lec­tions for new re­leases, top rated, et cetera. So play­ers will be able to see what’s pop­u­lar.

Could a game move out of the Cre­ator’s Pro­gram into ID@Xbox, or into the main Store if it was do­ing well?

Ab­so­lutely. It could move from Cre­ators to ID@Xbox be­fore it even re­leases. There are a cou­ple of back-end things we need to ad­dress to make this hap­pen on the tech side, so let me put an as­ter­isk there and say “Ab­so­lutely… later this sum­mer,” but di­rec­tion­ally, philo­soph­i­cally, ab­so­lutely! We ex­pect to see lots of ID sub­mis­sion that have al­ready started de­vel­op­ment and Live im­ple­men­ta­tion via Cre­ators, and we ex­pect to see plenty of games launch in the Cre­ators Pro­gram and then hope­fully come through ID@Xbox later on.

clock­wise from

above Indie games such as

Ox­en­free were some of the high­lights of 2016.

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