Chris Charla tells Richie Shoemaker and Vince Pavey all about Microsoft’s independent developer initiative ahead of his ID@Xbox keynote session at the Develop:Brighton 2023 conference.
While the original Xbox is still fondly remembered for its technical advances in data storage, downloadable content and netplay in the console space (well, that and games like Halo: Combat Evolved and Jet Set Radio Future), the Xbox 360 was a developer friendly machine. It was also the console to own if you were interested in creative, vibrant games from smaller teams. Microsoft had put work in to carve out and define space at the forefront of digital distribution with Xbox Live Arcade, Summer of Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games, building up tremendous amounts of good will with players, and opening up the console development space to everyone who wanted to be there all at once.
Xbox dazzled its audience with smaller titles like AstroPop, Braid, Castle Crashers, Super Meat Boy, ‘Splosion Man and other contemporaries which would forever change the digital landscape of the industry, even for it competitors Sony and Nintendo. Eventually, however, the people in charge changed, the company lost its staggering lead, and if we’re honest, a lot of the good will as well.
Thankfully, it’s rarely ever too late to course correct, if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort. The ID@Xbox initiative was first announced to the world for the Xbox One by then-Xbox VP Phil Harrison at Gamescom in 2013, reaffirming a company commitment to indie games and their developers after a perhaps misjudged effort to embrace AAA ‘family gaming’ and motion-control trends with the Kinect that the core audience had already largely rejected by that point. ID@Xbox has since been one of the most successful corporate endeavours at Xbox Game Studios, and continues to bolster the first party publisher, console hardware manufacturer and cloud gaming provider’s game line up with a number of critical darlings that continue to surprise and delight gaming audiences each year.
ID@Xbox was largely conceived by director Chris Charla, an ex-games journalist and software developer that has only taken the indie program to even greater creative and financial heights alongside the rising star that is the Game Pass subscription service. Ahead of his keynote appearance at next month’s Develop conference, Charla took the time to talk to MCV/DEVELOP to discuss the program’s successes and ultimately, what’s next for what is probably Xbox Game Studios’ most underrated division.
Your Develop Conference keynote is in a few weeks. How did it come about?
They called me, or sent me a message on Facebook, and I was really excited. I haven’t been to Develop in a few years because of the pandemic, and we have an awesome team in the UK who cover it really well. So I just haven’t had an opportunity to go. I’m super excited to attend and just see everybody and get to hang out. What does delivering the keynote allow you to do? It must be quite difficult to pitch ID@Xbox where you’ll be preaching to the converted in some respects. How do you get the message of ID@Xbox out in new ways? We have more than 5000 developers who’ve joined the ID@Xbox program in the ten years since we were founded.
Lots of people know we had more games come out last year via the ID@Xbox program on Xbox than ever before. But there’s always new developers. Developers move around and I think that even developers who’ve previously had success shipping games on Xbox are always curious to hear the latest. Both in terms of program results – we announced at GDC that we had paid out more than $4 billion to independent developers since we founded the program – but also just the latest in terms of what we’re seeing on the platform and in general in the industry.
We’re in the fortunate position where we get to see an enormous amount of data as a platform holder in terms of sales, in terms of trends, and that kind of thing. There’s always material that we can share there that I think developers find interesting. One of the reasons why I’m excited to go to Develop is that we started this program by listening to developers, we’ve never stopped listening, and we’re always working to change the program and grow the program and evolve the program based on their feedback. So something like Develop is ideal for those conversations as well.
ID@Xbox hit ten years old recently, and last year Game Pass hit five years old. Both of them are obviously very successful. How much of that success is reliant on their interdependence?
I think ultimately the success for ID@Xbox is reliant on game developers continuing to make amazing games. Luckily, we have no shortage of amazing games and then there are our fans on the other side, who are enthusiastic supporters of these games and really love them. I said a little earlier, we had paid out $4 billion to developers over the last 10 years, but it’s the Xbox fans that have supported independent games to the tune of $4 billion on Xbox over the last 10 years.
I think those are the two major factors in the success of the program. I do think Game Pass is tremendous. For game fans, it’s a great way to get access to hundreds of games for one low monthly membership fee. For developers, it’s a fantastic way to ensure that their game is seen by millions and millions of people. We do think there’s some great synergistic relationships there, but ultimately, it comes down to developers making games people like, us making sure fans get to see them, and players buying them.
First party isn’t necessarily your area, but in an age where for a long time Xbox has been criticized for its first party titles, does it come into your thinking? When it comes to the games that you look at for ID@Xbox and maybe the volume of games that you need to look at?
It honestly doesn’t. Our focus in the program from the start has been, ‘How do we help independent developers find success?’ and I do think independent developers are a crucial part of the mix on Xbox. When we started the program, if we had any insights that turned out to be true, it was just knowing, coming off the back of what we’d seen on Xbox Live Arcade, how important independent developers were going to be to the future of video games, full stop.
Making sure that we had a program that would serve those needs and enable those developers to get their games onto the platform was crucial, but we’ve never really thought about it like, ‘We need this percent of indie games versus this percent of other types of games.’ or anything like that. It’s really a situation where it’s the more the merrier, and we want to just ensure that there’s platform access, that independent developers are armed with all the information that they need to to be as successful as possible on the platform, and that we’re doing a good job helping fans find cool games from independent developers. Whether that’s through things like Game Pass, putting games on stage in our summer showcase or promoting them in our store, or even talking about them in blog posts and other places.
How would you characterise your relationship with developers and how has the nature of the relationship changed over the last 10 years?
We only succeed when developers succeed, and it’s really nice in that way that our commercial interests are aligned really perfectly. I think our role is about how can we amplify what the developers are doing. It’s ‘How can we use our resources to help developers be more successful?’
Independent developers, in particular – well, we have developers of all sizes in the ID@Xbox program – but they’re typically going to be smaller. They’re a lot less likely to have a research department and things like that. What we’ve found is that there are places where we can provide information that a much larger publisher might not need – or they have their own access to developing that kind of information. They probably have a lot more data points from just the number of games they’re selling. Whereas an independent developer who’s heads down on a project for two, three years or four years, the one thing we know is that whatever worked in terms of promotion and sales four years ago, that’s gonna have changed, right? A developer making their game is probably not focused on exactly what’s going on in the sales and marketing side of the industry. We can help those developers as they get ready to start the marketing cycle for their game, and have the best possible information.
We’ve done an enormous amount of work at Xbox, as the whole industry has done, on helping players find great games and I think our store team does a really good job of helping surface great games to players. I think we also have another lens to look at that challenge as we move forward, which is ‘How do we help developers find their audience?’
We have a vast global audience of players, and for every good video game, there is an audience. How do we help developers cut through the discovery challenges from their side to find those players? That’s one of the things that we’re thinking about at Xbox now, as we think about the next ten years at the ID@Xbox program.
Xbox has been a pioneer for accessibility for years now with controllers, UX and UI best practices and what have you. How does that factor in at ID@Xbox, because obviously things like accessibility are more and more something that’s thought of at the beginning of a AAA project, whereas for a lot of indie developers it is often towards the end. How does the kind of service that you provide lead into accessibility features for the developers you work with?
Accessibility is becoming more and more important. Or, maybe the better way to say it is that the importance of it is being more and more broadly understood, right? It’s always been important, but I think in years past, people just didn’t recognize it as much as they needed to. It’s also something that the earlier you think about it in your project, the better. So what I can say on the Xbox side, is that we do a lot of work in terms of what we can do on accessibility with our accessible controllers as maybe the most visible example.
One of the things that we do is try and provide information to developers so that they can see it early and be thinking about it during development. There’s a lot of things that if you think about it early in development, like ensuring that there’s a colorblind mode, or ensuring that your video game is accessible – even if somebody doesn’t have access to audio, whether that’s because of, you know, a disability or just the equipment situation – can make it so that the player will understand what’s happening in the game and can continue to play.
These are things that as long as you are thinking about them early, they’re really not super difficult challenges to overcome, but you have to be thinking about them early. So we do everything from publishing white papers about how to best accommodate these things, to providing platform features for things like colorblind mode, to even providing developers the opportunity to have a game tested for accessibility. We partner with folks who can actually look at a build and kind of give an accessibility score so developers can know where they can do work. It’s something where there’s an enormous amount of passion internally at Microsoft, to make sure that when we say gaming is for everyone, that it’s truly for everyone, and making sure games are accessible is a crucial part of that.
You recently announced an acceleration program to support under represented developers. How does that program go beyond what ID@Xbox already provides?
We just announced the program publicly, but it’s actually been running since 2019. We just became increasingly aware that developers from underrepresented backgrounds or with underrepresented voices were underrepresented on Xbox. Part of our promise to players is that we’re going to supply them, through the ID@Xbox program and other programs, with the broadest array of games possible. If we weren’t getting games from underrepresented developers, we were failing in our promise to our players. So we started the developer acceleration program back then as a way to help them get their games onto Xbox.
What we find is that really frequently, developers from underrepresented backgrounds are usually on their first or second game, and they may lack access to capital and also to some of the social networks that other developers have. So we work to address both those points. First by doing deals where we would help pay for the port to Xbox, so a developer bringing a game to Xbox can do it in a revenue neutral way. They can begin a business relationship with Xbox and with the Xbox player base with very low risk.
Second, we’ve started a series of talks to help underrepresented developers understand different aspects of Xbox, like maximizing your marketing on Xbox and other things. We have regular talks from folks at ID@Xbox with the developers in the acceleration program. It’s not information that we don’t provide elsewhere. We do dev talks on a regular basis, but we want to make sure that folks have access to this and sometimes in smaller groups, people are less nervous to ask a question or that kind of thing. It’s about making this as comfortable as possible and just getting people that platform access.
This year, we’ve also started helping developers in some cases with funding prototypes, where a developer has a great idea for a game but is a little bit undercapitalised and needs to get to that first playable demo stage so that they can help the world understand their game when they’re out pitching to publishers, or Kickstarter or whatever else. It’s been a really successful program.
We announced it at GDC to sort of celebrate the developers who’ve been part of it. We never were looking for PR on this program, but we wanted to make sure that everybody knows about the program and those two ideas are a little bit in conflict. As we talked it out, James Lewis, who leads the program said ‘I think we need to talk about this publicly, just so all the people who we don’t know and haven’t been able to tell about this can read about it and get in touch.’
What are the long term goals for ID@Xbox in the next couple of years?
Keep on keeping on. We’ll continue to provide platform access, and continue to improve the publishing experience on Xbox for developers. Listen to what developers want and try to implement those changes. I think longer term, I really already touched on it because it is about helping them find their audience and continuing to improve discoverability for everyone.
It’s the biggest challenge of the digital age as a veteran developer. I remember back in the day when getting access to the dev kit was a huge hurdle, and then all of a sudden programs like ID@Xbox and similar things in other places made that possible. Then it was access to digital marketplaces like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam. Those kinds of tools really helped developers to get access to the marketplace.
Then it was still hard to make a video game and tools like Unity and Unreal and Game Maker made that more straightforward, not to make it easy, but to lower the technical hurdles to ship a video game. Now it’s ‘I can get the hardware, I can make the game, I have a place to ship the game. How do I let people know about it?’ and you know, that’s the challenge of our age, and that’s the challenge that we really need to be focused on in the next ten years with ID@Xbox.
Rare’s Battletoads appeared in Shovel Knight, and the cameo was much loved by retro fans. Nintendo teamed up with the Crypt of the NecroDancer team on a Zelda project and released Cadence of Hyrule. SEGA worked with fans-turned-developers to make Sonic Mania and Sonic Origins. Does Xbox ever think about working with indies to make new entries in its many dormant (but beloved) series?
I would encourage a developer who’s got a passion project that they’d love to pursue around a Microsoft IP to get in touch with us and while we can’t make any promises, we will absolutely put them in touch. Without naming any names or anything like that, there have been cases already where we’ve done that, where a developer has had an idea, they know an IP and they’ve reached out and we’ve connected them directly with the right studio.
You started out as a print journalist. What in that ancient and venerable role would you say has helped you succeed in your current one?
I think that the number one thing that has helped from being a print journalist and then being a developer too, is just getting to know developers and understanding what makes them tick to some extent in regards to the fears and the motivations. I will tell you that when it’s time to, I approve each and every royalty statement for ID@Xbox, and I approve them very, very quickly. When I find out that there are statements ready for me to approve, I drop everything to do that, because I know that getting paid on time is super important.
It’s also just understanding how passionate developers are and how much they love what they do in video games. I don’t think this is an industry that you can succeed in unless you absolutely love what you’re doing, and you love the content. You need to love games. It’s just too hard to be successful without loving games, and that’s something that I know in my bones.
Develop:Brighton 2023 will take place between July 11, 2023 and July 13, 2023 this year at the Hilton Brighton Metropole. If you’d like to book passes to go, a range of options are available at www.developconference.com
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