Microsoft may have been late to the party compared to its major rival Sony, but the Xbox firm is determined to recover lost ground in the hotly contested market for indie games.
Innovative titles from independents has been a crucial pillar in the conflict between platform holders this year, with all three console firms being more active than ever in their bid to secure exclusives – be they timed or permanent – and position themselves as the premiere destination for studios wishing to self publish.
Central to Microsoft’s efforts is the ID@Xbox programme. Announced at Gamescom in August, the scheme offers independent developers access to Xbox One dev kits, Unity for free, and support from Microsoft when launching and promoting titles.
Earlier this month, Xbox announced that more than 50 studios now have dev kits for the new console and are working on the first wave of indie titles, which are due to be released in early 2014.
Many of these ‘indies’ were familiar names such as Crytek, Double Fine, Team17 and Slightly Mad Studios – all considerably larger than the fledgling firms that first spring to mind when discussing independent developers. But in a recent interview with Develop, ID@Xbox director Chris Charla was quick to reassure that Microsoft is already working with newer talent.
"When we announced the programme, we said we were going to start with experienced developers, just to help us prove out the programme, find the pain points and smooth things out for the developers that would come after," he told us. "And so we haven’t announced those new developers yet, but there’s certainly small studios who you haven’t heard of developing games for ID@Xbox right now.
There’s no limitations –in terms of game size, scope or cost – on what can come through ID@Xbox. Indies who want to self-publish have access to the same marketplace, the same features, the same everything.
Charla added that yet more studios have signed up for ID@Xbox, but have yet to receive their dev kits – there is still no word on when studios will be able to use the console itself to develop software – and some smaller teams can be found within this first batch of ID ambassadors. The example he gives is one-man studio Happion Labs, the company run by 20-year industry veteran Jamie Fristrom, the man responsible for Spider-Man 2’s acclaimed swinging mechanic.
Still, with such a varied range of names – and most already well known to the industry – you have to wonder what ID@Xbox classes as "independent".
"Anyone who applies to ID@Xbox," Charla says. "We’re not in the business of trying to define what an indie is – we’re just looking for developers that want to make great games on Xbox One."
INDEPENDENCE AND EQUALITY
It may seem like too broad a statement when talking about a specific and avidly discussed sector of games development, but Microsoft is determined to keep its scheme as open as possible. There are very few requirements for any companies that sign up to ID@Xbox – Charla added that even students coding games in their bedrooms can apply.
This lack of restrictions works both ways. The Xbox team aims to make independent developers feel as capable and creatively free as publisher-owned studios when making games for Xbox One. The hope is to end up with a range of ID@Xbox titles that range from short platformers and puzzle games to titles that rival triple-A retail blockbusters.
"There’s no limitations –in terms of game size, scope or cost – on what can come through ID@Xbox compared to what could be coming through a publisher or Microsoft Studios," said Charla.
"Our goal with the programme is to ensure independent developers that want to self-publish have access to the same marketplace, the same features on Xbox, the same everything else.
"Xbox One has some cool, exclusive features: SmartGlass, the new Kinect, the controller’s impulse triggers, not to mention the stuff you can do with Azure and the cloud. I think it’s a really compelling development scenario, and one developers are eager to take advantage of."
I’m really hoping to see is a game I can’t even conceive of. And then I want that game to be a huge hit so the developer can drive off in a Ferrari.
Compelling, perhaps, but it can also seem daunting to new and smaller developers, so Microsoft is making sure there is plenty of support and resources available to ID@Xbox members.
In addition to an online developer portal – complete with sample code and white papers detailing some of the console’s more advanced features – the platform holder has also been reaching out to studios through events, including last week’s ID@London. More than 200 developers turned up for what escalated into 15 hours of discussions, panels and presentations as the architects of Xbox One talked ID members through what the new console is capable of.
Charla was also in attendance and was pleased to hear some of the ideas studios were coming up with when they heard about the functionalities of the new Kinect. As a man with an eclectic taste in video games – visit his site IncrediblyStrangeGames.com if you don’t believe us – what is the ID@Xbox director hoping for from these developers?
"It sounds trite, but what I’m really hoping to see is a game I can’t even conceive of," he said. "I’m really hoping to get a game information form from a developer that makes me think ‘wow, this will be interesting to see’. And then I want that game to be a huge hit so the developer can drive off in a Ferrari. That, to me, would be a huge win for the programme."
DEALING WITH DISCOVERABILITY
Herein lies another important point for Microsoft: it doesn’t just want indie games to be available, it wants them to be successful.
While indie games were originally given a separate section on the 360’s Xbox Live Marketplace, titles published through ID@Xbox will be listed in amongst all other games on the Xbox One’s digital store. But Charla is confident they won’t be buried and forgotten.
"First of all, there’s our spotlight section, which is editorially controlled by Xbox to highlight cool new games and I expect ID@Xbox games will show up there," he said. "Then we have a lot of the programmatic things like Best-selling, Trending, things that show what’s becoming hot among your friends.
"And then I think things like Upload Studio are actually going to be really interesting, viral ways to start promoting games. We’re already seeing some developers use their established followers as a channel. The fact that people can share that content on Xbox or via SkyDrive to any place they want, it’s going to be a really interesting way for people to discover new games.
"And we’re not done working on improving on discoverability – you’ll see some pretty exciting things over the lifetime of Xbox One."
We really want to lower the barriers, make the games easier to discover so that it’s the gamers who decide what the hits are
Xbox also hopes to position its indie scheme as a gateway to other Microsoft platforms, such as Windows 8 and its smartphone and tablet associates.
"There are a lot of architectural similarities between making games for Xbox and for Windows 8 so it really makes sense for developers to explore both," said Charla. "There’s the potential for cross-play, for shipping games on more than one platform and all sorts of potential that comes when you think about developing for the four different platforms in the Microsoft ecosystem."
But the ID@Xbox director stressed that Microsoft will not be forcing these other platforms down indies’ throats, instead leaving the door open should they want to explore these avenues.
Sceptics may also be concerned that the late-announced ID@Xbox programme could be used as a relentless production line, allowing Microsoft to churn out a regulated supply of titles to tick that all important ‘Indie’ box, but Charla reiterated that independent developers will be left to work at their own pace.
"When somebody is self-publishing thorugh us, we’re not giving them milestones and schedules," he said. "We don’t have a producer calling them up to see how things are going. It’s really for independent developers who want to self-publish, so the business relationship is more like the relationship between Xbox and a publisher than between a publisher and a developer."
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE DIGITISED
Indie games have been a hot topic this year thanks to Sony and Microsoft scuffling to get as many signed to their next-gen consoles as possible. But some believe the indie flame is dying out – even Sony’s indie champion Shahid Ahmad told attendees at last month’s London Games Conference that the indie revolution was over.
But Charla believes independent games are now a permanent fixture in the world of video games, and one for which there will always be demand.
"The games industry is constantly changing," he explained. "It’s different than it was six months ago, it’s different than it was six months before that, and it’s going to be different six months from now. From my perspective, thinking about what’s going on in the development community, there are some amazing games coming out, super innovative games and I think there’s always a market for that."
But what if the successful indies continue to grow, establishing themselves as firms more akin to the smaller developers of previous generations?
"Then a guy will split off from those teams and set up on his own," Charla says. "If you look at the history of the games industry, you see these cyclical patterns forming. The developers that started ten years ago grew to a certain size, were bought by a publisher, and then a few people left and formed their own studio, and the cycle began again.
"I think the rise of the independent developer, especially the small independent developer, has changed that a little bit and we’ll continue to see more changes to the industry. But that’s normal, it’s a sign of a healthy industry that isn’t stagnating."
We’re not in the business of trying to define what an indie is – we’re just looking for developers that want to make great games on Xbox One.
Similarly, Microsoft plans to avoid stagnation. ID@Xbox as it stands today is what the firm needs to bring independently-developed titles to Xbox One but its structure will inevitably change, and perhaps sooner than you think.
"We feel pretty good about how ID@Xbox is right now, but we’re constantly listening to feedback from developers," said Charla. "I assume ID@Xbox will change quite a bit between now and next year, or two years from now.
"What won’t change is the vision, which is that we want to make sure independent developers have a way to get their content on Xbox in the most barrier-free method possible. We really want to lower the barriers, make the games easier to discover so that it’s the gamers who decide what the hits are."