ID@Xbox Director, Chris Charla

Around the launch of the Xbox One, it felt like Microsoft's approach to independent developers was under attack from every direction. Famously, Jonathan Blow of Braid fame went on the record to say Microsoft treated independent developers "very badly," in an interview with Wired, in a piece that claimed self-publishing indie devs were "fleeing" from Microsoft, specifically to Sony and its PlayStation platform. Fast forward five years, and now, nobody can really claim any of this remains true.

Microsoft just announced that now, over 1,000 independently-published games have hit Xbox One and Windows 10, working with Redmond's ID@Xbox program.

Recently we got the opportunity to speak with ID@Xbox lead Chris Charla to discuss the past, present, and future of independent development at Microsoft and Xbox.

Past and present

ID@Xbox back in 2014.

Microsoft reacted quite strongly to accusations it didn't support independent developers back in 2013. Throughout 2012, Microsoft went on a listening tour discussing their ideas for a self-publishing program on Xbox, after years of relegating independent developers to a subsection of the Xbox 360 store, or forcing them to go into a revenue sharing model with an established publisher. With the rise of Steam as a force for independent innovation and later, Microsoft's cultural shift under Xbox lead Phil Spencer and current CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft's honed developer focus has been pervasive throughout the company.

Since launching ID@Xbox, some initial skepticism turned into widespread praise. Some of my personal favorite experiences on Xbox have been a result of games on the ID@Xbox program, owing to games like The Flame in the Flood, and The Long Dark. I asked Chris Charla what the future looked like for ID@Xbox, and where Microsoft aims to innovate further to help out its growing indie dev community, given that it's now over 3,000 developers strong.

It's nice when you hit a milestone number to take a step back and evaluate. We're not planning to change our mission, we just want to make it easy for developers to get their games onto the platform, and everything good will stem from that. We've delivered new initiatives like Xbox Game Preview, and Xbox Game Pass, that developers can take advantage of.

We're focusing on using our resources to help developers, who may have been heads down for two years, three years, six years, and they're getting ready to ship, and they're like "hey, what's the best way to ship a game? Six years ago I knew the best practices, what are the best practices today?" We spend a lot of time looking at the industry, analysing sales data and trends, and practices, best practices for promotion. We'll help developers figure out whether it's the best time of the week to ship, best month of the year to ship. We're sharing as much data as we can to help developers have the best experiences.

Xbox Game Preview allowed developers to ship their games to Xbox unfinished, allowing users to opt-in early to help test the game, give feedback, and shape the game's direction. The idea of game previews was again, popularized on Steam, and has helped games like Subnautica and Astroneer find an audience far before being what you would consider a "complete" game.

Astroneer found its audience in Xbox Game Preview.

Perhaps even more pivotal than Game Preview has been Xbox Game Pass, which is a Netflix-like service that allows you to pay monthly for a sizeable pool of games. Charla noted how Xbox Game Pass was creating a viral effect for indie devs, who traditionally, have struggled to gain exposure with limited marketing resources. The rise of streaming services like Mixer and Twitch, combined with easier consumer access to games a la carte seems to be having a positive effect, in terms of virality.

What I can say about Game Pass is that it has been really popular with players, and really popular with developers too. Maybe one of the effects of Game Pass we didn't anticipate initially, is that that Game Pass has vastly enhanced discoverability in a positive way. Discoverability is a huge challenge for independent developers, and it's something we work on all the time in the store with promotion and so on.

What we've found is that Game Pass can really aid discoverability for a game, you get this network effect where lots of people are seeing the game as part of the catalogue, they might be streaming it on Mixer, and that might come up on the Xbox dashboard. That turns into people who may not have known about the game, eventually playing the game, and even then going on to outright buy the game.

With Project xCloud on the horizon, bringing Xbox games to potentially hundreds of millions of additional mobile devices, the potential reach of Xbox Game Pass, and thus, ID@Xbox, will be even bigger.

An indie Xbox future

Source: Microsoft.

The future shines brightly for ID@Xbox, and in particular, developers who are part of the program. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has often touted the fact that Microsoft is there to "make others cool," rather than "be cool" itself, and nothing at Microsoft showcases this more than programs like ID@Xbox, which help everyone from growing companies to student developers get a foot in the door with a vast, engaged audience.

Charla noted some of ID@Xbox's most promising-looking upcoming titles for the near future, including the likes of Below, Ashen, Black Desert Online, Sable, Tunic, and more. He also teased the possibility of fun ID@Xbox news for November's X018 event, so keep an eye out for that too. Further out, we also have titles like Wasteland 3, and The Last Night to look forward to.

One memory I'll always hold dear in this job goes back to my first ever Gamescom show, reporting on it as an indie blogger myself. I saw Chris Charla take an ID@Xbox pitch in the hallway, after a trio of excited game developers, who couldn't have been older than 20, came up and began presenting their game pitch from a smartphone. For me, that really captured the indie spirit, and also exemplified how Microsoft has transformed in recent years, pivoting away from the cold, almost-predatory corporation it felt like it was in the late 90s and early millennium, into a far more approachable, and just plain old friendly company in 2018.

Here's looking forward to the next big ID@Xbox milestone, and thanks to all the developers, artists, and other indie innovators out there for helping make the gaming industry the most exciting entertainment medium on earth.

If you're a developer interested in signing up with ID@Xbox, head over to this link to learn more about the program.