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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!