When it launched in August 2013, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox initiative marked a bold commitment to independent development by the platform holder. Three years on, what’s next for the programme?
Almost exactly three years ago, Xbox corporate VP Phil Harrison and Microsoft Studios head Phil Spencer took to the stage at Gamescom to pledge the Xbox One maker’s dedication to indie development.
“We’ve been listening very hard to our development partners all around the world about what they want in a self-publishing platform,” Harrison said. “We wanted to build a platform that really truly unlocked self-publishing on Xbox One.”
Harrison went on to outline the programme’s focal points: free development kits, tools and resources, including Unity, plus discoverability help for smaller developers on the Xbox marketplace. Headed up by director Chris Charla, ID@Xbox would put the platform back into the race with Sony, which had already been attracting smaller studios with initiatives such as the Sony Pub Fund.
“This is great for the industry, this is great for gamers,” Harrison concluded.
A lot has changed in the time since – Harrison left Microsoft early last year after three years at the company, and the Xbox One itself made a number of controversial U-turns before hitting shelves in late 2013 – yet ID@Xbox has kept the vow made all those years ago, bringing more than 250 games to Xbox, with over 1,000 currently in development. That’s not to say the programme has remained stationary, however.
“There have been a lot of internal changes,” observes ID@Xbox EMEA regional lead Agostino Simonetta. “We have changed the way we work and communicate with developers. If something doesn’t work, the way we update people is changing.”
One prime example of ID@Xbox’s evolution, Simonetta points out, is Xbox Game Preview, the Early
Access-like service unveiled at E3 2015.
“The programme is not just for ID partners, but we do know that independent developers are the ones that have embraced the model,” he reveals. “Most, if not all, of the titles that have launched in Game Preview so far are actually from ID@Xbox developers.”
ID@Xbox’s growing prominence has been reflected in the number of titles from the programme to make it on-stage at major industry events, including E3; We Happy Few was presented at Gamescom last year, and ended up becoming one of the show’s most talked-about titles, in line with major triple-A blockbusters.
“People are really excited about those kinds of products,” Simonetta effuses. “It’s not just an acceptance of independent games – it’s that more and more people want to play these experiences. Across ID@Xbox, first- and third-party titles from independents, hundreds of millions of dollars have been generated. The appetite is there and it’s commercially successful for a lot of developers. It’s a good time.”
Despite the programme’s triumphs grabbing headlines, Simonetta insists that many of its greatest achievements take place behind the scenes.
“Stuff like the fact that this year we decided to do a lot of ID@Xbox press events at a local level in Europe,” he explains. “We still do the English events – Gamescom, EGX, Rezzed – but we are doing a lot of local events. It’s an evolution of the way we promote the programme. I did an event in Italy attended by 40 journalists with 11 ID@Xbox titles. We did one in Madrid where I ended up on the mainstay channel on the news at 12 o’ clock. There is a lot of interest in ID and what we are doing. That’s an evolution of the brand. Last year, we focused a lot more on developer events; this year, we’ve generally done a media event and a developer event.
“There are a lot of changes like this. Some are obvious to everybody, like Xbox Game Preview, but a lot are behind closed doors, deciding how we make the programme better for people.”
Just as ID@Xbox has evolved, the titles released through the initiative have advanced. These includes sequential projects from returning developers, with Limbo/Inside studio Playdead, Contrast/We Happy Few creator Compulsion and Worms/Overcooked outlet Team 17 all coming back for a second release. Many of the games have similarly grown in ambition, advancing from early platformers to the innovative mechanics and artistry seen this year in titles such as Superhot and Inside.
“We are seeing independents tackling a lot more variety of subjects and themes,” Simonetta suggests. “People are maturing, the old ecosystem is maturing, so people understand there are a lot of original opportunities.
“The line between what ‘triple-A’ and ‘independent’ mean is blurring. In ID, we always talk about independent developers – we’ve moved beyond the idea of ‘indie’, it started having a negative connotation. It’s a word that had an importance, but we need to move on.”
Simonetta adds that the equal treatment of ID@Xbox and blockbusters extends from the E3 stage to the Xbox One marketplace.
“When you look at our stores, you have Inside and Solus Project and whatever triple-A titles – you can’t really tell,” he presses. “The lines are blurring: it’s just entertainment.
“We made a commitment to everybody at the launch of the platform that a game is a game is a game. When you look at the dashboard, you’re reminded that this applies to anything – it doesn’t matter what the product is.”
The growing success of independent titles has seen a number of digital-only titles eventually make the jump to a physical release, with Simonetta praising ID@Xbox as partially responsible for the warming relations between developers and publishing partners.
“What we have seen over the last few years is when ID started or self-publishing started in general, if you mentioned you could work with a publisher to a developer, the developer would not have been very happy or impressed,” he recalls. “Now, things have changed – we have a lot of ID@Xbox developers who are self-publishing. A lot of them are self-publishing digitally but then working with partners at retail, so there are a lot of titles that are making their way to retail.
“This is just another thing we are seeing change as we mature as an ecosystem and industry; people are realising there are benefits. The relationship a developer has with a publisher today is very different to the relationship they held 10, five or even three years ago.”
We're reaching a point where creating a piece of entertainment is possible for everybody.
ID@Xbox was announced nearly three months to the day before the Xbox One console was released. During the same press conference, Phil Harrison made the ambitious prediction that “every Xbox One retail device will eventually become a development kit”. It would take until March of this year before that dream became reality with the launch of Xbox Dev Mode.
While the platform remains in preview for the time being, the implications of allowing anyone to develop a game using their home console could be huge.
“Giving people like my daughter or teenagers the ability to buy an Xbox One at retail and use that to develop, that’s one of the greatest things,” Simonetta enthuses. “Developers can start there and if they want an Xbox One dev kit then we can provide that. For me, the most exciting thing is giving people the ability to tinker with something that is in their living room.”
Making a game creation platform so easy to access could potentially set in motion an avalanche of wannabe Xbox developers – and a subsequent rush of ID@Xbox applicants – but Simonetta is quick to point out that simply using Dev Mode doesn’t mean free entry into the club.
“Whether you use a dev kit or a retail unit, the pipeline to get to the store is the same,” Simonetta details. “You need to apply for ID and all the rest. Only ID@Xbox-approved partners will be able to publish the game they create on Xbox One.”
Opening the doors to smaller creators but ensuring they have something valuable to offer before they enter is an approach Microsoft has maintained since ID@Xbox’s launch, when it clarified that it was looking for “professional independent game developers who have a proven track record of shipping games on console, PC, mobile or tablet” rather than complete newcomers. With Dev Mode sure to bring with it a slew of plucky first-timers with less polished efforts, does Simonetta plan to loosen ID@Xbox’s entry requirements?
“We have one-man bands doing games today,” he insists. “There have been plenty of titles that have been created effectively by one or two people – you often get a developer and an artist. That’s happening today.
“What has changed over the years is that the development tools – the Unity shop for content or people selling their graphics online – really have changed all this for the simplicity of creating a game. Not necessarily a great game, but the entry barriers are so much lower now. We are already in an era where one or two talented people can do something extremely polished. Maybe five years ago or three, at the beginning of ID, it was different. But now we are seeing an incredible level of quality just from one or two individuals.
“Now that the platforms are open, we have digital distribution and the tools to create games are accessible to pretty much anyone who has an intention to create a game, we are the same as music or movies or book-writing. We are finally in a position where this is in line with the other arts. That’s what we’ve missed, until recently, to create art – to liberate the tools and allow anybody to create experiences.
“If you want to write a book and you’re very clever, the tool is not the barrier; the barrier is your ability to write. Now, with games, we’re getting very close to that. There are some technical barriers, because it’s a technical field, but we’re getting to the point where creating a piece of entertainment is possible for everybody.”
Given ID@Xbox’s seeming dedication to removing the barriers between creators and the means required to make games, it may seem apt to expand the selection of tools included for free in the programme beyond the current selection of just Unity, but Simonetta remains coy on the subject.
“We’re always discussing ideas, you never know,” he answers. “At the time when ID was set up, 99 per cent of the titles were in Unity. But over the last few years a lot has changed in terms of the business model middleware providers have. Back then, it was at cost all the way; now, it’s a very different model.
“For some time, platforms played a role but then a few years down the line the entire industry changed and something you did three years ago is no longer needed. We’re always trying to find a way to help developers – you never know what the next thing is going to be.”
With the nature of independent development remaining perpetually protean, it may seem an impossible task for ID@Xbox to cater to every developer’s situation – but Simonetta remains confident that the programme is taking the right steps to ensure its future is as prosperous as its work to date.
“The problem is everything changes so fast that we’re not entirely sure what the next big thing is going to be for us or anybody else,” he admits.
“A big focus for us now is enabling developers to bring their creativity to Xbox One and Windows 10. We see that as a very important for Microsoft as a whole and ID@Xbox has a big part to play. In the immediate future that has a lot of focus, but the undertone and the philosophy of the programme is to deliver the best possible service to our partners and make their lives easier.
“It can never be completely easy, and we can never promise never to make mistakes – but we do promise to always listen and change, and keep the philosophy we’ve had since the beginning.”