Interview: Creation @ Xbox

Interview: Creation @ Xbox
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

June 12th 2017 at 2:00PM

Sean Cleaver speaks to ID@XBOX director Chris Charla and regional lead Agostino Simonetta

Back in 2014, the Xbox One was not having the best time. Its now infamous launch saw the home entertainment console struggle under the weight of expectation from its core audience – gamers. But hidden away in all of the critical melange was a diamond that has only become more refined as time has gone on.

The ID@XBOX programme is probably something that we now take for granted a bit, given the industry- wide swing to digital distribution. But the programme has not only been an unparalleled success for Microsoft but also for the developers using it. Some of the success stories include the multiple BAFTA award-winning InsideNever Alone, The Escapists, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and Superhot.

“It’s going super, super well,” ID@XBOX’s director, Chris Charla, says. “We have more than 500 titles that we’ve helped ship on Xbox One and Windows 10 through ID@XBOX. We’ve got more than 2,000 developers with devkits and everything. And developers have earned hundreds of millions of dollars.”

ID@XBOX also allows people to publish in different markets, and get Microsoft’s help in localising and understanding how different regions operate. To do this, whether in the UK, US or even Brazil, relationships need to be formed with the developer.

“I think what we’ve done in EMEA is we’ve gone very, very local,” explains ID@XBOX’s regional lead, Agostino Simonetta. “The approach we have taken is to build a personal relationship with developers across all the different European countries. Obviously, US and North America has a single language that brings all together. But in Europe we have been very mindful of the cultural language differences, so we’ve been working very locally with development organisations.

“We’ve had a partnership with Creative England for probably three years now. With them, we invested over three quarter of a million pounds across several titles. So we’re trying to build a personal relationship and trying to help the development community as much as we can."

We look at everything, but the best way to get ahead is listening to developers
Chris Charla, ID@XBOX 

XNA AND HISTORY

Those of you with long memories will remember that this isn’t the first time Xbox has been helping Indie developers get their games to their marketplace. The now discontinued XNA Game Studio allowed developers to publish on Xbox for a price, or Windows for free. When we think back to the Xbox 360 generation, we think of the Live Arcade, but XNA taught Xbox some valuable lessons as to what developers want.

“I think Xbox Live Arcade and then XNA were incredibly pioneering at first in terms of democratising platform access for independent developers,” says Charla. “Personally, I look back to that 2008 Summer of Arcade where Braid and Castle Crashers and Shadow Complex all launched. To me, that was the moment when indie games burst into the mainstream. Obviously there had been independent games for a long time before then, but that was the moment this golden age of indie took off, and I don’t think it’s slowed down since.

“As we got towards the tail-end of the 360 generation and were getting ready to launch Xbox One, we realised that the pace of change in the independent development community was faster than Microsoft policies had been during the 360 era, so we took a moment, we took a step back and we went out and talked to more than 50 developers. We asked them what they wanted, what they needed, and that input was really what formed the beginning of the programme.

“The thing that we heard loud and clear was that independent developers – to say it now just seems like totally obvious – wanted to be able to self publish their own games and they wanted lots of different features in terms of how the programme worked on the backend, so we took all that input and ID@XBOX is what came out the other side, enabling developers to self-publish. 

“One of the big challenges for a developer going to a console – any console in the past – was actually the entry barrier you have with devkits,” explains Simonetta. “Devkits traditionally are a high cost. That was to me the immense barrier for smaller studios that didn’t want to have that cost before they got on board. So when ID was designed and created, we gave two devkits for free to all the developers as part of the programme. We have over 2,200 developers today and all of those developing got free devkits from us.”

“When you think about XNA versus ID@XBOX, XNA was a great way for people to get going with development,” Charla adds. “Today we have the Xbox Live Creators Programme. It’s important to us that we now have an option for any game and any type of developer who wants to create using our platform.”

 

SHARING THE DATA

Microsoft has been very keen to help developers, but also stress that part of the success of the programme has been communication and not dictation from the company.

“If a developer comes to us and asks for a piece of advice or asks for feedback on a game, we always provide it,” explains Charla. “But if a developer is not interested in that, we don’t volunteer it because the industry has changed, and developers are pretty mature and pretty savvy. I think that it’s not our job to be providing advice when it isn’t asked for.”

“One of the things we do on a regular basis to help our developers is host ID@XBOX events, where we share best practises, trends, and everything we learned year-on-year with them,” adds Simonetta. “That means they have the best possible intelligence to make an informed decision on what they want to do.”

For developers to make these key decisions in regards to development and publishing, they need to know the lessons that Microsoft has learned, and how games are performing, especially those smaller studios that may not have even considered the concerns of releasing a game. “We’ve learned a tonne,” admits Charla. “And we’ve learned a tonne from listening to developers, and certainly there’ve been successes. Three of the top eight paid games on the store right now are ID@XBOX games. 

“Obviously, video games are a hit- driven business. But it’s important to us that we provide a marketplace where every game has an opportunity to perform as well as it can. We try and give developers as much information as we can about how things are selling, what’s the best way to make your box art look in order to make it stand out in the marketplace, what’s the best day of the week to release, what’s the best week of the year to release.

“We’ve tried really hard to never stop learning and never stop listening to developers about what they want and how we can fix things. Luckily, developers are not shy about telling us how we can do better.”

When you think about XNA, it was a great way for people to get going with development
Chris Charla, ID@XBOX 

LEGACY

The impact of the ID@XBOX programme on game development is clear. Award winners, surprise hits and great studios have been unearthed because of it. But what comes next, including the creators update, is very important for the future of the programme and the new trends it can support. “We look at everything,” says Charla. “But I feel like the best way to get ahead of the market or understand where the market is going is listening to developers. I mean, they’re the folks who are at the coalface and feel the trends, sometimes even before they show up, really in the data.

“Obviously, Microsoft has initiatives and we have ideas about where things are going to go and things like that, but for the ID programme, really listening to developers has been the best way to move forward. We really try and listen to users and implement what they want. Backward compatibility came from that. That was something users wanted, and we added it. I think that that’s a perfect example of something that we knew we could do.”

The creators update in particular is key in democratising the process of game development even more. “I’m old,” says Charla. “And when I grew up you would go to Kmart and you’d get a Commodore 64. That was your word processor and your game machine, and that was it. But anybody could make a game on it, and so many great developers got their start on Commodore 64 or Apple II or Spectrum or whatever. And since then, you have PCs now obviously where you can make games, but there hasn’t been that kind of thing where you can make a game and just start playing it on your television in a really long time.

“Hopefully, the existence of the Creators Programme is really going to inspire people, both young people and maybe even older people, to just say, ‘Hey, I can download this app for free, turn this thing into a devkit, and start making a game?’ To me, the act of creation is a reward in and of itself.”

For Simonetta though, the impact is a bit closer to home. “I have an 8 year old daughter, my eldest. She’s been developing a game from scratch, at school and at home. And then, after GDC, after the Creators Programme was announced, I went back home and I said, ‘we can do this from the Xbox. Daddy can help you out, and we can use simple tools and do that.’ And I could see myself, when I was 8 years old, on the VIC-20 that came before the 64, actually copying the code from a book in English. We had the bouncing ball on-screen.

“I can see myself in my daughter now. She can actually get the Xbox that she uses to play on a daily basis and create from there. It’s really inspiring for that young generation - very, very young generation.”