Since announcing Xbox Game Preview (Xbox's version of Early Access) at E3, Microsoft has had "a mad rush from the game development community" to be part of its pilot program, says the company's head of publishing Shannon Loftis. It's been so successful that Microsoft plans to release its own first-party games through the service.
Like Steam Early Access, Game Preview lets developers sell a beta version of their games, which they update with new features until release.
"When we announced the pilot program it was really just to see if it was a viable approach to game development," Shannon Loftis told me in an interview at Gamescom. "We’ve had a bit of a mad rush from the development community."
Currently, Game Preview only houses games from indie developers. Yet, when I asked Loftis if Microsoft would consider releasing a first-party game through Preview, she had no doubt in her mind: "Absolutely, yes. No question.
"I can’t make any announcements about first-party games we’re going to put in Preview but typically at this point, given the way games development’s going, and the complexity of the systems, it is very important to us the consumer goes along with us the whole way," Loftis explained. "Game development itself has evolved in the last two, three, four years. It’s become far more community driven and far more incremental. This is a way to extend the beta experience and also support development a little in the process. Our fans absolutely love it, there’s been a huge amount of uptake in the service itself."
However, unlike Steam, Microsoft wants to make sure Game Preview remains a curated service, "that the games that are offered through Preview are just as high quality as will eventually ship on the platform.
"We have a set of certifications for Game Preview, but because of the early state of the games we try to set the expectation with the consumer that they might run into unfinished gameplay. The things we try to avoid are crashes and unfinished code. We want to make sure that the gamer can complete the experience but know that some things will be unfinished."
On Steam Early Access there has been a number of occasions when a developer hasn't been able to raise the funds to finish its game, leaving those who bought it in the lurch. Loftis explained that Microsoft is doing what it can to avoid this: "I think that’s one of the reasons we want to make sure that we’re curating; we’re screening the developers as well as the games themselves. We’ve been very clear with developers and gamers both that this isn’t a viable means of funding development. You have to be able to actually finish the game in order to get into the program."
However, if a developer did go bust, Loftis said "I imagine we would work with that developer to find a means for them to finish. We have a lot of different ways of engaging with developers. We have first-party publishing, which is something I’m responsible for, and that’s a very tight partnership where we typically have as many Microsoft people on the title by the end of the game as the developer does. And then we have third-party publishing, Which is George Peckham’s organisation, we have ID at Xbox. So one of those paths might be the right path for a Game Preview partner."
I'm guessing it's too late for the next Gears of War, or for Halo 5 - but we may well see Microsoft's next big Xbox games a little earlier than we're used to.