Compared to Sony's indie assault, Microsoft's ID@Xbox has some catching up to do. Director Chris Charla however says he's "sending out dev kits as fast as we can" and promises hundreds of games on the way.
It's a program that seems to be just finding its feet, with 12 games released so far (most of them this June). While that still seems like a sliver of the available content out there Charla says, "we’re sending out dev kits as fast as we can so there’s a lot more developers coming into the program. There’s hundreds of games in development now". That said there's no fixed schedule and a fairly relaxed access to dates: "some amount of time" is the nearest Charla will come to putting a window on anything. June's rush of content's largely been the result of the program's easy going rules. "That was not like a plan as much an effect of when games are shipping. It’s really driven by the developers. We don’t tell the developers when to ship their games. They’re done when they’re done."
ID@Xbox director Chris Charla
That lack of pressure's built into the system from the start: "We give them two dev kits at no charge, access to free Unity Middleware, licences and the console add on. Then when they’re ready to ship or submit a game they go through concept approval, like any game. It’s very light, it’s just to make sure there’s nothing offensive. And then they’re really off to the races. There’s no milestones or producers checking up on them every day. They’re independent developers who are self-publishing and when they’re ready to publish they get in touch and we have release managers and account managers to help them through shipping, and to get involved in things like E3".
It's a hands off process, which seem obvious given the nature of 'indie' as a concept. "They don’t need us micromanaging their development process", agrees Charla. "Where they can use the help, and where we want to help them out as much as we can, is amplifying promotion or bringing them to events. Or if they don’t know anyone at a Kotaku, say, we can do an intro. We really want to amplify their promotion and help them succeed. But the bit about making a video game? They can take care of that."
It's an approach that's attracting high profile and cult appeal names including titles like Hyper Light Drifter, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune's spiritual sequel Mighty No. 9. The early focus, Charla admits, has initially been on established studios. "Right now, just because we’re still in the early days of the program, we have a limited amount of hardware we can send out. So we do focus more on experienced developers who have history of shipping games whether that’s on console or tablet, phone, that sort of thing but we’re opening it up as broadly as possible, as fast as possible".
However, for the future, Charla wants to see a situation where, "when someone turns on their Xbox they see the broadest array of content possible". The idea is not to create an indie subsection but rather make smaller offerings part of the same world as the bigger names. "The program exists because we saw a need in the marketplace both on the consumer side and the developer side for something like this. There are tons of different games coming and we want to make sure that we have a great way for those games to get on the platform".
So that means a world where, "when I switch on my Xbox One now I can do anything from buy an Assassin’s Creed game for $60 all the way down to buying a 60-second shooter for five dollars. I think consumers are sophisticated enough to understand the value proposition across that range". Charla emphasises the lack of separation between content: "One of the things we did really early on was to say a game is a game is game. All the games are sold in the same store, they’re all next to each other, they’re all promoted on the same vehicles. I thinks it’s a recognition that the industry’s matured."
His ambition in the long run harks back to one of Xbox's more famous names. "In many ways we see ID@Xbox as a spiritual successor to XBLA. [That] was a place where a tonne of really cool important indie games shipped". It worked in part because "it was a really sustainable ecosystem", says Charla. "[Developers] could ship a game, have success, be able to keep working. And that’s what we want on Xbox One, we want a sustainable ecosystem for developers where good games have a good chance to be hits and ensure developers can continue to pursue their passion and our players get good games".
All of that sounds encouraging, but there's still that often-maligned parity clause (a line in ID@Xbox's contract that allegedly forces new games to either be Xbox exclusive or a simultaneous multiform release). Essentially it forces games to choose between skipping either Xbox or all other platforms. It's a question Charla has a well practised response for: "Unfortunately I can’t talk about it. We just don’t talk about our publishing policies in public. If a developer wants to talk about it I’d say give me a call but we just don’t talk about it publicly".