ID@Xbox is all about “letting developers tell us what they want”
We sat down with ID@Xbox Director Chris Charla to discuss the Australian indie games scene, the importance of feedback and the role of curation in the video games industry.
Last week, the yearly Game Developers Conference (GDC) kicked off in San Francisco, bringing talented game creators from all around the world together to discuss their successes, their failures and the tips and tricks that have helped them build the experiences that so entertain us.
Among the many renowned speakers attending the event was Chris Charla, Director of the ID@Xbox program for Microsoft. ID@Xbox, for those unfamiliar, is Microsoft's way of helping smaller, independent developers release their games on Xbox One and Windows PCs. Unlike many of the self-publishing programs available on other platforms, ID@Xbox is completely free, with anyone able to submit their game for certification, publish it to the Xbox One and update it as often as they like without paying anything at all.
Participants in the ID@Xbox program also get access to development resources such as software development kits, free middleware solutions and assistance from the experienced ID@Xbox community.
Unsurprisingly, Charla was a busy man during GDC, delivering a talk on the impact ID@Xbox has had on not just the independent development community but the video games industry as a whole. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to set aside some time for a chat with us on the role of ID@Xbox Down Under and how it's helping independent Australian game developers tap into the global gaming audience.
Despite the relatively subdued state of the Australian games industry compared to the rest of the world, quite a few home-grown titles have risen to prominence in recent years. Hand of Fate 2, Push Me Pull You and Ticket to Earth are just some of the more notable games to enjoy global success, and we asked Charla whether he'd had any experience dealing with Aussie developers directly.
"Absolutely," he told us. "We're showing off City of Brass today at GDC, which is obviously from an Australian developer.
"[But] our program is worldwide. We have folks in a few different territories, mostly the U.S., Europe and the UK, China and Japan. Unfortunately, I don't get to go to Australia as often as I like, but I was able to go to PAX Australia last year and the dev show that was right beforehand and meet a bunch of developers at The Arcade, the co-working space. Australia's got a fantastic dev scene, so we try and tap into it as much as we can."
To do this, Charla and his team ensure that the ID@Xbox program gives independent developers the world over the ability to compete on a level playing field, regardless of where they are physically based. Australian developers don't have to worry about regional differences in Microsoft's storefront; with ID@Xbox, their games are globally available at the click of a button.
"The way we work with Xbox, developers just have to submit one time, and they can just choose which territory they want to release in," Charla explained. "It's not like they have to submit differently for a North American release, or a European release, or an Asian release, or anything like that. So we really do run the program as globally as possible.
"Of course, Australian developers are included in a lot of our initiatives, like, say showing off City of Brass, and we've shown off a bunch of developers just from the broader Australia and New Zealand region at E3 in the past. When we do an event like PAX Australia, the Xbox Australia team will make an effort to make sure it works, highlighting as much Australian content as possible."
Australia's got a fantastic dev scene, so we try and tap into it as much as we can."
Key to any successful community program is feedback, and Charla has certainly taken this to heart. Since its launch in 2014, ID@Xbox has evolved based on the praise and criticisms of its participants, with the most notable change being the removal of the "parity clause" that initially prevented developers from releasing Xbox One games through the program when they'd already launched on other platforms. Developers didn't like this, so Microsoft removed it.
"We get feedback from developers all the time," Charla told us. "And we get both positive feedback and feedback about places we can do better. Both are super valuable. The positive feedback always feels good, but the feedback that you can really action on and try to make life better for everybody is the feedback that tells you where we could be doing better. And we've gotten both kinds of feedback from developers in Australia, and we're always trying to make the program better."
Cuphead is one of the more well-known ID@Xbox titles released in recent years
One area where constant improvement is particularly important is curation. Thanks to its low barrier to entry, ID@Xbox has drastically increased the number of independent games available on Xbox One – nearly 300 new titles have launched through the program in the last 12 months.
While this gives players more choice, it also makes it easy for individual games to get lost in the crowd. Popular PC games marketplace Steam has long suffered from this problem, with many players and developers overwhelmed by the sheer number of new titles released each and every day. Sony, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach with the PS4, strictly regulating what games can and can't appear on the system.
Curious as to how ID@Xbox handles this conundrum, we asked Charla for his thoughts:
"It's an interesting problem," he told us. "When we talk to developers today, the number one thing they always mention is discovery, which I think is the developer-focused view of curation – how can people discover my game? We try to solve the problem in three different ways. First is our store team thinks about this a lot, and they are always trying to make sure they're surfacing diverse content to players through promotions. You're gonna see promotions for the new Halo game and that kind of thing, but they also work really hard to make sure that you're seeing promotions about games that are less famous.
"The second way we address that is with developers. We try and tell them everything we know about what's working and what isn't working in terms of discovery, and getting your games to stand out, and making sure that the general public knows that your game is coming, and know that your game is good then hopefully want to buy it. The more data we have, we just share it. And hopefully the developers can then use that data effectively.
"The third play is that, on Xbox, we really are a fully open platform. We have something called the Xbox Live Creators Program where anyone can go buy an Xbox off retail shelves, download some free software and then make a game and ship it commercially on Xbox. So it's a completely open platform.
"We thought long and hard when we first introduced that program about the best way to balance making Xbox a fully open platform with having the kind of curated marketplace that players expect. And the way we solved it was that those games that come with the Xbox Live Creators Program are in their own section of the marketplace on Xbox One. So you can go there and know, okay, these are games that have varying levels of polish, but they're also, like... who knows what you're going to find? It really is a treasure hunt. And so, in a way, we have the best of both worlds there in terms of curation now."
Despite lacking the large library of exclusive titles enjoyed by the likes of Sony and Nintendo, Microsoft has done tremendously well for itself this console generation, and a lot of that has to do with initiatives like ID@Xbox. Four years on, the program is well-loved by both players and developers, but to Chris Charla, it still has plenty of room to grow in the future.
"We want to make life easier for developers," he told us. "We're always going to be listening, to figure how we can take the program in new directions, whether it's something like helping people integrate Mixr – which is our streaming service – or getting new information about PlayFab – which is a company that we acquired recently to provide really super cool back-end tools.
"That's kind of the stuff we'll keep doing. But basically, we're going to let developers tell us what they want and hopefully be able to keep responding as strongly as they have in the past."
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