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Talking Indies, Xbox One X, and More with ID@Xbox Director Chris Charla
Post by KostaAndreadis @ 03:20pm 15/11/17 | Comments
Recently we had the chance to sit down with the head of Microsoft’s indie game service ID@Xbox, Chris Charla, to discuss all things Xbox, indie, and the future of the platform.

With the launch of the Xbox One X there has been a lot of talk about first-party exclusives and a somewhat lack of big AAA titles. On the flipside to this, thanks to recent and future titles like Tacoma, Cuphead, The Artful Escape, Ashen, and more - the indie scene on the Xbox One platform is stronger than it has ever been.

From the titles mentioned above, at PAX a few weeks back (where this conversation took place) we got to go hands on with Ashen. A new action-RPG from New Zealand that not only features an incredible art style but intriguing co-op mechanics to boot. Due for release in 2018, Ashen made its public debut on the Microsoft stage at E3 and will be enhanced for the Xbox One X. As the director of ID@Xbox, this seemed like a good a place as any to begin our chat.

AusGamers: One of the cool indies that I got to see, and got to play for the first time that made its debut a couple of E3s ago on the Xbox stage was Ashen.

Chris Charla: Oh yeah.

AusGamers: And I got to speak to the director, the game director and he was taking me through the game and it just sounds incredible. They've been working on it for four-plus years. So, I'm really interested to know how ID@Xbox engage a developer like that and assist them.

Chris Charla: With a game like Ashen, and this doesn’t happen with all games, but a lot of games that are in the programme. We were just on the internet and saw this cool game from this little developer in New Zealand. The team has a lot of experience because they all come from the special effects industry and everything like that, so they're not inexperienced guys, but we saw the game, we reached out and we're like "Hey this is really cool, have you thought about console?" And they were like "Oh we're, you know, it's pretty early but yeah that sounds exciting!"

The Ashen announce trailer from two E3's ago

We talked to them about Xbox and you know, the upshot of that was we got to show Ashen at E3 a couple of years ago and then you know, along the way they, they've now hooked up with Annapurna which is awesome. And that's one way that we find developers, is we're just out, sort of scouting the internet, scouting shows like this and just talking to people.

AusGamers: Cool.

Chris Charla: And the other big way that we find developers is they'll come to us. They'll just apply to ID@Xbox because they want to get a game on Xbox One. Get their dev kits and everything else, and then one day we'll see the game come in we'll be like “Wow! Look at this. This is really neat. We need to make sure the world knows about this game”. And then the third way is when we have an event like E3 or we do some promotion around GDC and some other things. We don't have enough slots to include, you know everyone.

AusGamers: Naturally.

Chris Charla: That's just the reality. But one thing that's really important to us is that everyone in the programme has an equal chance of getting in so we'll send an email out before E3 and just say like "Hey! Guys! E3's coming, if you're interested in participating let us know. Send us a video, send us a build." And then that's open to everybody, all 2500 developers in the programme, and not everybody sends something in, it may be too early, or maybe they just launched. But we look at all those and we discover a huge number of games that way too.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: "Oh wow! Like have you seen this video? Have you seen what they're doing? Like, oh, we got to get the build." And then we get all excited and that's how it ends up on stage E3.

AusGamers: Were there any examples from this year of indie titles that weren't on your radar but then were immediately, I guess, propelled the front of your mind?

Chris Charla: The one I can think of is The Artful Escape, a game that we knew about, and some folks from Microsoft had said "We saw this kid at PAX last year, you got to check this out." And then when we saw the video that they did for E3 and everybody was just like "Holy cow!"

The Artful Escape

AusGamers: And how does it then get into the showcase?

Chris Charla: Through the ID programme, we sort of curate a selection of games. We take them to a few Microsoft leadership people, and that's how just the E3 show comes together as a whole. With The Artful Escape we knew we had something special.

AusGamers: Definitely.

Chris Charla: You know, we knew that developer was really special so when we turn off the lights and play those scenes from The Artful Escape, it just brought the house down. Like everybody in the room, all the leadership team, was just going nuts. And of course, the same thing happened at E3. It just happens that way. It's cool.

AusGamers: We've seen growth over the last couple of years in Microsoft's, not only support of indie titles, but in really bringing them to people's attention. Like this year, with The Artful Escape. Plus, of course Cuphead. Ashen, which we talked about earlier. We've had all these titles that have just immediately made an impression like "Oh! My game of the show is… is this!"

Chris Charla: Yeah! Absolutely. I don't want to take credit for the idea of the Xbox programme doing this because you know we're simply the vehicle for developers getting on to Xbox.

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: And we talk to developers all the time. But it's really about the support level for independent developers, and that’s company wide and Xbox wide. I mean, that starts at the top with Phil [Spencer] and goes all the way, you know, to every single person working at Xbox.

To us, they're an incredibly relevant and crucial part of the mix in terms of games on Xbox One. And we want to make sure that when the player turns on their Xbox, she or he gets to see the broadest variety of games in the world and there's no way you can do that without independent developers, without the innovative content, the experimental content, the creative content, the weird content, the indies. What independent developers bring to the platform, we really see it as important as having a great first-party product portfolio is. As important as our amazing traditional third-party portfolio.

I think we announced it at Gamescom. That games for the ID programme had generated more than half a billion dollars, U.S., in revenue since 2014. And it's way more than that now, and that's awesome. You know it's a little crass to talk about it numbers, but -

AusGamers: It shows you that side -

Chris Charla: That this is not a fad or flash in the pan. Indies are an essential part of the video gaming mix going forward.

AusGamers: Does that mean the Creators Program grew from that based on there being so many interesting indie titles out there?

Chris Charla: What's awesome about the Creators Program is it, finally, does two things. One, it truly makes the Xbox One an open platform. Anyone can develop anything they want for Xbox One you know as long as it's not super offensive or as long as it can be rated. And it creates a path where there's a place on Xbox for everyone, whether you're working in a first party studio or working at a third-party studio, or a traditional independent developer coming through ID or being somebody who like, maybe you're a student, maybe you're sort of an experimenter, maybe you're somebody who's just like, "Let me see if I can do this."

It opens the platform to a whole new category of developer, and the great thing about it is that it's not a dead end. You could launch a game in Creators Program and then decide "You know what? This was a fun experience, I'd like to add achievements. I'd like to actually bring this exact game that's already on the store to ID," and you can totally do that.

AusGamers: What sort of support then do you guys provide for developers to be able to add that element to it, the Xbox Live support, Achievements, and so forth.

Chris Charla: That's a core difference between Creators and ID. ID is technically more like a managed service, with games having to go through concept approval to make sure they hit a minimum quality bar for console gamers. On the other hand, as they are sold at the main game storefront, they get opportunities for more promotion and then they can have Achievements and online multiplayer and all that. There's not a huge demand put on developers, we're not trying to be censors.

AusGamers: Cool. In terms of the tools that you provide developers, one of the big things, is Xbox Play Anywhere, to work across Windows 10 and Xbox One. With cross-platform play and things like that. How do you, I guess, give that support to developers to do that?

Chris Charla: It's up to the developer. You know, they're the publisher and if they want to take advantage of Xbox Play Anywhere and ship on Windows 10 and have it buy once and play on both platforms, it's totally up to them. It's not something we mandate or anything like that.

Chris and Major Nelson explain how the Creators Program works

AusGamers: How important was the shift for Xbox One to become a Windows 10 device? With the Xbox One S and now the One X and also Windows 10, a developer might look at that and think, “That's three different systems. We’re independent, we've only got limited resources, so how do we hit all three?"

Chris Charla: The important thing to understand about the both the One S and then the One X is that they are both part of the same family. It's the same architecture. Really the only difference is that you can do more with the X in terms of graphic enhancements, but all games run on both. So as a developer, you just make the game for the Xbox One family and then if you want to add enhancements for Xbox One X it's trivial. I shouldn't say trivial -

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: It's straightforward to do so. It doesn't take a huge amount of effort. One of the coolest things about X is that the additional power is readily accessible. So, it isn't that hard for a developer to add 4K support or to add HDR support or Dolby Atmos. That's like maybe a couple days work.

AusGamers: The Path of Exile team, in speaking with them were able to get the game running in 4K on the Xbox One X in less than a day.

Chris Charla: Well, it might not be that easy for everyone.

AusGamers: Yeah, those guys are technical wizards.

Chris Charla: They are amazingly talented. But yeah, it's been straightforward for most developers. If somebody wants to add a version to the Windows 10 store they do it with the UWP framework. They can use the same UWP application and run it on Xbox One and Xbox One X too. And if it does seem confusing to a developer, we have a lot of folks on the ID side who can explain exactly what the different pathways are and everything like that to try and keep it simple.

AusGamers: Switching gears. Cuphead finally came out this year. How has that experience been? Just to see it be embraced, not only by critics, but by a huge audience too. For a game that you have been so passionately promoting for a while now.

Chris Charla: It's awesome! Like those guys really went all in on development, you know, in terms of what they invested and everything like that, and we knew the game was gonna be great. And we knew the game looked phenomenal, but you don't really know -

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: How consumers are gonna react until the game's in the market. The fact that consumers have reacted so well and it's well over a million units across all platforms just feels awesome! The other thing is, is that team, themselves, are so cool.

They're such nice people and they're so sincere and honest and passionate. Anytime you get a chance to hang out with them it's just like a huge buzz, you know, it's just like a huge pick me up. They just have all this energy and it's infectious. And then to see it all work out for them? That is the greatest feeling.

AusGamers: Like a happy ending. By that same token because there are so many games, just in general. There are hits like Cuphead and there are misses. Have there ever been any titles that you've seen or that you've helped bring to the platform that didn't quite reach an audience? Or the alternative to that, that you weren't sure about and then were embraced by the community?

Chris Charla: Yes, absolutely. There are games you see that underperform and you know the game itself is good and you're baffled at why it hasn't performed. But the reality is that’s true in any entertainment medium. I think we've all had to experience of, you know, just being in a bar or someplace and someone on a guitar is playing and you're like "Why aren't you on the radio? You're amazing!"

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: Unfortunately, the world isn't as rational as we want it to be. Generally speaking the Xbox Marketplace has been pretty rational, and the good games tend to do well and games that aren't that great tend to not do as well. But there are always cases where you're just like "What?! You guys all need to play this game, like, what's going on?"

But, one of the things that I think is neat is that through programmes like Games with Gold and now with Xbox Game Pass -

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: We can actually take the opportunity to showcase games that we feel not enough people got a chance to see, and hopefully get those games into a lot more hands. At the same time, we do a lot of work around this issue, and I think for most independent developers, discovery is one of the trickiest things. How do you stand out? How do you get noticed? How do you make sure that the audience that you believe is out there for your game gets to see your game?

AusGamers: Definitely.

Chris Charla: That's a thing we work on all the time. There's no easy answer to that problem. There's no easy solution. Sometimes I joke that humanity had like 10,000 years to figure out how to do a retail store correctly. From when we first started growing crops in Mesopotamia to the rise of Walmart. We've only had digital marketplaces for like 10 or 15 years.

In some ways we're still trying to figure it out.

AusGamers: Xbox Game Pass seems like the natural outcome of that evolution. Do you view that as an avenue to approach indie developers to say, "Hey here’s this completely different business model that might be perfect for your title.”

Chris Charla: Game Pass is still new, but it has been really successful so far. It's been awesome to see the uptake and you know, I think we're learning at the same time other folks are learning. We have a pretty good model right now for how games get into Game Pass. The reaction has been positive. I can't say too much about what we'll do in the future but it's something that we're really considering as an interesting way to bring new games to players.

AusGamers: Awesome. Well, as we probably need to wrap this up, from your time in Australia have there been any indies that you've that have stood out to you?

Chris Charla: Yeah, absolutely! I mean like, number one is probably Hand to Fate 2. But, you know, AIE booth, which is a student showcase -

AusGamers: Yeah.

Chris Charla: I saw a couple of games over there too. I actually just walking past to get a snack and saw this game and I was like "Whoa! What is this?" And you know, started playing the game and talking to the developer and was "Have you thought about bringing it to Xbox?" And they were like "We're still thinking about graduating." And I'm like, "Okay. You know, like, call me."

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to chat at PAX, Microsoft and Xbox Australia for helping arrange this too.