With the release of Cuphead - The Delicious Last Course
, we had the chance to chat with Chris Charla, the head of the ID@Xbox
program to talk about Cuphead
’s success, its universal appeal, how Xbox’s self-publishing program has evolved over the past decade, and how the cloud has become a key part in both development and streaming.
More importantly we talked about how indie games have become a part of all things videogames. Big, small, or something in-between, the barriers have all but evaporated.
“When we announced Cuphead, we had all the ID@Xbox games in one little section,” Chris Charla, head of ID@Xbox tells me. “And that made sense back in 2014 because we were contextualising them for people, as well as celebrating them. With the Xbox & Bethesda Showcase
this year there were games from independent developers all throughout the showcase. And the number of minutes that were devoted to those games was just as important. We don't have to contextualise it anymore.”
Cuphead’s reveal back in 2014 coincided with the formation of the ID@Xbox program, a new division that would focus on supporting indie developers and help them bring their titles to Xbox. A term that now includes console, PC, and even cloud gaming. When Chris and the team first saw Cuphead, much like with the audience and viewers of the E3 2014 and E3 2015 showcase, they were blown away. The combination of detailed hand-drawn animation with fast-paced gameplay looked like the impossible made real.
“Everyone in the room, and we’re talking about a bunch of people who have been in the game industry for quite some time, was like, ‘do they know how hard this is?’,” Chris Charla says. “What was beautiful about that whole experience was that it was a learning experience for us on the ID team. The game industry had fundamentally changed. We had gone from a world where people walked around and told other people how hard something was, and then they didn't do it, to a world where people followed their dreams and their passions and anything could happen. We were there to enable that, and we were excited to enable it.”
The ID@Xbox program has matured over the years to the point where a lot of systems and processes and things have been fine tuned and expanded - that sort of thing. But back then, with something like Cuphead, what could you provide Studio MDHR?
: “We gave them support, dev kits, a couple bucks here or there, but I think the visibility we gave Cuphead helped validate their own understanding of how important the game was going to be. I don't want to take any credit here, I want to be very clear in saying that it was all them. But the attention that they got after E3 2014 and then really blowing up in 2015, when people could first play the game, gave them the encouragement to keep going. Rather than trying to ship sooner and just get a game out, they decided to make the game they always wanted to make. They added a lot of new sections after E3 that maybe had been in the ‘want to have but no plan to have’ category.”
Visibility is worth so much. And it's great that you can take this thing that impresses you and the team, show it to the world, and the world reacts in the same way. A great example of what the ID@Xbox program can do for awareness. Is that still a cornerstone of what drives the team, to help create visibility for indie games? Has the process changed at all?
: “We have more formal meetings now rather than people yelling out the door saying, ‘Hey!’. But we still meet every week to look at games with a big crew. And it's not just the ID@Xbox team, but a selection of people from throughout Microsoft. Even people who don't work in games but are passionate about games so that we're getting a broad and diverse perspective on the games we're looking at. What hasn't changed is the same goal that we had with Cuphead, which is, the world needs to see this game. And that’s something we still look for in games all the time.
“The game industry had fundamentally changed. We had gone from a world where people walked around and told other people how hard something was, and then they didn't do it, to a world where people followed their dreams and their passions and anything could happen."
One of the biggest things that we work on from a business side is how we help developers with discoverability. It's become the number one challenge for developers today, and it's something we think about all the time. Whether it's things we can do at ID@Xbox, whether it's giving direct support, introducing a game to our Game Pass program, or even things that we just announced like Project Morecroft. That will hopefully give great visibility to some that are in development. It's just something we're constantly thinking about. One of the greatest privileges of being a platform holder and also one of the biggest responsibilities of being a platform holder is to make sure that you're sharing a broad array of awesome, diverse, really interesting titles with players.”
Project Morecroft, the game demo service that's in the works. That sounds very cool, and there’s a comparison to make with something like Steam Next Fest where almost any game developer or publisher can say, ‘hey, you can play our game, here’s a demo’. Being able to showcase these games, indie titles in particular, like a festival, feels like more than simply ‘game demos are now available on Xbox’.
: “Sarah Bond, when she talked about it earlier, really hit the nail on the head. She was talking about that feeling when you get to go to a PAX or you get to go to an E3 and you see a demo on the show floor and get to play that demo. And you know, there is something really special about that because as a game fan, you feel good when you get to do that. You feel like you're a little bit on the inside and getting to see what drops next, where the future might be going.
Sharing that kind of experience with people is exactly what this is all about. What Steam does with their demo fest and what Xbox has done with big demo drops during the pandemic, it's a really cool way to keep players informed about what's coming next that isn’t just another video or another talking head. And it's a tool that we can provide to developers to make sure that they're getting the maximum chance to get awareness for their game and break through.”
A studio might see what info and tools they need and be like, thanks, we’ve got it from here. Another studio might be looking for assistance with one aspect, maybe marketing. Indies cover such a broad range, one studio might not want any help at all and another might be looking to see what’s involved in coming to Game Pass. Is your team hands off, hands on, and how do you manage that? Is it whatever the developer might want, and you try and gauge the amount of collaboration they’re looking for. If something stands out do you take the initiative to support them - put them on a stage like E3 or Gamescom?
: “It's really all the above. We have developers who come to the program, they apply, we send them to dev kits and they're like, thanks, but you never hear from them again. They're doing their own thing, they manage their own marketing and publishing. And sometimes it leads to enormous success like with Shotgun Farmers
. One thing that we try to do, and it's been different during the pandemic, and there are only a finite number of opportunities, is we want to make sure that every single developer in the program knows about those opportunities and has an opportunity to pitch and to be included in those opportunities.
“One of the biggest things that we work on from a business side is how we help developers with discoverability. It's become the number one challenge for developers today, and it's something we think about all the time."
GDC, E3, Gamescom, EGX, we only have like a limited number of slots that we can give to developers so we would send out emails months in advance and just tell devs, ‘if you have something to show, if you have something that's going be playable, let us know, send us the video’. Before E3 we would sit in a room for like three, four days just watching videos and in a very gentle way, fight it out about what we want to feature. Because again, we can't feature everything. We don't always get it right either, Shotgun Farmers, we didn't feature anywhere and it became this big success. All we can do is try and make sure that everybody has an equal shot at it. And that's really important to us because we don't know where the next great game is going to come from.”
There's been some great Australian stuff pop up recently with The Artful Escape, Forgotten City, Unpacking, and covering all global regions to highlight games is awesome. From a release date perspective, like with Cuphead, like, even if there’s a monetary component I assume you don't put any pressure on developers to release their games? Or if it’s announced as coming to Game Pass.
: “If you look at a traditional publisher, they usually really want to hit their dates. And it becomes a news story if a date slips, even Xbox Game Studios has had that. You also see publishers slip dates when they need to make sure they hit a level of quality. One of the things that we decided on really early with ID@Xbox was that we could stress about helping devs, changing internal processes, rethink how we promote things, and making sure people see the games. But when it came to when a game shipped, that was not going to be something we would stress about. Certainly there have been times where we've offered help from our advanced technology group or our own developers who can come in to answer technical questions - we're always there to help. There's just no pressure to ship, or to hit a date through the ID@Xbox program. We think developers should just ship games when they're ready.”
What about just the marketing side, and providing support for a studio that maybe has no experience with how to sell a game. Maybe they don't know how to cut an effective trailer, what screenshots will grab someone’s attention, how to succinctly summarise their game to make it sound like something you’d want to play. Does that factor into the services you provide?
: “Absolutely. A couple things you didn't mention, what day of the week to release, what time of the year, what's a great price point. Those are all questions we get from developers. So we have several NDA events that we invite developers to, and we also have some public events, and at those events someone will be talking about marketing. I'm talking at a Brazilian indie games festival and a big part of my talk is going to be about marketing and addressing those exact issues you mention.
"There's just no pressure to ship, or to hit a date through the ID@Xbox program. We think developers should just ship games when they're ready.”
One of the benefits that we have as a platform holder is we get to see hundreds and hundreds of releases a year, and see how those games perform. While we would never share individual title data, because that's a developer's private data, we share aggregate data about performance and trends. So that developers can understand what's working right now, what's not working, when is a good time to release, what's a good day within a week, and so on.
We share that data and then we’re also always happy to take a look if somebody says, ‘hey, these are my screenshots what do you think?’ Typically what we say there is make sure your screenshots are evocative of your game. On Xbox it's a carousel of screenshots so make sure they're all great. That’s something I'm super passionate about, but you know the typical time when a developer takes screenshots for a game is usually when they are the most tired because they're almost done and they just want to ship. Which I totally understand, I used to be a developer and know full well that the last 5% of the game takes 50% of the time. But, stuff like that can kill your sales. Screenshots need to pop, marketing text needs to pop.”
With the technology side, Xbox hardware, PCs, Game Pass, Cloud Gaming, Azure servers. There’s so much there, and so much you can open the doorway to. Like, no problem, let me put you in touch with our server team to help sort out that latency issue. Leveraging all of Microsoft, has that expanded since the ID@Xbox program began?
: “It's something we work on constantly. I was just on a bunch of calls today where I was listening to our technical teams and platform teams talk about ways they're improving that developer experience. And the developer experience is something people at Microsoft are really passionate about. There's so much we can do and there's always so much more we can do to make things more straightforward for developers. I won’t say easy because nothing’s easy when it comes to game development. With the cloud specifically one of the great things about cloud gaming on Xbox is that it's really straightforward for a developer to have their game playable in the cloud. There's extra work they can do to make it mobile friendly with touch overlays and that sort of thing, but it’s shocking how straightforward that is.
"With the cloud specifically one of the great things about cloud gaming on Xbox is that it's really straightforward for a developer to have their game playable in the cloud. There's extra work they can do to make it mobile friendly with touch overlays and that sort of thing, but it’s shocking how straightforward that is.”
For other cloud services, stuff you would use during development or cloud services that you'd use for say, telemetry in a game, we’ve started a program that was announced at GDC called ID@Azure. Which is basically an on-ramp to cloud services for independent developers. And while it shares the ID name, which is super cool, it is no Xbox related. You can deploy everything you do through ID@Azure on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, iOS, Android, Linux, and probably Ouya too. Wherever you develop. It's something we're really excited about.”