[email protected] director on 2,000 indie games shipped, Game Pass and Xbox Series X

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In 2013, ahead of the launch of the Xbox One, Microsoft debuted [email protected], its indie games publishing program.

While Xbox Live Arcade helped bring smaller titles to Xbox 360 years prior, [email protected] serves as a larger dedicated platform through which independent developers can self-publish their games to Xbox One and Windows 10, with Microsoft providing dev kits, marketing and other support.

(Image credit: Xbox)

Notably, [email protected] games have come from nearly 70 countries across the globe, such as Denmark’s Playdead (Inside), France’s Motion Twin (Dead Cells), Japan’s Inti Creates (Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night), Australia’s House House (Untitled Goose Game), the U.S.’ ConcernedApe (Stardew Valley) and, representing Canada, Oakville, Ontario’s Studio MDHR (Cuphead) and Toronto’s Capybara Games (Below).

Chris Charla ID@Xbox

Chris Charla (image credit: [email protected])

Now, seven years after [email protected]’s inception, Xbox has revealed that the program has shipped its 2,000th game, Boston developer Decoy Games Swimsanity!, just under two years after the release of its 1,000th game in October 2018. Moreover, Xbox says more than $1.5 billion USD (nearly $2 billion CAD) has been paid out in royalties to developers.

“As we’re getting ready to go to the next generation, from Xbox One to Xbox Series X, we took a pause to look back and just try to think about all the things that have happened for independent developers — not just in this during this current generation, which has really been fantastic — but even going back to Xbox Live Arcade,” said [email protected] director Chris Charla to MobileSyrup in a recent interview.

“We might be at the point where somebody was a little kid when they first played Castle Crashers [a 2D beat ’em up released on Xbox 360 in 2008 through Xbox Live Arcade] is starting to work on their first independent game. It’s cool to think that we’re almost at a second generation of console indie developer.”

How games get discovered, especially during a global health crisis

Of course, 2020 is a rather different time than 2008, especially given the COVID-19 pandemic now disrupting business worldwide. Within Xbox’s fold, in particular, marquee Xbox Series X title Halo Infinite saw a recent delay into 2021 that was attributed in part to COVID-19 related development hurdles. That said, Charla says he thinks indie game makers — by virtue of being smaller to begin with — are likely not hit as hard with respect to the actual development of their games.

“COVID-19 has obviously brought unprecedented challenges to all of us, but I think for independent developers, a lot of them are used to working remotely,” he says. “So while there have certainly been some impacts, the actual broader impact to the independent development community is probably more muted than some other industries.”

Xbox XO19 London

Xbox’s XO19 fan event in London, England

Instead, he notes that the pandemic has made it more difficult to actually discover games. In many cases, demos at events like E3, PAX or Microsoft’s own in-campus open house are an effective way for both Xbox and fans alike to come across new indie games. At a time when major events have been cancelled and nearly all developers are working remotely, that’s currently impossible.

“We’ve spent years optimizing for trade shows, and one of the big things that we provide to developers in addition to standard dev kits and dev support and marketing info is getting the opportunity to showcase our games at these shows,” says Charla.

“This year, we’re not able to do any of that. And so we’ve put a lot of effort into just figuring out alternatives. And, of course, it’s a little bit of a learning process.”

One of these alternatives has come in the form of a series of ‘[email protected] Spotlight’ videos showcasing several indie games, featuring narration from the developers who made them.

In July, [email protected] also held a ‘Summer Game Fest Demo Event’ to offer free downloadable demos for more than 70 indie titles. This was already a novel concept in a generation when downloadable demos have become much less common, made even more noteworthy during a time when fans can’t go to events to play games in-person.

“I think it was a cool way to enable gamers who don’t always have the opportunity to go to an E3 or a PAX or that type of event to get to play demos of games that are clearly in development — you know, some are more polished than others, some are rough around the edges, some might even crash once in a while — and get that visceral experience that we can’t have right now in person,” says Charla.

“And we got developers who really liked that. I think players also really, really liked that opportunity. And so we may do it again.”

While that was a one-time event for now, a prolonged way to help smaller games find an audience is through Xbox Game Pass, which features a catalogue of more than 100 AAA and indie titles. Sometimes, games launch on Xbox One and/or PC directly in Game Pass, such as acclaimed 2019 indie game The Outer Wilds, which developer Mobius Digital said got a larger audience thanks to the subscription service. Other titles, like Vancouver-based Hinterland’s The Long Dark, came to Game Pass a few years after launch to help breathe new life into the survival title.

The Outer Wilds

The Outer Wilds (image credit: Annapurna Interactive)

“Game Pass is an amazing discovery tool, and I think that goes both ways,” says Charla. “For players, it’s a great way to find your next favourite game. We definitely know that people try more games and genres they’ve never played before. And for developers, it’s an amazing way to find an audience. But even more than that, for us, the fact that developers come back and sign a second game, a third game, a fifth game, into Game Pass tells us that we’re on the right track. We’re always listening and trying to improve how everything works, but we’ve been really gratified by both the player and developer response to the program.”

Naturally, though, not every game can go to Game Pass, which begs the question: how does Xbox ultimately decide which titles come to the service?

“It goes in every direction,” Charla responds. “We have lots of developers who come to us and say, ‘I have this game, I think it’s really cool, I’d love to get into Game Pass.’ And similarly, we spend a ton of time just scouring trade shows when we had them in person, Twitter, YouTube, getting introductions from friends and associates and other developers looking for cool content. There’s no magic formula for Game Pass in terms of what type of content we’re looking for, except that we’re looking for things that really reflect the breadth of experiences that you can have on Xbox.”

For Charla, this means a catalogue that includes bigger ongoing multiplayer games like Rare’s Sea of Thieves alongside shorter narrative experiences, such as the upcoming afterlife adventure game Spiritfarer from Montreal-based Thunder Lotus. “It’s important to us that the Game Pass isn’t just one thing,” says Charla, noting that there are “dozens” of genres of games on the service.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer (image credit: Thunder Lotus)

“We look at these things in a lot of vectors. It’s not just genre or single-player or multiplayer, it’s ‘how does the game look?’ or ‘is it a dark foreboding game [or] a friendly, inviting game?’ It’s gameplay length; we want to make sure there are games you can play for a really long time. But we also want to make sure that there are games that you can get in and play once, maybe twice, and share with a friend, but know you can finish it so you can have that social currency to talk about the full length of experience with your friends. There isn’t a spreadsheet or a checkbox that we can say ‘this is a perfect Game Pass game.’ It’s really just about making sure that we’re maintaining diversity.”

Next-gen is on the horizon

With Microsoft set to launch the Xbox Series X in November, developers will soon have multiple Xbox consoles available to them.  That said, Xbox’s overall approach to hardware has been centred on choice — the ability to play the same games on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC and mobile — and Charla says this philosophy extends to developers as well.

“We’ve seen lots of developers who are excited to take their existing Xbox One games and optimize them so that they’ll be taking advantage of Xbox Series X features like faster frame rate, higher resolution, low latency input, ray tracing and smart delivery,” he says.

The latter next-gen feature, in particular, is one that Xbox has been touting, allowing consumers to buy participating Xbox One games and play them on Xbox Series X with enhancements. On the indie front, a notable example of this is Echo Generation, Toronto-based Cococucumber’s Stranger Things-esque RPG that will release in 2021 on both Xbox One and Xbox Series X, with 4K/60fps support on the next-gen hardware.

“We’re also seeing devs — particularly those with games that are like 18 months out, but some very close to launch — who are making games that are specifically tailored for Xbox Series X, because they really need that power in order to realize their vision,” says Charla. Altogether, he notes that there are currently 2,000 indie games in development for Xbox platforms.

Ultimately, Charla says that whatever indie developers get out of the improved hardware, he hopes that it will empower them to continue to create unique experiences.

“I’m most excited to see a game that I can’t even conceive of. Independent developers, going all the way back to Braid and Castle Crashers, have always been surprising us. To me, that’s what’s so exciting and fun about independent games — that those developers who have this complete creative freedom to focus on their passion [and] create things that are completely novel that we never could have imagined.”

Charla pointed to Cuphead as a prime example of this. “At the beginning of Xbox One, I never would have imagined somebody was going to be so, I’ll say daring, as to do a hand-animated sidescrolling running gun in 1930s animation style, but they did, and it changed the world.” In addition to selling more than five million copies and garnering numerous awards, Cuphead has been ported to Nintendo Switch and PS4 alongside an upcoming animated Netflix series and expansion.

“We’ll be talking about that game in 20 years and 30 years,” says Charla.

Cuphead

Cuphead (GIF credit: Xbox)

“And so the games that I’m most excited about for Xbox Series X, there’s a bunch that I’m excited about that I can’t name and some that I can, like The Gunk and The Medium. But the games have always most excited about are the ones that are just going to come out of left field and just deliver something that like nobody imagined. And so we’re already starting to see some concepts and early things around those lines. I think it’s going to be a really, really fun next five to 10 years.”

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