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Xbox investing in 'name-brand franchises' as ID@Xbox facilitates indie development

4:30 PM on 03.21.2014 // Steven Hansen

Also, retail to dev kit conversion on hold and Titanfall's success

One of the neatest touted functionality with the Xbox One is the ability to turn retail consoles into development units, but it's still not something you can with the One now. In a GDC talk, Microsoft Game Studios corporate vice president Phil Spencer explained that the company still wants to do it, but with its indie outreach program ID@Xbox, it's not top priority.

Thousands have apparently reached out to sign on with ID@Xbox. "We want to make sure the people that are signed up are getting the most support from us," Spencer explained. "Seeing all the games in development and trying to give the teams feedback on the games as they come through," is the focus, while "further down the road" we'll see a shift towards working on discoverability and the dev kit retail conversion.

"What we're trying to do is facilitate the games coming to the platform as quickly as possible and right now there's been focus on the people that can build today." 

On the topic of Microsoft control over marketplace things like pushing patches and store pricing Spencer explained, "You've got to look at two sides of this. One of the benefits of console gaming traditionally is when I turn on the box, it boots up and it plays. There's a certain stability to the OS in a console that we consider sacred." Which still feels gatekeepery, but it's better than the patch system of last generation that left broken games up longer.

Spencer also explained Microsoft is, "learning through [its] relationships with people who were having success already" -- companies like Mojang (Minecraft) or Wargaming (World of Tanks) who are big enough prior to Xbox releases that they can influence things like allowed update cadence and generally teach Xbox some PC-like sensibilities.

"The fundamental concern [from companies like Mojang] is 'do you guys understand what it means to be a PC game developer?' Which I'll say as somebody who has been at Microsoft now for almost 26 years made me cringe because we're the Windows company, but I think it was still a reasonable question given where our focus has been.

"Then it was questions about update cycle, price point. Things that they wanted to see us do is marketing," which something like Minecraft really didn't have with its open and on-going word-of-mouth development.   

Though Microsoft isn't going full Steam with the Xbox One when it comes to Early Access and paid alpha. At least not yet. Spencer talked about things like Kickstarter and paid alphas being a good, new way for developers to get money in while they're working on it rather than after, and how there is, "an area of evolution that us as platform holders will go through this generation of helping developers fund their games." Sony has started a bit of this with things like the Pub Fund, albeit for smaller-scale projects.

Spencer also noted that any Early Access-type system on Xbox would "need to be clear to the consumer" that it's unfinished content. "You wouldn't want to mislead somebody that this is something that's done," he explained, citing the established expectations of console gamers for the state of completion of games they buy on their platform.

By the same note, Xbox isn't looking to let go of the reins completely and embrace a mobile sort of market where developers can easily loose a flood of content, though Spencer praised the ecosystem's open-market capitalism, which was worth a laugh. Yay capitalism.

Big blockbuster games are still Microsoft's focus, though, after first party efforts to support smaller titles under the 360 regime. "Going forward, I think that will still happen," Spencer said, citing titles like Killer Instinct and Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. "But the need for us to portfolio fill in that space is gone...In managing the first-party portfolio we're definitely going to invest in large, name-brand franchises." 

"When you unleash the tools with the ID program, the community's ability to outpace what we would ever do as a publisher in that smaller space is infinite." 

It makes sense. "Tent poles" still sell consoles and get people playing. Titanfall's launch led to the biggest Xbox Live week on Xbox One since the console's launch. Meanwhile, systems like recommendations based off of friends' likes (and your own ratings) will help players discover the smaller stuff in the marketplace. You're, "not going to find Super Time Force the same way you find Titanfall," Spencer said. 

Discoverability is a huge issue for smaller studios that will only get worse as the marketplace fills with more games and sports network apps. But that's not the only issue developers have been having early in the Xbox One's lifecycle. Spencer claims they're having "ongoing conversations" with indies regarding the launch-parity policy, which also troubles developers who can't afford to simultaneously work on releases for multiple platforms, but who want to get their games on every platform they can. "I want to make sure that the best games that come out have a place on our platform," Spencer said.

Steven Hansen, Features Editor
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Steven watches anime & sports, buys meat out of trucks, dates a Muppet, and is only good at cooking. He stands before you bereft of solace and well on the road to perdition. ('^ω^) more   |   staff directory

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