It looks like Microsoft's turning it around
There's no two ways about it -- Microsoft had a terrible reputation with independent developers during the last console generation. Not that indie's games didn't sell well on the platform, because many of them certainly did. However, the culture and attitude at Xbox was one that didn't mesh with a lot of small teams and many of them documented their experiences in a negative light.
That's not a good position for Microsoft to be in. With the audience for independent games growing at a tremendous rate, the "triple A" development process makes less and less sense from a business standpoint. After all, an indie game needs to move far fewer units to be considered a "success." Nothing needs to sell at an astronomically high rate to be worthwhile.
Microsoft's attempt at repairing this somewhat burned bridge within the indie community was to launch the [email protected] -- a program designed to be more accommodating to independent developers and make it as painless and attractive as possible to publish on the Xbox platform. Microsoft held an event at GDC to showcase 25 studios' games that are part of [email protected] and we got a chance to talk to some developers about their feelings about the program thus far.
It didn't take long for the interviews to start feeling repetitious, because everyone there seemed to view the program in a very positive light. The primary area that all the developers were the most impressed by were Microsoft's clear lines of communication. Mattia Traverso, who is a student developer making an experimental title called Fru, commented that "Every time I need something, I call Chris Charla (head of the [email protected] program) on Skype, we have a quick chat and it’s solved.
Others backed this up by stating that Microsoft has been incredibly responsive with its support and dealing with any issues that arise.
Frima Games' Martin Brouard added "What they’re doing so far is they’ve been very available, and it’s been very easy to reach them. They’re making it easy for us to go through that process. I’ve been trying to work with Microsoft for years, and now the fortunate opportunity has arisen -- the opportunity to reach millions of gamers."
Maybe most impressive is the way that Charla resonates with the indie developers. It's not exactly common for a corporate executive and small teams to be on the same page. However, Charla's background goes a long way to help bridge this gap.
As Nicalis' Tyrone Rodriguez who's working on 1001 Spikes stated, "I think the biggest thing they’ve done is hire Chris Charla. He used to be in editorial, so he has a broader understanding of the industry. Most importantly though, he’s a nice guy. He’s genuinely good to work with."
Indeed, Charla seems to know what indies' role in the greater gaming market was, is, and will be. "Microsoft has been interested in the independent games scene all the way back to the XBLA era -- a lot of people chart the beginning or golden era of indie back at the Summer of Arcade back on the 360. The independent game scene has matured and so has the market, players can see the broadest variety of creativity, and the independent developers really bring that," Charla said.
Charla's sentiment was echoed by many, including Nathan Vella of Capy Games. As he put it, "What indie games provide is something different than what you’d find in stores, and I think what sets them apart is that they try something different."
One source of contention about [email protected] is the way in which the indies have to give back to Xbox. Many insisted that they weren't beholden to Microsoft in any way, but others let on that that might not necessarily be the case. Daniel Da Rocha of Toxic Games commented that the Qube Director's Cut needed to have content that was exclusive to the Xbox One given that the game had already launched on other platforms.
In the same vein, Traverso thought that he remembered hearing the games would have to release on Xbox earlier or at the same time as other platforms. But, as he added, "It makes sense because Microsoft is offering us support and marketing and a lot of help, so it’s okay that they get something back."
What's unclear is if Xbox is giving studios of different stature with different treatment, or if it's uniform and some people were willing to comment while others weren't. Regardless, it may be somewhat of a moot point, because everyone seems happy to be involved.
Despite the reputation that Microsoft's had in the past, all appear pleased with the direction that it's heading. As Brent Fox of NinjaBee said, "It’s giving everyone a chance to come at Xbox with a fresh mindset. If there’s baggage, they’re giving everyone the opportunity to let go of it and forge new relationships, be productive, and work together. It’s a new generation of consoles, so it’s an opportunity for a new generation of relationships."
Although, at the end of the day, these indie developers seemed to care more about their audience than who they were working with. Their main concern is simply letting as many people play their game as they can. As Rodriguez concluded regarding Nicalis' ultimate reasoning for joining [email protected], "It’s about the player. People shouldn’t be punished for not owning a certain platform. We just wanted our game to be as many places as possible."