How Xbox is normalizing indie games with its self-publishing program – The Hollywood Reporter
“There’s always something new, there’s always something unexpected,” says Chris Charla, a former game developer who is now senior director of the [email protected] self-publishing program at Microsoft. He talks to The Hollywood Reporter of the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, and referring to the vast reach of independent video games, the entertainment medium that consumes the most. For Charla, the interest and fascination comes from the fact that smaller games tend to be able to fully explore an idea: “They don’t have to try to be everything to everyone.”
He goes on to explain the concept of Unpacking, a game about “literal unboxing”, which has “beautiful pixel art” and “incredible audio” combined with an “incredibly meaningful story” that creeps to the fore in the second and third acts. This concept, he says, is not one that could have been done fifteen years ago, or even ten or five years ago. It’s one of the reasons Charla believes indie games are “the most exciting type of content on the planet.”
When discussing [email protected]’s mission — which allows independent developers to apply to receive dev kits and digitally self-publish their games on Xbox One — Charla first talks about Xbox Live Arcade to Xbox 360, which had an original take on arcade games. “Indie developers came in and started doing amazing things,” he says, adding that indie development was progressing so quickly it was beyond Microsoft’s ability to keep up. He explains that it became clear at this point that these smaller projects were vital for Microsoft to ensure that its players had access to the widest range of games, and that this area would grow in importance over time. “We had to do something,” he says.
“A bunch of different people at Microsoft got together,” says Charla, including Angela Hession, Blake Fischer, and himself, and they came up with the idea for what’s now known as [email protected] ( and is in its ninth year). “The basic idea was very simple,” explains Charla. “In order to ensure that our players have access to the widest range of content, we had to make delivery on the platform as easy as possible for developers.” Their attitude was that by making things as easy as possible for the developers, the team would then work to solve the various issues that would undoubtedly arise.
The very spirit of the program was that when a developer came to Microsoft’s team with an idea for a game, Charla’s team would figure out how to get their questions answered “yes.” If this project then required a lot of internal work on Microsoft’s side, people like David Ashbrenner – who is the lead [email protected] program manager – would get involved and work to automate the process.
“The beautiful thing is that many of our initial assumptions about the importance of indie games and their growing and continuing importance have proven to be correct,” says Charla. He adds that games from indie developers make up a huge fraction of the games that are on Xbox. In one blog post published on Thursday, Charla shared that more than 3,000 games from independent developers have been released under the program, with more than 4,900 developers from 94 countries. Since the program’s inception, independent developers have earned over $2.5 billion in royalties.
“It’s just great that we’re able to allow developers to have this level of success that allows them to have sustainable businesses and really do their craft in a sustainable way.” He says that when he talks to developers and asks them what their end goal is, the resounding answer is that they just want to keep doing it.
It must be said that a number of games have come to the fore during this conversation, one being An airport for foreigners currently managed by dogs, which Charla describes as a “really goofy game” on this exact topic that uses cheap clip art of dogs. He recommends checking it out, using the example to emphasize that his commitment to this space really comes from a love of small games and witnessing the creativity that goes with it.
Among all the small games, the program does not discriminate against any gender. “In the nicest way possible, we don’t think about that at all,” Charla says. He adds that it’s more about empowering each developer who participates in the program and exposing their games at events such as E3 and Twitch showcases. (Discoverability is, according to Charla, one of the biggest hurdles indie developers face, as they often lack the resources for promotion and must rely on Twitter, trade shows, demos, etc).
He mentioned Sablean exploration game that was on stage at E3, and Tunican action-adventure game with a fox, and Spiritfarer, a comfortable management simulation about death. And then there is shotgun farmersa “really nice” game where you get a shotgun with a cartridge and if you miss the cartridge lands and a shotgun tree grows.
“By not trying to dictate what content we want to promote or anything like that, and just looking for things that are really interesting and fun, I think that helps us follow the original mission of the program which is: make sure that we bring a variety of content.
In terms of developers, the program includes everything from single developers to micro-teams, groups of 10 or 20 people, or even studios of 1,000 people. “It’s really about digital self-publishing without us putting a lot of definitions on what is or isn’t independent,” he says.
Along the way, Charla has of course had some low points. “I’m really disappointed when a game doesn’t meet the creator’s expectations,” he says, adding that obviously not everything will be a success in this creative industry. “Probably the biggest disappointment for me is when a game has disappointing results and it’s because of something that’s really out of the developer’s control,” he explains, giving the example of the launch alongside of a giant mainstream game and the difficulty of breaking through the “noise” that day.
Given the strengths of the program, Charla says one of the coolest things he’s done, within Microsoft, is he’s completely “normalized indie games as platform content. -shape crucial”. It’s never a question of whether indie games will be shown at Xbox events, it’s a question of which games will be shown. “At a fundamental level, ID @ Xbox, I think, has helped indie games to be an essential part of every conversation when it comes to games on Xbox.”
And as the program climbs, new elements will be introduced. One has just been launched at the GDC; [email protected], aimed at developers who want to use Microsoft’s cloud gaming services in their games. The initiative is led by Nick Ferguson and is currently seeking applications.
So far, the most rewarding part of it all, for Charla, is seeing a developer deliver their first game.” Seeing the passion that a new developer, someone new to the gaming industry has to tell its story, whether it’s a story or a new way to play an action game – to see them realize that dream, and to know from my own experience as a game developer how great it is difficult to create a game, even today with Unity, Unreal [Engine] and [email protected] is still an incredible amount of work. To see someone have this vision, this story and this work of art in the world is just… it’s amazing. It’s indescribable.
He adds that if these games become giant hits, that’s great. “But I think for the creators, just having built it is a huge win. It’s by far what gets me up in the morning.