After months of offering little more than variations of "don't worry, we'll have one", Microsoft is using its kick-off of the big Gamescom event in Germany this week to detail something called [email protected] That is its indie games program. It will roll out in stages.
"When we talk to developers, what we hear is they want to be able to have their vision for their game, that they want to be able to take advantage of our program, have great tools, be able to publish that content in our system and own it, have the connection with the customers themselves," the Xbox One's chief product officer told Kotaku during a briefing about the indie dev plan. "And that's certainly what we're putting in place."
Microsoft's long-term goal is to allow every Xbox One to be used as a development kit, making any Xbox One owner the potential creator of the next great video game. But that's not what will be in place when the Xbox One launches in November.
Instead, Microsoft will roll out its [email protected] plan — short for Independent Developers @ Xbox — for digital indie games by welcoming in a select batch of indie developers starting later this year.
To get into the program, indies will have to apply starting today at www.xbox.com/id. It's not clear just what the criteria will be, but a Microsoft briefing document about the [email protected] program indicated that "[t]his status will be granted with priority to independent game developers who have a proven track record of shipping games on console, PC, mobile or tablet."
Each accepted developer will receive two Xbox One development kits for free.
This curated approach with just select indie developers is a temporary step, according to Whitten: "In this phase, it will be a managed set of partners as we get feedback and roll the program out."
Further into the Xbox One's lifecycle, Microsoft will open Xbox One development up to anyone with a console. "The way you build for a small number of partners for launch is different then, 'Hey, let the world hit this portal,'" Whitten said, explaining why Microsoft is starting relatively small. "There's still work to do."
Whitten: "In this phase, it will be a managed set of partners as we get feedback and roll the program out."
Microsoft's indie game program for the Xbox 360 was surprisingly open. Amateur and professional game developers could create games for the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, so long as they could pass a peer review. This allowed game creators to get their games onto a console without having to sign with a publisher and without even having to get approval from a first-party like Microsoft. That kind of arrangement would have been no big deal on PC, but on consoles it was nearly without precedent. The downside, however, was that Xbox Live Indie Games were buried deep within Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace. Certain desirable features such as Achievements weren't supported by the XBLIG program.
The new [email protected] program doesn't initially offer the same easy access to console development that XBLIG did, but it seems to offer much better options for those who get on board. The full suite of Xbox One features will be available to any indie developer. "If you're going to do indie games, you have to say indie games can take advantage of the platform," Whitten said. "And whether that's Kinect or Live or the cloud or Smart Glass, or the raw power of the console, that's what saying 'Hey, I want creators bringing their vision to the platform and I want gamers on Xbox to have access to the most creative games,' is all about."
Whitten: "If you're going to do indie games, you have to say indie games can take advantage of the platform."
The program will be overseen by current Xbox Live Arcade chief Chris Charla. According to Microsoft's briefing materials, "[t]he team also includes community managers that will provide quick responses to submissions, questions and support needs."
Indie developers in the program will be self-publishing their games. They'll set wholesale prices for their games, Whitten said, with Microsoft's Xbox Live team then managing retail price and, presumably, placement in the store. Indie games will go through standard Xbox certification procedures, which Whitten hopes to have perpetually speed up. Certification and game patches/updates will be free to developers.
Indie games will be discoverable not just in the system's online store but through the Xbox One's trending listings and its Game DVR section of player-uploaded clips. They won't be consigned to an indie game corner of the store only, as they were on Xbox 360.
Microsoft won't say publicly what the revenue split is for the indie game program, but Whitten said, "for us, it's kind of the industry standard. There's not a difference in what we're doing here and in other areas." Industry standard on major platforms has been a 70/30 revenue split between developers and the platform holder.
As for which indie games will be part of this program, Microsoft isn't announcing any titles yet. In fact, Whitten cast some doubt on whether indies that utilise Xbox One's special functions like Smart Glass would be out on day one.
What Microsoft is doing, however, is bundling its [email protected] news with testimonials from a handful of developers who seem excited about the project. That roster includes Chris Hecker (Spy Party), The Behemoth's John Baez (Castle Crashers), The Odd Gentlemen's Matt Korab (The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom), Team 17's Debbie Bestwick (Worms) Ripstone's Phil Gaskell (Knytt Underground), Other Ocean's Mike Mika (lots of stuff), Dlala Studios' Craig Thomas and Aj Grand-Scrutton (Jansky) and Splash Damage's Paul Wedgwood (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Batman: Arkham Origins multiplayer).
Hecker: "It feels like Microsoft is interested in not only removing roadblocks for indies to get their games on Xbox One, but they're also genuinely interested in finding ways to bring new and innovative indie games to their platform."
For an example of the praise being delivered, here's Hecker: "I'm really excited that Microsoft has listened to feedback from developers and created this program. As an independent developer, I want SpyParty to be available to as many players as possible, and it feels like Microsoft is interested in not only removing roadblocks for indies to get their games on Xbox One, but they're also genuinely interested in finding ways to bring new and innovative indie games to their platform to help games reach their potential as an art and entertainment form."
Microsoft had also previously announced partnerships with indie development studios big and small, ensuring some degree of exclusivity for the likes of Insomniac's Sunset Overdrive and Capy's Below. The company also works with Mojang to develop Xbox-platform-specific versions of Minecraft, including a new one for Xbox One. Those games are not part of this program, as they're not self-published, but they may propel indie expression on the platform.
Sony, meanwhile, has been aggressive about bringing indie developers on board its PS4 platform for some time and showcased many indie games at its big E3 showcase event. Nintendo has also been stepping up its support of indies, opening the Wii U to a wider array of creators.
Indies seem to thrive most on PC, of course, while there's an ever-increasing scrum among indies on Android and iOS to make it on mobile. Of all those platforms, iOS has proven the most problematic, with games both being lost in a crowded iTunes marketplace and occasionally getting pulled from the service due to Apple's low tolerance for edgy or politically expressive material.
Whitten: "We're not trying to be the people that determine whether we like this game and we think this game is good, [but] if you tried to ship a porn game, that's probably not going to get through."
On that last matter — whether there's room for true independent expression on Xbox One — Whitten offered this: "We're not trying to be the people that determine whether we like this game and we think this game is good. We want [indie] games to get on the service. We do want to use, frankly, a lot of things like the industry standards to make sure that there are some things, like... if you tried to ship a porn game, that's probably not going to get through."
Should Microsoft actually allow the kinds of games Apple blocks, the games about sweatshops and drone strikes and such, then Microsoft's Xbox One program will truly empower independent thought. But even if they prove to be more restrictive, what they're promising looks to be an evolution of their old Xbox Live Indie Games program and a welcome rebuke to anyone who thinks that console gaming should only be the domain of big corporate developers.