Harrison: Xbox One indie publishing "a valuable on-ramp for talent"
Microsoft's European games boss details the genesis, strategic thinking and business behind Xbox One's indie self-publishing scheme
Microsoft has finally lifted the lid its the independent self-publishing strategy for the Xbox One, which will allow developers to market and sell their titles on the new home console. The details answer a lot of questions that have been knocking around since the console was first officially unveiled at E3 earlier this year: developers will have full access to Xbox One services and given prominent positions on the Xbox storefront. The scheme will be curated to begin with, with those accepted given two free dev kits with no fees to get games up and running. Microsoft will not charge to update live games and eventually hopes that all Xbox One units can be turned into dev kits for self-publishing.
There are still questions, many of which won't be fully clear until the service has been up and running for a number of months, but GamesIndustry International recently spent some time with Phil Harrison, corporate vice president of the interactive entertainment business in Europe, to discuss the service in more detail; to hear how pricing will work, how long the service has been in development, and why he believes it's a great vehicle to discover new talent.
Q: How long have you been working on ID@Xbox?
Phil Harrison: This programme has actually been in development or in consideration from the very earliest architectural decisions on Xbox One. The format was designed with this in mind, down to the way we architected the operating system, the way we've architected the cloud and the live services - very specifically created to support self-publishing and the broadest nature of direct digital publishing on Xbox One - and building a true digital marketplace.
Q: Are you working with any indies now on this? Is this something that will be ready for launch?
Phil Harrison: We are just opening up the programme. We'll make the website available starting on August 20, and by virtue of the fact that Xbox One is not yet available we have to support the initial developers by providing them with two development kits at no cost, so that's the first phase of the programme.
"There is this element of curation and we are definitely going to be focusing on developers who have more of a track record"
There's no technical reason why somebody couldn't get a game ready for launch, but we'll have to wait and see what the developers come up with.
Q: How heavily curated will the games be? Will ideas need to be approved, or will it be more open like the App Store?
Phil Harrison: While we are in this early phase, where we are making professional development kits available to developers, there is this element of curation and we are definitely going to be focusing on developers who have more of a track record. But longer term our goal is that the Xbox One console can be used as a development kit, and then clearly we're going to be opening this up much more broadly.
As you would expect there will be certain content types that we will not permit to be released onto the platform, but they'd be what I'd describe as industry standard content types that would be excluded from the platform, I don't think we're going to be doing anything different.
The ambition is that we welcome the broadest possible landscape of creators to bring their visions to reality on our platform and that is so exciting.
Q: This is a big investment for Microsoft in terms of time and money, what's the benefit other than being cool and indie?
Phil Harrison: I think there's a number of benefits, certainly making us look cool was not top of our list but I'll take that one from you... But seriously, I think number one is this is good for gamers, this means that people who buy an Xbox One are going to be getting access to some incredible game experiences that our internal studios or traditional third party publisher relationships would not have brought to the platform, so that's great if you're a gamer.
I think this will have long-term benefits for the industry as a whole because it will prove to be a valuable on-ramp into the industry for talent which, you may have heard me speak about in the past, is a real area of passion of mine - how do people with talent, with vision, with energy for this space get into the industry? So I think this is a good move.
"This will have long term benefits for the industry as a whole because it will prove to be a valuable on-ramp into the industry for talent"
Fundamentally it's allowing developers to be connected directly to gamers with as little friction in-between as possible, and it levels the playing field. This is allowing a developer who is perhaps working entirely on their own or with a very small team - Chris Hecker is a good example - all the way up to a company like Crytek which has hundreds of employees and having everybody in between be treated equally in the eyes of the consumer, in the way that their games are merchandised in the store, they have a chance to be hits based on all of the discovery tools that we have built into the architecture of Xbox One.
I think that is the thing developers have given us feedback on, that they really love our vision here. They want their game to have an equal chance of success and that has been something that we have given a great deal of thought to.
Q: What's the revenue share between yourselves and developers? The industry standard at the moment is around a 70 per cent/30 per cent split.
Phil Harrison: I would describe us as very industry standard.
Q: Will developers be able to set their own pricing of games?
Phil Harrison: So the developer can set their own wholesale price and we act as the retailer. So Xbox Live acts as a reseller, and Xbox Live Store will be setting the ultimate retail price to the consumer. That's the way in which our store has always been structured.
Q: And will there be space for free-to-play titles?
Phil Harrison: We absolutely will be supporting free-to-play, as you've seen we've made some substantial investments and announcements on free-to-play on Xbox 360, and that will continue on Xbox One. We think it's a very important business model for the future of our industry.
Q: Are indie games replacing that middle tier of console games that fell away as development costs became too expensive for many developers and publishers?
Phil Harrison: I think that when you are building a game for a retail business model that definitely puts certain financial restriction or financial boundaries on the product because you've got to build a certain amount of inventory, you have to have physical distribution of your software to the retailer, all of which is very expensive.
"The developer can set their own wholesale price and we act as the retailer. Xbox Live acts as a reseller, and Xbox Live Store will be setting the ultimate retail price to the consumer"
That has an unintended consequence of impacting on the creative decisions that publishers and developers make. All of those restrictions go away with this programme. So as I said earlier this is going to be a great thing for gamers because they will get access to new and interesting content but I also think it's a good thing for the industry, so yes, I think it's positive all round.
Q: You personally had great success at Sony working with indies like Media Molecule, were there any lessons from that time you've been able to apply to ID@Xbox?
Phil Harrison: I think I have been very passionate about creativity coming from developers irrespective of size or corporate structure but I think the experience that is most relevant to this programme is actually the four years that I spent investing in developers in the VC space. I learnt a huge amount about what developers are interested in and how they want to create connections directly with their players and how they want to build community around their games and experience this. I think that has helped to influence my thinking on this programme.
But I should also be really clear that this is a massive team effort right across Microsoft and some really talented people have been working and thinking on this for a long time. I should definitely shout out to Chris Charla who will be running this programme who I think has probably got some of the strongest game developer credentials in the industry both from his time as a journalist and then latterly working with independent game developers through Microsoft Studios. So we're bringing a big A-team to this programme and I think that's really exciting stuff.