As director of Microsoft's ID@Xbox developer program, a fair bit of Chris Charla's job involves evangelism - travelling the world to extol the virtues of the program to talented developers wherever they may be found. One might expect that Japan, where he spoke at the BitSummit event earlier this summer, would be hostile territory for such overtures. The Xbox One has failed even more dramatically in Japan than its predecessors, and indeed, it's hard not to notice that the audience for Charla's enthusiastic talk about ID@Xbox is smaller than for almost any other talk during the weekend.
Such a muted reception to the Xbox message doesn't seem to faze Charla himself in the slightest, though. He's enthused about the show ("It's an awesome event - every year it's bigger and better... it's just awesome to see the scene growing and exploding so much over here") and adamant that regardless of any commercial difficulties Xbox One may be facing in Japan, developers here remain interested in he opportunity of working on the platform.
"So when we start a conversation with them about the global opportunity, sure, we've had situations where someone has said, 'Oh, I thought this would only be popular locally'"
"The reason I'm here is to talk to the creators about the worldwide opportunity, and people are really receptive to that - they're really excited by the idea of doing a single worldwide submission and getting their game shipping all around the world, and by the size of the potential opportunity in the US and in other territories."
One stumbling block can be that developers who have targeted a local audience may not realise that there's a broader global opportunity for their work. "The first people indie developers make games for is themselves, and of course they look to the things going on around them. So when we start a conversation with them about the global opportunity, sure, we've had situations where someone has said, 'Oh, I thought this would only be popular locally.' And we say, no seriously, that's a JRPG, those are very popular in the US and you should bring it over here... People are pretty receptive to that. It's just a matter of education and talking to people about the opportunity."
The real barriers for Japanese indie developers reaching out to the world are neither technical nor creative, Charla asserts, but linguistic. "If a developer doesn't know English, there can be a bit of a barrier. It's one of the reasons we have a local ID@Xbox team in Japan, so that people can work with local representatives who are Japanese, or who speak Japanese, and can help navigate the whole process." This approach is paying dividends; among the games which have come to Xbox through the Japanese team are QUBE, Reversi Quest and perhaps most notably, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the new title from Castlevania director Koji Igarashi.
The continuing evolution of Xbox into a component of the broader Windows 10 platform as well as a gaming platform in its own right has also reached ID@Xbox, with the program now also supporting developers who want to use Xbox Live functionality on Windows 10. This creates new opportunities for the program in territories like Japan, where the Xbox One has a small footprint but Windows gaming (albeit a very local flavour of it) is a big deal.
"[ID@Xbox on Windows 10] is something we talk to people about constantly, absolutely," Charla says. "Especially if a developer doesn't know much about it, about what it is and how it works, and how as a social network it really magnetises people to the platform."
"It's not just the ID@Xbox team; it's people all throughout Microsoft, whether it's Phil Spencer forwarding us something, or an engineer working on Excel saying, hey, my friend made this cool game, you guys should check it out."
When Charla or other ID@Xbox team members come to an indie event, it's not just to stand on a stage and evangelise the service; going out on the show floor and talking to developers is also a big part of the job, and one that Charla seems to enjoy enormously. He waxes lyrical about one game that struck him on the BitSummit show floor, an indie RPG set in the scientific age of discovery called Principe: Master of Science: "In the demo you play as Isaac Newton, and you have to do some discoveries around the refraction of light, publish a paper, submit it to the Royal Society - your fame meter goes up and I think you can eventually join the Royal Society itself... I mean, that is so cool. I just saw that and thought, 'Woah, this is awesome.'" His enthusiasm for this side of the job, going out and meeting with creators, is palpable. It's an enthusiasm, he claims, that is not only shared across the ID@Xbox team, but across Microsoft as a whole.
"Everybody in the program goes out and sees things, and brings games to the program. Whether it's me, or Karen Mitchell, who is our database architect... Karen Mitchell brings games to the program. She goes to E3, goes to different shows, goes to indie meet-ups in Seattle, she spots games and she says, you guys should come check us out. It's not just the ID@Xbox team; it's people all throughout Microsoft, whether it's Phil Spencer forwarding us something, or an engineer working on Excel saying, hey, my friend made this cool game, you guys should check it out. Everybody at Microsoft sends developers to ID@Xbox and sends cool games to ID@Xbox."
This approach - using the reach of the entire company to seek out and engage with talented new developers - is a far cry from how the games industry used to work only a few years ago. Then, developers were expected to go cap-in-hand to publishers and platform holders to pitch their ideas; now Microsoft, along with Sony and Nintendo, sends staff around the world to seek out talented teams and interesting games at shows and events.
"I was talking briefly to Tetsuya Mizuguchi today - we've known each other for 20 years, and we were talking about exactly that change to how the world works," Charla says. "It's so much better today. It's fantastic. Don't get me wrong - there are tons of developers who put together pitches and go out to publishers and platform holders, lots of games still get signed that way - but having people out looking at games, working to make sure that we get all the great games on our platforms... For developers, that's the way it should be."
"The way it used to be just wasn't a great model," he continues. "I remember when I was a developer, we spent a year just trying to get a console dev kit - from anybody, for any console! We were a PC and handheld developer, and it was like a closed shop. Now, we give developers dev kits for free... [As a platform holder] I think, personally, that if you're not hungry - if you're not out there, chasing things, you're not doing a very good job. You need to be out there looking for things. If you're just sitting back, well, first of all it's boring, and second of all I just don't think that's the way the world should work any more."
Going out to find games is only the start of the process for ID@Xbox, of course. As well as working to support developers in territories like Japan with local teams, Charla says that a huge amount of effort is focused on smoothing over and speeding up the process of dealing with Xbox for game creators. "That's a lot of the work," he explains. "A lot of the day to day, unseen work at ID@Xbox is related to figuring out how we can improve the database so that developers can get their game shipped with, say, three fewer emails sent to Microsoft. Every time we do that, we free up a little bit of time for somebody to have a conversation."
"When a player turns on his or her Xbox One, we want them to see the broadest array of great games possible... The only way we could make that happen was to make it as easy as possible to get on the platform"
Those conversations with developers are arguably one of the most valuable parts of the ID@Xbox program. On stage, Charla enthused about the opportunity for developers to engage directly with Xbox to discuss promotion opportunities or figure out the most beneficial launch timing - a relationship that goes over and above the database-driven submission process that defines creators' experiences with platforms like Apple's App Store or Google Play. "We focus so much on improving our documentation, our tools and our education so that developers don't have to ask mundane questions," he says. "Instead, when they're talking to us and ask a question, it's a meaningful question specifically about their game."
It's not only Microsoft that has overhauled its procedures for working with small and independent developers in recent years, of course. Both Sony and Nintendo have also made changes aimed at making their platforms more inviting to indies, and while it's not always plain sailing, developers largely praise the newfound openness (or semi-opennness) of console platforms. For Xbox, though, ID@Xbox appears to offer something very valuable - an opportunity to offset the platform's commercial weakness in Japan by wooing the nation's booming indie development scene in spite of Japanese consumers' apathy to the console. A trip to an event in Japan may present a more uphill challenge to Chris Charla and his team than an indie event in the United States or Europe, but if it gets the cream of Japanese indie games onto Xbox, it's a challenge worth facing.
"The place it all starts for us is thinking about the players," Charla concludes. "When a player turns on his or her Xbox One, we want them to see the broadest array of great games possible... The only way we could make that happen was to make it as easy as possible to get on the platform. That's been the guiding light for ID@Xbox - just make it easy to get games on the platform. Be open to developers. Help developers. The net result is that we've got fantastic games on the platform, and that's awesome for players."