At last year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, Microsoft announced that four independent games from the ID@Xbox program would be available through Game Pass on launch day. At this year's show, another 21 ID@Xbox games were announced as launching into Game Pass on day one.
When speaking to ID@Xbox director Chris Charla at E3, we ask about the surge in indies opting to launch their games this way.
"It's really just a testament to the fact that it's been a real successful thing for both players and developers, a great way for players to find their next favorite game," Charla says. "But from our perspective, because we sometimes take a development view of things, a great way for developers to find a great audience. So it's been an awesome way for people to discover new games. And for developers, discovery and curation are some of the biggest challenges they face. In a large sense, it solves a lot of the discoverability problems by making sure their game can be immediately played by millions of fans."
That said, Charla acknowledges that many developers "absolutely" needed convincing to include their titles in a subscription service at launch.
"When we first started the program, we had done an enormous amount of research," Charla says. "It was a multi-year effort before we launched Game Pass to understand market conditions. We had a lot of predictions about how the market was going to behave when Game Pass launched, and they were correct and have come to fruition. But of course for developers, you're asking them to... not exactly give your game away for free, but that can be how it feels. There was trepidation. But folks tried it. It's been successful."
The ballooning number of indie games launching into Game Pass is a result of that success, Charla says, adding that Microsoft has a wealth of data (some of it internal) pointing to positive results from titles' inclusions into Game Pass.
"Publicly, we've said we know people play more games once they're Game Pass members," Charla says. "They spend more money. They buy more games. They buy games outside of Game Pass. So it's been a great thing for the ecosystem overall. Developers have responded really well to it."
"We don't ever want to be in a situation where a developer agrees to put their game into Xbox Game Pass... and is somehow worse off than if they just hadn't done it at all"
He adds: "One of our key tenets for the program since the very beginning, both coming from the Game Pass team and my team, is that we don't ever want to be in a situation where a developer agrees to put their game into Xbox Game Pass whether day one or day 365, and is somehow worse off than if they just hadn't done it at all."
Clearly, Microsoft has spotted synergies between Game Pass and its independent developer program. So given the company's ambitions for streaming and Project xCloud, we ask Charla how he sees that technology impacting independent creators in the future.
"Ultimately streaming is just another way to get the game into your hands, right? So for independent developers whose focus is going to be on making a cool game, some of the details about how I get that game to people, whether its on PC, Xbox, through GP, through streaming... that's orthogonal to what's fun as a video game," Charla says. "There are games you could design that might take advantage of either a hardware feature on a console or something through streaming, but by and large the bulk of games are going to exist multiplatform. They're going to exist a lot of places, and for the developer, the thought is about the creation, what they want players to feel like when they play the game. It's not so much about the delivery mechanism."
We point out that plenty of musicians are unhappy with the way streaming services like Spotify compensate them for their work, and filmmakers are frequently unhappy with Netflix's lack of transparency around how (and how much) people view content. Naturally, there is no shortage of independent game developers concerned about how streaming services could be hostile to their own interests.
"When you do a new program like this, that is different from the traditional business model, you have to make sure you share that data so developers can be comfortable"
"It's an interesting point, and it starts to get into some business terms and business models and stuff we don't really talk about publicly," Charla says. "But I'll go back to the point that our north star on this is that developers aren't going to be worse off than if they hadn't signed a deal [to be in Game Pass]. And we do share a lot of data with developers, just in terms of program performance, aggregate performance of titles, and it's something we want developers to be comfortable working with us.
"When you do a new program like this, that is different from the traditional business model, you have to make sure you share that data so developers can be comfortable. And they have been."
Another concern we've heard from independent developers is what subscription services like Game Pass do to the perception of value for games. It's hard enough for small developers to sell their games as is, but if platform holders are regularly giving away a grab bag of quality games for free, how much harder does it become to convince customers to pay money apart from a service for one specific game?
"The price point for a premium priced independent game has gone up over the last, say, ten years," Charla notes. "It used to be you could get Geometry Wars 2 for $5. [Editor's note: Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2 was $10 upon its Xbox 360 debut in 2008.] I've probably put 1,000 hours into Geometry Wars 2. But during the 360 era, we saw the premium price go to $15 and even $20. Today on Xbox One, we see premium prices for independent content at a really broad range, still from $5 all the way up to $40, $50, and even $60.
"I think players are pretty sophisticated at understanding the value proposition in games. And I'll just say at Xbox, we haven't seen any softening in desire for games at premium price tiers all through that chain for independent games. I do think it's interesting that with more services out there, players are going to be looking for value. You look at something like Game Pass Ultimate -- $15 a month gives you access to Xbox Game Pass, Game Pass on PC, as well as Live -- and I think when you get to that point where you have to be delivering players high quality content. So the curation of titles into the program and ensuring the titles in the program are high quality becomes really important."