In his talk at the GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit during PAX Dev last week, ID@Xbox's Chris Charla spoke about the challenge of sustainability. He was part of a sleight of speakers who, he acknowledged, were largely responsible for the industry's recent dramatic shifts.
"We're seeing the first new business models in a generation come online," he said. "Cloud gaming from Stadia, robust subscription services, new storefronts, and a lot more. So how do you as a developer navigate this space? I have no idea. Well, I have some ideas, but ultimately it's a question that you have to answer for yourself, and it's something that's going to be different for every developer."
Charla is understandably proud of Xbox's work with independent developers, a partnership that he said has grown to see over 1,200 games by independent developers shipped on Xbox One and over 3,000 studios with development kits. He sees the current landscape as a fantastic time for indies to get investment, with more funding available across the industry than has ever been available before.
But that could change tomorrow. In 20 years, that investment landscape is an unknown. Which is why Charla believes sustainability is so important.
"How do you build sustainability? Obviously having money in the bank helps, no doubt, but I think doing what you can to maximize the number of people who see your games and get to play your games is the best thing you can do to ensure the longevity of your studio.
"In the world we're in right now where discoverability may actually be a harder thing to solve for than investment, breaking through is really important."
That's one of the reasons, Charla said, why Xbox is so invested in subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, which by most accounts seems to have a strong track record of getting large audiences interested in independent games. That's been oft-mentioned by developers using the program, though Charla added that the main endorsement for Game Pass being good for indies was the number that opt to bring a second or third game to the program.
At the PAX East Investment Summit, Charla offered a series of tips for developers pitching their games to Microsoft. At PAX Dev, he presented a different set of tips, this time focused on developers already on Xbox who want to maximize their current business models:
- Box art is important: Make sure it looks just as good ten feet away as it does on your monitor right next to your face
- Use really good screenshots and really good video on your store page -- the videos even autoplay now!
- Put effort into the store text descriptions, and do not use an auto translator under any circumstances -- it's not a replacement for localization
- Don't use sexy images. Microsoft won't promote your game at all, and it also doesn't actually help visibility
- Be aware of when your release date is going to be, and try to go through certification early if at all possible
- Friday is the best day to release a game, but a lot of people know that already, so Wednesday is also good. Avoid Tuesday. Thursday is fine, but you may find a lot of other games releasing on Thursdays to mirror other platform ship dates
- "DLC is available" on a game's store page seems to encourage people to buy the game. There's disagreement about having DLC on Day 1, but making it available in the first 30 days is encouraged
Some of these tips admittedly might be familiar to developers already on Game Pass or in the ID@Xbox program. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz following the summit, Charla affirms that helping its indies get discovered is something the company has on its mind across multiple teams and roles. He says Xbox frequently shares information such as ideal days to release games or other market trends with its developers, though they can of course take or leave the advice.
"For a developer who is heads down on a game for two years, four years, six years, the market is completely changed since the last time they shipped a game," he says. "Whatever worked six years ago is completely different, the whole landscape is completely different. So we do some developer events under NDA and just try to share as much data as we can about the market landscape."
And while he says he doesn't "think there's one magic bullet" to solving discoverability, he outlines a few of the ways the company is tackling the problem. One of the more obvious ones is the hefty indie presence in Xbox's line-up at events such as E3.
"Regardless of how big the ID@Xbox program is, whether we're 3,500 developers like we are today or say we hit 5,000 in the future, we will send out an email to everybody that says, 'E3 is coming,' usually about four to five months [in advance]," he says. "If you're interested in being featured at E3, you send us a video, we get this huge crew in a room -- we try to get a really diverse audience, people who like different games, people from different backgrounds -- and we watch every single video people send us.
"We watch every single video people send us"
"It takes like a week. Like eight hours a day. This year, it was four days in a row, and we watch every single video; people take it very seriously. We obviously can't include everybody [in our showcases], but we want to make sure everybody has an opportunity to be included. We'll always do that, and we mirror that process for this event and a couple of other events throughout the year. It's really nice because it also gives the team a good overview of what's out there, and then that helps them as they're looking at more games."
Charla also pointed out that Xbox has an advantage in supporting discoverability in what is effectively a "tiered" system of curation. Rather than just having one big console store that has everything mixed together, there are multiple levels for games to appear on Xbox. This, he says, allows every game to have a chance, but ideally helps the best games get the most attention.
"At Xbox we're in a really unique and I would say enviable position, because Xbox is an open platform," Charla says. "Anyone can ship a game on Xbox through our Xbox Creators Program. We make sure in the store that people know those games haven't been rated by the ESRB, they haven't been evaluated, they're going to have varying levels of polish, but people can check them out and it's not hard for a game that finds some success there to then migrate to the main store.
"They'll say, 'I always wanted to be part of the game industry.' You are part of the game industry!"
"And for the main store, I would say we have a fairly light curation process, where every game whether it's from a big publisher or an independent developers goes through literally the same concept review meeting where folks look at it to make sure it hits -- we're not trying to say whether the game is good or bad, that's up to the market -- but we're trying to make sure it hits a console-quality bar."
The final layer of curation, he adds, is Xbox Game Pass itself. Unlike the main store, where games might be good or bad, Charla says that Game Pass is effectively the Xbox seal of approval that a game will be a good game (if not necessarily to everyone's specific tastes).
Going forward, Charla assures that the processes for Xbox Game Pass, ID@Xbox, and release on Xbox platforms will remain effectively the same going into the next console generation, and that the company is actively in talks with developers of all sizes about its future hardware plans. He wants indie developers to feel they're on a level playing field with AAA studios and Microsoft's own internal teams.
"Everybody's on the same boat," he adds. "If a big publisher can do it, a developer in the ID@Xbox program can do it.
"One of the most powerful things about the ID@Xbox program has been meeting developers where it's their first game, they've never made a game before, and they come from a part of the country or a group of people who you don't traditionally associate with video games and you meet them and they're just so stoked to be part of it. Typically they're game fans since they were a kid and now they get to make a game and they'll say, 'I always wanted to be part of the game industry.' You are part of the game industry! That really charges me up."