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ID@Xbox's Chris Charla: "There's less need to separate indie from AAA"

Also says discoverability is not just about helping players find games, but helping developers find their audience

Chris Charla, strategic director of Microsoft's indie programme ID@Xbox, says the need to separate indie titles from AAA is diminishing in many regards.

During a fireside chat-style opening keynote at Develop:Brighton today, Charla was asked about the blurring lines between the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to games publishing, and he observed that players don't place as much emphasis on the distinction. He added that few people who play indie games would define themselves as indie gamers.

"For consumers, we actually need to separate it less and less. Consumers just think about games, 'this game is cool, that game is cool, I want this one and that one.' For them, Call of Duty and Castle Crashers are both things they may have and play.

"So on a creative side, I don't think we have to separate them, but there is still value in separating them on the business side. Typically, indie developers are much smaller, they have a totally different relationship in terms of capitalisation and how often games come out and things like that. On the business side, there's still a huge difference between AAA and indie, although on the creative side, the output might be different but from a consumer perspective, they're all just video games."

He later revisited this idea when talking about how he gauges how important indies are to Xbox and Microsoft, or at least how that importance is presented to the public, and said he bases it partially on how many ID@Xbox titles are in the platform holder's big summer showcase.

"We used to group all of the indie games together at E3 showcases, because that was important at the time I think, and then at a certain point we decided we didn't need to do that anymore," he said. "We don't need to do an ID@Xbox montage, we can just have these games stand on their own.

"The number of minutes now dedicated to indie games in that presentation is huge. Even when you look at some of Microsoft's biggest initiatives like Game Pass, we've had something like 600 ID@Xbox games released through Game Pass. It's foundational."

With the distinction between indie games and AAA becoming less important to consumers, the conversation inevitably veered towards the well-trodden ground of 'what make a game indie?' – an argument Charla opted not to be drawn into.

"In the '90s, I spent an enormous amount of time fighting about what was and wasn't punk… so I've never gotten too uptight and what is and isn't an indie game because all those muscles are burned out," he laughed.

"For me, it comes down to creative freedom. That's ultimately what it's about. If you've got complete creative freedom, and you're just making the game you want to make, you're independent – whether you're being funded by yourself, or a big company, or whatever."

He added that while many cite innovation as a key element of many standout indie games, he prefers the term 'creative freedom' as this encompasses even more of the titles smaller studios produce.

"For a lot of people, creative freedom is a chance to innovate, to do something mental, to try something new. But… we're all nostalgic and for other people, creative freedom might be 'I'm going to make something that is exactly the way I remember this' or trying to recapture a game from their childhood. A lot of times they're trying to recapture the feeling of that game, not just slavishly recreate that game."

He pointed to Tunic as a prime example, which he said was designed to recapture the feeling of mystery and discovery, of hearing rumours in the playground and wanting to rush home to play the game and find out for yourself.

"Consumers just think about games. For them, Call of Duty and Castle Crashers are both things they may have and play"

Later the interview discussed how Microsoft, as a massive corporation, can help indie developers while still allowing them to retain their "indieness." Charla pointed to the amount of data Microsoft gathers as a key advantage, but also the work its been doing in improving discoverability on its platforms.

"Discovery has become the biggest challenge of our age," he said. "It used to be that Xbox would release an XBLA game every Wednesday, and they would sometimes struggle to find a game to release each week. Today, we have dozens of games come out each week, Steam has ten thousand games come out each year – it's really tricky now. That means the whole industry, Xbox included, is [focused on] how we get players to discover cool games. And I think that's really valuable work and it continues.

"But there's a new lens to look through as well. There's enough people playing video games, literally billions on the planet, so if you have a game that is good, there should be an audience for it. So how do we help developers find their audience? Even if it's a niche game where the total addressable audience is 60,000, but it's made by one person and they'll be fine if they just sell 30,000. How do we find those 30,000 out of billions of players? That's something you want a big company like Microsoft to be thinking about, and I think there's some work we can do there."

The keynote concluded with Charla discussing why he's optimistic about the future of indie games, and the games industry in general. The ID@Xbox boss even predicted that in 500 years, scholars will be discussing the likes of Limbo and its implications in the same way people study the works of Chaucer today.

"People have been having this conversation since 1972, when Pong was making tons of money but [the developers] were also super worried because it was getting cloned," he said. "Developers have always been worried about business conditions changing in a negative way. So when I hear questions like this – is it harder to sell on this platform? Is this or that threatening games? – I think those are really reasonable questions to ask as business people, because in addition to being artists, indies are small business people and those are reasonable things to worry about.

"But on balance, when I look at the quality of the games being made today, when I look at the progression that is clearly there in terms of art, technology, accessibility and any kind of vector you want to look at… When I look at the people who buy video games and how big that audience that is, and how it's growing, and the growing ubiquity of acceptance of video games as an entertainment medium, which wasn't there 15 years ago… Now it's weird if someone doesn't play video games. For a 12-year-old kid today, regardless of gender or anything else, video games are as normal as reading a book, and that just gives me so much hope for the future."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Develop:Brighton

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James Batchelor

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James Batchelor is Editor-in-Chief at GamesIndustry.biz. He is based in Essex and has been a B2B games journalist since 2006