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Why Xbox indie champion Agostino Simonetta is leaving for Thunderful Games

The former ID@Xbox director discusses his journey from PlayStation and Microsoft back into the realm of publishing

Agostino Simonetta is leaving the team at Microsoft to take up the role of chief strategy and investment officer at Swedish publisher Thunderful.

Simonetta is known to many an indie developer thanks to his seven years as director of global partnership management for ID@Xbox, Microsoft's program for bringing indie games to its Xbox ecosystem. Prior to that he spent five years at PlayStation, also helping smaller studios to release their games on the platform.

It's the end of 12 years championing independent studios on behalf of major platform holders but Simonetta tells GamesIndustry.biz now is the "right moment to go [back towards] development."

"For me, it's a bittersweet moment because I've done so many amazing things with the teams at Xbox, both of which are having a fantastic time and going from strength-to-strength," he says.

Agostino Simonetta, Thunderful

"But this is also a moment of personal growth for me, a time for new challenges and taking the expertise I've developed over 20 years in the industry -- especially working in the independent space for the last 17 -- joining a company like Thunderful and being able to lead their gaming division."

In his new role, he will oversee the Thunderful Group's Gaming division -- one of the group's two main pillars, alongside its distribution business. He starts on July 1, and joins in a period of expansion for the publisher. Not only did Thunderful complete a successful IPO last year, it has made several acquisitions over the past twelve months, including UK developer Coatsink, German publisher and developer Headup, Swedish studio Guru Games and developer Station Interactive.

"I told the team at Xbox, 'I'm not running away from you, I'm running towards something new and exciting,'" he adds when asked about his departure. "And in a way, it's getting back to being closer to the development of the products.

"It's the best time ever in the industry to be a developer, publisher, content creator. Yes, it's challenging -- being the best moment doesn't mean being the easiest -- but the acceptance of independent games has never been higher than it is now. That's from a platform point of view, from the media and consumer points of view. There is this great acceptance and love for the medium and towards these types of games, so I just want to get a bit closer to that."

Simonetta's career began in 1999 at Italian developer WaywardXs, where he worked on football management title Gianluca Vialli European Manager. Looking back, he recognises the company was "the very stereotype of an Italian indie."

"We had metal desks we built ourselves, we were in the basement of an Italian villa not far from the seaside, there were seven of us and we had very little money," he laughs.

Since then, he has worked at studios such as Intelligent Games and Climax Studios, branching into publishing with stints at THQ and Sega. It's a career that has given him a "good mix of experiences" and insight into the full process of bringing a game to market. His time at platform holders, in particular, has shown him how the opportunities for indie developers have changed.

"We went from a world where consoles supporting independent developers was unimaginable to one where it's unthinkable that they wouldn't"

"We live in a completely different world today than when I was at a small developer," he says. "It was very hard to get in contact with the platforms, there was no self-publishing. And it's not that platform holders were evil -- the distribution model at the time did not make it viable to have this sprawling network of developers working on your platform. Physical distribution, the cost of production... it was just a different world."

The digital revolution of the mid-2000s changed things. Tools like game engines became easier to use and cheaper to access, and the platform holders slowly began unlocking their ecosystems -- with Simonetta on the frontlines at both PlayStation and Xbox.

"It really changed the industry forever," he says. "You had PlayStation and Xbox opening up, Apple coming in, and it's completely transformed the industry. I consider myself lucky enough to have been on this journey throughout -- I joined PlayStation's developer relations group in 2009, and the first thing I worked on was PSP Minis. That was a way to get independent developers, like the ones I knew from the mobile space, onto a console platform with a development and distribution model that was friendly to that community.

"Xbox has always been a great supporter of indie developers with Indie Arcade and XNA from the Xbox 360 days, and then ID@Xbox, which I joined shortly after the commercial launch. We had barely 20, 30 titles at the time, and now we have over 2,000 and over 4,000 partners. It's the level of openness and support that developers have been getting, deservedly so.

"We went from a world where consoles supporting independent developers was unimaginable to one where it's unthinkable that they wouldn't."

This has also opened up the industry to more than just indie publishers. The ability to self-publish games has diversified the market, with tens of thousands of people creating unique content.

"That's the big challenge, but I think finding the right content, developing the right ideas does tend to create a window of opportunity," Simonetta says.

"Do all the titles that deserve success or visibility get it? That's always a debated question. I think most do, but it is very challenging. It's about adapting the way you talk to platform holders, the media, consumers, and to continue to evolve it so people want to hear about you. It used to be that only journalists mattered, but now you have to talk to streamers and Discord is driving so many conversations.

"I always said I didn't want to leave the independent space -- I've done nothing else for pretty much my entire career"

"What we've learned as an industry is business models and the way consumers engage with content keeps evolving over time. I remember the days that digital titles were all independent and the retail titles, the big AAA ones, were not available digitally. But now we can sell retail discs digitally and even do it day-and-date. And then there's free-to-play growing on consoles, streaming games via the cloud -- it becomes about how you take advantage of the right business model to reach the audience you're going after. Our industry changes so quickly, every six months looks so different, so you need to keep thinking about your content and your strategy on a regular basis. That's the way to make sure your games have the best opportunity."

Joining Thunderful, he says, is a way to take everything he has learned over the years and "hopefully contribute to the growth of a great company."

There are almost too many independent publishers on the market to count nowadays, but Simonetta was particularly drawn to Thunderful for multiple reasons. One is the drive with which it is expanding, while another is the solid portfolio of titles it has under its belt, from the cult hit SteamWorld franchise to upcoming indie fishing RPG Moonglow Bay.

On a more personal note, he will be joining a team of friends he has known for many years -- in fact the conversation that led to him joining came from a regular catch-up with CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson, whom he first met when trying to convince Sigurgeirsson (then a developer) to bring his mobile game to PSP Minis.

Most importantly, it gives him the responsibility of a large division but still in a sector of the games market he is particularly passionate about.

"A role overseeing the entire gaming segment is a fantastic challenge for me," he says. "I always said I didn't want to leave the independent space -- I've done nothing else for pretty much my entire career."

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James Batchelor

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James Batchelor has been a journalist in the games industry since 2006, joining GamesIndustry in 2016, and also runs Non-Violent Game of the Day (@NVGOTD). He does play violent games, but always on Story/Easy mode.

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