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Xbox: Independent developers are leading where the industry is going

ID@Xbox boss Chris Charla talks the role of indie devs and the opportunities of cloud gaming

Indie developers should think of themselves as leaders in the video games industry, says the head of ID@Xbox Chris Charla.

Speaking during GI Live: Online, the Microsoft exec says that indie games today are going toe-to-toe with the AAA giants, and that in many ways they are showing the way forward for bigger studios.

"I date that 2008 launch of [2D hack and slash game] Castle Crashers as the beginning of an indie Golden Age," he said in an interview you can watch below.

iD@Xbox head Chris Charla

"14 years in and that Golden Age hasn't stopped. We look at the games that have come out recently, games like Tunic, like Shredders. It's just amazing. We started out by seeing games like Castle Crashers, like Braid, that are sort-of like from an earlier time. We saw a lot of early indie games look like 8-bit games, in terms of look and play style, with 2D side scrolling, that sort of thing.

"As time's gone on, what we've seen is independent developers start to occupy every niche that has ever been successful in the history of game development, starting from that 8-bit era onto the 16-bit era, with slightly bigger teams, slightly more graphic fidelity. Then the 32-bit era with 3D coming into play.

"Now we're on Gen 9 with our consoles, Xbox Series X, Playstation 5, and we see small developers, making games that are super competitive. And I point to Shredders as an example to folks that haven't checked it out, as just a gorgeous game. I think about games [from independent developers] that I can't talk about right now, that I've seen behind the scenes or that I know are coming to Xbox, and there's just some mind blowing visuals coming. To me, it's amazing to see independent devs that started with 8-bit games in the Gen 7 era, have caught up and are producing Gen 9-quality games. With the caveat, of course, there's lots of developers still making 8-bit inspired games. But that's now an artistic choice, not a technological or creative limitation.

"It's amazing to see independent devs have caught up and are producing Gen 9-quality games"

"I see the future is really independent developers having the opportunity to lead where the industry is going. I was in a situation recently where I was talking to a AAA developer. And they're like, 'Oh well, we want our next game to be like Hades'. And that's amazing. Hades is an unbelievably fantastic game, And it is now providing leadership [to AAA developers]. So to see that independent developers are now able to lead where the industry is going, to me, is really fantastic.

"There is always, always, always going to be a place for AAA games and the level of detail and depth and scale and scope that they provide is unbelievable. A lot of times I'll play, like, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, and you're just in one bit and you're 'okay, this is all the assets of typical indie game in five minutes of this game'. So I'm not at all trying to create any kind of beef between indie games and AAA games. But I do think that for independent developers, it's a great time to think about not just being part of the games industry, but where they help lead the industry next."

Indie games have come along way since Castle Crashers

This is one of the big reasons Xbox is proactively working with indie devs with new technologies and business models, whether that's a subscription service like Game Pass, or cloud technology like Azure. The ID@Azure programme is all about this democratisation of development and giving indies access to technologies that would typically be reserved for AAA companies.

"Cloud services, AI, machine learning... [we want] to make it so that an independent developer can take advantage of it," Charla says. "And we know that when we give independent developers access to our tools and technology, right back from Xbox 360 days... no one would have guessed that Castle Crashers was going to be the game on 360. No one could have guessed that a 1930s-style, hand drawn side-scrolling boss rush platformer was going be a thing that people wanted to play. But Cuphead came out it was this amazing success. So when we give developers access to the power of the cloud, I think we're going to see similar mind blowing things from them. And so we have to do it."

Alongside ID@Azure, Xbox says it's also proactively helping indie developers with discoverability, whether that's through offering advice and best practices on when and how to release their game, or in terms of its Game Pass offering. And Charla says there's only one thing they're asking for in return.

"We ask for a lot," he begins. "We ask them to work really hard to make fantastic games. The really nice thing about whether it's ID@Azure, where we're going to be offering cloud services, or ID@Xbox, where we help get games on to Xbox and PC [and Game Pass], is we only succeed when the developer succeeds. Our motivations are right in line with the developers when it comes to commercial viability. Now developers have more than just commercial success in mind, they're artists, so there's creative success, there's personal success.

"When we talk at events, we always make really clear that there are lots of different definitions of success for a developer. Where our interests and developer interests perfectly overlap is commercial success. We want devs to have as much commercial success as they can, so that they can have a sustainable future and keep doing what they love to do. And obviously so we can have a sustainable future as well."

Check out the full GI Live: Online interview below.

Watch on YouTube
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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who