Microsoft doesn’t have a ton of exclusive games coming for the November 7 launch of the Xbox One X game console. But it does have a lot of independent games coming via its indie games self-publishing label, ID@Xbox.
More than 600 games have shipped on the label since it began in 2014. And there are more than 1,500 games in development. In the past 12 months, more than 200 games have been published, and Chris Charla, director of ID@Xbox at Microsoft, said in an interview with GamesBeat that rate is continuing.
I spoke with Charla at a preview event in San Francisco. He pointed to hot games like Cuphead (don’t remind me) from Studio MDHR, debuting on September 29 on the Xbox One and Windows. And he noted that PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds is debuting sometime this year as well on the Xbox One.
Both Sony and Nintendo are competing to get indie game developers to their consoles as well. But Sony has been focused on virtual reality titles, and Nintendo has had less time to get its indie program going. In short, Microsoft has an opportunity to set its console apart with indie games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I think you guys recently said you had more than 600 games on ID@Xbox. How many are coming up?
Chris Charla: More than 600 games have shipped already. In active development there are more than 1500 games that we know about. I don’t know how many are coming out this fall. In the past 12 months more than 200 have come out through the ID@Xbox program, though. We see that rate continuing.
GamesBeat: How quickly is that process going, getting developers into the program and getting their games out?
Charla: It’s a hard question to answer because it’s happening constantly. We’re having developers apply every day. We see new game concepts every day. On a weekly basis we’ll see anywhere from seven to 40 game concepts. The approval process is different for every game, but it’s pretty quick.
GamesBeat: It seems like you’ve automated a lot of this.
Charla: We try to make sure that when folks need to talk to a person, there’s a person for them to talk to. Part of the way we do that is through things where it’s just—if you need to let Microsoft know some information, it’s straightforward to do that. You can do it through a form instead of having to send a bunch of emails back and forth.
GamesBeat: Is there a goal you’re shooting for, or something in particular you’re trying to attract?
Charla: Honestly, no. Our goal has always been — and this hasn’t changed since the first day of the program — to make sure players have a huge, broad variety of games to play on their Xbox. From our perspective, the way to create that is to make it easy for developers to ship on the platform. Make it easy to get your games up and running on Xbox One, make it easy to ship your games on Xbox One.
We do a lot of work, obviously, to help developers amplify their promotion, whether it’s an event like this, or the prepacks event we do, or the event we do here before GDC. We’ll feature games at E3, online, through social channels, things like that. We definitely see our job as to amplify developers’ promotion and tell people about cool games.
Ultimately it’s about making it easy to ship and players have responded. We said a couple of weeks ago at Gamescom that players on Xbox One played more than 1.3 billion hours of games that came through the ID@Xbox program last year. It seems like it’s working. Developers are shipping awesome games and players are responding. I don’t remember what the number from the year before was, but it was a big improvement.
GamesBeat: What looks good for this season?
Charla: Obviously we’re really excited about Cuphead. We’re really excited about PUBG. That’s being published by Microsoft now, but it came in initially through the ID@Xbox program. It’s been interesting to see games like Path of Exile, Friday the 13th, and Fortnite do really well on Xbox One. There are tons more coming.
GamesBeat: Some of these almost seem more like — you could call them double-A, maybe?
Charla: It’s interesting. With the ID@Xbox program, we really consciously never set out to define what is “indie,” that kind of thing. One thing we avoided was this idea of indie as a genre. We knew that if we tried to define what an indie game is, developers would immediately do something different, because that’s the way the world works. Developers are super creative. Instead, we tried to define and build a program that was going to be flexible enough to help a Cuphead, made by two brothers who’ve never made a video game before, all the way to helping PUBG from Bluehole, which is actually a pretty established independent studio. We didn’t try to limit the program to a certain size or scale of developer.
GamesBeat: You’re basically self-sustaining at this point. Can you sit back and relax now?
Charla: [laughs] Yeah, it’s easy street from here on out. No, obviously, we’re constantly—we started out the program by listening to a ton of developers. One of the best things about working on the program is they’re never shy about letting you know what’s going wrong and what could be better. We’re always looking for ways to improve our tools, improve our technology. The development scene is changing so fast, even today, that trying to stay ahead and understand what developers need—it’s a full-time job for a lot more people than just me. It’s always fun, but I wouldn’t describe it as relaxing.
GamesBeat: What’s the competition like? Sony seems to be shifting more to VR with a lot of their indie titles. It also seems like Nintendo is gearing up in that direction.
Charla: The reality is developers have a lot of options out there, whether it’s Xbox, PC, other consoles. It’s great that there are so many opportunities out there. The only thing we can do is just focus on making Xbox the best possible place. We don’t spend a huge amount of time thinking about what other folks are doing, except in the context of, “Hey, how can we do better?”
GamesBeat: What’s happening with independent developers and the One X?
Charla: A lot of developers have Xbox One X dev kits already. We’re getting more kits out there all the time. It’s been really gratifying, especially to the hardware folks who built the Xbox One X, to see how fast independent developers are getting their games up and running and enhanced for Xbox One X.
GamesBeat: Is it seamless, or is there still some work they have to do?
Charla: It depends, developer to developer and game to game. I know that the Path of Exile guys famously said at E3 that the game took them 60 minutes to get up and running in 4K on Xbox One X. Other things take more time. Some of it depends on the engines developers are using. But overall we’ve been gratified to see that when we get an Xbox One X kit out to a developer, they’ve heard all this stuff about how easy it is, and usually the next thing we get is an email with a build or an email saying, “Yeah, they weren’t kidding.” It’s been awesome to see how straightforward it is for developers to take advantage of the power in the Xbox One X.
GamesBeat: I’d like to save you from the question of how good you are at Cuphead, but—
Charla: There is a video online of me at Day of the Devs, the Double Fine event. I’m trying to play Cuphead and talk about it with a tiny bit of input lag and a pretty big lack of core platformer skill on my part. But what I’ll say about Cuphead is this. It is challenging. I got in here a couple of days ago and started playing that first run and gun level, which is probably the one people were playing at Gamescom. I barely got past the third mushroom. I played five or six times. I went back to the hotel, slept, came back the next day, and I was able to beat the level.
To me, this is a game that you can’t approach like a game you’re just going to power through in one sitting. This is an old-style NES game where you’re going to have to learn the levels and spend a long time at it. That said, it always feels fair. It never feels like it cheaply killed you. You restart the levels really fast, so you get this, “Oh, I’ll just play one more time” type of experience. I’m not a great game player. I’ve managed to get through some run and gun levels and killed a couple of bosses.