18 Interviews

Interview: Chris Charla on the promise and pitfalls of Xbox One's indie program

By Rob Crossley on Thursday 12th Dec 2013 at 2:25 PM UTC

It's early days for the Xbox One self-publishing program (the initiative was first announced in August) but the man heading it up is already talking passionately about his long-term ambitions for it.

Chris Charla, who first joined Microsoft in 2010, joined the company as the Xbox Live Arcade portfolio manager - a versatile role that enabled him to broker deals and get the right people talking to the right people.

Now he manages the next evolution of that portfolio, known as the ID@Xbox program for Xbox One. However, it's not been smooth sailing through calm seas, with criticisms coming from the very people he's trying to persuade to join the program.

CVG sits down with Charla to discuss the challenges facing the new program, as well as the more positive aspects which have already helped entice more than thirty developers.

CVG: Now more than ever there is a diverse range of platforms that developers can invest their time and money in. What's your pitch to game creators to choose Xbox?

Chris Charla began his games career in journalism, writing for Next-Generation magazine

Chris Charla: First thing off the top of my head, it can do things no other console can, from what we're doing with Kinect to the Smartglass features and the stuff we're doing with the cloud. That in itself offers compelling reasons to consider Xbox.

Also, for independent developers, a lot of the things we're doing at ID@Xbox is designed to make that route to the console as smooth as possible.

On top of that, some of the things we're doing on our marketplace will make sure that independent games get the same level of discoverability as other games. We want to ensure great and important games come to the surface.

That's what a lot of independent developers are saying - it's not just about the policies, it's also about the shop, and how games will be displayed when you log into it. How will self-published games be displayed on the Xbox?

Chris Charla: One thing I can say for sure is that the whole thing will change. If you look at the Xbox 360 at the start of its life, with the blades system, to what it has become today, that's a dramatic change. We architected Xbox One so that it can change and grow. How the store looks in 2013, when there's thirty games available, compared to how it looks in 2017, when there's going to be hundreds available, will obviously be very different.

So, on the system we have our spotlight, which is our editors' picks, and ID@Xbox games will have as much chance of being featured on there as any other title. The programmatic discovery will be useful, as it will categorise top selling, highest rated, and an interesting new one is "trending" - which doesn't look at sales but in fact the velocity of sales, especially among friends.

It's hard to tell right now, because the system has just launched and top selling and trending show up fairly similar results but in a year from now I think it will become a more interesting way to see games.

Also, I think Upload Studio is going to be a really cool way for developers to show players their game.

"I can't name names and I can't cite any concepts, but I've been shown some Kinect games and ideas that are just amazing"

Upload Studio? How so?

Chris Charla: So developers and players can obviously record themselves playing a game with Kinect, but can also add effects in before and after, as well as intros and other things like that.

At the same time, you can also follow people on the system now, and I think developers are going to gain a lot of followers on Xbox. So if they release a clip of their game, all of a sudden a lot of their fans will be able to see that content on their feed. We're already starting to see developers directly communicate with their followers on Xbox One, so it's interesting to see what happens in the future.

Slideshow: Which developers are on board with Xbox One?

You mentioned Kinect earlier, and that's an interesting point because at the moment there aren't really any triple-A games that utilise that technology. Do you think it's something that independent developers could use to distinguish themselves?

Chris Charla: Oh absolutely, and I can't name names and I can't cite any concepts, but I've been shown some Kinect games and ideas that are just amazing. And I'm talking about Kinect focused games - games that are really cool, really strange, really interesting.

There's a tech demo we have, which is a first-person shooter, and when the player touches the side of their head, X-ray vision comes on. It feels magical - just really cool when it happens. I think we're going to see more games which use Kinect for these neat ideas and more subtle features, rather than huge body movements to control games entirely.

One of the most discussed aspects of Microsoft's independent developer program is its day-one parity clause - which asks independent studios to release their games on Xbox One the same time as PS4, or not at all. How open-minded are you to scrapping the plan?

So, I can't comment on our publishing policies. But I can say we're taking feedback from developers, and we're always taking feedback, and we want to make ID@Xbox as great a platform as it possibly can.

Can you explain how the day-one parity clause benefits the games industry?

Chris Charla: That's almost like you're asking the same question. I really can't talk about it. We encourage developers to reach out - I can't talk to you about the policy, but I can talk to developers about it.

Why can't you talk publicly about the policy?

Public Relations: It's not something that we're talking about, we're here to discuss the development of the ID@Xbox program.

This is strange, because the day-one parity clause is the most discussed subject regarding the ID@Xbox program.

Chris Charla: And what we're doing is listening. That's all I can say right now.

Microsoft announced its ID@Xbox program in August

I'll move on. You announced an initial wave of thirty games for the ID@Xbox program, are you disappointed by the level of participation from indie studios?

Chris Charla:: No we're super excited. We've been bowled over by the level of support. We've had tonnes of applications and there's going to be a lot more to announce. We're not resting on our laurels, we're working very hard to get them development kits and making sure everything works fine.

There were many absences, or at least enough to notice. You didn't list any of the eight indie developers that were presented on Sony's stage at E3. Where is Dennaton? Where is Supergiant Games, or Mike Bithell? It's just a little surprising to see these absent.

Chris Charla: Well these are just the developers that we announced last week. There's a lot more developers working on the system. I can't really talk about a specific developer, but I can say we're talking to lots of developers.

"Regarding day-one parity clauses, what we're doing is listening. That's all I can say right now"

So has the day-one parity policy been the main stumbling block for signing up developers?

Chris Charla: I can't talk about policies.

But has it caused problems?

Chris Charla: No I think we've had a fantastic reception to the program. I wouldn't read a lot into the absences on that list.

Finally, it would be good to know your views on the future of independent games, and how important they will be for the industry.

Chris Charla: I think the indie development scene will be crucial to the future of games. I see innovation all over, from triple-A to indie games, but I see it happening so quickly in the independent developer scene that it's super exciting to me. We really see our responsibility as a platform holder that players get to see that.