On this week’s episode of How Games Make Money, [email protected] director Chris Charla joins host Jeff Grubb to talk about publishing indie games. [email protected] is Microsoft’s dedicated indie-developer program. And Charla has helped oversee it since it replaced Xbox Live Arcade in the early days of Xbox One. Now, he is talking about how his team plans to continue helping developers as Microsoft transitions to Xbox Series X. You can listen to our conversation by clicking play on the video above or this widget player:
During our chat, Charla spoke about the future of [email protected], but he also provided a look back at how far it has come.
“It is amazing to think about like when Xbox 360 launched, the iPhone hadn’t launched,” said Charla. “The idea of people paying money to download a piece of software that only existed on a hard drive or SD card was still really out there.”
But the [email protected] director points out that even for older gamers, it’s hard to remember a time before 2008. That’s the year of the first Summer of Arcade that debuted Braid and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2.
“It is kind of a testament to how right this idea was and how much we were ready for it that even for folks who lived through then, it’s hard for us to imagine [a world without digital downloads]. And to me, something that’s fascinating is now we see games from developers who are maybe 22, which means they were like 10 during that first Summer of Arcade. They’ve functionally grown up in a world where digital distribution and democratized access to development tools has just always existed. And it’s awesome to have been there at the transition and in some small way to have been kind of part of it.”
How is [email protected] performing today
But now that Microsoft has established [email protected] and proven its dedication to that scene, how is it doing? Charla has an answer, even if he’s reluctant to toot his own horn.
“It’s doing super well,” he said. “I say that, but it’s hard because I’m not a ‘pat yourself on the back and put your feet up on the couch’ personality type. So when I think about it, I only think about the things where we still need to improve and how we can help things. But when you look at the metrics, more than 2,000 games will ship through the program very soon. And when you look at the metrics of how much money we pay to developers, that number is extremely close to $2 billion since 2014.”
Microsoft revealed last week that Decoy Games’ indie shooter Swimsanity is the 2,000th [email protected] release. The company has also officially paid out more than $1.5 billion in royalties since the start of the program.
For Charla, those measurements speak to the health of Xbox and the ID program.
Xbox believes in indie developers
Microsoft also acknowledges that games are a hit-driven business. That means it can always do more to facilitate success for developers. But Xbox doesn’t want to come in with a heavy hand. A big part of empowering indie developers is getting out of their way.
“I would say 98% of it is standing back and letting developers do what they need to do,” Charla said. “Back in the Xbox Live Arcade days, we did have producers on the games, and their goal at Microsoft Studios was to help those games go from good to great. And those producers did amazing work. But as we moved into [email protected], we kind of had to make a little leap of faith. We were like, the scene is moving so rapidly, development tools have gotten so good that getting in there and offering feedback on builds really hit diminishing returns. We should just get out of the way, and look at our role a different way. And that was that was painful for me as a producer.”
Charla says that other former Xbox Live Arcade producers felt the same way. But his team learned to trust developers.
Let developers make games while Microsoft builds its marketplace
Shifting away from producing enabled Microsoft to focus its efforts elsewhere. In particular, it can now help studios understand its marketplace instead.
“So now our help has taken two forms,” Charla said. “One is doing everything we can to inform our developers — and there’s more than 4,000 studios — and just giving them all the information we can about what’s happening with the store.”
That means surfacing data about how games are performing. [email protected] also provides best practices for releasing new content or choosing a release date.
“We provide that information, and we provide it from a viewpoint of commercial success,” Charla said. “And we talk about it because our interests are perfectly aligned there — you know we’re interested in you having commercial success as well.”