After unveiling its plans to support self-published games on Xbox One, Microsoft is detailing some of its additional efforts to support indie developers today. As Sony continues to woo indie developers ahead of the console wars later this year, Microsoft is launching a new Independent Developers @ Xbox (ID@Xbox) program for developers to create and publish digital games on Xbox One. Unlike the variety of programs on Xbox 360 over the years, Microsoft is promising to collate all games — whether they're created by a team of hundreds or a single developer — into the same Xbox One Store.
Applications for the ID@Xbox program start today, but Microsoft isn't accepting everyone into the program just yet. "For now, we'll be open to people who have some established track record shipping games," explains ID@Xbox director Chris Charla in an interview with The Verge. "We're looking for developers who are going to help get games into the store in a pretty rapid pace." Despite this, Charla says Microsoft is looking to expand the program "at a pretty good clip," and will look at every developer individually and honestly. "We don't have some sort of checklist where you have six of eight checks and get in... we're going to look at every case on its own merits."
Xbox One Store will contain indie games alongside big titles
Xbox One owners will be able to access these new digital indie games in the same way they find and discover titles from big publishers like EA, a move that indie developers have been requesting for years. Alongside this key change, Microsoft is also altering the fees that developers have to pay to create and publish games. There will be no fees to apply for the ID@Xbox program, and Microsoft is also removing any fees for certification or updates. The software maker scrapped its controversial Xbox Live Arcade patch fees earlier this year, following criticism from Fez creator Phil Fish who claimed his company Polytron could not fix a game bug because Microsoft would charge "tens of thousands of dollars" for the resubmission. Microsoft still plans to certify indie games in a similar way to how it handles submissions to its Windows Phone and Windows Stores, but the costs have changed significantly.
Although Microsoft will update the Xbox One to turn it into a development kit in the future, developers who are accepted into the new ID@Xbox program will receive two developer kits at no cost. Microsoft isn't saying exactly when it will enable a developer mode on retail units of the Xbox One. Indie game developers who are accepted can look forward to full access to the Xbox One hardware, just like big publishers, and the ability to use Kinect, Achievements, Game DVR, and Xbox Live friends / matchmaking. Indie developers will also be able to access Microsoft's cloud processing for Xbox, but the cost will depend on the complexity of the required services the developer needs.
"The vision is that a game will be a game on Xbox One."
ID@Xbox director Chris Charla believes today's changes are aimed at a vision of making Xbox One a creators platform. "Developers want their games with all the other games, they don't want them to be segregated away... a game is a game," says Charla. "The vision is that a game will be a game on Xbox One." This vision is an improved promise from Microsoft's previous attempts at indie gaming. The software giant originally launched its XNA developer tools in late 2006, around a year after the launch of the Xbox 360, as a method for indie game developers to create games across Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox. The resulting games from self-publishers, placed in the Xbox Live Marketplace, never really got the promotion they required to compete with large studios and other Xbox Live Arcade games. With very few exceptions, the Xbox Live Indie Games program was always held back by restrictions, the use of Microsoft Points, and the fact developers didn't generate a lot of revenue from their games.
With the Xbox One, Microsoft its trying to change the segregation it has placed on game development for the Xbox 360 while opening up to apps and games from a variety of developers. It's a risky change that leaves the Xbox One Store vulnerable to a mountain of low-quality games from developers seeking to make a quick buck. It seems Microsoft is promising curation and quality control though. "Every game that gets sold on Xbox, Xbox 360, and Xbox One goes through certification, we want to make sure players have a high-quality experience," explains Charla. As for pricing, Microsoft plans to set the prices for the games. Developers will be able to set a wholesale price and then Microsoft will set a retail price. This could mean Microsoft will take some of the hit on price cuts. A spokesperson tells us that the company will "work closely with the independent developers on price promotions as well."
Windows-powered Xbox and apps still a mystery
The second aspect to this indie approach is apps, something the company teased recently at its Build conference, but Microsoft says it has "nothing to announce for apps at this time." The continued secrecy fails to address important questions over its approach to its Windows-powered console. Developers who don't have a track record of shipping titles can reach out to Microsoft, but "the Windows 8 platform is a good place to start" says a spokesperson. "We look forward to sharing our plans for everyone, including the app developer who wants to bring new experiences to the television." Although Windows powers the Xbox One, Microsoft is only promising vague advantages for developers building Windows games and porting to Xbox One. "Windows is a great platform to develop for and with the Xbox One architecture there will be advantages if you build on Windows and then get ready for Xbox One," says a spokesperson. Developers will still need to code for the TV, controllers, Xbox Live, Kinect, and the living room experience, but Microsoft says its "goal is to make it as easy as possible between Microsoft platforms."