“There’s always something new, there’s always something unexpected,” says Chris Charla, a former game developer who now serves as senior director of the [email protected]Xbox self-publishing program at Microsoft. He’s speaking to The Srdtf News from the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, and referencing the grand scope of independent video games, the entertainment medium that most consumes him. For Charla, the interest and fascination stems from the fact that small games tend to be able to explore one idea fully: “They don’t have to try and be everything to everyone.”
He goes on to explain the concept of Unpacking, a game about “literally unpacking boxes,” which has “beautiful pixel art” and “amazing audio” combined with an “incredibly meaningful story” that creeps into the forefront in the second and third act. This concept, he says, is not one that could have been made fifteen years ago, or even ten or five years ago. This is one of the reasons why Charla is convinced that indie games are “the most exciting content type on the planet.”
In discussing the mission of [email protected] — which allows indie developers to, after applying, receive development kits and digitally self-publish their games on Xbox One — Charla talks first about Xbox Live Arcade for Xbox 360, which held an original vision of arcade games. “Indie devs came in there and started doing amazing things,” he says, adding that indie development was progressing so rapidly that it was outpacing the ability of Microsoft to keep up. He explains that it became clear at that stage that these smaller projects were vital for Microsoft to ensure its players were getting access to the broadest array of games, and that this area would be of increasing importance as time went on. “We had to do something,” he says.
“A bunch of different people at Microsoft got together,” Charla explains, including Angela Hession, Blake Fischer and himself, and they came up with the idea for what is now known as [email protected] (and is in its ninth year). “The core idea was really simple,” says Charla. “In order to ensure our players have access to the broadest array of content, we had to make it as as easy as possible for developers to ship on the platform.” Their attitude was that, by making things as easy as possible for developers, the team would then work to solve the various problems that would undoubtedly arise.
The whole spirit of the program was that, when a developer came to the team at Microsoft with a game idea, Charla’s team would figure out how to make the answers to their questions be “yes.” If that project then required a lot of work internally on the Microsoft side, people like David Ashbrenner — who serves as [email protected]’s senior program manager — would become involved and work to automate the process.
“The beautiful thing is that a lot of our initial assumptions about the importance of indie games and their growing, continuing importance, have turned out to be accurate,” says Charla. He adds that games from independent developers make up a huge fraction of the games that are on Xbox. In a blog post published Thursday, Charla shared that more than 3,000 games from indie devs have released through the program, with over 4,900 developers from 94 countries. Since the program’s inception, indie devs have earned more than $2.5 billion in royalties.
“It’s just great that we’re able to enable developers to have this level of success that enables them to have sustainable businesses and really make their art in a sustainable way.” He says that when he talks to developers and asks them what their end goal is, the resounding answer is that they just want to keep doing it.
It should be said that a number of games were highlighted during this conversation, one being An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, which Charla describes as a “really goofy game” about that exact subject that uses cheap clip art of dogs. He recommends checking it out, using the example to emphasize that his commitment to this space really comes from a love of small games and witnessing the creativity that goes into them.
Among all the small games, the program does not discriminate against any genres. “In the nicest possible way, we don’t think about that at all,” says Charla. He adds that it’s more about empowering each developer who does come through the program and exposing their games to events such as E3 and Twitch showcases. (Discoverability is, Charla says, among the biggest hurdles that indie devs face, as they often don’t have the resources for promotion and have to rely on Twitter, trade shows, demos and more).
He mentions Sable, an exploration game that was on stage at E3, and Tunic, an action-adventure game with a fox, and Spiritfarer, a cozy management sim about death. And then there’s Shotgun Farmers, a “really neat” game where you get a shotgun with one shell and if you miss, the shell lands and a shotgun tree grows.
“By not trying to dictate what content we want to promote or anything like that, and just looking for things that are really neat and fun, I think that helps us follow the original mission of the program which is: make sure we’re bringing a variety of content.”
In terms of developers, the program includes everything from sole devs to micro teams, to groups of 10 or 20 people, to even studios of 1,000 people. “It’s really about digital self publishing without us putting a lot of definitions about what is or isn’t indie,” he says.
Along the way, Charla has, of course, experienced low points. “I get really disappointed when a game underperforms the creator’s expectations,” he says, adding that obviously not everything is going to be a hit in this creative industry. “Probably the biggest bummer to me is when a game has disappointing results and its because of something that is really outside of the developer’s control,” he explains, giving the example of launching alongside a giant mainstream game and finding it difficult to break through the “noise” on that day.
Considering the program’s strengths, Charla says one of the coolest things is that it has done, inside Microsoft, is that it has completely “normalized indie games as crucial platform content.” There’s never a question of whether indie games will be featured at Xbox events, it’s a question of which games will be featured. “At a fundamental level, [email protected] I think has helped indie games be an essential part of every conversation when it comes to games at Xbox.”
And as the program continues to climb, new elements will be introduced. One was just launched at GDC; [email protected], which is for developers who want to use Microsoft’s cloud gaming services in their games. The initiative is led by Nick Ferguson and currently seeking applications.
So far the most gratifying part of it all, for Charla, is seeing a developer ship their first game. “Seeing the passion that a new developer, somebody new to the game industry has to tell their story, whether it’s a story or a new way of playing a action game — seeing them achieve that dream, and knowing from my own experience as a game developer just how hard it is to make a game, even today with Unity, Unreal [Engine] and [email protected], it’s still an incredible amount of work. Seeing somebody just get that vision and that story and that piece of art out into the world is just … it’s amazing. It’s indescribable.”
He adds that if those games go on to be giant hits, that’s great. “But I think for the creators, just having built it is a huge win. That’s by far the thing that gets me up in the morning.”