When Microsoft finally revealed its plans last month to allow independent developers to self-publish on Xbox One, it was clear that some pieces of its vision wouldn't "all be there at launch."
Today, the company has announced the first details of its "Independent Developers @ Xbox" program, scheduled to begin this fall alongside the console's launch. Interested developers can apply at www.xbox.com/id and, if accepted into the program, receive two development kits for free and become a registered Xbox One developer. Notably absent from this "initial phase" is the ability to turn any retail Xbox One into a development kit, part of the company's "longer term" plan. And just who will be accepted into the ID@Xbox program?
"We're going to start with developers who have experience shipping on consoles," Microsoft's Chris Charla, director for ID@Xbox, told Polygon. "It's not totally trivial to ship a console game. We want people who are going to be comfortable shipping on console." When asked how they'll define an independent developer, Charla said, "We see great independent creators at every single scale. And you'll see us support the program that way, from individuals up to really established studios.
"One thing I can tell you is that Microsoft is not going to weigh into the debate over who's an independent developer and who's not an independent developer."
"there are no limitations on the game that you're making versus a game that somebody working with Microsoft Studios would be making"
While that long-term vision of allowing anyone with a retail Xbox One to develop for the platform presents significant scaling challenges, Microsoft is looking to start slowly. "Phase one is going to start [today] when developers start applying and we're just going to be gradually expanding over time in terms of who we can get kits to and how we can enable them in the program," Charla said.
"These are full games. If you're in this program, there are no limitations on the game that you're making versus a game that somebody working with Microsoft Studios would be making or that Activision or Electronic Arts would be making." That means access to "cloud services, Kinect and Xbox Live toolset such as Xbox SmartGlass, multiplayer, Achievements, Gamerscore and more."
"We're not really talking about the ‘every retail kit is a dev kit' piece of the program today"While developers will be able to get a game onto the Xbox One without the need for a publisher, not everything is in their control. "The marketplace on Xbox One isn't going to change from Xbox 360 where Xbox is a retailer. So developers are always free to set their wholesale price and then the retail price is ultimately set by Xbox," Charla explained. Competing marketplaces like Sony's PlayStation Network, Valve's Steam and Nintendo's Wii U eShop — not to mention Apple's iOS App Store platform — allow developers to set their own prices.
In keeping with the Xbox 360 policy change from June, and in response to outspoken developer concerns with the practice, "there will not be any fees for certification or title updates" on the Xbox One. Charla says that ID@Xbox is "open to all business models" so a free-to-play title with frequent updates should be possible on the platform, as seen on Xbox 360 recently.
"We're not really talking about the ‘every retail kit is a dev kit' piece of the program today," Charla told Polygon. "Our plan is that you will be able to take a retail kit and turn it into a dev kit. Really, on Xbox One our goal is to allow everyone to be a creator." When asked for specificity on the timing of future phases, Charla said, "It's never going to be a question of if. If there's any question, it's going to be when."
That long-term vision also presents significant issues with discoverability, an issue most notably faced in Apple's massively popular iOS App Store. In order to preserve the scarcity of digitally available titles on Xbox 360, games from the "Xbox Live Indie Games" program were isolated outside of the regular games marketplace, a decision many blame for the program's lack of meaningful success.
But despite those challenges, Microsoft isn't repeating that mistake. ID@Xbox games will exist alongside traditionally published titles on Xbox One.
"When we went out and talked to developers, that's one of the things we heard loud and clear," Charla said. "They want to be in the marketplace with all the other games."
"We're listening to what the development community has to say and I think we're responding to it in a really proactive way"
And Microsoft is aware of the challenge of discoverability. "We're really working to make it more personal so you can not just see what the new releases are — you'll obviously be able to see that — or what's popular — you'll obviously be able to see that — but what's trending?" Charla said. "What do my friends like? What do people who play the same kinds of games as me like? So we're actually really pleased with the way that's going to work."
Charla says that they've heard the criticisms from one-time Xbox Live Arcade developers and are building a program with those complaints in mind. "We've talked to a lot of those guys and we talk to them on a regular basis," he said. "We're listening to what the development community has to say and I think we're responding to it in a really proactive way. And I think this program is a great example of that."
"I'm really excited that Microsoft has listened to feedback from developers and created this program," Spy Party developer Chris Hecker said in a prepared statement. "As an independent developer, I want SpyParty to be available to as many players as possible, and it feels like Microsoft is interested in not only removing roadblocks for indies to get their games on Xbox One, but they're also genuinely interested in finding ways to bring new and innovative indie games to their platform to help games reach their potential as an art and entertainment form."
The goal, Charla says, is "making sure that [...] anyone as a player, when they turn on their television and look at their Xbox One dashboard, there's an amazing, diverse variety of content there for them. From the big, giant, awesome [...] games all the way down to the really small, independent efforts and, honestly, things we can't even imagine right now."