A chat with Chris Charla: we talk about 10 years of ID@Xbox, the state of the industry and artificial intelligence

ID@Xbox has helped indies make millions and wants more

Perhaps they don't attract the same amount of spotlight as AAA games, but independent titles are a crucial part of the industry. These releases are full of creativity that allow us to get to know the voices of developers from all over the world.

While all the credit for indies goes to the studios that create them, the reality is that it never hurts to receive a little help to get them to the finish line. That's where programs like ID@Xbox come in, allowing independent games to be distributed and reach the hands of millions of players who will fall in love with them.

The program celebrated its 10th anniversary since its launch, and to celebrate, we had the opportunity to chat with one of the people who made it possible, Chris Charla. Below, we have our conversation with the head of ID@Xbox

-ID@Xbox celebrates its 10th anniversary. What do you think have been the key achievements of this program?

-That's a great question. And in some ways, it has a simple answer: helping developers bring their games to the global Xbox audience was our goal from day one, and seeing how successful developers have been in the past 10 years is incredible. Any metric you use, whether it's the number of titles that have been released on Xbox through the ID@Xbox program―over 3000 indie games have been launched―or the amount of money that developers have earned through those games―over $4 billion―which is really a huge amount of money to me.


-Yeah... I can't believe it. I did some calculations before the announcement, and I was calculating the exact figure that we've paid out. We're very, very close to the exact figure, which is over $4 billion, and it reminded me of when I was a kid in school. I got my first calculator, you know, my parents got it for free somewhere and gave it to me. I pressed all the buttons until it was full, and I remember as a kid thinking, 'I wonder if I'll ever have to do a real math problem where I use all the numbers on the calculator.' Because you're a little kid, you're just adding. And I did this calculation. I calculated how many units were sold and the royalties and all that, and how much we've actually paid out to the developers. And I looked at it and thought, 'I'm using all the numbers on the calculator.' I finally found a math problem that can do that, and it was fun getting there!

Obviously, money is really important for developers so they can keep doing what they love, which is making games, and it's a testament to how popular these games are and also a testament to how great Xbox fans are and how they support good video games. But it's not the only measure of success, and certainly the critical success and personal success of these developers being able to realize their visions has been just incredibly satisfying. To answer the question, what I really take away from these 10 years is seeing how many developers we've seen fulfill their dreams, and being a small part of the developer's journey to fulfill their dreams feels great.

-I think you make a great point. Maybe not the critical recognition of the games, but it's very important that Xbox has been supporting these ideas. I mean, imagine in a world where Cuphead was a commercial failure, it would still be very important that their artistic vision could exist, don't you think?

-I totally agree. In fact, on Sunday night I was having coffee with an old friend that I just met at GDC and he was telling me his vision for a new game he wants to make. And he asked me, 'Should I bring it to Xbox?' and I told him, 'We would love to have it on Xbox.' And he immediately said, 'But I don't think it's going to sell a single unit, you know?' And I told him, 'But obviously you're very excited about the game.' And I told him that he was very passionate about this game and he had to make it a reality before he died. And now I told him, 'So it doesn't matter, we don't care.' We're interested in fostering the success of developers, whether it's economic or non-economic. And if you have a game that you believe in and you want to send it out into the world as your artistic statement, it's irrelevant to Xbox if that game sells a single unit. I think it will sell more than a single unit, but it's about enabling the creator's success and not picking winners, and not telling them, 'Well, we don't think this game's going to sell, so don't bother bringing it to Xbox', because we don't know what's going to be popular.

And even if we do know what's going to be popular, even if the game my friend was telling me about only sells 100 copies, it could be really meaningful to those 100 people and for us to be a part of something like that just feels like what we should be doing. And I think by having that attitude and that attitude is throughout our program, it's something that everybody really believes in. It helps us support developers everywhere, everywhere. And then, because we never know where the next success is going to come from, that means developers who have a successful game, whether it's a Cuphead or a Tunic, it's there for our players to enjoy, or another recent example is Vampire Survivors, which was sort of a surprise, and we were able to put it on Xbox. The developer decided to bring it to Xbox very quickly after PC. That felt like a fantastic win for players. I know Phil Spencer has spent hundreds of hours there. I'm not far behind him. It's just a super fun game.

-Sure, it's really, really impressive. I think it's one of the biggest and smallest games of last year and maybe of all time.


-Well, it seems like Xbox is really committed to ID@Xbox and has gone above and beyond to make everything run smoothly, but have there been any tough moments? Any nightmare stories you have to share from these 10 years?

-Not really. There were, especially when we started out, two things that we found when we started and we said internally at Xbox, you know, we're going to go from having 70 or 120 licensed publishers to letting thousands of people publish on their own. You can imagine, people had questions, right? And concerns that were legitimate. But every time we would go into a meeting and in the early days, the transition from Xbox 360 to Xbox One was very difficult. People were working really, really hard.

But we would go into a meeting with engineers who had been working a lot and were very tired and then they would be like, 'Who are we meeting with?' And we'd say, ID@Xbox and they would just light up and say, 'ohh the indie guys'. What can we do? How can we help? And it's been amazing from day one to day 3650.

You know that one specific thing is going to be really hard and then you go into a room and talk to them and get out the pens and the whiteboard or you're on Teams calls and you just start figuring out like 'Ok you're right, this is going to be hard.' So, what can we do? We know where we need to end up. We need to end up there. It's easy for the developers, how do we take the pain and then try to lessen the pain internally?

So that we make it easy for developers and then slowly make it easier for ourselves. And there have been a lot of things we've done to do that, especially around the mechanics of publishing a game on Xbox, which is not very interesting to talk about in a news story. It's a lot of work and it's something that used to take dozens and dozens and dozens of hours, and now it takes much less time. And it's something that in the future, we hope will take even less time for developers. And but those are the situations that I won't call them nightmares, but situations where you go into a boardroom and when you just look at the problem on the surface, it seemed very, very difficult and really complex.

But by the enthusiasm that everyone had and people rolling up their sleeves and in this case, especially in the beginning, I really need to give a shout out to Angela Hessian, who is the co-founder of ID@Xbox, she left Microsoft and is now at Twitch. But she proposed so many creative solutions in the first year of the program, she really deserves a lot of credit, as do many other people. People like David Ashbrenner, who is our senior project manager, whose daily task is just to solve problems for developers and the ID program. Without them, we wouldn't be anywhere.

-Well, one of Xbox's big initiatives for GDC are time-limited demos. This isn't the first time they've done something like this, what have been the results for indies?

-The demos have been really popular and are a great way to draw attention to upcoming games. It's a great way for developers to test out a version of the game and get feedback to use in making choices for the final game. So it's been a really positive program and we definitely want to do more of it. Finding the right way to make sure the games in the demos get the attention they deserve is really important to helping developers find their audience. We don't want to overwhelm with too many demos, but have the right amount so people have the opportunity to try out all the games.

-How do you envision the next 10 years of ID@Xbox?

-I hope in some ways we continue doing the same thing. Helping developers bring this wide variety of games to Xbox for players, but when I think of specific things we should always be doing, there are things we should do daily to make life easier for developers, but I think one of our big challenges is discovery, and with Xbox Game Pass, I think we've done an incredible job helping players find their next favorite game and with the work we do in the store, we work really hard to make sure when you go to the Xbox store you can see great games. And that there are great opportunities to find games. But with so many players on Xbox, I think we also have an opportunity to work on new programs to help developers find their audience among the 10 million Xbox players, and I think that's going to be the next step in the discovery journey, is how we help developers do that and certainly Game Pass is one way. The demos, like you said, are another way. And I think there's more work we can do there. To help developers find their audience as much as we help players find their games. So yeah, we'll see a lot of energy on both sides of that connection in the next 5 to 10 years.

-This industry is fantastic, but development cycles are getting longer, at least in the AAA sphere. It's said that a game that starts development today will probably see the light of day until the next generation of consoles. This applies especially to big productions, but have you seen something similar in this sphere?

-It's a tough question to answer because we see everything, right? So we see, you know, people we know at GDC and they say our goal is to launch a game in 8 months and 8 months later the game launches on Xbox with considerable success. We've seen others that are doing indie games. I just talked to a developer over the weekend who was saying, 'we're ready to launch after 8 years'. And so you have both sides of that, where some developers work for a long time, and this developer worked for 8 years and took breaks, made other games along the way, but kept coming back to this game they've been working on, and then some developers launch really quickly. It's a tough question to answer because I think we'll see both and I think the enabling technologies of Unreal, Unity, and Game Maker really help developers launch faster if they choose to, but certainly they can take as much time as they need to make the game they want.

-So, is there no real danger of games taking too long to produce?

-I don't think so. I don't think so, because in some cases it's becoming easier to compress the release time, especially because I've talked to a lot of developers recently who are focused on creating shorter gameplay experiences, trying to do the best in 10, 5, or 20 hours instead of trying to get 60 or 40 hours. And I think those games will probably take less time to develop. So I'm not too worried about it. But I know it's a concern in the AAA space.

-Talking about development technologies, one of the most discussed topics in recent months in this industry and many others has been the use of artificial intelligence. I think it's a tool with clear ethical dilemmas. But at the same time, it can help developers in many ways. So what's your opinion about it? Do you think more studios should experiment with this?

-Yes, I think there are 2 components here. There's the use of AI during development for things like helping to generate levels procedurally or even generating assets procedurally. And then there's the use of AI in the actual game to analyze player behavior and things like that. I think AI can be a fantastic tool. I spoke with a developer yesterday who told me they had used an AI they had trained on their own materials to help with asset clean-up. And they were seeing tremendous results.

But soon, this was freeing up their artists to work on other things, which I think is great, but I think, like any tool, AI can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. And I think it's really important to make sure we use AI responsibly. I'm optimistic and hopeful that we can use AI responsibly and harness its power.

-I think in an interview many years ago, you said that the democratization of development tools could lead to the next successful games, perhaps from a known studio or even from a 17-year-old's laptop. And I think the use of artificial intelligence can empower that, right? I mean, maybe it's not as good for making art, but it can train an AI to do it.

-Yes, absolutely. And I think there are all kinds of questions that arise about using an AI for art and what art the AI was trained on, and the issues of intellectual property rights and all that, are new problems we're going to have to solve as a society. But I think the underlying tool has really powerful potential. It's just about making sure we use it correctly.


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