Interview: Chris Charla – Director of ID@Xbox
Chris Charla is the director of ID@Xbox, Microsoft’s indie program that focuses on getting indies to their consoles. That program just reached a significant milestone of 1000 games released. During PAX Australia 2018, Matt Hewson was lucky enough to sit down with Chris and talk about this achievement, about where ID@XBOX is headed and how the program has been one of Microsoft’s real success stories.
Matt Hewson: So, Chris, you seem to come to PAX Australia a lot
Chris Charla: This is my third time, the second time in two years, it’s awesome.
MH: So is it work or pleasure that keeps you coming back?
CC: Well, I love my work you know? It is a great opportunity to meet some really talented and unique developers. I love PAX but obviously, I come here for work to check things out. Really it is about just looking for cool games and we found a lot. There is a lot of great games coming from Australia.
MH: I feel like the ID@XBOX program has been super successful, even to the point that when there has been a gap in the triple-A space on Xbox that ID@Xbox titles have stepped forward and taken the lead. Things like Cuphead for example, have become real showpieces for the Xbox. Is that intentional or just fortunate how things played out?
CC: I think it is a little bit of both, I think we knew when we were getting ready for Xbox one we had seen how powerful indie developers were on the 360. I was deep in the Xbox Arcade program and I could have told you that developers like Playdead are one of the greatest developers in the history of mankind, but even when those games, games like Limbo, were super successful for themselves they hadn’t quite broken out into mainstream consciousness. So as we got ready for Xbox one we knew we had to make the platform friendly for independent developers because we knew we needed to have those games in order for the Xbox one to be successful. So ID@XBOX was the program that we used at first to work on the backend and make the changes we needed to ensure that we could get games on the system. We had to change it from a system that worked with a few dozen publishers to one that now works with over 3000 independent development studios. We always had an “if we build it they will come” attitude. If we just made it easy for independent developers to get on Xbox, we know we have great fans, we know we have a great marketplace so we knew that developers would have great commercial and critical success. So that was our vision. What we didn’t know was just how successful it was going to be, we didn’t know in 2013 that there was going to be games like Cuphead, games like Ark. Games that weren’t on anybody’s radar when we started and it has been awesome to see how those games and developers have put themselves into the cultural consciousness and have become really important console games in their own right. Nobody talks about Cuphead like “oh, that little indie game”. It is just Cuphead. I was in a drugstore back home in Seattle and there were Cuphead toys on the shelf and that is just awesome to see. The fact that we can be a tiny part in helping such a small team, who had never made a game before, to release such an iconic title that now has toys in drug stores is amazing. There is no way we predicted that was going to happen in 2013.
MH: With crossplay and play anywhere becoming more and more integrated into the Xbox architecture is this something you are encouraging ID@Xbox titles to take on?
CC: For sure, with crossplay especially, it’s not just something that we are encouraging developers to take on but really the reason it even exists is because of that feedback from developers. The first game we announced that had cross play was Rocket league. That came from talking to the developers who made it clear to us that the community wanted this. We knew that crossplay with PC was great but then we just started thinking about it and listening to feedback so we decided to just do it and I have to say it has really paid off. Gamers love to be able to play with their friends, whether it is on the PC, switch or Xbox. Now we have enabled cross progression so if, for example, you are playing Fortnite you can take your stuff with you on whatever platform you are playing. It has been fantastic. Listening to developers, listening to fans, making the platform more open has paid huge dividends for us.
MH: For the people that don’t know, how does a game make it onto the ID@Xbox program. Do developers apply or are they headhunted so to speak?
CC: It goes a lot of different ways. A lot of people just apply organically to the program. They just have to go to the ID@XBOX website, fill out their application and they are off to the races. We also get lots of emails and tweets from people saying “have you checked out this game?” and we like what we see so we contact them to see if they are keen on joining ID@XBOX. We also spend a lot of time at places like PAX just going around looking at all the games, making sure developers know about the program, know about the opportunities at Xbox.
MH: Speaking of lots of developers joining the program, ID@Xbox has just reached 1000 games released. That is a pretty big deal.
CC: Yeah, it is a big milestone. On a day-to-day basis we are just heads down working away, we don’t sit around giving each other high fives about little things. But when we do hit those milestone numbers it is nice to take a step back a say holy cow this is working.
MH: It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago when indies we only just breaching into the console space.
CC: Absolutely. The games industry just changes so fast, if you rewind time 10 years ago to 2008 which is kind of when the indie scene really blew up with the first summer of arcade and games like Castle Crashers and Braid, the idea of just digitally downloading an entire game was pretty new. So to go from that to where we are now, I mean more and more people just don’t own any discs at all, they have gone entirely digital. I think independent developers were the first to capitalise on that distribution method. They didn’t have to worry about designing a game to justify a full retail cost, they can make the game they want to make and that was a beautiful spot for them to be. It’s been amazing to see how indies have embraced the digital distribution method and how it has given them freedom for their designs.
MH: Going forward are there any changes in store for the program?
CC: Well we are at 1000 games and we feel like we are just getting started. We are not going to change the core tenant of the program, which is getting great indies to the Xbox. But what will change is how we implement that. It used to be a lot of help setting up things like dev kits, but now the dev kit is literally plug and play, it sets itself up which is great. We spend a lot of time on the release part of the process. How to market, how to release, those sorts of things. Constantly and this never changes, we are also looking at what’s next. Programs like Xbox Gamepass and the Xbox Adaptive controller are a focus and we spend time with developers to help them with these things. Gamepass especially has been an amazing way for games to get discovered, kind of to our surprise. The discovery aspect of Gamepass has been a revelation. People are taking risks on games they haven’t played before and through that they suddenly are talking to friends, popping achievements and other people in their circles are taking notice. Gamepass is becoming a part of a really nice circle of discovery for gamers everywhere.
MH: On a more personal note, you have a development background, do you still get the itch?
CC: Oh absolutely, at the moment I am working on a game in my spare time at home. Progress is slow I must say. It is awesome being around developers and I feel like it has given me an empathetic view on what they are going through. But it does make me nostalgic for the days of sitting around in a room debugging assembly code on a whiteboard. So I started a game in my spare time to fulfil that need.
MH: Finally is there anything you have seen here at PAX in the indie section that has caught your eye?
CC: I got to see a tonne of games last night and I wrote them all down so I wouldn’t forget them in my jetlagged state, but I think a really cool title is Totem Teller. The developers are debuting it here, playable for the first time. It is this beautiful, artistic game that has an art style that is basically video glitching. I had a fascinating conversation with the developers last night about trying to upload videos to youtube and how the art style was causing problems with automatic filters and resolutions. But that game is really special looking and I suggest you go check it out.
MH: Thanks for your time Chris, it has been wonderful to chat.
CC: Thank you.