One thing that Microsoft shown over the last five years is an ability to change and adapt. Even before this generation formally started, they’d already identified one key area where they were losing ground, launching the Independent Developers @ Xbox, or [email protected], programme at Gamescom 2013. It was a response to the manner in which indie gaming had gradually trickled away, finally allowing devs to self-publish on Xbox.
Five years later and [email protected] is a cornerstone of the Xbox One business, and the last twelve months have been huge. At GDC last month, they announced that they were passing the 800th game launch in the programme, just twelve months after the 500th. Those 800 games have generated over $1 billion, and that’s accelerated over the past year.
A part of the way that this has happened is with an ever-increasing level of openness and collaboration between Microsoft and the independents working to bring games to their platform. Video games are constantly evolving, and Xbox One and Microsoft platform has also changed a heck of a lot since 2013. We now have Xbox Play Anywhere, Xbox Game Preview for early access to games still in development, the Xbox Insider programme has opened its doors to all those who want to beta test games and system updates, there’s cross-network play, and since the middle of 2017, there’s been the Netflix-like Xbox Game Pass.
All of this is open to independent developers, not just Microsoft’s internal studios, and so it’s notable that this week has seen the release of Robocraft Infinity, heading straight into Xbox Game Pass, day and date with the regular release.
Agostino Simonetta, [email protected]’s European head, explained to us that this was a very natural decision: “We just felt with the Thinkjam team that the kind of game that Robocraft is, where you have this 5v5 multiplayer, Game Pass would be a wonderful opportunity to develop that community and bootstrap the game. It’s the right product, it fits. We both thought it was a good idea, and yeah, so this is happening! […]
“It was a conversation between us. It’s like, you have a 5v5 game, which makes sense [for this], and the guys [at Thinkjam] really want to get as many people to play the game, so it felt like a good idea. And also it’s not just Game Pass that we’ve done with them together. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or you took part in it, but we had the Insider programme.”
If you’ve heard of Xbox Insider, it’s most likely for its use to get pre-release builds of upcoming Xbox One system software updates into the hands of willing testers. While it was locked down to a set group of testers for a long time, last year Microsoft decided to open it up to anyone that wanted to download the app and participate. Its second most high profile use was for the year-long alpha testing that Sea of Thieves went through, giving Rare much more direct access to players, letting them send out surveys for feedback and more. It’s also something that Robocraft Infinity went through.
Agostino said, “The Insider programme was obviously something Sea of Thieves has been doing very successfully, but it’s open, not just to our studios, it’s open to anybody. So effectively, that’s where [Robocraft’s] journey started and it’s been a very successful experiment on all fronts.
“It started from a very small internal beta for them to validate what they were doing, and slowly over time increasing the size of the pool of people coming in. The benefits are that, one, you can test your servers and the technical aspect of it, secondly, you have a very enthusiastic audience that the developer can talk to and get an opinion, get feedback or just bugs.”
Almost more than any other company, Microsoft are embracing a much more fluid approach to game development. Everything can be done out in the open, almost, but with that there are now a lot of similar sounding overlapping programmes. That potential is there for confusion, but it also allows for a very natural progression for developers to go through development and build a community around their game as it grows to release.
“What you might see in the future,” Agostino explained, “is that we bring ID products that go in Insider, and then they mature and go into Xbox Game Preview. Xbox Game Preview we might, weirdly enough, still call it a pilot, but it’s still very well framed on Xbox. We’re very clear on the definition of what Xbox Game Preview is, where you need to have a trial, the game has a dedicated area for Game Preview, you’re clearly told that the game is not the finished product, it doesn’t show up in the New Releases [on the Xbox Store]. So it’s a very well defined area where you find those games and you need to be a fan of the Xbox Game Preview.”
Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule, and they tend to come early on for Microsoft, it seems. Quantum Break was effectively the first Xbox Play Anywhere game, as digital pre-orders could get you a free copy of the game on Windows 10 as well. It was there as a test run before the scheme was formally announced several months later. Similarly, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds started as an [email protected] game before Microsoft struck the deal to publish it, and the weight of advertising breaks those boundaries that Agostino talks about.
“Sometimes you have to do pilots or make certain exceptions for technical reasons,” Agostino admitted. “PUBG we’ve now announced 5 million players, that was the latest number that the Bluehole guys announced – now it’s published by us and it’s not on ID, I see the numbers when you see the numbers. […] The nature of programmes is that you have pilots, you see what happens and you evolve them. I think I was talking to you earlier about how we always listen to developers and consumers and evolve. There is an element of that, but I think there are clear demarcations, especially the path from Insider to Game Preview to 1.0.”
The manner in which [email protected] has grown and evolved over the last few years has been fascinating to watch, but it’s also massively empowering to the developers that join the programme. Simply put, they’re given options and freedom on how they want to develop and publish their game, whether it’s going it alone and only releasing when the game is finished, or going into [email protected] with micro-publisher backing them, making the most out of Xbox Insider and Game Preview along the way.