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Microsoft doesn’t include indies in Game Pass. They’re Xbox’s future.

The Xbox brand may be as corporate as they come, yet it’s become a surprisingly important platform for indie creators. That goes back to the early days of Xbox Live Arcade, when tiny creators were provided a venue to readily publish their work on consoles. Rather than distance itself from those days, Xbox has only strengthened its ties with indies in the years after, with programs such as ID@Xbox and a Developer Acceleration Program meant to assist underrepresented developers in getting their games to market.

Over the last several months, the brand has been on a global tour to actively reach out to small creators and woo them to join Xbox. That effort would take the company to New York City on November 18, where Xbox executives would speak to local developers and students about how to apply to their programs (the event would also include a questionably timed speech from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who is under FBI investigation for campaign finance violations). It’s evident that Microsoft is putting time and money into striking relationships with tiny creators, but why bother when it can prosper merely by publishing huge products through acquired companies like Activision Blizzard and Bethesda?

To find out, I spoke with James Lewis, the leader of the ID@Xbox Developer Acceleration Program, during the event. Lewis underlined the significance of supporting small creators throughout our discussion on Xbox’s history with indies and the independent scene in general. It’s not only about generating money, but also about ensuring a more sustainable future for studios that need that first shot to demonstrate what they’re capable of with greater resources.

Fostering Innovation

If you’ve been paying attention to the Xbox brand over the last decade, you’ll notice that independent games have grown increasingly important to the company’s purpose. While large games like Starfield receive a lot of attention, Xbox often employs indies to fill in the gaps between major releases, keeping Game Pass supplied with fresh releases. ID@Xbox, which debuted in 2014, enables this. The initiative is intended to assist smaller developers in publishing their products on Xbox by offering tools and support to eliminate friction. That is a crucial role for Lewis in terms of bringing the industry forward.

“To me, independent developers represent innovation in the industry,” Lewis said. “There is technological innovation, but there is also innovation in representation and storytelling.” And I’ve seen a lot of our independent devs take chances to deliver tales you haven’t seen before… Other teams may be hesitant to pursue that subject, but independent creators are presenting the tales that important to them and reaching more players.”

ID@Xbox has been a key component of Xbox’s strategy for almost a decade. At the moment, the banner has distributed over 3,000 games from about 5,000 partners. While this is excellent, Lewis and the team thought there was still more work to be done to advance Xbox’s objectives. When it came to diversity, the corporation would have to put its money where its mouth was.

“Back in 2019, we asked how we could make sure underrepresented developers also could feel empowered to bring their games to the platform,” Lewis said. “We have this mantra that if you don’t intentionally include, you will unintentionally exclude.” So, how can we be extremely proactive about ensuring that minority creators were aware of Xbox, that they had opportunity to bring their games on Xbox, and that we were assisting them?”

That mindset inspired Xbox’s most recent program, the Developer Acceleration Program. The program, which was announced at this year’s Game Developers Conference, expands on the objective of ID@Xbox by providing assistance to minority developers. While it is still in its early stages, it has already helped fund smaller films such as this year’s smash El Paso, Elsewhere.

The Xbox Discovery Day event in New York City was mostly designed to raise awareness of that effort. Lewis, along with other Xbox team members, provided developers and students present with an in-depth look at how the program operates and who qualifies for it. It seemed almost like a recruiting event, with Xbox looking for fresh developers. Finding the next great game creator is merely the first step; actually getting their game developed is a completely different problem.

“We’re not just helping developers port their games to Xbox, but helping teams get their ideas off the ground,” Lewis said. “That is why it is critical for us to pilot this prototype initiative in which we directly support studios.” That is the following step. Once we help teams become more sustainable and produce prototypes, I believe we will be on a road for studios to build their finest game ever in five years.”

Making Plans For The Future

During our talk, it became evident that ID@Xbox and the Developer Acceleration Program are both forward-thinking projects. The games that emerge from them aren’t necessarily the most polished, buzzworthy releases — nor are they always expected to be. Programs like these, according to Lewis, are about laying the groundwork for long-term success for both the developer and Xbox.

“When I think about a lot of the games coming through our program, I’m looking to that future,” Lewis said. “This is their first game; what will happen when they play their second and third?” Those are the games that may be moving to first-party publication at that moment due to their degree of success. But we won’t get there if we don’t start here, when they’re at game one and trying to figure out how to get onto the console.”

During the Discover Day event, Xbox reiterated its commitment to provide the necessary tools to do this. Surprisingly, Lewis swiftly mentioned AI during one of his speeches as a method Xbox is assisting small developers. This comes shortly after Microsoft announced a collaboration with Inworld AI to develop new tools for its studios to help with dialogue and story. The announcement was received with mixed reactions, particularly from the indie developers Xbox hopes to encourage. Sam Barlow, the director of Immortality, would mock the statement by listing a number of things that would really empower him as a creative, such as “better discoverability” and “free health care.”

When I queried Lewis about the independent developer backlash, he was careful not to be too specific about how Xbox intends to deploy AI. Instead, he stated that the objective of such tools is to provide creators with additional “options” when it comes to making games.

“We’re trying to do our best to provide options to our developers,” Lewis said. “We’re looking to do anything we can to make the process development easier.” ‘Hey, here are some possibilities.’ And although certain solutions may be better for some teams than others, we want to make sure we’re giving as many as possible.”

While this decision may cause conflict within its community, it is consistent with Xbox’s existing independent strategy. Lewis’s watchword is expansion. This is evident in a number of aspects of the business. There is financial growth, but there are also increasing demands from Xbox gamers who want more and a wider range of games. Investing in indies assists Xbox in meeting those objectives. “This is not something we can do by ourselves,” Lewis said.

What’s more significant is how games developed through ID@Xbox and the Developer Acceleration Program can help the industry as a whole grow. Lewis does not mention sales or Game Pass memberships when addressing what success looks like for these projects. Instead, he concentrates on the developers’ more human aims that have emerged from the systems.

“The ways that we can support our teams to continue to grow as we grow is important,” Lewis said. “From time to time, we speak with developers who have completed the program and ask them how they define success.” ‘We want more understanding and empathy for the current item we’re talking about in our game,’ they remark at times. Being noticed is the most essential thing to them. That’s their leading response, which tells me something about why they’re doing this.”

These objectives highlight the significance of indie production and why Xbox is keen to promote it. Big-budget blockbusters like Starfield will always be the games that move Xbox systems into homes, but the idealistic dream is that once gamers are in Microsoft’s ecosystem, they will naturally gravitate toward those more important, intimate experiences. It’s a far shot, but perhaps one day a game like Venba will be as significant to Xbox users as Halo.

Staff Writer & Game Analyst. EEE, University of Dhaka

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