Top dog or underdog? Microsoft's new indie initiative

Is Microsoft late to the party and wearing Sony's dress?

My second day of GDC this year is a lot like the late Harold Ramis' romantic comedy classic Groundhog Day. I'm in an event space surrounded by a couple dozen indie games procured by a console manufacturer to show off how open and accessible its latest platform is. I have an interview with a man leading the initiative who tells me how developer friendly this latest platform is. Heck, half the people here I saw at a similar event at GDC 2013. Hey, is that Guacamelee over there?! Yes, I've done all this before exactly one year ago. Only then it was funded by Sony to showcase the PS4. This year it's a Microsoft event showing off its recently announced ID@Xbox program. The decor has changed from blue to green, but the song remains the same.

I instantly gravitate towards a game I've been wanting to check out for ages, Hyper Light Drifter. Its impeccable pixel art and pulsating soundtrack are even more thrilling in person and I'm instantly in love - as were the 24,150 other people who backed the Kickstarter. So when did Microsoft pick up on this?

"I've been talking to them since before the Kickstarter ended," developer Heart Machine's Teddy Diefenbach tells me, referring to its crowd-funding campaign last September. And when did Sony express interest, I ask? "Sony contacted us mid-Kickstarter, so we were pushing for PS4 and PS Vita," he adds. Fortunately, it will work out for owners of both platforms as Hyper Light Drifter is aiming for a simultaneous console launch following its Steam release.

When I ask about Microsoft's poor reputation with indies, Diefenbach laughs "they were kind of dicks about it back in the day," though he's infinitely more positive about its current ID@Xbox initiative. "It's friendly, it's got the same terms as everybody else, basically. It's much more open than it ever was. It's not like it was in the 360 days."

And how does Microsoft differ from Sony then, since self-publishing is the newly accepted norm for indies? "As far as the terms go, they're relatively similar. The biggest difference between Sony and Microsoft was that Sony has had a large push behind gathering indies and they reached out to us initially, even when the Kickstarter was still going, and they have a bigger team behind it all. Microsoft has been a bit slower to come to the table, but now they're coming around, so it seems like they're going to be on much more even ground."

"Even ground" is certainly a step up for Microsoft, but perhaps not the killer push the Redmond-based corporation was hoping for. Looking around the room it's hard to shake the feeling that Microsoft showed up to the party late wearing the same dress.

"Before we launched the program we went on this multi-month listening tour. We talked to a tonne of developers. It's not like we stopped listening to developers once we launched the program."

Chris Charla

I interview the man in charge of Microsoft's indie push, Chris Charla, for more details on the ID@Xbox program. He tells me what I expect to hear. That Microsoft, like it's Seattle-compatriot Frasier, is listening.

"We talk to developers all the time and developers give us feedback," Charla tells me. "Before we launched the program we went on this multi-month listening tour. We talked to a ton of developers. It's not like we stopped listening to developers once we launched the program. We're constantly listening to them, talking to them, getting their feedback and trying to figure out how we can make the program better. How we can address their needs... We want to minimise the friction between developers having a great idea for a game and shipping that game on Xbox."

So far, so Sony. Only Microsoft's still playing catch-up in a few respects. While Sony's PlayStation Plus service gives users over a dozen free titles at a time with a few of the PS4's best games already on board, Microsoft's similar Games with Gold program hasn't even launched on the Xbox One. When I ask about this, Charla says, "Games with Gold is going to launch [for Xbox One]. We haven't announced anything with Games with Gold yet. We'll have more details about Games with Gold for Xbox One soon."

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Other Ocean's competitive sports platformer #IDARB is one of the Xbox One's standout indie titles.

Okay, then. What about Microsoft's other black sheep: its parity clause that dictates Xbox games must come out the same time or earlier than on other consoles. When posed the question, Charla responds, "We really want to provide a platform in which developers can succeed, and we're really excited about a few of the platform differentiating features. We want developers on Xbox. If you look around today at the games that are here, a lot of them are shipping elsewhere as well. And we get it. With PC we're obviously invested in that platform as well. With other consoles developers want to maximise their reach. We totally appreciate that."

This is all well and good, I tell him. But it doesn't answer my question.

"When it comes to specific publishing policies it really ends up being between us and the developer and we can't really talk about that publicly." That's about as good an answer as I'm going to get for now, so I move on.

One of the Xbox One's most promising features is that Microsoft is working on making every console a dev kit: an exciting prospect that nobody's said anything about in awhile. Is this still happening, I ask?

"We've announced that that's going to happen. That's our intention," Charla replies. "We haven't announced a date and unfortunately I can't give a date today." What about a rough window, I ask? "No, not really."

Of course Charla is sheepish about what Microsoft doesn't have, but he's boastful about what it does, as he should because it turns out Microsoft's ID@Xbox program has some pretty sweet perks.

First and foremost is free Unity licences. "Every developer in the ID@Xbox program gets the Unity Xbox One add-on for free, and they also can get a special version of Unity Pro specifically targeted towards Xbox One for free and get as many licences as they need," Charla tells me before rattling off more unique features of the platform. "Looking at our unique console features, obviously the Kinect is a big one... Smart Glass is another one that's getting used a lot."

Indeed one of the event's stand-out games is a Kinect-based platformer called Fru. The idea is Kinect looks at the player's body and their silhouette makes certain platforms appear and disappear. It's a bit like the puzzle-platformer Closure, where objects that aren't illuminated cease to exist, only instead of using light, it uses your body. Either analogue stick controls your character's movement and any button makes them jump, so players are encouraged to control the game with one hand as they contort their body like a pretzel.

Fru was initially developed for Global Game Jam 2014, but one of its developers, Mattia Traverso, tells me that Microsoft approached the team about it immediately. "A lot of Microsoft people really liked it," he says. "They came to me on Twitter and we started talking." The rest, it would seem, is history. A cynic could criticise Microsoft for needing indie devs to showcase its hardware better than it's doing on its own, but the end result is one of GDC's most novel curios only existing on Xbox One.

"What we've found that's been kind of cool is that most indie developers have a game in mind and then they're goofing around and looking at these unique features like Kinect, like Smart Glass, that kind of thing, and all of a sudden they've got an idea either for a complete Kinect game or a subtle but entertaining way to integrate Kinect into what they're already doing," Charla says. "That's really exciting as a platform holder that we've got all these cool, unique features and we can take advantage of them and give players something a little bit special."

Another stand-out Xbox One-exclusive is #IDARB (aka It Draws a Red Box), a local multiplayer game in which up to eight players play something that's a bit like football re-imagined as a 2D platformer. Two teams scramble around for a ball, emit electric pulses to knock it out of their opponent's hands, and ultimately try to lob it into their goal. On the surface this could be done on any platform, but only the Xbox One can support up to eight controllers on one console. It may not be a system seller, but it is a lot of fun.

"Hosting an indie showcase a year after Sony did the same may not inspire a lot of confidence that Microsoft is on the cutting edge for indie development, but dig deeper and it's got some nice tricks up its sleeve.

It's not only the hardware advantages of the Xbox One that has drawn indies to it, but the business arrangements too. One of GDC's highlights this year is a silly game about a spinning limousine called Roundabout that's slated for a release on Xbox One, PC, Mac and Linux. Developed by ex-Twisted Pixel staff at new indie outfit No Goblin, Roundabout was initially planned as a PC and PS4 title until Microsoft convinced the developer to bring the game to its latest platform.

"When we announced the studio, we said our upcoming title was PC and PS4. The next day, Microsoft got in contact with us asking us if we'd like to do Xbox One, and arranged a meeting on campus soon after. Since that point, Microsoft has been super helpful and responsive, and got us everything we needed to commit to Xbox One dev kits, alpha Unity on Xbox One access, build feedback, you name it," said No Goblin's Dan Teasdale.

"All of the first-party console teams are super nice and wonderful so it was a hard call to make, but Microsoft's business terms for our specific situation (small team shipping a debut title on Unity) won out over the terms Sony presented us. Hopefully down the road we can work something out for Sony fans."

When asked exactly what these "business terms" were, Teasdale replies, "There's a lot of things in the business terms, a lot that I can't talk about obviously, but the big public one is free Unity for Xbox One licences. Console Unity licences are expensive - far, far more expensive than just buying a copy of Unity - so being able to spend that money on our PAX booths, travelling to GDC, and more FMV shoots instead was definitely a big factor in our decision."

He adds, "There's no exclusivity money deals or anything like that, neither Microsoft or Sony offered us any kind of kickbacks or cash to be on their platform. We're an indie game about a revolving limousine, not Titanfall. There's nothing legally restricting us from releasing on more platforms down the line."

Roundabout itself may not be that big of a win - even though it's some of the silliest, stupidest fun I have at GDC - but that Microsoft convinced a talented developer that began in its opponent's camp is a major step in the right direction. And No Goblin isn't alone as over 250 developers have signed up with ID@Xbox since it was announced on 20th August, 2013. Charla boasts that this is more than XBLA on Xbox 360 had over its entire lifespan.

Historically Microsoft hasn't had the best reputation with indie developers with its abhorrently high charges for updates, requirements for a publisher, hiding its XBLIG titles deep in the menu system where the sun don't shine, and basically coming off like the antagonist of Indie Game: The Movie. Hosting a GDC indie showcase a year after Sony did the same may not inspire a lot of confidence that Microsoft is on the cutting edge for indie development, but dig deeper and it's got some nice tricks up its sleeve with its free Unity licences, Kinect, Smart Glass integration, and support for eight controllers per box. Could this next generation be a tortoise-and-hare situation? Microsoft may be slow, but it's also heavy and green. The question is: will it keep up the pace?

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