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Over 8 years in, how has Xbox's developer-focused [email protected] program changed?

Xbox's Chris Charla and developers from Supergiant Games and Bloober Team discuss the past, present, and future of Xbox's developer-focused initiatives like [email protected] and Game Pass.

Ever since its reveal back in 2013, the [email protected] program has helped independent developers launch more than 2,000 games on the platform. The process begins on the official site, where studios can submit an application to be eligible for publishing on Xbox platforms. Once approved, the program facilitates access to SDKs, development documentation, and dev kits, as well as guidance throughout publishing and certification. Four years after the program started, Xbox Game Pass showed up as a subscription service and some of these thousands of [email protected] games have been included.

Game Pass has grown exponentially during this time, reaching 25 million subscribers by the beginning of 2021. Game Developer sat down to talk to Chris Charla, general manager of content curation and programs at Xbox, alongside developers from Bloober Team and Supergiant Games, about how the [email protected] program evolved since its conception, diving into the benefit and support that the wider platform gives to independent developers through the initiative.

A rise in awareness

From the ground up, [email protected] wanted to make sure that independent developers are part of every program that is available at Microsoft. This includes promotion in the console’s main dashboard or the store, as well as being featured in Xbox and Twitch showcases.

A year after the launch of Game Pass, Charla and the rest of the team started talking to partners, beginning with Sea of Thieves developer Rare and then following with third party studios from the [email protected] program, about going into Game Pass the first day that they’re available to Xbox.

“Internally we call it 'day and date'” says Charla. The initial model set good predictions in terms of what the partners would gain from this approach, but the results are “probably much better than our model suggested” for both players and developers.

The release of Supergiant Games’ Hades on Game Pass hadn’t been in the studio's plans until closer to the version 1.0 launch in 2020. They started working on the game for PC in late 2017, and while discussions about porting the game to consoles began back then, they weren’t sure about specific platforms until the launch was right around the corner.

“Game Pass wasn't necessarily something we anticipated as part of our plans early on in development,” says creative director Greg Kasavin. “It ended up being a really big moment for us, from the announcement that Hades was coming to Xbox and Game Pass at Microsoft's E3 2021 media briefing to the launch itself [in Summer 2021].”

“It’s been a great way for developers to reach a larger audience on Xbox,” adds Charla. “We certainly see that the audience they reach is much larger versus other comparable launching titles. The Medium, which was gen 9 only (Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC), had daily user average activity 11 times higher than other comparable horror genre titles, across either gen 8 or gen 9. It was meaningful for that game, [as well as others] such as Surgeon Simulator 2.”

Charla mentions that it’s been gratifying to see developers signing up for second, third or fourth games in the program. Allowing players to access these new releases immediately has had positive results, especially around revenue.

In Bloober Team's Medium, two different but simultaneous scenes play out at once.
Two different worlds are explored simultaneously in Bloober Team's The Medium.

“We were one of the first games on the next-gen,” says Bloober Team’s chief marketing officer Tomasz Gawlikowski. “That is always a great thing to achieve but it also comes with a price. The Medium with its two worlds rendering system couldn’t be launched on old-gen consoles because of the hardware barrier. Because the start of any new generation will have less installed players compared to the previous-gen and with the issues mentioned above, it all made this premiere a challenge. Launching day one with Game Pass was a great solution for us.”

Gawlikowski adds that it’s important to understand all the effects that come from launching on Game Pass to millions of players. Even if the game is directed to a specific niche of players, that doesn’t mean that people who aren’t fans won’t play it either way. If someone isn’t knowledgeable of the rules of the genre, they could have problems playing the game.

“Nonetheless, those people will talk about your game and they will judge it,” he says. “It’s a good way of letting the developers create interesting and beautiful games that will reach lots of people, but those games should still be [approachable] to all players, and not only to those that know how to play specific games. I think it’s a good exercise for the creative teams out there. And there is also the support issue, where you will have lots of players play your game at once, so lots of potential problems and issues you need to resolve. Still, I can't (right now) imagine a better way of delivering your game to the maximum number of players in a short time window than Game Pass.”

In addition, Charla explains that the awareness of a day and date launch can create “a bit of a cultural moment” that extends beyond the fact of being on Game Pass, and becomes about the game itself, which is the focus of the program. That same awareness sometimes leads to user interest in other platforms such as Steam, increasing the performance there as well.

“We always felt that Game Pass would be very beneficial for developers and not just players as well, and it’s gratifying to see now after a couple years of data to see that that’s borne out, and to see how well developers have responded to it.”

Ongoing efforts and new ideas

Alongside the focus on discovery and promotion across all official Xbox channels, Charla mentions that Game Pass is an addition rather than a complete overhaul to how the program used to work beforehand. Going forward, and looking into 2022, there are several plans in mind.

In terms of development tools, [email protected] continues to work on making the process to ship games across Xbox, Windows PC or the cloud as easy and straightforward as possible. “And that’s a goal that we’ll always be working towards and probably will never reach, right?”, he adds. “Because whether we are making it now easy for developers to use Cloud services or making it more straightforward to ship on Xbox, [this helps to] shave 20 hours of platform development work off dev time. That’s 20 hours the developer can be working on their game.” Other tools and services mentioned were Visual Studio, Github, PlayFab, and Azure cloud.

“While we've enjoyed a lot of the benefits of using our proprietary engine when making our games, one of the trade-offs is that bringing our games to new platforms can be a big technical challenge for our small team,” adds Kasavin. Supergiant’s debut title, Bastion, released in Xbox Live Arcade back in 2011. Throughout the decade, Transistor and Pyre received ports for PlayStation 4 and Switch (with Transistor also joining Bastion with iOS releases as well), but Hades is only its second game to launch on Xbox.

Kasavin explains that Supergiant made “a big investment” in their tech throughout development to make it “more feasible to bring our game to more platforms at a quality level we’re happy with.” Once the studio began getting Hades running on Xbox consoles as well as xCloud, it was clear that the undertaking had been worth the effort.

A hellish battleground floats across a river of lava in Hades.
Zagreus fights his way to freedom in Supergiant Games' Hades.

“Not only did the initial technical effort go smoothly, the certification process went surprisingly smoothly as well," Kasavin said. "Getting a game certified on consoles is an important process though one that many developers in our experience regard with no small amount of fear, because it can be so fraught with unexpected surprises. We were grateful for how straightforward it was in this case!”

Access is also key, especially when it comes down to reaching out and having international developers to enroll in the program. Charla talked about the team’s ambition to have games from every continent on the platform. “We work really hard to have representation from games everywhere we can get them. I won’t, by any means, say that we’re doing the best job we could, or that there isn’t tons of work to do there. We clearly have more work to do there, to increase our representation of where games are coming from, but it is a super strong focus.”

As of now, there are developers from “more than 100 countries” on the [email protected] Program. While he says that it’s not possible to have every game from the program to participate in Game Pass, of which there are 125 titles, they’re looking as broadly as possible to increase the representation, as well as continue executing their plans on the development tool side throughout 2022 and beyond.

Looking back to 2021, Charla saw some developments in the indie dev scene that caught his attention. The push to four-day work weeks, which has been implemented by the studios behind Guardians of the Galaxy and Bugsnax, amidst several others, has been “an interesting discussion” to see evolve throughout the past year.

“I remember when that kinda came up, we talked about it a lot internally like, ‘can we do a four-day work week here at Microsoft?’ and it’s like, not sure we can because of how many meetings we have. It’s been really interesting to read some of the really positive results that have come out of developers doing a four-day work week, whether it is four 10 hour days or just 32 hour weeks, recharging for three days to make those 32 hours that they’re working more impactful.”

He adds that one of the biggest pieces of freedom when you're an independent developer, whether as part of a small studio or as a solo developer, is having the freedom to try these new structures or work methodologies. “I really support devs just trying different things. I know some people in the early 2000s who were experimenting with like a 30 hour day? So they would go out of phase with the sun because they would work this completely different schedule. And they had the freedom to do that as they were independent and didn’t have a lot of other dependencies. I don’t know anyone who is doing it now, but it was a cool experiment, you know? I think independent developers are some of the people who can push there and just try stuff.”

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