One of the more surprising changes Microsoft didn’t make with its new hardware, Xbox One, was allowing independent developers to self-publish. Instead, developers would have to (still) be published by Microsoft or align themselves with an established third-party.
That policy is now gone.
“Our vision is that every person can be a creator,” said Xbox corporate VP Marc Whitten in a statement. “That every Xbox One can be used for development. That every game and experience can take advantage of all of the features of Xbox One and Xbox LIVE. This means self-publishing. This means Kinect, the cloud, achievements. This means great discoverability on Xbox LIVE. We'll have more details on the program and the timeline at gamescom in August.”
There are some important details there.
One, every Xbox One is a development kit. That’s an unmistakably huge move on Microsoft's part, and while it only goes so far to repair the company’s relationship with the independent community, it has removed an enormous bar towards publishing on its platform. Development kits for any piece of hardware, whether we’re talking from Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo, can cost thousands.
Two, having access to achievements means independent games are no longer relegated to a weird, dark corner of the Xbox marketplace. Achievements will most likely not be as huge of a selling point this generation, but plenty of people still love unlocking them, and being able to include achievements on any game that’s released on Xbox One is a good step towards equality.
There are details we still don’t know about yet, though, including the revenue share between Microsoft and developers.
For more, I got on the phone with Whitten for a little under 10 minutes. Here's our conversation (or listen to here!)
Giant Bomb: There are a lot of really little things that I’d like to go over first, to see what you guys are and aren’t talking about in terms of specifics. One thing that I’ve heard from a lot of folks is whether you’re talking about the revenue share yet?
Marc Whitten: Yeah, more details to come, but mostly, you should think about it the way you think about [Xbox] Marketplace is today on Xbox Live.
GB: If people want to part of the development community, if they want to participate in self-publishing, is that part of a service they have to sign up for? On 360, that was XNA, and you were paying for a subscription yearly to participate in that. Is something similar happening on this end?
Whitten: There will be more details to come about how you sign up for the program. Our goal is to lower the barrier to entry as much as we can, to make it easy for people to create content for the system. While there’s more details to come, take at the top level, that the reason we’re doing all of this architectural work is really about “how do we make this simple and easy for people?”
GB: Post-Xbox One launch and when this system is available, is there a reason for people to have proper Xbox One development kits? Is there a significant difference between what the developers get access to in terms of building their games?
Whitten: Our goal is for you to be able to have full access of the system and the services on Xbox Live. Also, this is a dev kit. This is the way that we will think about dev kits for people on my team that are working on Xbox One. There’s no “this is a second class sort of experience” type of thing. Right now, obviously, in the build-up to a platform launch, there’s lots of special builds and lots of special kits and all that kind of stuff, but that’s more time and place.
GB: But this isn’t a situation where, if you just pick up an Xbox One at Target, you’re only going to be able to access certain parts of the memory, certain parts of the graphics processor? This is going to allow you, at least eventually, once it’s all put into place, to be able to do everything that someone like Respawn is doing?
Whitten: That’s right.
GB: I want to read a quote from one of the World of Tanks developers, who was recently talking about working on free-to-play on 360 and he said “one of the biggest challenges with Microsoft was the frequency of updates because the QA process and certification process takes an extremely long time. Totally unacceptable for a meaningful free-to-play. We are working with them to do quicker updates.” I’m wondering if, alongside this self-publishing model, you guys are trying to streamline the certification and title update process?
Whitten: Yeah, that’s been something that we’ve been focused on for a long time. In particular, as you think about--ignore free-to-play for a second and think games as a service, this idea that games are updated more frequently for constant gameplay or whatever reason. To do that, it’s all about “how do you build the automation? How do you really simplify that certification experience?” That’s a pretty key goal for us.
GB: So the goal is, then, to make that turnaround time a lot faster? Obviously, there will still be a certification process, I would imagine, given that you’re still a platform holder.
Whitten: Yeah, that’s the goal. Again, I’m not committing to a specific timing. It’s always the goal. That’s always the function of “how could can you get at being great at automating that work?”
GB: One of the reasons, in the past, development kits have been pretty coveted and when they show up on eBay people are pretty quick to bring those down, are fears of giving access to the infrastructure--fears over piracy. How are you guys handling that, given that you’re giving the keys to the castle to a much wider audience, once this rolls out?
Whitten: That’s the key thing about really building this, from an architectural perspective. We couldn’t have done this on the Xbox 360. Well, you could have only done this on the Xbox 360 if you designed it this way in 2003 to 2004 to 2005. This is about how we’ve built the service, how we’ve built the hardware, what the linkage is between that, to enable this type of capability. You can always do that at the launch of a generation because that’s where you get to put those foundational things in. I think people are thinking about the Xbox 360 version of the world, which is different than the Xbox One version.
GB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that this isn’t going to have a split similar to the Xbox 360, where you had Xbox Live Indie Games and Xbox Live Arcade proper. These are all supposed to filter into the regular games tab, correct?
Whitten: That’s right. We want more discoverability than that. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be possible for it to say “show me hot new indie games,” but it should be additive to that experience, not like there’s some segregation in there.
GB: With the App Store on iOS, Amazon’s App Store--basically these app stores that already have these self-publishing, low barrier to entry models--some of the big problems there are discoverability and cloning. What big lessons have you guys taken away, based on what you’ve seen already happen with similar models?
Whitten: I think the curation and the experience is still really important. The key thing is how you use social engagement on the service and the service itself to drive discoverability. The “what are my friends playing? What are the hot trending things on Xbox Live?” We think those are really important. But we also still think the top level of “how do you curate and spotlight amazing game experiences, regardless of where they came from, that really show off what’s magical about Xbox One or really fun?” is the key.
GB: One of the big changes that’s happened over the past couple of years, especially if you use Steam as an example, is more direct control over pricing and dynamic pricing, being able to launch your own sales and have more control over how that is handled in the marketplace. For people publish on Xbox One, are they going to have more dynamic control over that? In the past, Microsoft directly worked with and, in some ways, dictated the the pricing of content that appeared on the Marketplace.
Whitten: There’s two things there. The first one is “hey, we want to set up a real self-publishing model, and we want to give people a bunch of control about that particular experience.” The second one is why we keep talking so much about how important it is to build Xbox One around this kind of digital infrastructure, this digital future. There is an infinitely interesting set of things to go do when you really have a broad digital platform, and I’m not going to commit to a specific feature or a specific timeframe, but the types of things that you’re talking about and, frankly, much more, is why we’ve architected the system we have. We can really innovate around that over the next 10 years on the platform.