As 2014 comes to an end, CONSULGAMER looks back at some of the larger stories of the year. This guest-post from Ben Bascom provides a postmortem on ID@Xbox, Microsoft’s self-publishing program.
ID@Xbox, Microsoft’s answer to Sony’s self-publishing program. There has been a lot of talk among developers about the ID@Xbox program. Many are hoping this is a viable path to releasing their title on a new console. Amidst the swathes of fanatical press on the topic, it can be difficult to form an objective decision on what direction is right for your next game.
For us, signing up was the same as for most developers. We went through the website that Microsoft set up. This seemed simple enough and was mostly a pretty smooth process.
Getting our game concept officially approved turned out to be more difficult. Until we had a contract in place, we had no guarantee that we would be able to release our game on the Xbox One. Based on discussions with the ID@Xbox team and confidence in our own products, we plowed ahead with our game. Though we did, eventually, get a contract in place, we didn’t get it until late in development. It was stressful to be investing so much time and effort on a game that could be blocked from release by factors entirely out of our control.
Flexibility Within ID@Xbox
We were really happy with the flexibility offered to us by the ID@Xbox program. The freedom we have been given to make the game that we want to make has been great. Past the process of initial concept approval, there was no interference from Microsoft in the game design and creation process.
In pricing discussions, it was clear that we couldn’t just set the price wherever we wanted without it fitting within Microsoft’s overall vision for their marketplace. Beyond a few pricing tier rules, however, we were able to make our own choices about monetization, and we were able to choose the $6.49 price we wanted.
There have been complaints about Microsoft’s parity clause. While this isn’t something that we had to worry about, our interactions with the ID@Xbox team have shown that they have a willingness to talk about concerns. My suggestion, to those who are worried about the parity clause, is to contact someone on the ID@Xbox team. Have a discussion about what they can do for you rather than assume they won’t work with you on your concerns.
The Cost of ID@Xbox
If you don’t care about costs, you probably don’t care about the ID@Xbox program. One of the great things about being part of the ID@Xbox program is getting the free dev kits. Aside from being absolutely essential to the development process, dev kits have historically been expensive across all console platforms. Having the finances available to purchase dev kits up front may be the single biggest inhibitor to many indie developers. Being able to jump this hurdle will be a big deal for the indies accepted to the program.
Unfortunately, if you need more than the two kits that you get started with, you have to pay the same standard dev kit prices paid by AAA studios. From an indie developer perspective, it would be nice to see a change to this business model – especially since the development hardware is now the same as the retail hardware.
It felt as though the ID@Xbox program wasn’t ready for us to start running with it right from the onset. It was a while before we got dev kits. They certainly existed but they weren’t being allocated to us through ID@Xbox. Fortunately for us, we already had experience working with Xbox One hardware through contract work we were doing for the launch title, Ryse: Son of Rome. As soon as we got our ID@Xbox kits, we were able jump right into development of Nutjitsu. Nonetheless, it would have been extremely useful to get our kits sooner.
Communication in ID@Xbox
In the early days of our participation in the ID@Xbox program, communication from the ID@Xbox team was fairly poor. There was long turnaround on email replies to get the information that we desperately needed. Additionally, the support forums had a very slow response rate earlier on. Near the end of the project, however, we were seeing responses to forum posts within 24 hours. Until we announced we were ready to enter cert, we felt that we weren’t getting the level of support we wanted. I have heard the team hired on a lot of new personnel around this time so, it appears it was a problem they were aware of and trying to solve.
Once we were ready to go to cert, we were assigned an account manager. At this point, things started to pick up momentum significantly. Our account manager was helpful and responsive. Consecutively, we were assigned a release manager who was also very helpful and responsive.
We did not make it through certification on our first pass. While we were still in cert, we were sent a preliminary report of issues we were failing on. This was to enable us to start working on the fixes without waiting for the cert pass to be done. This turned out to be incredibly useful to us.
In between our cert submissions, the ID@Xbox team followed up with us to check on the progress of our resubmission. Additionally, once our game was through cert and ready to ship, our feedback regarding the program was actively sought by the ID@Xbox team. It was great to see them being proactive.
ID@Xbox Documentation and Submission Forms
Early in the process, a heavy reliance on emailed documents caused confusion at times. We have since updated Nutjitsu and some of the forms we were emailing have been moved onto the web. This helped alleviate some of the headaches that we had and hopefully we will see the rest of the submission process streamlined soon.
Promo Support Through ID@Xbox
Promotion is a big deal for indie studios. We just don’t have the AAA marketing budgets. While the promotional support on Microsoft’s end wasn’t extensive, we were given some promotional consideration and they made an effort to keep us informed and involved with their promotional efforts. Among other things, we were included in press releases and an ID@Xbox press event that was held at GDC. Major Nelson’s blog also posted about Nutjitsu.
Perhaps the most valuable promotional consideration that we were given was some placement within the store for a few days. Before we set a release date, the ID@Xbox team wanted to make sure we would be able to get promotional placement within the store. Whether or not indie games will always get this consideration remains to be seen but this was a big plus for Nutjitsu.
Our own promotional efforts were, unfortunately, delayed due to the tardiness of having a signed contract in place. We would have liked to start promoting the release much earlier than we were able to.
The ID@Xbox program is still in its infancy and, as such, has experienced some growing pains. However, I’m truly excited to see where the program is heading. As an indie, having the freedom to publish our own titles in the Xbox ecosystem, with minimal interference, is something we’ve wanted to do for years now. The individuals we’ve worked closest with have been helpful, friendly and proactive. The program appears to be taking big strides to improve.
Will we make another game with ID@Xbox? We certainly will and I expect the ride to be smoother than before.