Xbox Has Turned An Important Corner In Its Indie Catalogue

Xbox 180 on their independent offerings.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Xbox Live Indie Games, where the bizarre exclusive culture far exceeded and outlived many of the games themselves, but Microsoft seem to be edging back toward smaller titles after facing criticism for the quality of their Triple-A offerings.

XBLIG was a veritable cesspit of the kind of weird and wonderful indie games spawned by a community with few rules. The games had to be under a fiver, small enough to quickly download, and be long enough to present an eight-minute demo. This, of course, opened the door to a plethora of barmy and eccentric offerings, with a large dose of semi-pornographic material and poorly-rendered default sprites.

That being said, the service was extremely popular. Even now, years after its demise, a Steam Curators list exists to collate the remnants of that lost civilisation. So how has the landscape changed for Microsoft? A small-scale industry survey was taken at EGX Rezzed in 2018 which showed that just 1.6% of indie developers prefer the Xbox as their platform of choice, and Microsoft’s focus on bringing in big titles has fallen short of the mark. This past year rival consoles have stepped up their game, leading with innovation and quirks, while Xbox seems to be returning to its roots in a bid to stoke the flames of indie cultures past.

XO19 showcased a range of indie games, including one of our favourite rogue-lite clicker games, Forager. The array of smaller titles it had on show was a testament to how far the company has come in terms of their representation and goals this year. Although complaints arose on Twitter suggesting that Xbox were aiming at the casual market and competing with Nintendo instead of lifelong rivals PlayStation, XO19 proved to many that they had been listened to and would be served something both outstanding and different.

It was also declared that VR was not a focus for the Xbox team when working on Project Scarlett, and their emphasis on a games console “for gaming” drove home enough of a point to get people talking. Reading between the lines at this conference, it seems that Xbox is still trying to balance their money-making Triple-A games with a genuine longing for unique indie titles. It seems a shame that the console once so dedicated to indie developers is now playing catch-up to the Switch, but their distraction seems to finally be turning a corner.

Obviously, the strengths of developing indie games for Xbox are enough to give a glimmer of hope toward its former glory. The dense population of indies on Steam makes for market claustrophobia, but a PC game only needs a few tweaks to work flawlessly on Microsoft’s console. This leaves the field wide open to anyone with a basic knowledge of game design, and has the promise of a thriving download-only community of born-again edgelords.

The first outing for more commercialised indie games was the showcase at E3 this year. Although Keanu may have stolen the show, there was an affectionate amount of room afforded to indies in Microsoft’s 60-minute slot. Collaboration with the second most popular indie platform, the Nintendo Switch, also caught many eyes and paves the way to a future filled with more communal, quirky, and unique games from smaller studios.

The main avenue for prospective indie developers is increasingly the enigmatic ID@Xbox, offering a dedicated store, development program, and YouTube channel focusing on indie games. Since its inception, titles have poured in, with some of the bigger names – like Stardew Valley, Celeste, Overcooked, and Shovel Knight – cementing its credibility for both indie game fans and the wider gaming audience.

There is potential here, and enough development assistance to encourage a second-run at the glory days of indie games – when anyone who could conceive of a bizarre story or gimmick could tailor a whole game around it from their basement. The financial viability of indie games is being given a big corporate thumbs up as well, which can only help the credibility of the genre when faced with a varied and unforgiving clientele.

Inside and The Turing Test would undoubtedly have fallen short of industry financial viability testing, but have provided some gorgeous stories and haunting narratives to those of us lucky enough to play them. The market is still there, but Xbox has realised the necessity of slashing prices to fit alongside Steam and their crowded indie showcase – offering discounted bundles, dedicated sales, and incentives for buying smaller-studio games.

Chris Charla, Senior Director of ID@Xbox, feels that Cuphead was a good example of the way indie games were going to flourish on Xbox. “Having been part of ID@Xbox since the beginning, it’s extremely hard to pick one moment from the thousands of great moments and games and people involved with this program on both the Xbox and developer side,” he explains on the Xbox blog, “but if you made me pick just one, it would be E3 2015, when I was on stage, in the dark, watching Chad and Jared Moldenhauer introduce Cuphead.”

He also describes some of the intense excitement that successful indie games can garner. “I knew how hard they were working, and I knew that after the teaser the year before, people were expecting a lot. I also know how much that trailer was going to blow everyone away. That moment when the StudioMDHR logo came up on stage, I got goosebumps like I never have before, and I just could not get the silly grin off my face watching that game own the stage at E3. There have been tons and tons and tons of other fantastic moments and games over the last five years, but that moment will always stay with me!” 

Cuphead gameplay

ID@Xbox seems to be the direction of the wind over at Xbox HQ, with their site itself explaining that “we sent out developer kits to nearly 500 new studios in 2018, which means that over 3,000 studios across 67 countries now have Xbox One developer kits. With over 1,600 games in active development, we’re excited to see the variety of new experiences that teams are bringing to fans. Finally, games coming through the program have generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue since the program’s inception.”

This is a great boost for the console’s classic fanbase, a lot of whom have been struggling with the weak exclusives and late releases of recent times. Fez, Geometry Wars 2, and Braid all took flight as Xbox Arcade originals, and have gone on to make an incredible amount of money, matched with a beefy fanbase and plenty of copycats.

Part of Microsoft’s strategy involves embracing genuine community input, not least by adopting developers into their management pool. Head of ID@Xbox’s European arm, Agostino Simonetta has been involved in both Triple-A and indie development, spanning his almost 30-year career. When asked by TechRadar about one of the key elements in the everlasting appeal of indie games he responded: The way independent developers are always at the forefront of innovation. They always have fresh ideas and by the very nature of their business they’re free to take risks that […] when you’re in the Triple-As as I have been, it’s difficult to take.”

The method of attracting potential developers to create indie bestsellers and quirky titles differs from the ill-fated XBLIG, offering far more flexibility and scope. Instead of consigning the indie games to a separate store where they will only be picked up by people looking for a laugh or a cheap night in, they are allowed to flourish on the main storefront. That isn’t to say the weirder and more conceptually complex games can’t market themselves on the Xbox Creator store – they can. Although it won’t quite make up for the loss of XBLIG, it’s the YouTube to its predecessor’s Newgrounds. 

Should indie devs wish to have their work showcased on the main Xbox store page, they are also encouraged to apply through the official ID@Xbox program, providing free developer kits and support throughout. The games are, unusually, not required to be console exclusive, so the potential for making a ‘real go of it’ seems to be drawing in many up-and-coming development studios.

Phil Spencer himself has reflected on the way Xbox Game Pass can support these more individual independent creators – envisioning a future where demand leads the way for new titles enjoying a global platform. “What I love is when creators can understand that in a base of players that’s that large, there are sub-communities inside of Game Pass where you can say, hey, I’m gonna go do a black and white puzzle game because I know there are a few million people there who will go play that game,” he told Eurogamer

He went on to explain some of the reasons that Microsoft may be edging toward promoting indie studios. “I really want to foster diversity, not every game trying to reach every player from now until the end of time, which so many games I see that are pure retail today – their model is, here’s how I bring people in and here’s how I keep them playing forever and ever. That’s great for some games, but I don’t want every game to be that kind of game, because it’s just not true that the creative lends itself to every game being that game.”

It seems rather telling that the GamesRadar list of top Xbox exclusives contained almost an equal split between indie and Triple-A games in 2018, and had two big Microsoft exclusives bringing up the last few slots in 2019. Ori and the Blind Forest, Cuphead, and PUBG still remain highly wished-for games, and have set the bar in terms of what indie developers can do on the Xbox machine. Microsoft also have one of the most accessible approaches to controller support and adaptation, and games like Celeste have already harnessed this. There is no telling where the indie game train will end up, but it’s sure to be somewhere exciting.

For now, it seems that Xbox is reaching back to its roots and calling out for its fans to contribute a little something for some generous encouragement. Listening to fans was something that Microsoft lost touch with in the late 2000s, but the criticism of a few lacklustre E3 conferences and an arguably botched Xbox One release seems to have thrown them back to infancy at XO19. The company are repeating their dedication to a console for gaming, potentially stripping back the all-in-one that consoles have become and promoting performance above all else. Xbox may be a real contender this time next year for indie game domination, so long as Project Scarlett doesn’t reject its history.