Super Mega Baseball 2

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    Source:  Financial Post
    Author: Josh McConnell

    ‘Rise of the indie developer’: Microsoft puts small studios closer to the centre of its gaming future

    SAN FRANCISCO — Independent developers have become a crucial piece to Microsoft Corp.’s video game strategy for both its Xbox and Windows brands, and now the company is opening up its platform so anyone can begin publishing original content.

    At the annual industry-focused Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last week, Microsoft announced what it calls the Xbox Live Creators Program, which lets someone make original games with any retail Xbox One console and then publish the final product in the company’s digital gaming stores.

    “The rise of the indie developer has been probably the most exciting thing to happen to games in the last 10 years,” Chris Charla, head of Microsoft’s indie developer ID@Xbox program, said in an interview during the conference.

    “Independent games, or smaller games from smaller developers, have the ability to take a lot of risks and really realize their vision and follow their passion.… We’re almost at the point now where the barrier to entry isn’t your ability to program a computer, it’s how good your idea is.”

    Modern video game consoles such as the Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 have helped usher in a digital distribution era in which major blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty and Halo can live alongside independently made games that are cheaper, shorter and often more unique experiences.

    In a global video game industry expected to hit almost US$79 billion in sales this year, according to the research firm Statista, indie developers now have a direct line to consumers through digital marketplaces and programs offered by the companies making the home consoles.

    “The net result, for us as players and gamers, is when you turn on an Xbox One or PC the variety of game you’ll see is broader, more diverse and better than it ever has been in history,” said Charla. “For independent games, we’ve been in this golden age since about 2008 and it just doesn’t show any signs of ending.”

    Independent Games @ Xbox (or ID@XBOX) was first announced in August 2013 as a program anyone could apply for with a game pitch. If approved by Xbox, the applicant would receive two free development kits that allow access to the Xbox platform’s hardware or software features and eventually end up with a published title for the Xbox, Windows or both.

    The program has led to hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue generated by independent games, according to Charla, with tens of millions of gamers playing ID@Xbox-generated titles for more than a billion of hours in 2016 alone. There are now currently more than 1,000 titles under production using the program.

    “The results have really exceeded our best-case vision for the program when we started it,” he said.

    Many games under production using Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program are from Canada and showcased at events during the conference in San Francisco. In fact, Canadian games are some of the best in the world and most prominent in the ID@Xbox program, according to Charla.

    “Canada is in a beautifully unique position, because it is right next to the U.S. so it has really good sense of American sensibilities but it also has a really nice eye back to Europe and even over to Asia,” he added. “So I think the Canadian melting pot ends up with a really nice set of influences that result in games that are super popular worldwide.”

    One such studio is Victoria-based Metalhead Software Inc., a small nine-person team that is bringing its arcade-like sports title Super Mega Baseball 2 to Xbox and Windows later this year through the ID@Xbox program.

    “We were a three-person studio when we shipped the first version of this game,” said Scott Drader, co-founder of Metalhead Software. “So to be able to get in without a ton of overhead and have all of the onboarding go pretty smoothly, it made it easy to deliver the game.”

    On the people side, Christian Zuger, the other co-founder of Metalhead Software, said everyone at Xbox has been helpful and responsive, which is important as someone learns the publishing ropes.

    “Sometimes, especially when you are starting out, you wonder if you are asking stupid questions because they must hear the same ones over and over,” he added. “But they are very patient with us.”

    Montreal-based Borealys Games has been working on bringing its nostalgic, action adventure game centred around casting spells called Mages of Mystralia to Xbox and Windows through ID@Xbox. The studio said even the networking that Microsoft can offer goes a long way.

    “We knew that the program had changed quite a bit since the Xbox 360 and they wanted to be more aggressive with the indies,” said Patric J. Mondou, game director at Borealys Games. “Even when we just had a simple and early prototype, they were still willing to send us (development) kits. They’ve also invited us to many events… One of the most difficult things when you are indie is getting the reach to the media.”

    The Xbox Live Creators Program will launch in the coming months, and there will also be more features coming to the ID@Xbox program for developers including mixed reality, virtual reality and support for Microsoft’s new console coming later this year.

    “We just want to keep doing a better job for our developers and keep making life easy for them,” said Charla. “We want to be a conduit so the development community can let Microsoft know what they want and work on those feedback loops to make things great. It’s just super fun.”