It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2013, then-Xbox chief Marc Whitten promised that anyone would be able to publish a game to the Xbox One all by themselves.
That never happened.
But nearly four years later, Microsoft is taking a big step in that direction. This summer, Microsoft will no longer pick and choose which games are good enough to make it to the Xbox store — even wacky, unfinished, “early access”-style games will be allowed to appear there.
“We’re hoping through a program like this that we can discover the next Rocket League,” Bryan Saftler, a senior marketing manager on Xbox Live, tells CNET.
The program he’s referring to is the Xbox Live Creators Program, announced at the 2017 Game Developers Conference this week. While the program was introduced without many key details, we spoke to Saftler and his colleague Mahraham Qadir to get the big picture. While it doesn’t sound like carte blanche for developers to publish any game they can dream up, it could still lead to an influx of new game titles.
While Microsoft hasn’t released Xbox One sales numbers in years, it seems clear that Xbox could use some help. Estimates suggest the rival Sony PlayStation 4 console has outsold it 2-to-1, and the PlayStation has arguably been more successful in courting exclusive game titles. (Just compare these lists of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One exclusives for 2017.) Some of the hottest new games are coming from indie developers, so attracting indies could be a path to success.
But how much easier will it be for indies to try Xbox development now?
First, let’s get the limitations out of the way:
- No multiplayer games. This is the big one. Even if a game developer wants to use its own third-party servers and matchmaking, online multiplayer isn’t allowed. That’s going to make it hard to find the next Rocket League.
- Games won’t have access to the full power of the Xbox. “It’s going to be running in the system space of the console,” says Qadir, meaning the portion of the Xbox’s resources typically devoted to running apps like Netflix, not big beefy game titles.
- No achievements. You won’t be grinding through Creators Program titles to boost your Gamerscore.
- Only UWP games. Devs have to make titles with Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform (UWP) tools, so don’t expect existing Windows games to instantly port over. (Unless they already exist in the Windows 10 Store.)
- No marketing support, and no promises that good games won’t get buried. Like Google and Apple with their app stores, Microsoft will still play favorites. Creators Program titles won’t necessarily get the same sort of placement as ID@Xbox titles or traditional games from big developers. Plus, Saftler and Qadir say they’re not yet sure how users will be able to sift through the titles on offer.
- There’s still an approval process. Games won’t get published as soon as devs pull the trigger. But Microsoft says the process is just the standard Windows Store process to weed out inappropriate content and clones, and that it’ll take “hours, not days” to get approval.
- Devs won’t all get into the program all at once. Right now, Microsoft is limiting access so they don’t get overloaded. They say that’ll change once the SDK is broadly available.
- Windows ports will need to support the Xbox controller. The Xbox One still doesn’t support mouse and keyboard.
- Games need to integrate Xbox Live sign-in. Because that’s how Xbox games work.
Now for the good parts:
- Microsoft won’t reject any game unless it breaks store policy. The big one.
- Games will appear in the Xbox Store. “We don’t want to treat them separately, they’re first-class citizens as well,” Saftler says.
- Developers can set their own prices. “Game developers will have full control over all pricing on their games, and that includes sales,” Qadir says.
- You might find these Xbox games in the Windows Store too. It’s up to developers — but any Xbox game they build can automatically appear on Windows as well if they so desire.
- Games will automatically carry over to the next Xbox too. Project Scorpio is a go.
- Players can save their games in the cloud, and see which friends are playing. Most Xbox Live features will be available for these titles.
- Devs only need to pay a single $20 fee to get started. Not per game, either: just $20 (roughly converting to £15 and AU$25) to register for a Microsoft developer account, and then you’re golden.
- Devs can build and test their games on an Xbox One itself. Retail Xbox One consoles can become dev kits now.
- Devs can immediately submit Windows games with Xbox Live sign-in as soon as the program begins.
Qadir and Saftler imagine there’ll be quite a few new games available on Xbox after the preview program ends, and these new Creators Program titles are released.
And while Xbox still won’t be as open as, say, Steam after that happens — particularly with Steam Direct — it’s going to be very interesting to see how the gaming community reacts to struggling indie developers who submit unfinished, early-access style, pay-as-we-continue-to-develop game titles.
Microsoft already had an early access program of sorts, but tame. It’s time to see developers go wild.
Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here’s your place for the lighter side of tech.
CNET Magazine: Check out a sampling of the stories you’ll find in CNET’s newsstand edition.