The lights are on
Update: Microsoft has verified our report. Confirmation has also been provided regarding Xbox One retail consoles serving as developer kits. This is an enormous change to the landscape, and supports the move to allow independent developers to self-publish.
"Our vision is that every person can be a creator. 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," said Xbox chief product officer Marc Whitten. "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."
In a conversation with Whitten, he told us that the commitment to independent developers is full. There won't be restrictions on the type of titles that can be created, nor will there be limits in scope. In response to a question on whether retail-scale games could be published independently, Whitten told us, "Our goal is to give them access to the power of Xbox One, the power of Xbox Live, the cloud, Kinect, Smartglass. That's what we think will actually generate a bunch of creativity on the system." With regard to revenue splitting with developers, we were told that more information will be coming at Gamescom, but that we could think about it "generally like we think about Marketplace today." According to developers we've spoken with, that split can be approximately 50-50.
As for sales and dynamism in the Marketplace, Whitten told us more information would be forthcoming, but that "This has been pretty key for how we've developed the Xbox One platform," Whitten told us in response to a question about how long this plan has been in the works. Along those lines, Microsoft has been pushing for faster certification as we reported earlier. "My goal has always been to reduce the amount of time it takes to make a certification pass," Whitten told us. "It's good for all reasons, and it's a function of how to you build the automation. My goals will always be to take the amount of time in certification down."
With regard to the devkit functionality, Whitten told us that it won't be ready at launch. We also spoke about security, as it would seem that enabling retail units to function as devkits and play non-final code would be problematic. "This is the type of thing that you can only do at the start of a generation," Whitten explained. "You make a set of assumptions, and those assumptions get baked in at the beginning. When you ask questions like that [about security], you're looking through the lens of how Xbox 360 works, and based on how we developed a lot of these things in 2004 and 2005."
We're looking forward to learning more about these new features in the coming weeks and next month at Gamescom.
Another unpopular Microsoft policy appears to be heading for the history books. Sources tell Game Informer that the company is reversing course on its publishing requirements. This will allow independent studios to access digital distribution without a publishing partner.
Independent publishing was a key platform in Sony's E3 2013 press conference, bringing a number of developers on stage. Supergiant Games' Transistor, Abe's Oddysee: New 'n' Tasty from Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water, and Don't Starve from Mark of the Ninja studio Klei Entertainment were just some of the titles on display.
In contrast, criticism of Microsoft's curated approach to its marketplace has amplified in recent months, with several former partners saying they will never work with them again. Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning boldly said of Microsoft's indie policy, "There's one party that's making it very clear they're not interested."
The cacophony of naysayers drove Microsoft to rethink its position. Under the new directive, developers can set their own release dates and pricing, which should make the erratic nature of Xbox Live releases less problematic for creators who want to handle their own marketing.
Additionally, we have learned that Microsoft is drastically overhauling its certification process. The company will use a model similar to iTunes and is targeting a 14-day turnaround for an approvals. Instead of extensive code checking, the company will be looking for terms of service violations and significant bugs.
We've also been told, but cannot confirm, that every Xbox One unit can be converted to a debug console. Instead of specific hardware units, Microsoft can authorize a console ID to play pre-release code. This is in line with information we've received about a new process for beta tests. They will be run via hardware provisioning on Xbox One, with the process reportedly to be enabled for up to 25,000 users per test at launch. Given the ability to provision for beta testing, the ability to enable retail hardware for pre-release code seems feasible.
We've reached out to Microsoft for comment.
Additional reporting by Matt Bertz and Jeff Marchiafava.
Our TakeThese are big steps for Microsoft. This puts them back in the game with independent developers, which was still a major weakness. The debug kit feature won't have an impact for most gamers, but it saves Microsoft money and hassle putting them into the hands of those who need them.
The certification process change is significant, as it will make it easier for developers to get to market and start earning instead of waiting for word back on their builds. Finally, the beta test implications are another cost-saving measure, as this should help automate much of what goes into the management of applications and participants.
Short version: This is all very good for Microsoft and for independent developers.
Email the author Mike Futter, or follow on Google+, Twitter, and Game Informer.