Chris Charla would prefer not to call the games he works with "indie." As we talk, ahead of E3 and its cavalcade of reveals from the ID@Xbox program he's the director of, he consistently uses "independent" in full, wary of how the abbreviation has the potential to become a misleading catchall, if it's not already.
"I've worked quite consciously to not define what an 'indie' game is," he tells me. "If we tried to pigeonhole indie as a very specific way of making games, we'd lose the diversity that we have now. And our goal isn't to define this for players—our goal is just to get this awesome stuff out there."
Since ID@Xbox launched in 2014, the program—effectively allowing developers to self-publish their creations, using the Xbox and Windows networks as distribution platforms—has shipped over 500 titles. "We've paid hundreds of millions of dollars to developers, in revenue, from games they've done through ID@Xbox, and that makes me super happy," Chris says. "Developers, by and large, have been satisfied with their experiences. The results have exceeded our wildest expectations, dramatically."
"Control is, to me, what's most important about this whole independent scene."
A fan of punk rock in his younger days, Charla is in his element seeing small teams, and artists with singular ideas, finding success—and if he can help with that, all the better. And he's able to see at least one distinct parallel between what he does now, and the music he loved then.
"The one thing I see in the games we work with, that I used to see in punk rock, is that the creators have full creative control. There's nobody at ID telling anyone what game to make—you make the game you want to make, whether that's a shooter like Sniper Elite 4, or a cool, creature-farming social game like Ooblets. And you put that out.
"Control is, to me, what's most important about this whole scene. And that's what players respond to. Independent games offer a pretty pure vision of what their makers wanted, whatever the size of the team, and I think that's pretty amazing."
I ask about what's in store for ID@Xbox at the imminent E3 but, naturally, Charla is reticent about revealing too much. The much-anticipated Cuphead is still coming, and we'll likely see more of that terrific looking, retro-animated run-and-gunner in Los Angeles. (I played it last year and, oh boy, is it ever tougher than it looks.) He doesn't consider its long development—it was first announced at E3 2014—to be a black mark against ID@Xbox's record, telling me how tough it is to ship a game at the best of times, and how the program "works thoughtfully with each developer, to help them ship when they're ready." All he'll say on record is "there'll be a couple of games that should get people really excited," apologizing for the vagueness.
E3 2017 is a big year for Microsoft in the hardware department, with the company surely, surely, set to confirm a release date and price for its new "Project Scorpio" console—a supercharged Xbox that packs a GPU over four times more powerful than the original Xbox One. Under the ID@Xbox program, participating developers receive two Xbox One dev kits, for free. I'm curious whether small, independent teams have had the same access to Scorpio.
"I could predict, for you, how independent teams will use Scorpio, but I'd likely be wrong."
There's a pause. A long one. Enough for me to wonder if the line's gone dead. "I want to be thoughtful about what we say publicly," Charla eventually says. "Certainly, lots of ID developers have Scorpio kits, now, and a lot more will have them in the future. Making sure that developers have access to dev hardware is kind of a hallmark of the ID program. But I'll have to leave it at that. I can't go into more detail, simply because I'm not actually sure what I can say."
Charla is confident, though, that independent games makers will be able to explore a wealth of creative opportunities with the new hardware. "We've seen small teams turn out extremely polished products in the past few years," he says, "and those same teams are absolutely going to be able to take advantage of the Scorpio's power. But I'm interested to see, if a game's deliberately got a lower graphical fidelity, how that power's used in a different way."
"I could predict, for you, how independent teams will use Scorpio," he adds, "but I'd likely be wrong. But yes, a lot of developers on the ID program have Scorpio kits already, and I think we'll see some fantastic results."
Some of which might well be showcased, for this first time, at E3 (which Waypoint will most certainly be at—watch this space). Not that Charla's letting any cats, cups, or anything else out of the goodie bag, just yet.