Interview with Agostino Simonetta
Announced at Gamescom 2013, the ID@Xbox programme has proved a hit amongst independent developers and gamers alike, providing support for the creators self-publishing their games on Xbox One and Windows while broadening the horizon of games for those who play.
Released and upcoming ID titles include The Deer God, Lifeless Planet, Massive Chalice, Cuphead, The Solus Project and The Living Dungeon.
Agostino Simonetta is manager of ID@Xbox in Europe and at EGX this year we caught up with him for a rather conversational interview. Straight away his passion was apparent, excitedly reeling off games present on the show-floor and giving insights as to the developers: the pair who are an IT consultant and teacher by day, game developers by night; or the husband and wife team, both at EGX, the wife 5 weeks from giving birth.
It “shows the breadth of the programme,” says Simonetta. “ID@Xbox has its own identity and people really love that.”
Having worked at PlayStation for a number of years with independent developers, and now similarly with ID@Xbox, where does your passion for independent developers and games come from?
‘I started getting very interested in video games, sort of playing around as a hobbyist. I used to run a website with a couple of friends, very successful at the time, in the late ‘90s, and I think my first job was in ‘99 as a designer-slash-producer in an indie studio.The studio was Wayward Excess in Italy, we were working on Gianluca Vialli Football Manager – back in the days – and we were in a basement. We didn’t really have proper desks, we had those metal desks.’
XOUK: ‘A Steve Jobs sort of a thing?’
Agostino: ‘Yeah, you could say that. There were four or five of us in a basement and next to us we had a room with the wine – imagine an Italian villa. Yeah, that’s where we started from.’
XOUK: ‘How old were you?’
Agostino: ’23. With the website I was about 21, 22, and at the time was called the Black Heart of Voodoo. [shakes hand] It was many years ago. Then I went into development and for a few years I was a producer running a development team. I was at Climax Brighton, I worked on FIFA 2002, 2003 as a producer, and then I joined Sega and was running Sega Mobile Network working on Java games. From that moment onwards I’ve never stopped working with independent developers. So yeah a large chunk of my career, probably from 2005/2006, has been working with independent studios on all sorts of crazy platforms.
That’s my passion.
I’m no longer a developer but when you look at ID: myself and Chris Charla (director of ID@Xbox) have a shared background. Chris was a very successful journalist – compared to me [smiles] – and he was at Foundation 9, so he’s come from development and I think he has an understanding on those guys and a passion. We’re no longer doing it though probably both myself and Chris would love to write our — actually I’m still writing my own game with my daughter at the moment. So, yeah, that’s the passion we come from. We’ve done it, and sometimes we miss it.’
What is it about a game that gets you most excited?
‘What I love is seeing new ideas all the time, and seeing how titles – not always indies, not just independents – but I love when developers tackle a new mechanic, a new idea and try to take a fresh approach. Video games a lot of the time are revolutions: sometimes you have that sharp (motions a curve) to the next level. Sometimes it could be a Minecraft or a Goat Simulator, those jumps and it’s like, “Oh, we didn’t expect that,” and that’s thrilling. At the moment the very exciting thing for us is that the market changes so fast.
I know someone who was tweeting about it a couple of days ago, he was saying, “If I tell you how I’ve done it, it’s too late,” and that’s why it’s exciting, trying to see what’s going to be next. And everybody’s asking, “What do you like? And what’s cool? What’s happening?” It’s like, I wish I knew. So that’s exciting too, it keeps moving and the independent space probably moves at a slightly faster pace than other areas of the industry.’
Do you play a lot of games in your down time or do you prefer to do other things?
‘Yeah, I play a lot. I’m a family man, at the moment my daughters go to bed and my wife goes to bed about 10 – I normally do a couple of hours every night, try to do a couple of hours every night. I play all the ID games that come through, sometimes I can’t play them to completion but I want to play them all. So I play a lot.’
XOUK: ‘Even we struggle to get through a lot of the games.’
AGO: ‘And that’s one of the great things about the industry at the moment, because it’s not just about the open-world game that requires 150 hours to complete it, you can actually have one evening where you’re sitting down and you play for three hours and you can complete a game.’
XOUK: ‘That’s one of the best things about independent games: some games last 7-8 hours and the price tag on them is perfect for that game.’
AGO: ‘I think in general it’s a balance between price and experience and if it’s a refreshing idea. You can decide, “Okay, I want to dedicate 60 hours for the next couple of weeks in The Witcher 3 or Dragon Age or whatever,” – we have Fallout coming, Halo 5 – the bigger games and you can get completely immersed, or you can have a break. And I do that sometimes. Sometimes I play bigger games and then I take a couple of days break, where I play a couple of indie titles or a couple of smaller titles from the bigger guys, and so I know I can complete this game over the next couple of nights. It’s a balance.’
XOUK: ‘We were talking about that yesterday actually. When we were over at the Xbox stand we were playing Cuphead, and we were like, “You know what, this game is hard, it’s awesome, and you get more fun out of these little games.” You can get snippets of fun more than maybe you can out of AAA sometimes. And it’s rewarding that way.’
AGO: ‘There are a lot of new ideas and there’s the space for a lot of different ideas. Triple-A is very, very important, and all games are important for the ecosystem because you have people that want different things at different times.
In October I’m going to travel a lot, not going to be at home much, so I will try to avoid getting into a big, immersive, 100-hours game because, you know, you stop playing for a week and then… I’m probably going to play more smaller games, and now we have this opportunity to do so. Digital distribution and programmes like ID open up channels for those kind of games, plus you’re seeing new ideas coming from the bigger guys.’
XOUK: ‘Do you think it’s pushed them?’
AGO: ‘I think it’s just revolution of digital distribution and the platform evolving. We’re seeing a sort of range from black to white and all the shades in between.’
What’s your stance on what you feel are the main differences between ID@Xbox and the Xbox Live Arcade as was. What’s been learnt out of it?
‘To be honest I wasn’t there, I’m not the best person to ask about that. The great thing that ID has done, one of the pillars of ID: removing the barriers. That’s a very important one. Free dev kits, too: more than 1000 developers today have dev kits in their living room, in their basement, in their office. Also when ID was launched the fact that Microsoft were offering Unity [game engine] for free, and working on the processing and trying to remove the barriers. Plus, all the games are games are games: ID or non-ID it’s a single market and the games are treated all the same. The ever-increasing and continued support we’ve shown over the last couple of years, too. I think those are things which make ID shine as a programme. Xbox Game Preview, which we announced at E3, shows how the programme is also evolving.
Because there’s no point if two years ago we had great ideas and we then stop; there is commitment to always keep evolving.
We like it when people reach out to us and say, “You know what, that thing you’re doing, could you change it?” It’s important that people feel they can tell us when we’re doing a great job, but at the same time if there’s something that we should be changing we try to change it if we can, as soon as we can. There is openness.’
XOUK: ‘Talking about consoles, I think that’s the difference between Xbox and PlayStation: Xbox has a lot more of a community feel, personally I think there’s more change, more feedback, more features you want and things like that.’
AGO: ‘Xbox is really community driven. Just look at the way we update the Xbox firmware and the features of the platform, we went for the monthly updates. Very, very community driven. Community is greatly important to us and I think we have shown strongly how we listen, and we try to respond.’
How does the ID@Xbox team work? How do they operate and what sort of support do they provide to the developers?
‘When you get into the ID@Xbox programme you get all the support of the team, be it here or Redmond or our Asian team, which ranges from tactical support for your technical questions, technical needs. We have people that work with you explaining, for example, how to populate environments; and we have tonnes of documentation for developers to read and go through and learn about processes.
One thing – to go back to myself and what we mentioned earlier – one thing I’ve been doing this year a lot is to travel, as much as I can, to actually meet people face-to-face. That’s one of the crucial things when you’re a platform and you’re running a programme like ID: we want to meet the developer, as many developers as we can face-to-face. It’s very important that people can exchange ideas with you. I think that’s one of the key things we are doing: we are extremely engaged, myself, Chris, the rest of the ID team – we are at PAX, at our pre-PAX events, we’ve got EGX, E3, Gamescom. Being always available and always contactable, that’s what the developers really appreciate. The fact that somebody tweets me, or tweets Chris, or tweets Phil, there is going to be a response – someone from the team will reach out to answer a question. Or if we are around, if we are available, we’re always there.
And people are say, “Oh, thank you so much,” and we’re like, “Well, no, actually, it’s the other way”. We are here because we really appreciate the way you guys are working with us.’
XOUK: ‘It’s good to give feedback.’
AGO: ‘You can’t say, “We are a platform and you guys are coming to us.” No, it’s a partnership. We are not able to visit all the offices of all the hundreds of studios we have in Europe but we try to go to events, we organise our own get-togethers – we’ve done that in Berlin, in Moscow, where we had 180 people coming to these Microsoft and Xbox events. You try to do it that way because with over 1000 developers having dev kits…’
XOUK: ‘It’s impossible.’
AGO: ‘Yeah, it’s impossible to visit 1000 studios; it would take me and Chris a year and a half everyday probably to finish it, and the rest of the Xbox team. So it’s trying to find the best way to maximise our contacts and the exchange of ideas.’
XOUK: ‘Events such as EGX must be hugely beneficial, then?’
AGO: ‘They are brilliant. I came here on Wednesday and had meetings with developers, same with yesterday and today. And after we’re done here I’m going to go and play all the games I’ve not yet played.
I’m going to be in Milan soon and possibly Paris, and those events are fantastic because the industry gets together around them and it’s a good opportunity.’
What do you think have been the biggest challenges for ID@Xbox and how have you overcome them?
AGO: ‘It’s the changing market. I think ID was set up on the right foot, and I think the challenge that we always bear in mind is not to stop. Sometimes there’ll be an internal challenge or a mindset challenge, but never stop. Never be complacent, keep trying to improve, because the market keeps evolving and if you don’t evolve with the market…
So far I think we’ve done a good job, we are happy but not yet satisfied and we’ll never be.
It’s just that: keep engaging, keep evolving, keep listening to the developers and the customers, the players, the press, and what people think about the programme and what we should be doing to improve.
I think that’s an internal challenge – never stop, never settle.’
XOUK: ‘We can appreciate that, it’s all about evolution and always taking a next step towards something else.’
AGO: ‘Yeah, you need to keep evolving, and digital has accelerated evolution of all the markets, not just video games, and you just need to keep up with that.’
What do you think is driving the increasing appeal of independent games particularly as a market? We’ve touched on digital…
‘People are creative. They want to express their ideas. Games are more and more and more popular and now, I guess the stars align: digital distribution, platform policies or platform openness, the development environments, Unity, Unreal, GameMaker – name another 100 different tools – all those components coming together actually enable people to express their ideas without having a huge team of engineers.
When you look at tools like GameMaker, Unity, you don’t really need to be an engineer. If you’re an artist or games designer you can just do something like that, and when you look at what’s happened with YouTube, in the video space and in other markets, people are creative and they want to create their idea. Now digital distribution has opened a channel for those ideas to reach a wide market.
So more people can do it, more people can access those ideas. It’s just human beings doing what human beings do, right?’
How do you think the console market in particular has helped that? Openness?
‘Yeah, the openness of the platforms. Bringing new ideas to the platform and players responding very, very well to this openness. It’s a perfect combination of things coming together and it keeps fostering innovation, and more people’s innovation – they want to be involved with it.
My 6 and a half years old girl wants to do a game about her chasing a cat in a labyrinth. When I was 8 years old, it was me and a friend who was 7 – he was a genius. We were programming our own games on the Commodore 64, copying the code from magazines and stuff like that; then you tweak that yourselves. We had to read the books but now for my daughter there are all sorts of tools, like Scratch from MIT, and children can very easily learn to do these things.
Looks what’s happening in education in the UK – and not just in the UK – where it’s like a new market. Now people such as my daughter and her friends, they see each other and say, “Oh, what are you doing?”, “I’m doing a game with my Dad,” and her friend, “Oh, I want to do that.”’
XOUK: ‘It’s amazing that you can do that at such a young age.’
AGO: Yeah, and at that young age it sort of becomes part of their language. They draw on paper, they do their drawings, and now, “Oh, actually I’m doing a game”, and it’s just another thing that they do.
How frequently do people apply into the programme?
‘It’s a lot of applications and that’s a question that comes up a lot. Sometime we reach out to people, sometimes people reach out to us. Quite a lot of the time it’s word of mouth, people say, “Look, we’re working with Xbox, ID@Xbox, Windows, the guys are cool, why don’t you talk to them?”
It’s a constant thing. The programme keeps increasing in size and we’re trying to support and get on-board as many developers as we can, as fast as we can.’
Do you find that a lot of those applying are first-time developers or more experienced developers from bigger titles?
‘We have all sorts. ID is two years old so a lot of the old timers, they arrived slightly earlier, but when you look at the titles we have on the show floor you have students doing their first game, and then you have old timers that leave studios such as Rare and they set up their own studios; they know how it works.
That’s the great thing: you get all sorts of people and people from all sorts of backgrounds. Yesterday I met some people that have come from a movie background — they’ve never done a game but now they’re making one. It’s all sorts of things, all sorts of people.’
How is DirectX12 going to change things? Do you feel it’s going to have a big impact on indie?
‘I’m not the most technical of people but yes, DirectX is changing the way you can do games. When we showed DirectX12 for the first time on stage in January we wanted to really highlight the difference between DirectX and DirectX12 on existing hardware. It’s a new approach to how you develop games – it will have an impact.’
Regarding new tech like HoloLens and Oculus Rift, are we going to see these new ideas moved onto those?
‘Well, HoloLens is very exciting, we’re very excited. The response we got on it has been fantastic–‘
XOUK: ‘Such as the Minecraft demo?’
AGO: ‘Minecraft, the Halo 5 experience at E3. But we’ve been saying that it’s early days, so you’ll have to be patient.’
XOUK: ‘Actually I posted a tweet last night about virtual reality Blood and Beyond and someone replied saying, “Is that the Xbox One on the Oculus Rift?”, and the ID@Xbox account replied saying, “Not yet”.’
AGO: ‘[laughs] That’ll have probably been Chris.’
XOUK: ‘They do have it set up in there running on PC with the Oculus.’
AGO: ‘At E3 we talked about our partnership with Oculus and just before E3 we talked about our partnership with Valve, in terms of showing we’re the best platform for a virtual reality experience. But since Phil spoke about it at E3 there are no new updates.’
It’s kind of divining, really, but how do you think plans will shape out in the future?
‘I wish I knew.’
XOUK: ‘Exactly, exactly, don’t we all.’
AGO: ‘At the moment a lot of our focus has obviously been on the expansion of ID from just being an Xbox programme to being an Xbox and Windows 10 programme, and we’re going to be seeing more and more titles coming. We announced quite a few at Gamescom, titles that’re coming to both the platforms, taking advantage of Xbox Live on Windows 10.’
XOUK: ‘It’s perfect, really, because for some games you don’t need a custom built PC with a massive graphics card, it’s ideal if people want to have a go.’
AGO: ‘It’s great, and the universal Windows platform is a great opportunity for developers to actually have a sort of source base, and then they can take advantage of Xbox Live in their game. They can decide to deploy that game across a range of all the ecosystems.
With the Windows 10 ecosystem being a universal Windows platform you will be able to reach Xbox, PC, mobile, HoloLens; and again, the developer will decide which platform is right for their product. Your product might just be a mobile game and so the Windows platform will allow you to deploy with Xbox Live on just mobile, but some games might make sense to have across the board and the universal Windows platform will allow you to do that.
It’s an incredibly important piece of what we are doing at Microsoft at the moment: releasing one operating system across the board and one development platform across the board which allows the developers to target all those different platforms easily.
Eventually you’re going to be able to use a retail unit to side-load your game and test it. You’ll be able to develop your universal Windows platform game, side-load it to a retail Xbox unit, test it, then launch it as a universal Windows platform game.’
What do you think the dream looks like for not just ID@Xbox but the market for independent development as a whole? Are we getting nearer to the dream, your kind of dream, of what the space looks like for that?
‘I think there are some of the pieces in place. I look through my career – it’s been a few years since it’s started – and there’s never been a better time to be an independent developer, on ID@Xbox or in general. There’s never been a better time to bring your product, your vision, your ideas to market. And it will keep evolving.
Maybe in five years time we’re going to be here saying, “Oh, five years ago, yeah, it was easy”, but who knows. It’s very hard. I think the evolution, the speed of evolution of technology in general…
People are now recognising this new movement is real, it’s happening and should be supported because it’s creating jobs, it’s creating experiences, and that’s very, very important as well. All the pieces are coming in place and who knows, in five years time we’re going to sit down here again and review it, how it went.’
XOUK: ‘We’ll ask the same question: whether the dream is any closer.’
AGO: ‘Yeah, put them in your OneNote and in five years time, if I’m still going to be there we can do the same questions and see how it goes.’
XOUK: ‘See how it’s change.’
AGO: ‘Yeah, that’s actually a great idea.’
Agosting Simonetta, many thanks!
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