Pete Isensee of Dream.Build.Play
When Microsoft announced Dream.Build.Play in 2008, with the launch of their then called Xbox Live Community Games, garage developers sprang at the chance of easily developing potentially award-winning games for the Xbox 360. Games like The Dishwasher, Carnival Showtime, Lumi, Shoot 1UP, and other Dream.Build.Play winners have gained popularity on Xbox Live's Indie Games Channel. Some of them have even been ported to other devices, such as iPhone and iPad, PCs, and more, making the role of the XNA development suite even more important to broader gaming. With registration for Dream.Build.Play 2011 concluded and independent developers entrenched in development for this summer's voting, I had a chance to chat with Pete Isenee from Microsoft's Advanced Technology Group for Xbox. Enthusiastic about the upcoming field of competitors, we chatted about the state of Dream.Build.Play, indie games, and more.
GameZone: Hi, Pete. It’s great to talk with you. Fill us in on your role at Microsoft.
Pete Isensee: Principle Program Manager in Xbox Advanced Technology Group. My role in that group is to be the connection point between Microsoft and game developers of all sizes, from indie developers all the way to professionals, and I manage many of the developer programs we have here.
GZ: I’m here to talk to you about Dream.Build.Play, which showcases the success of select Xbox Lie Indie Games. For example, we’ve got The Dishwasher, which was the first winner of Dream.Build.Play, which went on to be a true Xbox Live Arcade title with a sequel coming out later this year (with online co-op and 3D-support). Other winners have gone on to be fairly successful in the Xbox Live Indie Channel, so would you please describe Dream.Build.Play for us?
PI: Dream.Build.Plays is an annual contest sponsored by Microsoft, designed so developers can really showcase their creativity and innovation and bring their content to Xbox.
GZ: I know that one of the new additions to Dream.Build.Play is Windows Phone 7, which is starting to take hold in the mobile sphere. How does Dream.Build.Play fit there?
PI: This year we decided because many of the indies have known that Dream.Build.Play [for Windows Phone 7] was pretty likely to be announced. They’ve been pretty focused on Xbox, and we decided this year to keep Dream.Build.Play on Xbox. We are looking forward in the future, as developers have told us they would love to see Dream.Build.Play on the phone. Looking forward, we’ll certainly do something like that in the future.
GZ: How are winners chosen?
PI: We look for three things for the contest. We are looking for fun and innovation. We’re looking for great production values, and we’re looking for innovative, creative, and unusual things that really make those things pop.
GZ: One of the criticisms levied against the indie games are they are not regulated much and that the level of quality isn’t there—that for every diamond title, there are 150 terrible games and calculator apps and HDTV set-up guides. It’s the “Wild West” of Xbox Live, which is so odd considering Xbox Live is very controlled by Microsoft. Can you comment on that?
PI: I was having a great conversation with Steve Hunt, whose game is Beat Hazard, and he actually believed it is a strength of the Indie Channel—that there is such a wide variety, such an amazing collection of creative games. So he felt it was a strength.
GZ: Talking about Beat Hazard, a very well regarded indie title, as well as the well-respected Lumi ... and I’ve talked to Nathan Fouts of Mommy’s Best Games [Shoot 1UP], who made some really well-received indie games ... where do you see the future of this service going?
PI: So the future, I think, is very bright for indie games. The gaming community says they love the expanding platforms, and that it’s not just Windows and Xbox, but it’s including Windows phone, so the opportunities are growing certainly as the console grows. And with the addition of Kinect, there are new market opportunities for these indie developers, so there is a bright future.
GZ: XNA is a pretty powerful platform. Microsoft has done a pretty good job of making XNA on Windows Phone 7 pretty much the same as XNA on the Xbox 360, and that’s why we’ve seen a lot of indie games ported over between the two. Can you describe how XNA has evolved since it first launched in 2006?
PI: The beauty of XNA is that it really was designed for this kind of thing, to be cross-platform development system that is really easy to develop games on. With the introduction of Windows Phone 7, the XNA framework, because it was designed to easily work between platforms, it just kind of happened naturally.
GZ: To return to the Dishwasher, why hasn’t Microsoft allowed other games, like CarneyVale Showtime and other indie games, to become full-featured Arcade titles?
PI: Certainly there have been some titles that have gotten publishing contracts for Xbox Live Arcade. We manage that portfolio very closely, so there will definitely be opportunities in the future.
GZ: Is there anything we should look out for in the coming year, and are there any titles you recommend personally?
PI: I won’t recommend any personally, but I will say we are so thrilled to have this creative content coming to Xbox Live, and developers continually say to us what a great opportunity they have to see their vision come to life on a console, and on a Windows phone, and on Windows. There are great opportunities all around.
GZ: Late last year, when the new Xbox Live interface launched, there was an organization problem where it was much harder to find the Indie Games Channel, and the community very quickly communicated their outrage. Surprisingly, Microsoft, considering the size of the company, made a quick change. They changed the layout of the Marketplace to specifically impact indie games. Can you comment on that?
PI: The community is so strong and inspiring. It’s great to see them come together and give us feedback like that, and for us to respond. I think another great example is the Winter Uprising this year, where the community said, "Oh, we really want to promote these great titles," and we picked that up and we ran with it.
GZ: It seems that due to the freedom—for no other platform is given a segment of a OS to do whatever they want—developers can by and large do their own thing. So if some developers say, "Hey, we’re five friends with five games, we’d like to work something out,” and if it’s awesome and if the games are great, will Microsoft do that in the future?
PI: Yes, absolutely.
GZ: Well, is there anything else you’d like to say with Dream.Build.Play, XNA and Indie Games?
PI: I think if there is one thing you take away from the conversation it's that developers love the opportunities that they have on Xbox, on Windows, on Windows Phone, and the tools that we provide allow them to bring those experiences to life.
GZ: I know that Beat Hazard, when it came out and a lot of people started to discover it, became a full-featured title on Steam. What’s it like for you to see some of these games go full-featured? I know that many of these have been ported to iOS. It’s got to be exciting for you guys to take their ideas and run with them.
PI: We just love seeing those indies be successful. My conversation with Steve Hunt, the creator of Beat Hazard, was just really inspiring.
GZ: When I first saw Indie Games, I felt like it was a cool opportunity for developers to try out ideas without applying it to really expensive titles. Even arcade titles can be very expensive for developers, with costs running up into millions of dollars. We could see a future where bigger studios would say, "Hey, this is practically a tech demo, there’s not too much going on with it, but it’s got a really cool idea, and for 80 Microsoft points we’re going to throw this out on the indie games channel.” Do you think developers might use Indie Games as a springboard for bigger and better things?
PI: Yeah, we see a lot of folks in the professional space using XNA studio for prototyping, and it would be great to see some of those throwaway prototypes with some really great gameplay pop up on the Indie Games channel.