‘Microsoft changed my life’
How an indie developer went from rock bottom to making hit games
“Microsoft changed my life. That’s a simple fact. Without the support they have given me I wouldn’t be here.”
James Stone has always wanted to make video games, but it wasn’t until he met the European head of [email protected] at a conference – and refused to let him leave the room unless they talked – that his dream became a reality.
It’s a journey that’s taken him across the world and cost him almost everything but seen him praised by his heroes and feted at some of the world’s biggest gaming events.
“It’s been a whirlwind tour. How the hell did I get here?” Stone says, as we chat over a socially-distanced coffee in Brighton train station. He’s taking a break from making his latest game – Xenosis: Alien Infection.
The 42-year-old is part of [email protected], Microsoft’s programme for helping independent game developers. It allows Stone to self-publish digital games on Xbox One and Windows 10 with Xbox Live, or add Xbox Live to iOS or Android games, giving him the tools and support he needs to create games he is passionate and excited about.
Xbox’s help has been critical as Stone prepares to release the top-down, science fiction, shoot-em-up Xenosis. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy – in 2016 he quit a lucrative job in IT, sold everything he owned and moved to a little flat in Suzhou, China, with his wife. Neither spoke the local language, and Stone retreated into his own bubble.
“I was working on the game and suddenly realised I had made a really big mistake. I had to do all the art, music, sound effects, everything. I had taken on way too much, the scope of the game was too big,” he says, before pausing. “Everything was just too big at that time. I focused too much on my games.”
Stone was new to making games, and had not factored the sheer amount of work and costs involved, which led to him running out of money. As he was unable to work in China due to his visa, he racked up debt in order to keep working on the title.
After his marriage broke down in 2018, Stone returned to the UK alone, carrying two suitcases and a laptop. He had nowhere to live, no money and was feeling “pretty low”. “I stayed in my dad’s spare bedroom and tried to figure out what I was going to do. I was trying to find work but I didn’t want to work in the IT industry anymore. I don’t want to make other people’s games, I want to make my games.”
It had been two years since the Develop Conference in Brighton, where, by chance, Stone had caught part of a panel discussion that included Agostino Simonetta, who oversees the [email protected] programme in Europe.
Blown away by what [email protected] could offer, Stone knew he had to speak to Simonetta.
“I’ve always dreamed of getting my game on a console,” he says. “So I decided that I wouldn’t let him [Simonetta] leave the room. I approached him after his talk, shook his hand and said ‘I’ve got two great games I really want to show you’. Luckily, he agreed to meet for coffee a month later and look at them.”
Those games were early versions of Jump Gunners – a multiplayer, side-scrolling combat game he had developed by asking his friends to play it without telling them what it was – and Xenosis. Simonetta loved them, and sponsored Stone to enter the [email protected] programme, giving him access to developer kits.
Stone added: “Ago saw those prototypes, which were at a very early stage, and just really believed in them. Microsoft believed in them… and in me.”
Simonetta said: “James is passionate about gaming, which is why he was a perfect fit for [email protected] The programme was created for people like him, who want to create something that the world can enjoy.
“Jump Gunners and Xenosis have been showcased at major gaming events and the feedback has been incredible. We saw people queuing to play those titles, and they loved the storylines, the graphics and the gameplay. Gamers really connect with what James has made.
“I believe the future is bright for James. [email protected] gives him the tools to self-publish his games on multiple platforms, offering him the freedom to make the games he wants to make.
“I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
Their meeting set in motion a chain of events that saw Jump Gunners showcased at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) – the largest professional industry event of its kind in the world – in 2017, and launch on Xbox One.
Last year was a busy one for Stone, with Xenosis being shown at GDC 2019, EGX Rezzed and EGX 2019, and the game being chosen to receive a grant from the UK Games Fund.
It was these events that raised the profile of Stone’s game and “put me and my studio on the map”. It led to interest from publishers and a “dream job” at Unity Technologies, where he works as a Developer Relations Manager for EMEA.
It all started with [email protected]
Games that are published via [email protected] can also be included in Xbox Game Pass – a library of more than 100 high-quality games that gamers can access for a monthly price.
“The [email protected] platform allows you to self-publish on the Xbox store and the Windows Store,” Stone says. “I like the fact those stores are curated, so it’s a good tick in the box for the quality of your game and a big tick in the industry. It gave me credibility, and made a big difference, suddenly people were interested in me, saying things like ‘Oh, you’re published with Xbox!’. I suddenly had credibility, media were more interested in talking to me, publishers wanted to meet me. Then GDC happened, and putting me on the same platform as established brands is powerful stuff. You can’t pay for that kind of level of support and exposure.
“Microsoft gave me that entry into the industry, which is why I’ll always be loyal to them. I also believe in ‘paying it forward’, so I’m trying to help other developers come through.”
The [email protected] investment created a “snowball effect” for Stone. The interest in his games that naturally came along with being featured at events resulted in four people approaching him with offers to help develop Xenosis. Stone, based in Brighton, now works with a writer in New Zealand, a composer in the US and artists in Russia and Portugal.
“Everybody’s doing this in their spare time, as a passion project,” he says. “I have worked on Xenosis for two years on my own. I’m really proud of where I got to… well, it was good enough for people to take an interest in it. Now there is a team of five working on the game, the quality is through the roof.”
While Stone was delighted (and a little relieved) at the positive response to Jump Gunners, he saw Xenosis as his priority and is keen for it to perform even better.
The game is inspired by classic shooter Alien Breed, and tells the story of a deep space salvage hunter who discovers the remains of the Starship Carpathian, thought to have been destroyed 50 years earlier. The data core located in the ship’s artificial intelligence is worth a lot of money on the Black Market, so you dock with the ship to retrieve it. However, you quickly realise that you’re not alone on the Carpathian…
Interestingly, one of the designers of Alien Breed played Xenosis at an event and loved it, as did several of Stone’s gaming heroes who had worked on famous titles such as X-COM and System Shock.
“It’s just crazy. It’s just me, this bloke who… I don’t feel like I’m anything special,” Stone says with a look of amazement on his face. “I feel like I’ve got some good ideas and I’m a relatively competent programmer, but all this?!”
“I try to not think about it, because if I do it becomes too much for me to think about. It’s too big, it’s too heavy. I want to make games for fun, it’s my passion. If it all goes well and I make some money at the end of it, that’s fantastic, but I’m trying not to think about one of the publishers who’s really interested in my game, they are a big name. That’s scary in so many ways.”
Stone should be used to fear by now. He has always jumped at opportunities that take him outside his comfort zone, whether it’s learning to code, making his first video game – a free mobile game called Crazy Cars, which was downloaded 50,000 times – or travelling to Africa to photograph remote tribes. That project earned him awards and a nomination for National Geographic photographer of the year.
“I learned a long time ago not to be fearful. My mother [half of the chart-topping duo R and J Stone] died when I was very young, and my dad used music as a way to heal. In 2010 – I was 30 – he was doing a gig, and there was a guy there who said the music had touched his soul. He worked with tribes in Africa and said music was a way for them to pass on their traditions. So I took my cameras and we lived in remote parts of Africa for a month.
“I won a bunch of international awards with my photography, and I subsequently went on to become a National Geographic photographer of the year finalist four times in a row with my work in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. It all came from pushing myself outside my comfort zone; don’t be afraid to try something new. I never am!”
Stone will be trying more new and exciting things when Xenosis is released. He already has ideas for his next two games, but can he talk about them?
“Nope. The next one is such a great concept. All will be revealed after we’ve finished Xenosis,” he says with a grin.