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Close encounters with console indie execs, part 2: ID@Xbox's Chris Charla
Close encounters with console indie execs, part 2: ID@Xbox's Chris Charla
April 24, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield

April 24, 2014 | By Brandon Sheffield
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What are the tastes, backgrounds and experience of some of the biggest decision-makers at major console companies? Developer and senior contributor Brandon Sheffield talks to ID@Xbox's Chris Charla. Read the interview with PlayStation's Adam Boyes here.

I've known Chris Charla for many years. I met him initially as head of business development for the now defunct game studio Digital Eclipse. We met when Meggan Scavio, director of the Game Developers Conference, invited us to lunch because she thought we'd get along. She was right.

Turns out we both lived in and loved Oakland, liked old games, and had a penchant for dad jokes. When discussing fashion once, Charla told me "the way I figure it, bald and fat never goes out of style." For years I've known him for his awesome zines, which often get me through boring conferences with their weird humor and lo-fi production values, and his love of East Bay, CA diner food and punk rock bands.

Nowadays, he's got his talons firmly embedded in ID@Xbox, an initiative he largely spearheads, and certainly champions. He has big hopes for the platform, and my fingers are crossed as well, though I may not yet be an approved developer (ahem). And no matter how corporate Microsoft may often be, Charla is still Charla. He did a zine about his favorite indie games at PAX East, for example, crowing about the new ID@Xbox games he was looking forward to. It wasn't Microsoft sponsored, and he only made a few. He did it for the love of the craft, and because he's legitimately excited about what he's doing.

Who is this punk rock loving man, and where does he like to drink his diner coffee? Let's dig deeper.

Okay, the usual background check. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit Michigan, but my family were transplants from the hills of Tennessee and the boroughs of New York, so I had a really pleasantly disjointed childhood bouncing around between suburbia, Appalachia, and Rockaway Beach. But, it’s worth noting that my first baseball card was Rollie Fingers from the Oakland A’s, which I made a frame for and gave to my dad when I was like six, so that may have been prophetic…

Tell me about all the companies you've worked for!

I started at Next Generation, which was a very cool magazine. The easy way to think of it is as the U.S. version of Edge, which is because it was the U.S. version of Edge. It was a great education, and I was the features editor there for a while before heading across the hall to be the launch editor of IGN.com. Then I came back to be the editor-in-chief of Next Gen for a while, as well as some other mags, before I joined a tiny developer called Digital Eclipse as production manager.


"I got to do things like debug assembly on a white board – stepping through the code and updating the 'registers' step by step to try and solve a bug in Klax."
My first game there was a Game Boy Color port of Klax, which was a really fun experience. Not only did we pack the cart full of secrets (including Mike Mika hiding his proposal to his wife inside) but I got to do things like debug assembly on a white board – stepping through the code and updating the “registers” step by step to try and solve a bug in Klax. I think we wrote the story up for a “greatest bugs” article in Game Developer magazine once, so I won’t repeat it, but it turns out there’s a bug in the way Klax scores in the arcade that’s is incredibly interesting and weird.

Digital Eclipse, which went on to become Backbone and then Foundation 9, was an awesome education in really making games, especially because we did a lot of games on short time frames – my second game there that I was producer on was three months from pitch to final, so it was like an accelerated education. I was there for 10 years doing everything from level design to production to IP development to business stuff, and helping the company grow from 20 to 1,000 before I ended up as VP of business development.

After that, I joined Microsoft three years ago, where I was the portfolio director for XBLA at Microsoft Studios, which was really a dream job, getting to work with XBLA games and developers. Then last summer, I made the jump to be the director of ID@Xbox, which is Microsoft’s digital self-publishing program for Xbox One, which is what I’m doing right now!

What games did you most enjoy as a youngster?

The first game I ever played was actually an old Pong, or a Pong clone, at the Eastern Market in Detroit when I was too little to even really know how it worked. But the first time I ever successfully played a game was Zork at a family friend’s house. All the older kids were playing, and they were stuck in the Loud Room and I was like “say ‘echo!’” and pretty much after that it was all over – my life direction was set.

As a kid I played everything – I loved DataSoft’s Conan on the Apple II – but I was super into Infocom games. The feeling of exploration and the satisfaction in problem solving in those games is almost unmatched. That’s all I ever wanted for Christmas or my birthday, and I just assumed I’d grow up and work there some day. I was the irritating kid who would call Infocom and try and get Dave Lebling or another Implementer on the phone, or made my parents take a detour to Cambridge on a trip to Maine so I could visit the Infocom office.


"The only time I ever used my editorial fiat to jam things in Top 100 lists while I was at Next Generation magazine was when I made sure ALL the good Infocom games made it on the list, not just Zork."
The Infocom guys are actually the only people in the game industry I can’t really talk to or be friends with; I’ve never gotten over my fanboy relationship. I still make crappy text adventure games all the time in my spare time too, and if I see Steve Meretzky at GDC, I basically have to be liquored up to not immediately start talking about really obscure parts of Planetfall or A Mind Forever Voyaging. By the way, AMFV and Lurking Horror (by Dave Lebling) are still two of the best games ever. I was super excited to see the Zork post-mortem at GDC this year!

The only time I ever used my editorial fiat to jam things in Top 100 lists while I was at Next Generation magazine was when I made sure ALL the good Infocom games made it on the list, not just Zork. In the arcades I loved Gauntlet and Xevious, and on NES I was somehow a huge fan of Wrecking Crew, which my friend had. Then later I was pretty much a Genesis fanboy, with games like Sonic, Burning Force, Crackdown (the Sages Creation one, not the Microsoft one) and Shadowrun. Phantasy Star II… Anyway my roommates had a SNES too, but other than Super Metroid and the other Shadowrun, I really was more of a Genesis guy for whatever reason.

What games have you most enjoyed in the last year, and why?

When did Fez come out? Fez for me is one of the best games of its generation. To me it perfectly recaptured this feeling of exploration and secrets that I used to get from Infocom games. That game had real secrets in it, and my experience of playing it day one, with no hints available and not even a real nomenclature for how you’d even ask for hints, was just really special. I can get frustrated really easily with games – if a game irritates me, I just stop playing, even if I just dropped $60 on it. But Fez, I once spent like 45 minutes in one room just trying to figure something out that was INCREDIBLY frustrating and obscure because… I don’t know. I just loved it. I know Phil Fish is a controversial guy, but that game, on its own merits, to me is just a masterwork.

I’m currently trying to outdo Meggan Scavio at hours ground into Animal Crossing, pretty much to the point where I may have a problem. I’ve been working a lot lately which is cool, and sometimes I will seriously start ACNL at my desk, then in the game buy a coffee from Brewster and sit on the bench and drink it to relax. Which is really pathetic I know, but there you go!

I also really enjoyed FTL because I love the desperate situations you get in, and I’ve played a ton of Below because I really love that game, and I know that’s not out yet and so that’s sort of a cheating answer, but holy cow, if you want to talk about secrets and a feeling of exploration, and desperation, it delivers. I remember getting to this thing I’d never seen before, which was across a bridge, but I’m bleeding out and just yelling at the screen “PLEASE!!!” hoping I just could get to this door before I died. But I died...It was such a great gaming moment though! PR is probably going to make me take that part out, I guess. [Note: They didn't! Good job.]

I’m sure there are a ton of games I’m forgetting like Forza Horizon.

What's your favorite city in the world? Loaded question.

Oakland, Calfornia. And generally the whole East Bay area. For whatever reason, it’s just an amazing percolator for culture, for games, for music. There are just so many scenes bubbling up there all the time. It’s also really sunny, and has lots of hidden weird parks and history. Like, the rainbow trout that are stocked all over the world, they came from a stream in Oakland.

One time my car broke down in Oakland and while I was wandering around waiting for AAA and I found the ruins of the old Police Athletic League trout ponds, which was super cool, and that turned into a hike into a ravine filled with old-growth redwoods where I found crazy stuff like an old pickup truck half way down the ravine with a tree growing through it, and one of the best hidden graffiti walls I’ve ever seen.


"How many East Bay kids does it take to change a light bulb? Hella."
Stuff like that is hidden around the corner in every part of Oakland. I was wandering through my neighborhood early one morning and I found a lady selling pupusas that she was making in her backyard, running this little unlicensed restaurant. And like, best pupusas ever. Stuff like that is everywhere in Oakland. It has an amazing baseball team and great food. I don’t know, Oakland is just a fantastic, interesting place, with a lot of history for a West Coast city.

Um… here are two very East Bay jokes if you’re ever there and need to fit in: 1) Do you know what the best part of San Francisco is? You can see the East Bay from there! 2) How many East Bay kids does it take to change a light bulb? Hella.

Accurate jokes. What music have you been listening to lately?

Lately I’ve been listening to The Epoxies, a Portland band that broke up a few years ago and did this amazing new-wave style punk music. Also Tacocat, a local Seattle pop punk band. And I’ve been exploring a lot of old early punk and proto punk like the Dead Boys and the Voidoids and stuff. I just got the DEATH record and it’s amazing. (Go watch the documentary on Netflix!) Also I’ve been listening to a lot of Crime, an early SF punk band. All my friends complained that my music tastes are too narrow so I’m trying to branch out from uh, my regular diet of East Bay punk and hardcore. Haha, my musical tastes are really narrow I guess. Short, fast, loud. Pick any three and I will like it.

Tell me about East Bay punk in the 80s! Why was it so good? And what ruined it?

The East Bay has just always had an amazing scene, and after Maximum Rocknroll helped an all ages punk club get off the ground, there was a fantastic venue for bands to play, so you had this fantastic scene develop with bands like Operation Ivy, et cetera.

I know you want me to tell the story of how I got into East Bay punk so… I got the Operation Ivy Hectic EP in DC right after it came out, because at the time I was a huge ska music fan, and on the run-out grooves they had scratched “crimpshrine eat shit…” and “isocracy eat shit…” which were two other East Bay bands. Basically I like Op Ivy so much I figured if they were insulting those other bands they must be OK. So I got their 7-inches, and then just started buying anything on Lookout! and realized I had found the kind of music that I really liked. It was a lot harder to find new music before the internet, let me tell you, so when you found it, you became pretty devoted!

Anyway, the music in that era had a really positive message, because there was a lot of negative stuff happening at the time, and it was being done in a time when punk was completely ignored in the media so it developed without pressure to succeed commercially, and that gave the bands a lot of freedom. I know you want me to say Green Day selling out ruined the scene, but it’s not true! [Note: That is what I wanted him to say.] There’s still great music being made in the East Bay, although the scene has changed a lot. I went to this club I used to practically live at last year and the scene is still really vibrant.

Okay, fine, maybe Green Day didn't ruin it, it must have been Rancid that did it! No, actually East Bay punk is still pretty cool. Can I call that punk? I'll do what I want. Anyway, I've always felt like driving a shitty beat up car is super cool and punk and street and all those words, so I kind of got jealous of your Pontiac Aztec. But can you still be punk when you get old and have a real job and stuff? How do you reconcile these things?

Haha, I can’t answer this! First, though, I mean physical age has nothing to do with anything. I know 22-year-olds who are old and lame in their thinking, and I hang out with 60 year olds who are super cool. But to me, whatever your deal is, you owe it to yourself to devote yourself to it fully. If that’s a music scene, that’s awesome. I personally made a choice a long time ago to devote myself to video games, so I’d never describe myself as a punk or anything. That’s the music I listen to, and being part of that scene when I was younger totally shaped who I am, and how I react, and my beliefs in doing the right thing, and taking responsibility for your own actions, but when someone tries to say they’re a “punk video game designer,” or this or that, I just think they’re kind of poseurs. I don’t know...Don’t worry about the labels, is how I would reconcile things I guess! That all said, I come from a really dogmatic era in the punk scene, so other people probably would say I’m full of it.

It's okay, I just called Erase Errata punk so what do I know. Talk to me about zines. Why do you make them? How are you so good at finding your "zine voice?"

I can’t help myself! When I was six, I made a magazine about beavers every week called “Beaver Life.” When I was a teenager I made million underground papers at my school and kept getting in a lot of trouble for it. I was super lucky growing up -- my mom had a home office with a Xerox machine, so I had the means of production at my disposal! Then I did a ska fanzine, then I did a punk zine (it was zine of the month in Maximum Rocknroll which pretty much may be my proudest professional accomplishment!).


"When I was six, I made a magazine about beavers every week called 'Beaver Life.'"
Now I do Incredibly Strange Games. I just love the print format. I love the fact that you can do the whole thing yourself, present this information in just the way you want to, and people can read it or throw it away and you can do really silly or dumb things or just jokes, whatever. Actually I guess my latest zine is Wallingford Skate Report, which is just sort of a joke skater zine I did because I got a fish eye lens for my phone camera, so all my pics started looking like shots from Thrasher or Transworld.

I do it 100 percent in Newsroom for the Apple IIc, which is a very old desktop publishing platform for kids. Well, 90 percent, because after I print it on a dot matrix printer I add pictures. I have no idea how I find my zine voice, it’s just my natural writing style. It’s probably genetic. I looked through this box of my dad’s stuff one time and found like 50 copies of this underground zine my dad made in high school in the 1950s. It was scandalous for its time; they tried to expel him!

Top 5 favorite restaurants everywhere! Tell me about them.

1) South Shore Cafe, Alameda CA – Old school diner, with every hot sauce choice available on the table and extremely traditional American food. Super friendly service and they used to know me by sight and just bring me my food!

2) That one burrito place I can never remember the name of that is in downtown, Oakland, CA – It’s better than the Mission. Sorry, it just is. If I had to pick someplace I know the name of, Cancun on 19th and Mission in San Francisco.

3) Mike’s Chili Parlor, Seattle WA – Super old-fashioned tavern with a fast-ROM Ms. Pac-Man cocktail, cheap beer and good chili. Supposedly the same pot has been constantly cooking since the Depression or something.

4) Porky’s Pizza Palace, San Lorenzo, CA – Super old-school pizza and chicken place. It has orange naugahyde booths and has been the scene of the Incredibly Strange Games’ annual Ms. Pac-Man tournament for the past few years. It actually has a super janky Ms. Pac-Man which makes tournaments pretty crazy. Also the site of my favorite birthday party ever. Supposedly there is a banjo band that plays there every Thursday but I never went to see it.

5) Hegen Burger, Oakland, CA – Hegen Burger (on Hegenberger, by the airport) is just awesome. Immigrant owners living the American dream, they focus on super-fresh beef burger, shoestring fries, and they have cocktail Ms. Pac-Man that rarely works but is always broken in fun ways (no power pellets, only one ghost, etc…). Also even if you don’t want one, they pretty much make you take a Coke. So much better than In-and-Out down the street.

6) Honorable mentions to Dick's Drive-In and Ranch Drive-In in Seattle and Bothell, WA. Super solid burgers. Dick’s also pays for college or childcare if you work 30 hours a week and has health care for employees.

Also I should say that I like fancy, foodie places as much as the next guy, but my wife usually picks those kind of places when she picks a place for us to eat out, so I didn’t waste any “likes” on high-end food, because I kind of offloaded that part of my palette to her.

Now for the tough question. Which system has the most bits, PS4, Wii U, or Xbox One? This will strongly affect my purchase choice.

With our cloud compute features, Xbox One has access to an arbitrary number of bits. Boom.

I'm not sure I buy that, but I have more pressing matters: It is the 90s. What time is it?? I keep forgetting.

If it’s the 90’s, there is time for Klax.

When Mike Mika and I did the Game Boy Color port of Klax, I actually wrote a backstory for Klax about how it was this popular physical midway game on the Jersey Shore in the Roaring 20’s, and how FDR had this famous quote “It is the 30s and there is no time for Klax,” which we hid in the ROM. But of course, as mentioned before, Klax GBC is much for famous for Mike hiding his proposal to his wife in the ROM, and keeping it secret for five years until he finally spilled the beans (and proposed) via Tips & Tricks.


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Comments


Ryan Sumo
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I can vouch for how open Chris is. He was at Bitsummit this year and I went up to him and pitched Party Animals (the game I'm working on) and he was listening intently all the way to the point when his Japanese handlers were dragging him up on stage to give a talk. My own shyness prevented me from walking up to him again, but other indies should definitely chat him up if they see him wandering around an event.


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