At an invite-only event in San Francisco last night, Microsoft execs Chris Satchell and Boyd Multerer welcomed the press to play and enjoy a slate of the most promising early examples from its XNA Community Games lineup, at the same time introducing some of the key developers of these games.
The event, held in a San Francisco nightclub with a lounge atmosphere -- plenty of comfy couches and HDTVs -- was a showcase for some of the most promising, professional-looking games in the Community Games lineup.
These drew from the top entrants to Microsoft's 2008 Dream-Build-Play competition, as already showcased in video form
Those most notable titles gave the press a roadmap to which games are likely (but not assured) to be included in the launch lineup for the service. The titles will come online for Xbox 360 alongside the New Xbox Experience update on November 19th.
XNA Community Games As "Sea Change"?
Satchell and Multerer praised the efforts of Microsoft internal staff in getting the service ready and the developers in creating their games, noting that this project had been part of the Xbox 360 roadmap since the beginning of the console.
Multerer, in particular, believes that this will lead to an "sea change" in game development, with indie game development finding a truly wide audience. This is, according to him, thanks to the easy access to a built-in console audience and simple, standardized monetization of the titles. (It's worth noting that, unlike with Xbox Live Arcade, there's no expensive or excessively lengthy submission process, just the peer review.)
In discussion with Gamasutra, Multerer compared the incipient ability for indie developers to reach a large, commercialized console audience on the Xbox 360 to be akin to the shift in the film industry precipitated at the end of the '80s.
He noted the example of how Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped spearhead the indie film movement which exploded in the '90s, and expressed hope that XBLCG could do similarly for games.
An important distinction between Community Games' strategy -- and the vaunted user-created content in Spore
-- is that these games are fully created by those with game development skills. This is significantly different to gamers modifying content within the parameters defined by individual games' editing systems.
With XNA Game Studio, Microsoft allows complete game customization, custom coding, and content insertion, with creators needing the software package (and some reasonable C# coding skills), an Xbox 360 to connect to your PC, and an inexpensive yearly XNA subscription.
Multerer and Satchell were both also keen to point out at the event that over 700 schools are currently using XNA Game Studio in their computer science curricula.
Surprisingly Professional Results
One thing that was notable is that the games -- which will retail from 200, 400, or 800 Microsoft points ($2.50, $5, and $10), and which will all have timed demo versions -- seemed to be on par with many of the "professional" games on Xbox Live Arcade.
This is perhaps because some of the top titles were created by small groups of former industry professionals, or well-resourced, talented academic teams.
For example, CarneyVale: Showtime
, winner of the Dream-Build-Play contest, was created at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Weapon of Choice
(pictured, another DBP entry) was developed by Mommy's Best Games -- which is principally Nathan Fouts, an ex-Insomniac staffer who worked on Resistance: Fall of Man
and Ratchet & Clank Future
Both games exhibit a high level of polish -- in line with games already released on the commercial XBLA service -- and mature gameplay ideas.
Conclusion: The Road Ahead
While the event was slick and the games were polished and enjoyable, it still leaves us wondering what cornucopia of games will debut on November 19th.
After all, the 3.0 version of XNA Game Studio, required to package and submit the games through the final stages of readiness for distribution, has just been officially released today.
And while the games on display were promising, even these hand-picked examples sometimes failed to show breakout innovation -- relying on tested, traditional gameplay concepts, albeit adapted in charming ways.
Nonetheless, it appears that Xbox Live Community Games is a service uniquely positioned to deliver indie games to a broad and receptive audience (and monetize them quickly and close to seamlessly).
But will the amount and varying quality of the games overwhelm the average player? This remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, Xbox Live Community Games is the beginning of something, not the end. It should be fascinating to see something closer to the iPhone Store's open marketplace on a console for the first time.