Microsoft has prepared a slate of developer-oriented announcements for GDC, including the latest Dream-Build-Play development contest, upgrades to its XNA Game Studio suite, an enhanced XDK development kit, and the release of its innovative visual programming and game creation tool, Kodu -- and we discussed all of it.
Microsoft invited Gamasutra to look at and discuss all of these developments at GDC, and each is something significant.
The Dream-Build-Play contest for 2009 is the third installment in the popular challenge, which last year awarded over $70,000 to the award-winning games, including Singapore-MIT Team GAMBIT's CarneyVale Showtime. The contest is open to games built using Microsoft's Game Studio software suite, which opens up creation of Xbox 360 games to independent developers. No specific details on which GS version will be used, what prizes will be awarded, or participation dates were yet revealed; more details will be available April 6.
In further XNA Game Studio-related news, the company announced XNA Game Studio 3.1, which will bring in new features to enable easier content creation, increased Xbox Live functionality, and new Extensions for signed teams working on Xbox Live games using the package.
The updated software package, which will be released this spring, will allow developers to pull in the Xbox 360's Avatars, allowing creators to more easily begin their projects using either the player's or randomly-generated characters. Avatar animations will able to be created in Maya and exported to XNA Game Studio 3.1, as FBX files.
XNA Game Studio 3.1 will also add support for Microsoft's Xbox Live Party system, which allows groups of players to game together easily across multiple titles; these two features will span Community Games and professional products developed using GS3.1. The update will also include video playback and new audio APIs.
The company also, on the fully professional development side, has announced an entirely new version of its XDK development hardware, which contains two times the RAM of the currently released version. This additional RAM will be used for debugging and optimization tools separate to the game's assets and code, and will allow developers to manage their game development process more efficiently. The upcoming XDK software update which will ship alongside these units will continue to support existing XDK development units.
Microsoft has also announced the release of its exciting Kodu visual programming package, which has been under development at Microsoft Research (previously under the name Boku.)
Kodu, which will be released some time this year to the Xbox 360's general userbase under Microsoft's Community Games program for a currently-undisclosed fee, allows anyone to customize their own game world and add characters that abide by rules set out by the player in a logical, visual programming language. Gamers will be able to share their Kodu games, which includes the logic which drives them, with anyone on their Xbox Live friends list.
Gamasutra was shown a demo of Kodu in which behaviors of characters within the world were tweaked and defined quickly -- acts can be defined by concepts as simple as "when you see a red apple, move towards it; when you bump a red apple, eat it," or more complex interactions such as an enemy that spawns other enemies which have their own AI concepts. It's difficult to explain succinctly, but so far seems very simple to use, flexible, and appealing.
Gamasutra spoke with Boyd Multerer, general manager of the XNA platform, and Matthew MacLaurin, principle program manager at Microsoft Research on Kodu, about the various changes, upgrades, and new releases revealed at the show.
The New XDK Hardware -- XNA Comes Full Circle
The new hardware that you're showing -- how does it differentiate from the hardware that you've already released to the development community? And from the original Xbox 360, which works with XNA Game Studio?
Boyd Multerer: There are a number of differences. The most noticeable that developers are going to encounter when they get it, is that it has twice the memory of the old one, and that's so we can have debugging and optimization tools loaded in a range of memory away from the game itself.
It's been a longstanding issue that as you're working on your game you can't load all of the resources that would be there when you're running, because you need to reserve some space for all of the debugging tools and those kinds of things.
And it does limit the amount of capture you can do, the amount of statistical analysis you can do, and this is going to open up a whole new range of tools for the software portion of the XDK program.
This is replacing the XDKs that are already available for development? It's not tied to XNA Game Studio.
BM: No, this is for native code development, aimed at triple-A 360 game developers. The old ones will still work for it, and they're just as valid as they've ever been. And the software XDK program will continue to support them going forward. This opens up a whole new range of tools, though, that we have actually been unable to exploit.
It was a little ambiguous to me, as it has an XNA logo on it.
BM: This is really a part of trying to make the XNA program be more cohesive across the range of developers.
Sure. Because when XNA was first announced as a concept, it was originally entirely professionally-driven.
BM: That's right.
And it's come to encompass some things that have taken slightly divergent paths.
BM: The way I look at it is -- this is the year that I think that XNA comes full circle. We've explored some new territory, gotten some new people into game development, and we've opened up some new channels.
And now we're bringing it back and really encompassing the professionals, and we're taking the state of the art of game development on the professional, native side up a notch. This is especially important right now as the cost of artwork continues to climb, and the cost of content production continues to climb, and studios need to be able to control those costs while continuing to develop state-of-the-art software. And we want to be there to really make that possible.
Game Studio 3.1
Game Studio 3.1 is going to open some new things for the indie community, that's been working with it already, and that's still targeted at the same audience, all the way up to pro developers working on Xbox Live Arcade titles.
BM: I would say that with Game Studio, the range of people we're targeting with it is expanding. It's moving further into the professional space. We've got full support for Extensions For Arcade. It's a separate library. After you sign a publishing agreement, you get this library, and now it opens up the full range of Xbox Live API sets. And you can go on and make a full-on game that will pass certification and be a true peer. It's particularly aimed at the arcade space.
At the same time, the new features like support for Avatars and Xbox Live Party -- that stuff is available in the Community Games space, it's not limited to the pro package.
BM: It's available to both.
People will be able to get Avatars up and running in their Community Games now.
BM: That is absolutely correct. It's part of the program of getting artwork and content into your games, so you're not just pushing cubes around your world anymore. You've got animated characters that look like you, that are the way what you've set up your avatars to be, and you're getting going much more quickly on telling your story.
And when it comes to the Party support, how does that work with what's currently available in the Game Studio on the Community Games side?
BM: We made specific choices as to how much Xbox Live we were going to expose. Even in the current one there's still the Extensions program for signed developers, and they get much more support for Xbox Live. For the pure Community developers, they can do head-to-head play, they can do matchmaking. Some of the features, such as tournaments, are not available. But they are available to signed developers.
And Party support is coming in to bring the Xbox Live support up to the state of where the service is, in general.
BM: Xbox Live Parties, in general, is about about exploiting the social aspect of gameplay anyway. It's so you can take your party of friends and if you want to move into a community game, they can follow you in.
Gamer Response to Community Games
How have you felt about the response to Community Games? Obviously, the response of people making games is quite high. How do you feel about the gamer response to the Community Games initiative now that it's been out there for awhile?
BM: Well, we're still kind of exploring what's going on there. We'll be letting the game developers see the results of how they're doing shortly. Overall, we're seeing a wide range of games. We're pretty happy with how it's going.
Do you feel that Xbox gamers are taking notice of the community games as much as you'd hoped, and that there are some success stories there?
BM: There are clearly some games that are doing pretty well, and as expected there are a lot of games that are not as strong as the others, and that's how we expected it to go. People are still learning their way around the Dashboard, so the Arcade games and the big professional games -- those will always continue to get the most support. But we've been happy with the attention that Community Games have been getting.
Is that something that you want to increase? Is that something you want to push toward? It's a big differentiator for the Xbox right now.
BM: Yes, it is.
I feel like -- and I could be totally wrong -- that it's not get as much attention as I expected from the games press and the wider audience. I guess because there are so many XBLA games and packaged games, too. There's a lot of variety.
BM: I would say that, for our point of view, it has a certain place in the realm of the Xbox. There are like three levels going on. You've got the big triple-A professional games, and that's clearly what the box is centered around. You've got the Arcade games. These are all really, really good. If you go into the Arcade section, you know that these are going to be really good. They're well-marketed, and all of that stuff. Then you've got the Community Games, which is very experimental, and there's lots of content going on here. But the quality of the games is going to be more variable.
All three of them are aimed at slightly different audiences, and all three of them are always going to be playing off of each other, rounding out a full picture. Part of what I'm hoping happens with Kodu, as we're seeing, we're starting to get some really completed, really pretty-looking stuff that's going to come into the Community Games and raise the profile a little bit, and further fill out the range of content that's available in that space.
Speaking of Kodu...
Certainly Kodu looks like it's extremely approachable and as far as I'm aware it's the result of a long research project. Who do you see as the primary audience for Kodu?
Matthew MacLaurin: There's the demographics answer, which is "nine and up". And then there's the more social answer, which is "people who hunger to create." One thing that we've really tried to capture is the "doodling intent" -- "I really just want to mess around a little bit."
But I think for me -- and this is a more personal perspective -- it's the guy who would have, like when I was in junior high school, sat down and designed an extensive world for Dungeons & Dragons. People who want to go deep in some form of creativity
BM: (laughs) I did that.
MM: I think there are a lot of us in the computer industry. We know there are a lot of kids out there who like to build a lot of stuff, and they spend hours on it, and until now we haven't really given them something they could work with, the same tools and visuals and production standards that a professional game developer gets to.
We've been almost moving away from that with Scratch and Alice and Game Creator and the other stuff -- where kids can make games that look like kids made them; really crude, bad graphics and stuff. We wanted something where they were sitting on top of something really expressive, a rich base of shaders and stuff like that.
So that a kid -- or an adult -- and we've tested this a lot with the sort of key 25 to 35 year old core gaming demographic. We've found that between 50 and 70 percent of people who play games on the Xbox want to create games. In that segment we do incredibly well. In terms of, "Wow, I get this. I can make something."
It's just as much about appealing to a professional developer who doesn't have enough time to work on their own ideas as it is to the nine year old who wants to try out their first game. And that's this category that I like to call "casual creation". "I want to make something, I don't want to dedicate a month to doing it, or three years, or get on some professional track and maybe I'll get a payoff in 18 months. I want to make something right now. I want to sit down on the couch and just do it." And I think that's a really broad demographic.
BM: You'll notice the trend, between the Avatar stuff we were just talking about, and Kodu, that we're trying to raise the production bar and allow people to be more creative, more easily, and have something that looks really good. Because content creation is turning out to be the biggest hurdle people have. And we're going to do to make it more approachable in that regard.
My other major question about Kodu is customizability -- obviously, and this is what I've sort and inferred, that you change the topography and colors. But beyond that what other levels of customizability are there, in term of the robots and other things?
MM: The terrain is completely free-form. You could make something a foot wide and a mile long, or you could make crazy landscapes. That's really, really, really open. The characters we give you, and that's 20 robots initially, you can change their color, and you can change their physics and stuff like that. But it's very much, "What can you do with these robots?" not, "What robots can you make?"
Now, in a fantasy realm, because I'm a researcher, and this is not a product plan -- what I really want to see is... I'd love to see a bridge between this and Game Studio, where if you say, "I know a little Maya. I can do a cool character. I can write two pages of code" -- because we've measured, and that's about what it would take to bring a completely different type of character into Kodu. But that's a very different product offering. Because then we're talking about -- that two pages of code that you have to write would be against some namespace we don't expose right now. And then, really, you're talking about publishing Kodu the engine, not Kodu the product.
BM: We're really excited about it, but that would have to be for some future version, because at some point, you've got to ship!
I think people are going to be plenty excited about what's available in 1.0. It was just something I wasn't sure about from what I'd encountered so far.
BM: You can really easily start to imagine all sorts of expansion capability. Now if you combine that with the community peer review system that we've already built. Because you start to think, "If we make this too expandable, people are going to start to do nasty things with it." But in the future... you can see we've [already] got a system in place where people can keep the nasty stuff out, but still allow the creativity to come through, and we start to end up with a really good system.