At its GDC 2008 keynote, Microsoft announced the full range of peer-reviewed community features coming for amateur-made XNA games, a new XNA game player for its media player Zune, and, in a surprise finish, that Gears of War 2 would be coming to the Xbox 360 this November.
Former Tiburon founder, EA Canada exec, and finally EA's excutive VP before joining Microsoft as its corporate VP of platform technologies, John Schappert opened the keynote trumpeting the growth of the industry, noting that not only has the revenue benchmark been surpassed against the movie industry, but quoted a Jupiter Research report that said that the gaming industry is bigger than the music industry on a global basis.
Schappert revealed a number of updated stats on the Xbox 360's community, saying that more than 1 billion Achivements have been unlocked to date, and more than $250 million has been spent on in-game content and Xbox Live Arcade titles. Halo 3 alone, he said has its own incredibly active community, with over 100,000 pieces of user generated content being uploaded daily -- a number Schappert said was 30 percent higher than YouTube on a daily basis.
But Schappert said that while back in the early days a game could be made with "your father's computer and a good idea," its Xbox Live Arcade services and XNA Game Studio are attempting to do the same, highlighting recent successes like the three man team behind Poker Smash, Schappert said the Microsoft mission was to "do everything we can to break down the barrier between the creators and consumers."
Saying that unleashing community potential could be done by democratizing both game development and game distribution, chief XNA architech Chris Satchell joined the stage. The XNA toolset, he noted has been downloaded 800,000 times since its launch 18 months ago, and put into 400 universities.
Satchell was joined by DreamBuildPlay winner James Silva after a short parody bio-pic video showing Silva's early life and experiences before he singularly created his XNA game action game Dishwasher through his Ska Studios. Asked if he had any words of wisdom for other XNA creators, Silva said "start small, don't try to create an MMO or FPS," adding that by staying small you can accomplish the completion of your game and have something to be proud of.
Xbox Live Community Revealed
To fully illustrate where Microsoft wants to take the community orientation, Satchell officially revealed Xbox Live: Community Games, its service it says will put "power in the hands of the community." Split into four distinct stages -- create, submit, review, play -- the service will be community managed, and will be restricted by Microsoft only for IP conflicts and otherwise "massively objectionable" content.
For the submission stage, developers will create a "creator identity," similar to the standard gamer identity that tracks achievements and reputation. The creator identity too will help developers build a reputation and a history of games developed. When a game is submitted, the creator is expected to accurately rate the game on a sliding scale, with "blood, injuries, hostility, and cruelty" categories shown as an example.
At that point it's put into a peer review process from other creator's club members, who have two things to do, said Satchell, look for prohibited content and submit their own violence slider. At that point, the game is released to the Xbox Live community at large for download and play -- though Satchell did not reveal an interface or potential pricing scheme for community games.
Satchell showed off a number of already created games -- the physics demo JellyCar, cute zombie action game Little Gamers, Proximity HD, Trilinea, Culture, Rocketball and Dishwasher, which he then revealed are all now available on Xbox Live Arcade as free trials.
Moving on to XNA in general, Satchell then reiterated that XNA was built as a cross-platform tool, with Xbox 360 and Games For Windows builds easily portable, but then announced that Microsoft will be taking that one step further with XNA game support for the company's media player, Zune, coming over the next year with both custom soundtrack support, and wifi support for multiplayer Zune games.
Unreal New Features And The Professional Future
At this point, Microsoft brought the focus back to professional game development, inviting Epic president Michael Capps and CEO Tim Sweeney to the stage to show off the latest feature additions to its Unreal Engine. Sweeney showed off new ambient occlusion technology, dynamic shadows, advanced character lighting, high density crowds with flocking technology, dynamic fluid surfaces, soft body physics, and big improvements to its cinematics editor Matinee, giving developers more control over cameras, cuts, and a real time in-engine preview.
Schappert said that by the end of 2008, the Xbox 360 will have a library of over 1000 games, making it "the largest and creatively diverse library across all platforms," not including its community games. Joining the keynote then was Ninja Gaiden 2 producer Tomonobu Itagaki who showed off the forthcoming sequel, including in-game movie uploading features similar to Halo 3's.
Peter Molyneux followed, showing that Fable 2 will not only have instant drop-in cooperative features, but that one of its in-game pub games would be released weeks before the commercial release to Xbox Live Arcade, giving gamers the opportunity to build a cache of money that would then instantly be imported to the full game upon release.
Finally, interrupting Schappert as he said Xbox 360 was giving develoeprs "the opportunity to go from James Silva to Molyneux" with a scream and bloody splashes on the screens, Cliffy B came on to the stage to announce that Gears of War 2 would hit the Xbox 360 in November of this year, bringing the keynote to an abrupt close.