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In-Depth: Xbox Live Community Games - Multerer Tells All

In-Depth: Xbox Live Community Games - Multerer Tells All Exclusive

July 31, 2008 | By Christian Nutt




Shortly after the keynote presentation in which Boyd Multerer unveiled Microsoft's pricing scheme for its XNA Community Games initiative, Gamasutra had the chance to sit down with the Microsoft executive and discuss the thinking behind the company's strategy.

In the private meeting room where the discussion took place, XNA general manager Multerer took time to demo two of his favorite games - Japanese-developed Funny Dancing and Boggle-meets-Bejeweled word-matching game Word Soup - slated for release on the service.

XNA Community Games will debut for the Xbox 360 this Fall, and allow amateur and indie creators to publish peer-reviewed console games online and receive money for doing so.

In this in-depth interview, Multerer discusses the royalty specifics, professional game developers using XNA, and why he'd like to see big-budget retail games releasing companion mini-games via XNA Community Games.

There isn't any way for people to distribute games without charging for them, is there?

BM: Well, on Windows, you can currently download the toolset, you can download for free on that platform, and it's perfectly fine to distribute your game to other people on Windows machines for free. On the Xbox space, where we're opening up the console, and we're opening up the couch to people for the first time in this way, we want to prove that this is a viable commercial market first.

Now, we're always open to changing the model, and doing those things in the future, but for now we want to focus on the professional aspect, and prove that there is even a market here, because it's never been done before.

So any game that reaches a level of completion, and passes through the submission process, will then be loaded up and available to users?

BM: Have you looked at the beta?

Just a little bit.

BM: Yeah. So, the goal is any game. The goal is that Microsoft isn't really going to be in a position of choosing which are the good enough games to go up. I don't want to tell people what they should think is fun, or what isn't fun.

We do set a few standards in the Community. We're really worried about parents, and making sure that the games are accurately described. So if you have kids, and are worried about what they're seeing or not, you can look at it, you get a good idea for what's in it. And then there are a few standards, as far as things being overly naughty.

Right. There's the whole peer review process.

BM: The whole peer review process - basically, if it would've gotten an M rating if it went through ESRB, then it's going to go through.

OK. But any game that does reach completion, and successfully goes through the peer review processes, and is put onto the service, that could be any game that someone creates.

BM: We'll take 'em all.

And then, at that point, they will be available for purchase.

BM: Yeah. At some point you just say, "You know, who are we to decide what's fun or what's not? Let's let the community sort through it, and pick what they want to play."

Do you have projections about what kind of numbers or what level of participation you're expecting?

BM: Alright, well, it kind of goes two directions. One: as far as, "What kind of games are there going to be? What kind of purchases are there going to be?" goes, we have no idea. Because there's nothing to study! Because this really hasn't been done before. So we're kind-of sneaking on some new territory, and it is a bit experiment, and we're going to find out; we're going to demonstrate how big the market is.

On the creation side, we recently passed a million downloads of the toolset. Now, we know that some people are downloading it multiple times, and use a couple versions, so we think maybe three hundred thousand people have actually played with it. That's like twenty-five times the entire size of the game industry.

Now, how many games are they going to make? That's a good question, and we'll find out, but holy smokes, there's a lot of interest.

Now one place that seems to be a potentially similar situation is the iPhone App Store. That had a huge number of games at launch, and continues to have a huge number of apps. Do you expect to see a similar kind of response?

BM: Well I hope to see a similar response. We'll find out as we go along. Now, a key difference to remember is in their case, they're targeting a certain class of devices, and we are absolutely going into homes. We're aimed at big TVs, we're aimed at couches - at a social experience. So it is a different kind of application. You don't get four people gathered around a phone, playing a game together, but you will get four people sitting around in front of the TV, playing together.

What do you think about the potential of expanding the audience of the console with games like this?

BM: Personally, from my experience? Oh yeah, it's there. So, the last couple weeks I haven't really gotten to play my Xbox, because there's a game I'll show you, called Funny Dancing. There's a game called Funny Dancing, which came through the beta site, and in my house this is what all the four-year-old girls want to play.

This is the one that [Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business CTO] Chris [Satchell] was alluding to, that's popular with the kids?

BM: Yeah, well, really, it's popular with my kids, right? It's from Japan, and maybe an example of "just because you can, doesn't mean you should." But it's actually really clever. So you get in there, you start the game up, and it is basically a dancing game where the goal is to get her to do certain moves and play along with the music. There's really no point.

Right.

BM: But you can see that, with more work, and more time on it, it could totally become a real game, with points, and special moves, and all that kind of stuff.

And then another one which has really taken off, which is the other reason why I haven't gotten to use my Xbox, is a game called Word Soup. So this was done by a couple of people in the UK, and my wife is playing this all the time now. It's actually really addictive.

We did a meeting with the executives at IEB [the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft] - Don Mattrick, and those - and they were trying to show us what types of games are coming through, and I brought this up, and the meeting stopped for about thirty seconds as everyone was yelling out words that you see in it. This is sort-of like Boggle meets Bubble Breaker.

I see.

BM: Yeah. And holy moly, has there been a lot of competition to see who could break a thousand first. We've only been able to completely clear the board once, and that was - I'm still getting that rubbed in my face.

Something I thought is interesting is that you just showed a game that was developed in Japan, and you said that Japan can make games for it, but the service [to buy games] won't be rolled out in Japan yet. Is there any reasoning behind that?

BM: It turns out that it's hard. There are a lot of tax laws, and a lot of regulations that you have to take into account, and we're going to roll it out into Japan as soon as we possibly can. We're going to continue rolling out through all the countries throughout next year. Japan is way high on the list.

The creators will be responsible for supporting foreign languages in their games. It's not something that you're providing assistance with, correct?

BM: Yeah, it's the whole community thing. The different way to look at it, though, is to imagine Spanish games made in Spain, that are really aimed at their culture - smaller games for smaller audiences. That doesn't mean that it isn't going to get translated into English either. It doesn't mean that we would even want to play the game.

If someone makes a game in Spanish, and it's only in Spanish, is it going to show up on the US market?

BM: Yeah, we're still working on some of the details of how it gets displayed. It's really more of a question of, "If I know what language you speak, and you said, 'I don't want to see any games in other languages,' can I filter them out correctly?" So it's more of a filtering question than it is about whether we'll let you see the games. The goal is to let you see as many games as you can, because you're going to pick what you want to play!

Yeah.

BM: And if you want to see games in other languages, then okay, I'd like to let you see them - but maybe you don't want to get the clutter.

So when are you going to roll this out for Xbox Live end users, not creators?

BM: This is planning to ship before the holiday.

Is that going to be alongside the new dashboard update?

BM: It's part of the new dashboard update. We're deeply integrating into it. This new version of the Dashboard [will have] a bunch of stores. You'll see Arcade, you'll see the Xbox Live Community games, and a few other things. You'll be able to choose which section of gaming you want to go into, and then drill into it further from that.

This is really a neat way of showing off games - you can see the pieces, you can drill into the game, get much better views of what's going on.

One thing during the presentation that I found interesting is the discussion of that front, where you'll display a few of the games - give the major push. How are those games chosen?

BM: Exactly how they're chosen, we're still working on the details. But, in general, there's a lot of data that we can mine from the activity of the users.

As much as possible, I want it to be an automated trend analysis kind of thing. "So these are the games that are coming up? All right! It's hit some kind of threshold, people seem to be catching on to it, we're getting some kind of viral communication around it. BAM! Put it up in the front."

The goal of the front is to keep it fresh. As a game player you should always be able to go there and see something new. At least weekly, maybe even daily. Keep it fresh, keep it moving, keep people seeing lots and lots of the content. And then you'll see some games that just never move, or maybe they were only intended for a small audience, and they're just not ever going to reach the front.

The royalties change when a game is in front, right?

BM: That's right. The primary share is 70% to the creators. And most of the time that your game is for sale, it'll be at 70%. During the short period of time it's being heavily advertised by being in that front, it's an additional marketing charge between 10% and 30%. And exactly where it's going to land is going to depend on performance.

So think of it as: If we do a good job, and we sell a lot of copies of your game, and thus there's a lot more money coming through the system, then we can charge a bit more of a fee for having provided a service to you. If it's not pushing the game that much, then it's going to be on the lower side. Book stores, all kinds of stores, work similar ways, except they charge money up-front, and we're dealing with creators who maybe don't have the money up front.

So this is something that you're going to have to discuss with creators when you go to them and say, "We'd like to feature you on the front. This is the percentage split that's going to change."

BM: This is part of the deal with the Community. You have to come up with terms that just work. If we have to go and contact people, it's just never going to scale. So, when you put your game in, there's a single set of Terms of Service. You agree to them, and then the game will just show up when it shows up.

Schizoid was the first game built with the XNA game studio, but that's a professional developer, and the discussion is, "What validity does XNA have for professional development?" Give me an update on where you see it right now.

BM: It's just beginning. The goal of the program is, really - and I know it's an experiment with the Community side, but it really works with the professionals as well - to create a system where they can focus more on the gameplay, and focus more on the fun, less of the plumbing.

Schizoid being the first one, of course, we ironed out a lot of the kinks of the system as they were going through it, but there are quite a few more games that are now in the pipe, getting ready to go through certification and come through.

For starters, some of the Dream-Build-Play games from last year are almost done, ready to go through it, ready to show up in the Xbox Live Arcade; and quite a few professional ones that I really can't talk about. I expect, as we look forward, you're going to see more and more games, especially in that category.

Being written in managed code, the performance profiles work really well. And just the ability of not having as many TCRs to worry about - being able to focus on the fun aspect - makes it less expensive and more time-effective to get the games done.

When it comes to indie game developers who in the past would would work in a traditional game development environment - like N+, a big hit - where do you see the line between this and traditional Xbox Live distribution?

BM: Think of the difference as the Community being a place where there's a lot of content, but you have less control over how and when you get marketed. Now, you know that you can do your own marketing on your own website, and point people to the URL - that's fine - but it's a place where there's a lot of dynamic content that's moving around.

The professionals, who've invested serious amounts of money into their game, they want a bit more assurance, and a little bit more control. They want to be in a place where there's fewer [pieces of] content competing with them, there's more attention given to their game. It's a different kind of a store, right? And that's absolutely where Xbox Live Arcade comes in, and where the other, more professional style storefronts come in.

You know, you can be in the Wild West, and it's easy to get in, but it's hard to control the way you're interacting with the people. In Xbox Live Arcade, you can negotiate anything.

So now you have three distribution methods: the Community method, the Xbox Live Arcade method, and the retail disc method. If you're in a position where you aren't sure where your game fits, how do those discussions proceed with Microsoft?

BM: Well again, they're actually very different channels. The Community one, there's almost no bar to get in. You can put your game in, and you just do it; you don't have to have, really, any discussion other than agreeing to the terms. Even when you do that, it's still your game. It's your game.

You can take it off, and I absolutely expect to see great games going through the Community space, that publishers then watch, see what's actually fun and catching on, and then actually pick those games up, invest in them, finish them, round them out, turn a great idea for a game into a great game which then goes through a different channel.

But, once you get into the Xbox Live Arcade, and you get into the discs, now there are account managers involved, now there's much more of a marketing plan involved, and it's a risk management exercise. But even with the big retail games, and discs, and all that, I still think there are opportunities here in the Community space.

I would really like to see a big disc game go out, that has a companion game that ships - just stick it into the Community. Is it an ad for the game? Is it a companion game for it? I don't really care. But you can control when they go out, get them out in advance, that kind of thing.

Could you see a potential where, say, a shooter has "hooks" in the game, where the Community can create Community applications that interface with it?

BM: Certainly it's a publisher decision to make, although at the moment there are some restrictions around it. The difficulty in interacting with big Halo-style games is that they're pushing the performance limits completely to the wall, right? They're really, really pushing the box. And as soon as you discuss opening up portions of the game to the community, you've got security concerns, you've got ease of use concerns, and then performance concerns.

In the keynote, I was addressing a future where we talk about mixed native and managed code. It's not there yet - it turns out it's actually really hard to do - but we're looking at it, so that you can have exactly what you were saying. I'd love to let the big games open up, to let the community participate, enhance, build mods, and those sorts of things.

It's certainly something we're working on. I don't know exactly when it's going to get done, because there are some really interesting technical barriers that we just have to overcome. But it's absolutely a space we're looking at.

Unreal Tournament III shipped on the PlayStation 3, with support for the same kind of mods that it could get on PC - much later, it shipped on the 360, without that same level of support. So is this a place where you see potential for closing that gap?

BM: Of course there's potential for it. But I also respect our platforms as a place where you can get really, really good content, and the developers can run a business that they're sure isn't going to have rampant piracy, isn't going to have Community content that can actually be detrimental to the health of your game, right?

You always have to be a little worried about, "What does it mean to open up a professional title, that has a lot of thought going into their content, to the Wild West of the Community stuff?" The peer review process makes a lot of sense for individual games. It's a little less clear how directly it relates on some of the bigger titles, and that's an ongoing discussion with everybody.

If a game's taken off the service, would people who previously purchased it lose access to it?

BM: No, my understanding is that they'll continue to have it - it just means it won't be available anymore. But look, this has already happened. You look at Dream Build Play last year, and The Dishwasher. Really, really interesting game. I would've loved to have had it come through the Community, but because it's so good, and because it's so much fun, it has gotten that investment.

It's been polished up into a full game, and it will ship in Xbox Live Arcade before the Community stuff is even out the door. We're not going to have that game in the Community, and that's OK. It's gotten the investment, it's been turned into a full game, it's a lot of fun, and a lot of people are going to get to play it.

I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, it's just a matter of the logistics of the thing that I want...

BM: We're very aware of people who have purchased these. They've effectively purchased the license to it, and that's not going to go away.

How do you see your new role?

BM: Well, let's see. It's kind of funny, because it's a lot of what Chris [Satchell] was doing a few months ago. For the last four years, I've been working on XNA, building out the Community side. Do you remember all of the XNA build stuff we were talking about a few years ago, at GDC? That was being done on my team.

We've always been thinking about the professionals, and thinking about the ways that we can really change the game of the industry on consoles in particular. And in a way that lends itself into other platforms. This is sort of a natural progression for me, because now I get to worry about all the developers again. And it's like I was saying in the keynote - I really want to see the more cohesive stories. I want to see the tools interact better together, and there's a lot of fertile ground for us to investigate.

Before I came on to XNA, I worked for four years in Xbox Live, and rand the team that built the service up from the beginning, and all we did was work with professionals back then. So there are so many areas that are so clear that we can invest in. There's a lot of opportunity.

Prior to the Community stuff, XNA was driven for professionals, right?

BM: Well, we were investigating what we were going to do, and at the time we really hadn't quite decided yet. We always knew that the Community thing was really interesting, and I almost didn't know if we could do it. You do a bunch of experiments, you prove the point. Once we knew we could, it was just such an opportunity that we went for it.

That doesn't mean that we forgot about the professional side - in fact, it's still been very prominent in our minds, and my mind - and now is the opportunity to take the learnings and experiments that we've been able to do on the Community side, bring them back into the professional side, lower the amount of time it takes to go through cert.

The Game Studio tools are really well integrated. There's a content pipeline in there, it works well with the debugger, it's very well organized. What can we learn from that, and bring into the professional side to make the suite of tools more cohesive?

Are there other associated XNA game tools that you're talking about, besides XNA Game Studios?

BM: Everything we've been talking about in the tool space was XNA. [Data collection and analysis tool] PIX is part of XNA. NetGrove, which does the network analysis, is part of XNA. There are different aspects to it. Many of the other tools don't necessarily hang together as well as we would like, and that's an obvious place where we can make improvements.

The thing with PIX was really interesting, with the retroactive debugging and optimization. Now imagine if you had that hooked up to tools when you had customers doing beta playtesting of your game, and there were interesting events that you detected going on. You could take the log file, send it in, have your engineers actually debug it separate from where the tests are happening. It creates all kinds of opportunities to optimize the game without having to spend as much time and money doing it.

Game Studio is just a really, really good example of that when you get to start over, and you're designing it with a unified environment in mind, you can pull it off pretty easily.

I feel there is a little ambiguity of where some things are XNA, some things are XNA Game Studio, and so on. There's sort of the same term being applied to different audiences, and maybe different tools.

BM: Well we have a number of different audiences, and today they do have different tools. And this is part of the point I was making, that we can do a better job in unifying all the tools and having a cohesive story that flows across all the developers.

XNA is about all of the development tools. Game Studio is currently mostly marketed to Community, although Schizoid and a growing number of professionals are using it. The Xbox SDK program is very much for people who have Microsoft publishing agreements, and are building out bigger games. The DirectX SDK is clearly about building Windows games. There's a lot we can do to unify and clear the story up, and have the tools talk to eachother, and have it just be a better system. It's actually really exciting.

There are specific examples where Microsoft and other software companies have the free versions of tools, have a limited functionality, but then as you move into the professional grade versions, like Visual Studio, you'll find more functionality. Is that a good strategy that you could see?

BM: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, we work very closely with the digital studio people, and it's definitely a progression between free set of tools, going all the way up to the full on professional tools, and there's every step in the way that we can take.

It's interesting to see the evolution of community games. The primary community-focused game Sony is doing is going to be LittleBigPlanet. That's going to be a very powerful design tool within the game, but it's going to be end-user oriented. How do you see things shaking out, as things move forward? Do you think that going through the indie development route of getting those people interested in full development is the best strategy?

BM: Well there are different ways to take the question. For starters, right now the Game Studio line is a little advanced - you do need to know how to write code to use it - but you can write any game you want. In other cases, people have built a game that has a place where you can go and generate levels, and build your pieces of it, but you're still working within the world of a game, that they've provided for you.

I prefer to let people do anything they want, and really push the boundaries, and maybe ask some questions, and make them do some things that we never thought of. We're going to see some really original stuff, everything from Word Soup to Funny Dancing. We wouldn't have thought of that. So we're going to get a much wider variety of content, a lot more creativity, and that's what I want.

Now, it doesn't mean that we're not going to pay attention to the more beginners, and the people who need a more approachable environment - that's something that we're also looking into - but I want to see the most content, that has the most variety in it.


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