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Postcard from GDC 2005: Microsoft Keynote: The Future of Games - Unlocking The Opportunity


March 9, 2005
 

Microsoft's keynote at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, presented by chief XNA architect J Allard, was a heady blend of big ideas and a few tantalizing specifics on Microsoft's plans for the next generation, with a big, showboating prize surprise at the end which left many attendees literally speechless.


J Allard addresses the audience at the Microsoft keynote.

As an introduction to the 3,000-strong crowd packed into the Grand Ballroom at the Moscone West, GDC show director Jamil Moledina was ushered onstage, and introduced the keynote with a brief speech explaining that this year's GDC debuts the vision track, emphasizing free thinking. With those words, he introduced Microsoft's corporate vice-president J Allard.

Striding on stage, Allard started by congratulating Nolan Bushnell and Shigeru Miyamoto for being the inaugural inductees in the Walk of Game over at the Sony Metreon, an event that Allard had attended the previous evening. He noted: "Meeting Nolan was a special thrill", and commented that his heroes didn't come from film or music, but were, in fact, Evil Knievel and Nolan Bushnell, going on to argue that both personalities, although very different, took incredibly big risks and really changed a generation.

In fact, Allard suggested: "Nolan really brought this industry to life by founding Atari", and particularly pinpointed the classic commercial whose tagline was: 'Have you played Atari today?' In fact, he posited, Atari changed our culture and birthed an industry. He went on to pinpoint the single change he thinks that relates to gaming that is almost an Atari-sized change, which he explained when describing the occasion when he and his wife recently watched the Super Bowl in a bar on HDTV. As more and more people get exposed to the HDTV medium, visual expectations ratchet way up.

This introduced the main theme of the talk - the 'HD era'. For Allard, however, the 'HD era' is not just about the HDTV aspects of resolution, but defined all parts of the next-gen experience that Microsoft hoped to give consumers. Unfortunately, it's somewhat difficult to define the next step after 2D to 3D in any concrete way, so it seems that Microsoft are using this umbrella term to signify multiple facets related to game innovation. For example, in the 3D era, Allard argues, one size fits all as far as game content, but in the 'HD era' means connected communities, and "consumers will expand online worlds in places we can't imagine." He also discussed the possibilities of multiplatform games where, on Windows systems, gamers were giving orders, but on consoles, people were carrying out those orders, as well as talking of 'polymorphic IP,' as opposed to plain licensing.

This relatively grandiose talk segued into a video montage, which showed 'new friends' who were "anxious to make the HD era come to life" These included Terminator and Titanic director James Cameron, who commented: "What people want are worlds", and revealed that, for his next unannounced film, he would be simultaneously developing the movie and the game to share characters and inform the audience. Markus Maki of Max Payne creators Remedy Entertainment commented: 'Now we can surpass Hollywood', and the montage also included rock band 3 Doors Down, enthusing about the possibility of playing to millions of people at once on Xbox Live, and representatives from Alienware (discussing the HD boom) and Samsung (which has shipped 7.2 million digital televisions last year, up 75% from the previous year.)

The video sequence ended, and Allard strode onstage again with a cautionary note: "We have the power to blow it." He wondered: "What's it going to take to make games top of the list?", and then went on to list three main, if broad aspects that needed to be dealt with comprehensively if games were to succeed. These three aspects were software (including runtime tools to hit the hardware), hardware (displays, devices, and silicon), and services (those things connecting the players.)

Focusing on software first, Allard told the story of a game with a great concept, great art, and a great game hook, which bogged down due to 'minor changes' needed by publishers, technology tweaks, and a whole bunch of small changes which begat larger changes, dependency issues, and allowed the game to get caught up in a negative cycle. What Allard wants to see is a situation where "successes are repeatable, and the process rational", and he slipped in the fact that Microsoft had already shipped over 3,000 Xenon development kits to developers to help with this for the company's next-generation console development.

But Microsoft's XNA Studio, a Windows application which will launch in 2006 and was announced earlier in the week, is the company's solution to the next-generation workflow issues. The application, built on Visual Studio 2005 Team System, allows uses to create all content in native formats, and then push everything through a unified build environment, including asset management, bug tracking and managed worklists. Allard also revealed that, in XNA Studio, developers can push a button and submit the final build of their title digitally, and that he was hoping to debut copies of the XNA Studio beta for all attendees at the Microsoft keynote next year.

Moving to hardware, Allard referenced the next-generation Xbox, and simply told keynote attendees that they were not going to be told about it, indicating E3 would server as the official launching pad for that hardware (which he referenced as 'Xenon' more than once during the speech, but did not name specifically at this point.) However, he did address the concept of hardware more abstractly, taking a number of potshots at Sony's previous and forthcoming hardware, albeit not mentioning the rival by name. Specifically, Allard commented, if you "design your hardware to win at science fairs," it takes a year after release before anything worth playing comes out; "that's a crime." He further quipped: "The only emotion it can elicit is frustration", a clear dig at Sony's early publicity for the PlayStation 2's 'Emotion Engine'.

In contrast, Allard suggested that the platform is bigger than the processor, noting that "hardware's no good if you can't light it up," and referencing the "elegant balance between software, hardware, and services." He recounted the already-established information about IBM and ATI as hardware partners, and mentioned that the next-gen console will have a teraflop of targeted computing performance, designed over three years, with a thousand engineers in nine different locations. Allard then explained the next-gen Xbox hardware will deliver on familiarity, and can use the same tools and processes, albeit with a symmetrical multi-core architecture.

Finally, in terms of services, Allard commented that services were vital to "create developer-to-gamer connections" using microtransactions, so that any developer or publisher can sell a five-cent tattoo or a one-dollar car. The next wave of consumers are intimidated by online, and so, Allard argues, it's vital to create a consistent experience, and not re-invent interface all the time.

With this, Allard segued into the only game-related footage shown at the keynote, a simulation starring the Gamertag of Seattle, Washington-based 'HiroProtagonist', of what next-generation aspects to the online user's experience might look like. The game referenced was current Xbox title Forza Motorsport, and it was integrated into this next-gen user interface, which included elements such as a low battery alert - triggered by a Microsoft API, rather than laboriously-coded by the makers of the game. Essentially, Microsoft intends to make the idea of user alert code, as when a controller is removed (or other generic functions), universal over all next-generation software, leaving creators free to focus on the more constructive parts of development.

In addition, the expanded Gamertag and next-gen Xbox Live information includes information about the number of friends online, real-time challenges from other users ("Doomster wants to race!"), and "merit badges" - a manner of documenting a player's accomplishments and achievements - that can be seen on all users' Xbox Live Gamertags, alongside which games they've played and how long they've played them. This creates a kind of "baseball card" for each Xbox Live user, meaning it's much easier to size up suitable opponents and scout for worthy adversaries. Finally, direct interaction with gamers in terms of micro-transaction-driven game add-ons is simplified even further; game developers and creators can sell incremental content for dime or dollar, and not worry about transaction charges. The example he gave was extra add-on parts for Forza Motorsport cars.

Following this, Allard soothed nerves about the complications this might imply if TCRs (technical requirements) go way up due to this extra complexity, indicating that Microsoft would reduce the current compulsory Xbox TCR list by over hundred items, even after adding the extra Xenon applications.


Forza Motorsport

In conclusion, Allard cut to a final video montage with creators talking about what could be achieved in the next generation. Maxis's Will Wright commented: "If both grandparents and kids can play together, it's a huge win... our games can be inherently malleable"; Sarah Chudley of Bizarre Creations noted: "We're taking games forward with customization." Other personalities included George Andreas of Rare, commenting it's "this... stamp of individuality.. that's really appealing to a lot of players." Interestingly, some non-Microsoft affiliated creators were included, particularly Jeffrey Kaplan of Blizzard, commenting: "People want to interact with each other"; Frank O'Connor, Brian Jarrard, Zach Russell of Bungie discussed customization in terms of stat-tracking in Halo 2: "It's cool to see people go further than we can ever imagine."

Thus, Allard argued, although a best selling-game in 2004 would have sold five million copies, within this decade, Microsoft wants to promote the first 'big' title that does twenty million units. In answer to the Atari commercial (paraphrased for the new millennium) - "Have you played a videogame today?" Allard finished with a flourish: "The answer is going to be yes."

But that wasn't all! As he left the stage, Allard halted, spun and returned to the center again, grinning and addressing the audience: "I want to thank you a little more broadly [for your support]." He then revealed that Microsoft was giving away one thousand Samsung flatscreen HDTVs to those in the audience who had the corresponding color lanyard of the car winning an on-screen Forza Motorsport race, and shortly after that, as the yellow car sprinted to a first-place-finish, a full third of the surprised audience found themselves owners of a $1,100 23-inch HDTV. Though certainly a publicity stunt, this gesture ended a Microsoft keynote which revealed more details than some thought; not as much as some wanted, yet nonetheless gave some interesting looks at what Microsoft intends for the future of gaming, as we enter what they see as the 'HD era'.

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