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Next-generation consoles push more than polygons and deliver more than seamless online integration; they also deliver an unrivaled audio experience to gamers, which can both subtly and obviously increase the quality of the overall gameplay experience immensely.
We're here to crack open the boxes that play these games and take a look under the hood. A lot of speculation has been flying around about just what the heavyweight current generation consoles are capable of. Let us raise the curtain. I managed to hook up with Gene Semel, audio director of Sony Computer Entertainment America, and Brian Schmidt, head of the Xbox audio team, and they gave us the lowdown.
This is followed by discussions with the audio staff on two major titles for the systems: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune on PlayStation 3, and Halo 3 on the Xbox 360.
What exactly does the internal team at Microsoft do for Xbox, apart from support its developers?
Brian Schmidt: There are multiple teams at work here. You probably have the most face to face contact with XNA's XDC "Xbox Developer Connection" group. Their job is to make sure that people get the best out of Xbox 360 through support, help, samples and so on. They are the group that puts on Gamefest, man the developer support aliases, scour the newsgroups, write whitepapers, etc. and provide front-line pro-active and re-active support for game developers.
A second group is XNA PGP (Professional Game Platform). That is my group. We write the code, libraries and tools that ship in the Xbox XDK and DirectX SDK. So we are the authors of XAudio, XAudio 2, XACT, XMP and are largely responsible for the overall architecture of the system. We're constantly working behind the scenes, adding features and improving efficiency.
We also look at the long-term picture of what tools and technologies we need to be working on for the future. The tools and technologies we provide are used by every Xbox 360 game that ships, allowing game developers to take full advantage of the system in an easy and efficient way. This has a huge impact on the final games that make it into customer's hands.
Of course there are account managers, Game Qualification (Certification), peripheral developers, silicon developers... Far too many to list, actually. But we're all dedicated to making sure that game developer can the most out of our platforms in the most efficient way.
We in PGP work extremely closely with all these groups and often the line between us is a blurry one. I should say that pretty much everyone on the PGP audio team is an active musician, too.
How much were you involved with the Xbox 360's audio hardware design?
BS: I was pretty much responsible for the overall audio system architecture, though of course many others were involved as well. That includes XMA, XAudio, XACT and how the pieces fit together. XMA was an interesting collaboration across a few groups at Microsoft. One of our silicon designers was working on Xbox silicon and thought we could put WMA decoding in hardware.
After some discussions it became clear that with a few modifications we could provide many more voices and take care of some specific gaming scenarios that WMA didn't address, like seamless looping by tweaking things here and there a bit. So we worked with the WMA team on those tweaks and XMA hardware was born.
How much has the industry changed in terms of manpower and budget compared to the previous generation?
BS: Teams, manpower and budget have followed the sheer increase in the size of projects. That's one of the reasons for our investments in high-level technologies such as XACT, that help streamline the process and workflow for creating next generation audio content.
How easy would it be for someone to get hold of an Xbox test or dev kit and train for audio integration using XACT? Are development licenses difficult to get, or can one borrow a 360 for educational purposes?
BS: We ship the exact same XACT for Windows as we do for Xbox 360, so you can easily get XACT for DirectX and run that. Everything you learn will be applicable to Xbox 360. If you really want to run on an Xbox 360, the easiest way is to download XNA Game Studio 2.0. That will let you run your own code on Xbox 360, provided you join the XNA Creators Club. That's the easiest and cheapest way to have direct hands on experience on an Xbox 360.
If you are a more serious audio developer, you can join the Xbox 360 Registered Content Creator Program. This is a program for industry professionals who are already working on an Xbox 360 title that lets you download the actual Xbox 360 XDK and also lets you purchase/license an Xbox 360 Developer Kit.