The YouTube of Games: Microsoft Game Studio's Shane Kim on XNA Studio Express (Pt. 1)

By Brandon Sheffield

With the release of XNA Game Studio Express just behind them, Gamasutra met with Microsoft Game Studios' corporate vice president Shane Kim, and Microsoft Game Developer Group director of marketing Dave Mitchell in the heat of the 2007 Game Developers Conference.

In this extensive interview, we discussed the Xbox 360's current placement in the market, the possibility of making harddrives mandatory, the state of Microsoft Game Studios in Japan, future Zune connectivity with the 360, Kim's thoughts about the competition, and the future of XNA Game Studio Express, both commercially and for educational purposes.

Gamasutra: So the big thing you're pushing this GDC is XNA?

Dave Mitchell: [XNA Studio Express] really is a follow-through of what we started talking about in 2004. We got up on stage and talked about the next generation being defined by hardware, software, and services, and at that point in time, we introduced XNA as an initiative and the software offerings that would come behind it to address the software component.

Certainly, with the console being in the hardware space and in services we've got a fantastic service in Xbox Live, and we're bringing that on to the Games for Windows platform now as well; that's all going very well, and Shane will be addressing that too. On the tools side, however, we're extremely pleased that today -- fast-forwarded three years from 2004 -- XNA is now at a point where three out of four game developers are leading using XNA tools for their next generation console development. They're leading on the Microsoft platforms using our tools.


Dave Mitchell (via 4gamer.net)

I think you had a chance to see that the games we're releasing this year have got some fantastic stories, and great storytellers now telling their stories in their games on these platforms using those tools. So we're extremely excited and pleased about that, and want to talk to you in more detail about what that is, but also at the same time the Game Studio Express. I don't know if you had a chance to see what's going on upstairs [with the "Dream-Build-Play" contest].

We've previously talked about that on Gamasutra, and have since carried on with that. Since we shipped the product in December, we've had 250,000 downloads of that retail product. That, by the way, is an order of magnitude larger number than professional game developers in the industry, so that represents a significant number of people actually creating games. Take a look at where we are with universities and what's happening on the community front. There are lots of different areas we're going into as to what XNA offers in terms of tools and technologies, and that's what we're talking about here at GDC this year.

Shane Kim: Certainly that's an area where we feel like we have a strong competitive edge over Sony. It's part of our heritage as a company. We obviously have this legacy as a platform company with Windows, and we understand how to work well with developers, and we've carried that over into the gaming space. That's an important message, an important achievement. Dave talked about three out of four game developers leading on Microsoft platforms. We never would've been able to say that two years ago. I think that's just testimony to not only the commercial success of the platforms we're having, but to how much focus and attention we put on working with the game creators, because they're the ones who create the magic.

GS: Do you know at this stage how you're going to live up to XNA's YouTube-like potential? Do you know yet how games are going to be implemented in terms of being able to be downloaded by users?


SK: We're not ready to talk about those plans in detail yet, but, as an update, we are definitely making progress. We feel even more confident in the fact that we'll be able to start delivering solutions to not only our creators out there, but also to gamers who want an alternative type of creative content.

The backbone of that entire service will be Xbox Live. We just announced this week that we've exceeded six million members for the Xbox Live network. Games for Windows Live is now taking that service over to the Windows platform, where we've got more than two million gamers. If you combine those two platforms, that ability to use that as a backbone -- as an infrastructure -- to deploy community-created games -- that's what we're excited about. Enabling that "YouTube for gamers" model is completely based on an integrated experience and is possible for all commercial games and community games.

GS: Do you have any stats yet on what the percentage of the downloads are, with regards to either average users or developers?

DM: I can tell you anecdotally that based upon forum activity and the types of games people are submitting and sharing, that the vast majority of them are first-time game developers. We're seeing lots of testimonials being posted where users say, "I've tried developing with other tools before, but this is the first time I've succeeded and I actually have a game." That excitement just carries on, and they're making a second and a third game as they get better and better and learn more and more.


 

GS: Given that a hard drive is necessary for this, is there any movement within Microsoft toward always bundling the hard drive with the console? It seems to be one area where Sony is taking the lead in terms of developers utilizing that.

SK: No, I think we feel pretty good about the strategy we chose to go with for the Xbox 360, which provides more choice to consumers. Developers need to address the fact that there will be scenarios where there won't be a hard drive, but for a lot of customers, the premium they would pay for the 60-gig version of the PlayStation 3 -- or even the Xbox 360 -- is pretty significant.

We're all trying to get to the point where we will generate volume to win this generation, and you have to reach the mass market. For a lot of those people, it's going to be more about price point than it's necessarily going to be about having a hard drive, so we want to be sure that we can address their needs in terms of providing choices for them. We feel great about the strategy we have chosen.

GS: Do you know how many core systems are being sold versus premium systems?

SK: Yeah, we do, but we don't talk about that publicly. To be fair, I think at the price points that we're at, we're talking more about the core gamer audience. They tend to gravitate more toward the hard drive than even the people who are buying the core system who see value in terms of adding storage capabilities. The hard drive accessory has also been very successful. But we certainly believe that that composition will change as we drive more and more into the mass market. Having that choice is a good advantage for us.

GS: Why was the Live Arcade size bumped from 50 megabytes to just 150 megabytes? It seems like a very small step up, considering the availability of large memory cards now.


Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, among the first titles to break the Live Arcade 50MB file size limit.

SK: It's three times the size! One thing that we're trying really hard to make people understand is that 50 megabytes has been plenty of room for a lot of people to operate in. What we want to be careful about is that we don't want to see a flood of big games before peoples' storage or bandwidth are available to handle that.

Now, we're obviously testing in other areas with the Video Live Marketplace, and so forth. That is, as you start to see bigger and bigger content we'll be able to push that, but today we feel pretty good about bumping that from 50 to 150. I think the vast majority of people are still going to hover around that 50 megabyte limit, even though there's more storage available.

GS: It just seemed a little arbitrary to me, since you can already download things that are so much bigger, and I don't think that anyone minds doing that.

SK: For the audience, especially when you think about going into the mass market, as we add more content to Xbox Live Arcade -- which is something that we absolutely have to do -- more of that content will be targeted toward a broader audience. You will look at people who will not want to deal with long download times, because if you want to download a hi-def movie, that takes a fair amount of time to do. Which is okay for a big movie experience, but for a lot of people who want quick and easy, in-and-out entertainment experiences like you can get on the web today. For example, they're not going to want to spend that much time downloading. So I think that's where the balance trick comes in.


GS: At the Independent Games Summit, I heard a few developers saying that certification for Live Arcade was taking longer than what they were expecting, and longer than what Microsoft was telling them. What is making that complicated at this point?

SK: Well, I don't know about Microsoft telling them whether it was going to take longer or shorter, so I can't address that part of it. But I will say that most customers are happy that we certify the content that goes onto the system, and that we try to ensure quality from a technical standpoint. Maybe some of these game developers are not used to having to go through that process, and thought it would go faster than it would.

We certainly don't feel bad about putting a certification process in place, and I think it's just a matter of time before people get used to it. Certainly we've built the capacity to be able to certify the titles. What's happening is that you have a lot of newer, independent, smaller developers who aren't used to going through the full console certification process.

GS: Some people are specifically saying that they were hearing three months and then it would be five, and that was echoed a few times by a couple of others.

SK: Well, the certification process for big retail games can take that long, so I'm not sure what they're defining as the certification process.

DM: I mean, to change the point, we certify triple-A games in significantly less time than that, so it's much more one of those cases where we emphasize and try to garage the quality in game titles before they go out to consumers and therefore drive the consumer experience. We take great pride in that, and that's different from a lot of other sites.

SK: For the game development community, though, I think one thing that should give people optimism is that we've got an amazing game developer group. The best part of that it's really an outreach community, so it's a matter of educating that community as well. What our certification process looks like here is that there are a number of certification requirements that people need to address.

We certainly went through that one for ourselves at Microsoft Game Studios over the course of the Xbox and the Xbox 360, and we've learned how to compress certification times doing smarter things up front: pre-certification tests and so forth. I think it's just a matter of time before the larger developer community learns that as well.

GS: Do you think that the current 'backlash' against the PlayStation 3, especially in Europe, is helping Xbox 360 sales?

SK: I feel more confident about our competitive position today than when we launched the program. We've already got ten million units out there, we've got six million members on Xbox Live, we will have 320 Xbox 360 games available for customers by the end of this year. We're the leading game development platform, and I think we have the best exclusive content. Certainly I feel like we're executing our strategy, and it's running on all cylinders. Sony has helped us with their own missteps, and I'd be foolish not to say that it's not helping us. That's fine. I feel better about our competitive position than when we launched the platform.


Shadowrun

GS: What do you think of the -- perhaps premature -- negative reaction to Shadowrun so far? Some people are upset that it's not an RPG.

SK: That reaction has been around for a long time, so we've had a long time to deal with it. I think as people get their hands on it, they'll realize that yes, it's not an RPG, but that the FASA team has done a really good job of setting a first-person shooter within the Shadowrun universe.

Ultimately, what's going to win them over or not is how great of a game it is. I think that people who are getting their hands on Shadowrun are realizing that it's a showcase title for cross-platform play online, and it's very important for us because it's how we're launching Live for Games for Windows, with head-to-head play with people on Xbox Live. That I think is what excites me, and will be what gets people over the hump to realize it's not a classic RPG that people expected.

We've had a lot of people who are big Shadowrun fans go into FASA and say, "No way am I going to like this game," and they've come away sold. So, it's the kind of thing where, unfortunately, we showed the title prematurely at E3, so it's going to be the kind of thing where we have to work really hard to get it in the hands of people and let the word of mouth spread. We've been on press tours here in the U.S. and Europe over the past couple of weeks and I think reception has been really good, but you almost have to do that person by person.

[In the second half of this interview, to be published next week, Kim discusses Peter Jackson, the upcoming episodic Halo content, and why he does not consider Nintendo's Wii as competition for the Xbox 360.]

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