GDC 2005 – Microsoft Keynote

GDC 2005 opened with a keynote by Microsoft Vice President and Chief XNA Architect, J Allard. The highly choreographed presentation started with Allard’s reminiscing about playing pong and sharing the respect and admiration he had for Atari’s Nolan Bushnell, and ended with Samsung and Microsoft giving away 1,000 23” HDTV LCD televisions to lucky audience members. Audience members were noticeably excited when they left the keynote, especially those wearing the HDTV-winning yellow badges, myself included.

The real meat of Allard’s keynote however, was the theme of the “HD Era”, which is Microsoft’s vision for the future of entertainment. In case you wanted to know, Microsoft has dubbed our current era as the 3D Era.

Allard identified three trends that are with us now (at least among early adopters), namely high definition (HD), being connected, and self expression. These trends are the ones leading us into the HD Era.

HD refers to the big picture – 16:9 display ratios, wide screen, more detail, more visual content, while being connected ties into the growing adoption of cell phones, Internet connections, broadband, WiFi, ubiquitous e-mail access, and more. As examples of self expression Allard pointed out that current technology users strive for things to help them express themselves, with things as simple as ring tones, as personal as tattoos and body piercings, or as involved as tricking out a car with custom rims, paint jobs, and engine tweaks. Kitting out of cars is a very popular feature in racing video games as well, according to Allard.

Allard contrasted the 3D Era to the forthcoming HD Era as follows:

3D Era HD Era
Online as novelty Online as necessity
Mass entertainment Personal entertainment
Wired Wireless
Multiplayer Multiplatform
On the disc On the disc and on demand
Communities consume Communities create

Although Allard said he could not discuss Xenon (the next version of Xbox) at the keynote, he said all would be revealed at E3 in May. However, he intimated that the next Xbox would truly usher in the HD Era and offered a lot of buzz words about what Xenon would offer to users, such as “designed with software in mind”, “balance”, “power’, “headroom”, and “familiarity”. Hopefully the description offered at E3 will have less fluff and more substance.

To eliminate many of the hurdles that exist in having the average consumer adopt technology such as the Xbox (and more importantly, Xenon), Microsoft is working on standardizing interfaces to provide consistency in operation of devices and games – and more specifically, consistent across all HD games running on Microsoft products. Allard proceeded to provide some examples of the new user interface he referred to as “Xbox Guide”. He showed how the Guide could be used to communicate with other players on-line, how it stored biographical information about the user (including gaming achievements and statistics), and how it allowed for customization with features such as custom music for games – another feature Allard said that research showed as being a key selling point for a number of major games.

To enable more personalization, Xbox Guide will also allow developers to sell features and add-ons, such as car mods, via microtransaction payment, thus extending Xbox into an eCommerce platform. Music can be purchased on-line via the same mechanism.

Allard’s goal is to have the next generation platform be so popular that it would be possible to sell 20 million units of a given game title instead of the 2004 record of 2 million.

However, in order to make that happen, developers need to develop ever more complex and challenging titles and content for such new platforms, and with development staffs and budget already blooming beyond control, that is a potential pitfall.

Tying into this, earlier in the week Microsoft announced the XNA Studio development system – a tool which Allard said will help developers develop games for the next Xbox and for Windows systems by allowing teams to better collaborate and significantly streamline their development efforts. He added that a beta of XNA Studio would be available at Microsoft’s web site in April, and that at next year’s GDC keynote he would ensure that every attendee received a copy of the latest beta release in their bags.

Every developer we spoke to at GDC complained about the incredible complexity of managing the sort of project necessary to produce next generation games, If XNA Studio delivers all that Allard promises, it will be a real boon to developers.

In terms of the Xbox Guide, one certainly can’t argue with the fact that there is too much user interface disparity across games today, but having Microsoft impose interface “standards” doesn’t seem like an ideal solution either. But Microsoft usually sees things rather differently when it comes to “standards”. For example, during his presentation, Allard referred to Windows as an “Innovation Engine”, something a lot of developers in surrounding seats chuckled at – but he has a point of sorts. Microsoft’s brute force approach to creating de facto standards has forced developers to focus on Windows as a key development platform – kicking and screaming all the way, mind you, and with XNA, it ties in efforts to develop games for Xbox too.

But, the fact that you still cannot reliably get a popular game to run across plethora of PC configurations is a testament to the inherent instability of large, complex systems with variable components, no matter how many de facto standards are part of the equation.

Whether Allard’s and Microsoft’s vision of the HD Era comes to fruition will be determined by the market, but it’s rarely safe to bet against Microsoft when they set themselves to achieve large change. People discounted the Xbox when Microsoft first announced that effort – those people are not laughing at Microsoft now.