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Microsoft's Dave Mitchell reveals extensive details on the recently-launched XNA Studio Express and Creators Club, including IP rights, engine specifics, and Xbox 360 universal sharing plans, in this in-depth Gamasutra interview.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

December 15, 2006

25 Min Read

On December 11, Microsoft launched both XNA Studio Express and the XNA Creators Club, allowing consumers to create Xbox 360 games in a managed code environment and share them with other Creators Club members. Following the announcement, Gamasutra spoke with Dave Mitchell, Director of Marketing for Microsoft's Game Developer Group, who gave us extensive details on the particulars of this unique service.

Gamasutra: First of all, brief us on yesterday's announcement.

Dave Mitchell: This really marks a very significant milestone for us. It's a major milestone and delivery of a vision that we started articulating back in August at our Gamefest conference, and one in which we're really looking to empower consumers as creators. If you look to other parallel industries, say music or movies, and take YouTube even, although it's been in the news for quite some time now, you take a look at the phenomenon as it has sort of unfolded there and you see the power and capability of consumers once they get access and means to create videos on their own, and have a place to really upload that to a widespread audience and the type of mechanism that really starts to unfold there. You get great content sort of bubbling to the top; the top piece of video that's on the site has something like 34-35 million views on it, and stuff that's really not that good tends to fall off by the wayside. This is something that we're really looking to do through XNA Game Studio Express and the Creators Club in particular, but that's sort of longer term.

Actually that's the third installment of the vision that we're looking to bring about. The first one certainly is, in looking at YouTube, how was that really enabled? The answer there lies in ease to use, and affordable and accessible tools and technology. The measure of a lot of users creating content today would have that capability if a camcorder or a webcam or even the software to edit that were costing thousands of dollars as it was not that too long ago. We are taking the technology in the same direction for gaming, and the first pillar that we're focusing on in delivery through XNA Game Studio and XNA Creators Club is focused on tools and technology. Starting yesterday we shipped the full release of a product that allows easy game development for both Windows and now for the first time in the history of video game consoles; you get to do it on the retail Xbox 360 console as well. We've been excited and the community has been excited with the release, and it's just been fun watching the community sort of take that and see all of the people talking about their projects being moved over that were originally built over on Windows using the beta, and now working on an Xbox 360.

And the second part of the vision really is all about content. It's great that we've got the tools, and we feel really good about what we're providing here, but the next piece of it really is how do we arm and equip all of the creators in order for them to really be successful with content. This comes in the form of the value added to the rolling momentum that we're going to be instilling in terms of value into the XNA Creators Club, and will come in the form of an online community with access for the members to thousands upon thousands of pieces of content of Microsoft, as well as third party content partners that we're establishing with; Turbosquid being one of the first ones that we announced as part of the press release yesterday.

It's also about the partnership enabling your success, so lots of tutorials, lots of white papers, lots of videos and how-to's in terms of techniques, samples, starter kits including source code as well as game assets, as well as different ideas that are thought provoking as far as ways to take a simple gameplay concept and take it into multiple directions. These are the types of things that we really feel are a necessary investment that we as a company need to make in the community of creators before they are able to contribute the content so that the broader consumer community are going to be able to enjoy and play some really great content.

This brings me to the third component of the vision, which is that end-user community. How do we build out what we sort of referred to back at Gamefest as the “YouTube for Games,” so that we can create this massive gathering place and venue where game developers using XNA Game Studio Express can put their game up, and millions upon millions of people can have an opportunity to play that game, to rate that game, and be able to add it to their favorites or bring it down onto their Xbox 360 or even play it on Windows. It really doesn't matter, but having access to the games that are created by the community...that's our long term vision, in a nutshell, where starting off with tools and technology enabling and empowering the consumers to become the creators, then partnering on the content side in terms of enabling greater success by helping them, educating them how to make the games, and then ultimately provide them a mechanism where the broad sharing can really take place.

A component of that last element of the strategy we would also want to bake in a business model that allows the community of game developers to realize some revenue. If your game is able to garner millions of people downloading and playing it and enjoying the game, our fundamental belief and design philosophy of “YouTube for Games” is going to be building out a revenue share type of model where if millions of people are playing, you should be able to drive into work or school or wherever you might be going in a brand new shiny Ferrari, or getting enough funds to invest in paying back college tuition, or setting up college tuition for your children, if that's the case. But we really want to build it in such a way where there is a revenue payout scheme that's taken into consideration, and we make it more inclusive of the creators who are adding value back into that community.

This brings me to also a competition that we announced yesterday. The official launch of it is in early January. The contest is really about the notion of “Dream-Build-Play.” There are a lot of dream games floating around in peoples' minds, and we really want them to act on it using the XNA Game Studio Express. The competition is really designed to bring that out. The winner of that is going to have a remarkable chance to get their game published on Xbox Live Arcade. And this is going to be a partnership that we are going to enter into with them, where we will work with them to finish the game, get it to the point where it's ready to get up on Xbox Live Arcade, and then have the opportunity to share in the revenue that it's generated from sales that result from there. So we're really excited about being able to bring this full circle, being able to provide those tools like I said, helping with the content, and helping to build the community and the outlets so these great games can really be shared. As a result, looking for great innovations, and sparks of creativity that we know and have already seen examples of waiting to come out from the community. So we're very excited about being able to make that happen, and it's started as of yesterday.

The last thing is, right now given the time zone difference in the UK, we actually have a launch event taking place, and we've had a number of things happening throughout this whole week to commemorate our launch. The UK event is particularly interesting given that we have Peter Molyneux delivering a keynote addressing the needs and the health of the talent pipeline entering into the industry, as well as the type of creativity and how do we get more creativity into the industry so we're not dealing so much with 'sequelitis' or proven formulas and recipes for success and instead try to break the mold and create new molds. So he'll be addressing that, as well as Rare UK Studios is contributing a number of workshops this week, inviting the community and walking them through XNA Game Studio Express. They've created a bunch of samples, and they're letting the people walk away with those samples as great foundations and starting points for creating their own great games for creating using XNA Game Studio Express and the XNA Creators Club.

That's a really quick round trip of all of the things that we're doing, and it brings you hopefully up to date, and hopefully you can see we've got a lot of exciting things. We haven't been idle, and have been very busy, and we feel that we're bringing just a tremendous revolutionary product technology and capability that is absolutely going to result in a change in the industry where we look to consumers more as partners rather than just pure consumers.

GS: How big is the download going to be on the 360 side?

DM: I really should know this, and I will follow up. It's small, I know it's small. Like less than 10 megabytes or so.

GS: So you would not necessarily need to have the hard drive, or would you?

DM: The hard drive is a required component. And the reason why it's a requirement isn't so much because of the size of download, but it's really because when you develop your games on the Windows PC side, where the games actually get pushed through onto the Xbox 360 is on the hard drive.

GS: Is there any intention to make the games more easily shareable at any time? Because I know they have to meet certain requirements before games can be shared and played.

DM: Oh absolutely. We're not trying to restrict the sharing, because that's going to bring an undesired sort of restriction on the creativity. If you can't share the creativity, what's really the rational or reason why you want to invest in bringing a game to market, or in this case into the community? And so, it's just our evolution of that vision that I talked about, the three components. Right now the tool enables the games to be created for both platforms more readily.

In 2007, where you're really going to see us investing is on that sharing point. First it's going to be about how do members of the Creators Club really share games more easily among one another, because we're seeing a lot of desire an interest and people doing that today. And then moving beyond that, once they want to take it past that threshold out to the end consumers, and like in this case, I make a game and I send it over to you to have you check out my game, and you're not a member of the Creators Club, I'd still love for you to be able to play it. That's absolutely the scenario that we want to support and start working on and enabling that in 2007.

GS: And will you be able to do things like, send people on your list invites to play your game?

DM: Right now we are working on the specific implementation of how this stuff will play out. What we're looking to do is take absolute advantage of the fantastic infrastructural in Xbox Live that we have today today and the 4 million subscribers that are connected to Xbox Live. It's a wonderful managed experience that as you know, you've got a friends list, they can leave you messages, they can leave you voice messages, it's a great system. But beyond that, wouldn't it be great to your point, that they could actually leave you a message that has a game embedded in it that is a XNA game that they've created or that they discovered, and they want you to check it out. It's from a trusted, reliable source, so you say “Why not, I'll play this.” That's a scenario that we've also drawn up on this side and storyboarded. It's one we're looking at whether or not we can support.

I think it's a fantastic scenario, to be able to create a game and with everyone on my friends list including my family, why shouldn't I be able to, to use J Allard's term, “squirt it over to them” over Xbox Live? And the next time they sign on, there it is. Or potentially, I shoot them an email, and they have the option of saying “Ok, I want to play your game, and I want to choose to play it on Windows. Or I want to play it on Xbox Live.” We're looking at a lot of ways in which users discover these, and where and how they want to play it, and we want to make that as friction free as possible and easy to distribute and share.

But now we're getting into that third component of the vision that's going to take more time, because much like Xbox Live, we want to make sure we offer it in a very managed, and very secure manner as well too. The last thing I want to hear is that I discover later on that you've got a game, and there's something malicious in it, or some undesirable content that you weren't expecting. There's a lot of investment that we're making along those lines to make sure that you get a great experience, great game quality, that you get exactly what is you expect when you load one of our games.

GS: So, and I know this is way far off, but what are you thinking as far as monetizing the games that will be popular? Will the impetus be on the person that made the game to sign an agreement with you or will they be contacted retroactively, if you have any idea?

DM: We've got ideas. We've got a lot of different directions that we're exploring. Some of those ideas I'll share with you you, though again with the caveat that none of these are the direction yet as far as which ones we're going to pursue.

But in terms of ideas, one of the ways is potential advertising revenue. We could have ads and stuff in there, so the more people in your game, the more ad revenue that is generated, and we could do an advertising revenue share with the creator of that content. Another potential opportunity could be, you sign a distribution agreement, we've got the network and you get a piece of the distribution, while there may be a nominal fee. Another may be that we have this great resource called Xbox Live Marketplace, and you just put the game up there, you set the price, and people could download it. I mean, the great thing about all of this is that we have such fantastic infrastructure in Xbox Live and Xbox Live Marketplace that we can evaluate and explore and lot of different and interesting directions of how we can take this as a business model that I think a lot of folks in the industry just aren't able to do.

We're maximizing that opportunity, we're looking at this all across the board, but the one thing that I can tell you is that we're going to be looking very diligently at ensuring that where possible that the owner of the IP retains ownership rights of the IP. We want to make sure that if the creator of the content is successful, they are absolutely garner a piece of the revenue that they're driving. What that revenue exactly looks like, we don't know yet. But they are absolutely at the core of the model, and we are making sure that they are a partner in the success of this community and the success of the sharing model we're building out.

GS: So as part of that, are you going to have to enforce IP related issues, such as Tetris clones and whatnot? Is there going to be some sort of monitoring of that?

DM: That's one of the things that we're focusing a lot of attention on. Aside from IP, there are a whole bunch of other issues associated with type of content. Is it appropriate? Is it not? Is it going to be rated? Is it not? These sorts of things. The one thing that I can tell you is that we are going to have to have some resources dedicated to...I don't want to say moderating the content because we do not want to get into the content moderating business, but if you look at the Xbox 360, and the quality of content that gets onto the console and the quality control process that goes into it, we're going to be looking a lot to the model where it works, where it doesn't, and how much of that do we really want to bring down into a community and a level of sharing onto the 360. What is relevant that needs to be in at that point? It's probably safe to say that there will be some kind of policing activity, but what exactly that is, we're not sure yet.

GS: And obviously with this sort of thing there will be a larger volume of content coming up I would assume, and so I'm wondering what you think the effect will be on Xbox Live Arcade content, especially given that Microsoft seems to have locked into this “one game every Wednesday” kind of thing, which seems a bit slow, especially compared to what users will probably be generating.

DM: You are absolutely right in that there is going to be a lot more content generated by the community, because at the end of the day we're really empowering a huge amount of individuals out there as creators of content to contribute it into this community network. A couple of the things that we're doing to make sure this all works well with our existing established retail business, one is that whatever we do from a community sharing perspective plays well and plays into the strategy and vision for Xbox Live Arcade.

Now, take a scenario where an end user creates a game, and it happens to be a runaway success. One of the things that we're looking actively at as a potential scenario is how do we identify games like that, as a good piece of content that we never expected, or as a gameplay type that might never go through a standard publisher licensing agreement model - how do we get that promoted or try to recruit that into an Xbox Live Arcade type of content, and get a publishing agreement on that? How do we make sure that the content that's going through doesn't dilute or muddy the visibility that Xbox Live Arcade games have?

One of the ways in which we can do that is not have those games available in the same way, or the same catalog certainly, so that there isn't a lot of noise compared to the commercial retail titles. We're looking at a lot of different ways of how these things sit side by side, and can highly compliment one another, and add more value and, ultimately, at the end of the day more choice to consumers. Ultimately we are empowering that end consumer with a real wide selection of retail as well as community games, and you can pick and choose what it is you want to go off and get.

GS: If you can say, what are some of the most impressive games you have see so far from the beta, and also where can we see those because I've seen them on some specific blogs from people who have made them, but there's not a real venue to look at those yet?

DM: One of the things is we did, and this was about a month ago, we went and found a bunch of really cool community games, as well as some of the starter kits that we were working on, and we created a montage video. The second is that there are a couple of community sites where you can see some of the works actually for yourself. One is a site called Xbox 360 Homebrew, and the really cool thing about this site is that they are are about to wrap up; this week they are doing their final judging and it's a community voting process for a number of games that the community had submitted. And if you go through and just look at the different project profiles, I think you're going to see about 18 different projects on the site, and some of those are actually pretty interesting.

One guy has a project on there that's a puzzle game but you are the main character in the game and you're a butterfly. You've got another game on there that is a 2D side scroller game, and the main character is a snowboarder and the goal is to go off and do tricks. Another game has you as a program that is navigating a circuit board, so you've got all this electronic wiring and you've got to figure out the ways to go as it uses real PC circuitry as the game playing field. And these people tend to be better in terms of programming than they are in the content creation side, so the games may not look as polished as an Arcade game or retail title, but the amazing thing about it is that these individuals in the community are really pushing the envelope in different ways in completely unproven and uncharted waters, which is exactly what we anticipated would happen if we allowed them to create games.

GS: And the videos, tutorials, and white papers and whatnot, are those going to be available free or will there be a charge associated?

DM: There are two levels. We are certainly going to be providing a number of these resources for free. Everything on the Windows side is for free, you can download the tool, you can build games for the Windows environment, and there's no cost, no obligation to do so on the Windows environment. We want to make sure people are successful there as well, so there will be some tutorials, samples, starter kits, and videos that will help you be successful.

On the XNA Creators Club, this is a membership, and in many ways it's an investment in really learning the techniques, the trade, different genres of game development, and these are for really the more serious people who want to make games. It's not just about creating games for the Xbox 360. It's really about access to premium content, premium models, premium textures, premium videos and tutorials, and more advanced topics, and ultimately the members of the Creators Club are going to be the ones at least initially that are going to be able to go through this process of getting their game out into the wider community marketplace.

GS: And what's the difference between the Studio Express and the Professional service?

DM: Right. We've announced XNA Game Studio Express, that's the product we released yesterday, as well as XNA Creators Club, and that really a product targeting hobbyists, academics, and small indie game developers. People who otherwise would not have access to the Xbox 360 developer kit or ever write an Xbox game. Now we're providing them with a capability of doing that in a pretty unique way. The Professional product is built upon that technology, but is for commercial game developers and commercial game development. And so you can imagine for example that an Xbox Live Arcade title that's going to go through full certification and become a retail title on Xbox Live Arcade or even pressed onto physical media, that requires a different level of requirements and also requires access to Xbox Live. There's all those APIs, achievements, leaderboards, the whole nine yards, and that's what Game Studio Professional provides. It provides all the remaining pieces, the bells and whistles, all the necessary tools and libraries, and the certification capability to make a commercial title on the 360.

GS: What do you think of the what the PlayStation 3 has been doing with Linux and such? Do you think that they are going for a similar route here?

DM: On the one hand I've got to commend them for moving up their platform there, but we really don't view what Sony and PlayStation 3 and particularly the Linux solution that they are making available, we don't really view that as a competitive offering or trying to do something in the same vein. The fundamental difference here is not just about providing access to a platform, it's really about making an investment in something, and ensuring that people who will want to make games on your game console are successful in doing that.

And so if you look at our strategy and you look at our vision, we are doing things that really, whether they are not talking about it yet or don't have plans to, we really don't know and I really can't speak to that, but what we are focused on doing is providing great tools at a free or low price point that are going to enable consumers to be absolutely successful at creating games for both the Windows and the Xbox 360 platforms. And looking forward in that vision, in terms of how we really enable the broad YouTube type experience for games, but also one that fits in with the business model, so there are financial rewards, there are a theme of components to it, there is broad distribution and sharing, and there's certainly the ability to create your game, and games that you maybe never thought you even have the capability or skills to create. And so if you look at the whole breadth of the offering, and the technical depth of what we are looking to bring to the market, it's not even the same thing as what those guys are doing right now.

GS: Where will all the game data be stored? Is the user created content stored on the user side or is Microsoft hosting it?

DM: We have not resolved that yet. The data in terms of where the games are stored and how they are distributed, what the discovery mechanism and interface and all those things, we have not resolved any of that yet.

GS: What is the complexity of 3D games without an engine, and more specifically will you need to license an engine or can you make textures and things without going through Turbosquid? And if so, what is the pricing model?

DM: First of all, you do not require a 3D engine to make pretty high end games using XNA Game Studio Express and XNA Creators Club. In the montage video, one of the games that I'd like for you to take a look at is at the very end of it. The game, when it comes up, is the 3D racing game called XNA Racer. In particular with that game, it's a pretty richly rendered car racing simulation. It's got a lot of arcade quality to it, you're racing on a race course that's more like a roller coaster ride than an actual race track, and you're doing time trials on the thing. But if you look at the world it's got a lot of sort of lens flair effects, bloom effects, and HDR. As our graphics programmer puts it, its got the “graphics bling jargon” enabled on this game. And that was all done doing just our XNA Game Studio Express game environment, no 3D engine whatsoever, and yet that game is pushing 30 solid frames per second 2 times anti aliasing and native 1080p output.

GS: So it can be pretty much entirely user created if people choose to?

DM: One hundred percent. And whatever favorite 2D texture editing tool you have, including Microsoft Paint, you can use that to create textures if you want and use them in your game. Because one of the really cool areas that we invested a lot of technology and time into in XNA Game Studio Express is the content pipeline. How you get your content into the game, into your code, and work with it. And we're really proud of the work that we've done there. We did a sampling at our open house last night where we took a model, just a random model and we were just rendering it out in a game environment in less than five minutes just to show people how easy it is.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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