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Connecting Communities, Redefining Xbox Live: Chris Satchell On XNA

Microsoft's major announcement at this year's GDC was the launch of Xbox Live Community Games - but how will it work? Gamasutra quizzed XNA general manager Chris Satchell on this, Zune game creation, and a host of other topics.

At GDC, one of the biggest announcements was Microsoft's Xbox Live: Community Games, an extension of its indie-driven XNA development platform that will allow regular Xbox Live users to connect with independent, potentially non-commercial games on the service.

The major details of the upcoming Community Games Beta can be found in a Gamasutra sponsored feature posted during GDC, but separately of this Microsoft-supplied factual information, we had an opportunity to sit down with Chris Satchell, general manager of the XNA group at Microsoft, and pick his brain on the burgeoning service.

From its compatibility with three platforms -- Xbox 360, PC and Zune -- to its business model, to how the XNA development platform might be most effectively used, there was no shortage of questions to ask.

So what's the shape of the announcements you've made about extending XNA's reach?

Chris Satchell: The main thing that we did at the keynote -- and these are the bits that I get most excited about -- is that we're going to allow community games to be distributed on Xbox Live. If you think about that, there's 10 million active gamers on Xbox Live, and it's growing quickly. We're going to connect those 10 million gamers with creators out there that I think have got amazing ideas.

They just need an audience, so we're going to make that audience. That was the big news. For the first time ever, we're going to connect those two communities by allowing the independent community to distribute new games onto Xbox Live using the XNA development environment. That was one big piece of news.

The other big piece of news was that this year, you'll be able to use XNA Game Studio to build games on Zune. I don't know if you guys have seen that yet, but... that was another big piece of news. Now you can use XNA Game Studio to build on Windows, on Xbox, and later this year, on Zune. It's the same code that goes between them, so it's very easy to move games between platforms.

Obviously the Xbox 360 and PC have a lot of very high-end capabilities. What kind of capabilities, relatively, does Zune have? And when making a game between them, what issues have to be kept in mind?

CS: That's a really good question. Obviously, there's no way you can do on this what you can do on that. There's things like screen resolution that you have to keep in mind, and the fact that this doesn't have a 3D accelerator, so you're going to be software rasterizing everything. [Zune] has a pretty good processor, but it's still not even one of the cores on the 360.

Having said all that, you actually have quite a lot on Zune. Probably the best way to do it if you want to build across all three is to target this one, and then you'll find that you'll be able to go on Xbox and Windows without doing any code at all. You just move it across.

That's what we showed on stage. We had a game that we built with a team, just as a proof of concept. We built it on Zune, and we just had it running on Xbox and Windows. We had better graphics on Xbox and Windows. We put sidebars in to keep the aspect ratio the same.

So you can do the code, and use the same core code that's the part of the game that runs logic and stuff, but the graphics can actually be improved?

CS: Yeah. That's exactly what we did. We just had higher-res graphics for Windows and Xbox. It took no time.

I could see Geometry Wars on the Zune without...

CS: Oh, definitely. Apart from... you know that thing in the background? The grid in Geometry Wars that floats? That is one of the most mathematically intense applications on the Xbox 360. I know the guy who wrote it, and it was just fun how we did it, so it was a great exercise on our machine. So you might want to drop the background.

 


Members of the existing XNA Creator's Club get access to this new system for delivering their games, correct?

CS: Yeah. You'll also get something new, but this already exists. What you'll also get to do is take part in that review process that I'll talk about in a moment, and be part of the community review.

[Let's say] you've got [a game] running on Xbox 360, and it's nice and easy for you, since Windows and Xbox do that. It's easy to move it across. That's great. What you would do is go to our website where you would do your submission, get yourself a creator identity to join the club, and basically, if you have a game package, you upload it.

You enter some text about the game that describes it, put in some screenshots and a movie if you want, and then what you do is you go through that description process.

There's descriptors for violence, sex, and things like that. We're not saying you can't do those things, we're saying just to be honest about what's in your game. As you move along, we have something that tells you that you have "Cruelty Level 2" out of zero, one, two, and three. It's got a description of what that means. You have a level set. Once you've described your game, you submit it.

What happens is that the rest of the community gets a chance to review it. They're checking for two things. This is the peers in the community. What they're checking is one, you're following the basic ground rules. The basic ground rules are don't infringe on other peoples' IP -- you've just been creating, and you don't want your idea ripped off, so don't rip off other peoples'.

The second is there's some content that we think is so objectionable that... it's not about being creative, we just don't want it on our system. As long as you're not doing those things, you get to stage two, and stage two is really just the community saying, "Hey, your gameplay didn't crash, and the descriptions you said were a fair representation." Once enough people agree on that, you're clear to distributing.

We haven't looked at the business model side, because the big thing that the community's asked us for is, "We want the audience. We want to be able to get out and be able to distribute this game to these millions of people."

Once we come out of beta, and we've got that coming up in the spring, we can start making sure about the business model and all that stuff. But we haven't focused on that yet. What we've focused on is, "Let's take a pioneering step of opening that community up to the creative community."

Do you have confidence in the peer review community?

CS: What we've seen already with the 10,000 people already in the creator's club right now... and you see the work they do. The work's really good, and even better, they really care about that community. I think that's the thing.

I think in general, communities... if you put together a strong core, they self-police really well, and you get rules of conduct and people who care about it. So I feel really good that we're going to get good reviews and great content.

I have a question. I was looking at the early shots of the interface for the peer reviews site, and it had a list line-by-line of objectionable content that you're not going to allow on the thing.

CS: The objectionable content, or the sliders?

This was the objectionable content. The top one was "no child pornography." Easily comprehensible. I'm certainly not going to argue with that one, but the question is... we were looking at it, and we were like, "I wonder if Super Columbine Massacre RPG could be submitted as an XNA game?" Would you accept something like that, that teeters on that edge?

CS: I don't know enough about that game to be able to comment on it. There are always going to be things that are on the edge. Part of the peer review is that they're going to look at it and say what they think, and I think there's some boundary that the community will build for itself about what they think would fall into that category of not allowed.

Some of it's very obvious. Okay, we get that. But there's going to be a few games on there that the community will work out which side that falls on.

Hush

Who's going to be the arbiter? Do you think the community really will? What if some things are ambiguous, or there's compelling arguments one way or the other? Is there going to have to be an arbiter, you think? Something like Super Columbine, I think there's compelling arguments on both sides of why or why not that game... or something with a serious political message that critiques something.

It could have violence in it, but that violence might be integral to the message of the game. For example, there's a game called Hush, you play as an African mother hiding from soldiers who are going to massacre you. You rock your baby to sleep because if you don't keep your baby asleep, he'll start crying, and then... Some could argue it technically falls under the "crimes against humanity" provision in the XNA censorship guideline. What do you think about those issues?

CS: I think it's hard to comment on a per-case basis. I can talk more on what I generally feel about them.

Sure.

CS: What I think generally is that I am hoping that we do see games that push our medium and make a statement. I think that's something we can really get here, is pushing the boundaries of what our medium means, and have more social commentary about all sorts of issues.

I mean, I'd like to see more comedy and everything else, and I think there's just going to be a lot of good gameplay, but I think it would be good to see some serious topics tackled. I think there's going to be some things that... it's going to take a while for the community to work out which way they fall.

I will say that also once something is through the peer review, you still have all the normal processes. You can go complain about a piece of content and say, "I looked at this and I think it's objectionable." We have all the normal recourse that you would on Xbox, but we're hoping that doesn't get used a whole bunch.

We have a team that can go in and proactively look at things once it's published and if there were complaints about it. But my hope is that the community finds a balance and a responsibility, and they take that responsibility for themselves.

 


I think there will be eloquent defenders of any game that actually had some art and community. I have the same feeling as you that the community will be full of passionate people who probably would... yeah, it's an interesting question, as things get increasingly politicized.

CS: I'm hoping we also see some flat-out silly fun as well, like JellyCar. I like JellyCar.

So you've said you're not talking about the business model yet?

CS: We're not looking at a business model at the moment right now. We're focused on that distribution and building that pipeline to connect the creative community with the online Xbox Live community. It's not trivial. There's a lot of work that we need to do. That was the number one request of creators. "I want somewhere to air my work." We're just focusing on that at the moment.

Could someone launch into a publishing deal with another publisher via this platform?

CS: They could! I think it's going to happen. I think you're going to see people that build a great game, and it gets somewhere and starts getting downloaded and starts getting on a download list and people love it, and publishers are going to see it or they're going to shop it to publishers and say, "Hey, look. I've done the first two levels. I'd love to make this a full Xbox Live Arcade game, but I need someone to publish it."

And you'll see games that might break through the community to Xbox Live Arcade. You'll see talent get great and spotted on this, and make their way to triple-A games or Xbox Live Arcade games. I think you'll see that, and I encourage that. If this gets more talent and creativity into the industry, I think that's a great thing.

Something I'm curious about is... the goal is that once these games get through peer review, they're going to be playable by anyone, right?

CS: Yeah. Unless you have parental controls enabled.

What about the ESRB?

CS: Well, they can play as well. I couldn't resist.

I don't blame you. But on the Xbox, as a commercial content delivery system for games, everything has to go through the ESRB, and I believe that's a requirement on your end, in the TCRs, as well.

CS: Obviously, the ESRB are not going to review these games. I don't think that they're set up to review community content. Having said that, we have an agreement with the ESRB, and they've given us feedback. We've actually gone around to all the ratings bodies around the world, showing them what we're doing and getting their feedback.

Like PEGI and CERO?

CS: Exactly. They've been positive. They really like the idea that somebody's taking community content seriously, and is willing to step up and try to do something to think about how a community can manage its content. But they won't be doing any sort of review on the content themselves.

With regional and language issues, do you foresee that these games are going to move around the service, globally? The beta is restricted to the United States region, so you haven't really announced what your plans are for the global roll-out of this service.

CS: That's because we're still working on them.

JellyCar

Which is fair enough. But I guess my question is, do you think it's going to be really feasible for people to start getting games cross-region, or are we going to start seeing regionalization?

CS: I think you might see both. I'll take JellyCar as an example. I think JellyCar you could play worldwide, people would enjoy it, and it's going to make sense to everyone. But the other games might be very region-specific. That's really exciting.

It's funny, earlier on, I was talking to these two guys from Brazil. What they were excited about was, "Oh, this will be great. You mean that we can build games that we would enjoy in Brazil?" I was like, "Of course!"

The other fun is where you get creators in other countries who build something and ship it worldwide. You start to see some of the culture. Now, I'm not sure how fun their carnival game will be. They think it's going to be great, and that's cool. I want to see it. So I do think you'll see both.

I think you'll see games that take into account regional sensibilities, and other games where they try to have worldwide appeal, because it's like a worldwide playground.

 


Will there be access, I guess? Or will things have to be submitted to other regions? Is it on the user's end to say, "I want this game to go out to the other regions?"

CS: Yeah, you have to say. Let's say there were five different regions with their classifications. You as a creator would say, "Okay, I want it to be in every region, so I'm going to do the descriptions and hit my levels for each region." You might say, "I'm not localized," and I don't think a lot of community members are going to be able to do localization.

No, I don't know if they're going to be able to put their game into Portuguese for Brazil, for the most part.

CS: I think it might be difficult to get appeal in other regions, because there's probably going to be more than one other language. But I want to see how that turns out. At least we're going to have the tools and the pipeline in place to be able to have respect for each region. I think that's the important part.

It's interesting. There's always been the theory that Microsoft was going to do the "X Boy," but there's never been any real credibility to that theory, as far as I'm aware. Coupling XNA with Zune is an interesting way to still get into the handheld games space with an existing device and not have it be a potential problem or liability.

CS: It is interesting, because Zune was never designed for gaming. I don't know about you, but I love the way this control input feels, especially...

Right now in this game [Zauri] specifically, you mean?

CS: Well, in general. I love it in this game, but I've done it with other games before. Yeah, we've got some other games, and it works really well. We did this, and we were super surprised at how well it worked.

Yeah, this works. Using the thumbpad to actually navigate actually does work. It's responsive.

CS: We've got another one. We ported a Wolfenstein [3D level], and you turn the Zune sideways and use it to slide around the level. That's pretty cool as well.

The Zune had some feature upgrades to the service since the platform came out, but the original Zune and the new Zune... are there any hardware differences between the units?

CS: I think there are some hardware differences, but they basically have the same processor, though. The [hard drive and] flash device are the same, and in terms of screen resolution and processors... we haven't got one with us, but you can run this on the eight gig Zune as well.

Okay. The reason I'm asking, I mean, with PC, there's probably even more differentiation, but if there's different generations of Zune... obviously with iPod games, you have to have the right iPod to play the games, so it can maybe be a little bit of a hassle for the users.

CS: I think... well, obviously, there are probably [new] Zunes coming out this year, so I think the first few generations will work. The interesting one will be if it ever had any discontinuity. Imagine if you put 3D acceleration in the Zune.

3D acceleration for mobile devices is super-cheap now. There's some amazingly cheap graphics chips; actually, you get an all-in-one, processor and everything. It would be really interesting to see 3D acceleration. Of course, I'm a bit of a tech-head, so of course...

No, it could be really interesting, and I think the screen on the Zune, unlike the classic iPod, is big enough to satisfy more of a core gamer audience.

CS: You could do 3D on that and it would be fun.

It's bigger than one of the screens on the DS, anyway. Maybe not both together. Actually, the way it's vertically aligned, you could get some DS ports going, depending on the game.

CS: Or we could get all-new content, and it would be amazing!

Given how competitive the gadget market is right now, it leads to the race to add features to make devices more compelling, right? That's part of the reason to want to have XNA on the Zune, I would think.

CS: Yeah, well, I think also it's we're still coming at it from both angles. On one hand, I want to create the best game development technologies and give all the creative people power in managing the community, in as many outlets as possible.

On the other side, and this is the distribution side, and there's more choice in there for the core. I think there's going to be more fun concepts that you just won't get any other way, and I really see it as that hand. It's like, the best triple-A games, and the best independent games on Xbox Live Arcade, and the best community games. We come at it from both sides, and as you connect those communities, that's what a pipeline's about.

 


Obviously you're going to eventually release a new version of XNA. You're still on two, right?

CS: Two, yeah. It actually came out in December. It had a number of upgrades, but the biggest upgrade for two was the platform. You could do networking, and you could do Xbox Live for matchmaking, etcetera. That was really the big deal with Game Studio 2, and then this year, we're doing Zune development, so that's one of the big, major parts of the next major version.

And Schizoid's still not out. Is that still going to be the first XNA-powered game to hit Xbox Live?

CS: Yeah, I think it's getting really close, and yes, it will be. Have you played it recently?

No, I haven't.

CS: It's really good. It looks beautiful, and the co-op is just the coolest thing. The co-op's great, because how it works is you've got this red and blue thing, and the red can only eat reds, and the blue can eat blue, and they're all swarming around you, so you've got to constantly protect each other. It's a really fun game. So yes, Schizoid will be out soon. The Torpex guys have been great. They've just been polishing the hell out of it. It's a really nice game.

Blazing Birds

What about the two winners, The Dishwasher and Blazing Birds? When do they come out?

CS: James?

James Silva: When it's done. I'm mostly done with it, but networking I've been working on lately and it's interesting to develop. We'll see how it comes out.

CS: If you don't like James' answer, use mine. "When I'm finished with it!"

That's the id answer. You're following in their footsteps, James.

CS: And Blizzard.

Actually any of the really high-level PC developers. Valve is pretty much the same way.

CS: "When will you release it? When it's brilliant." I'm not quite sure. I know David's making great progress as well on Blazing Birds, but I don't know what his plan for release is.

That was people making XNA games prior to this community site. How do you review stuff like contests and games? You also spoke now about publishers cherry-picking talent they see. Is that something that Microsoft sees as also an opportunity within this community?

CS: I don't think for us that's the biggest opportunity. The biggest opportunity is taking those ten million people on Live and connecting them with those creators. I think that's the biggest opportunity. I think we'll still do competitions.

It'll be interesting to see if the community's super-engaged and energized, and how the competition plays with the distribution, and do you really need competition once you have distribution? Our AI challenge was super fun, and we got some amazing creativity out of that. Plus, there's something very interesting about tailoring competitions. Have you seen the AI stuff in the lobby?

No, I haven't had the chance.

CS: That was when we did the short competitions, so you're making a game with a strong AI component. The winners get to go for an internship at our MSR -- our research labs -- or Lionhead, because Peter Molyneux is really into AI.

And they've got some great games, like the sheepdog simulator. There's one [called iSheep] where it's a co-op game, and you're a sheepdog, and you get to herd sheep. It's all about the AI flocking for the sheep. It's really cool. So I think that can be good. We take a competition, and push people in a direction they might not have chosen for themselves, and they might surprise you by doing something really cool.

I know we've been focusing a lot on the community and the indie side, which is obviously really cool, and we're behind a lot too, since we just had the IGF and stuff. Aside from that, as a platform of development for professional projects made by publishers and developers, are you satisfied with how uptake has been on XNA and the progress that's making, both in terms of the products and how they're turning out, if you have access to any of those, and just the uptake and the response from established developers?

CS: Yes. We, in general, think that the XNA Game Studio is definitely targeted toward the community, and it's targeted towards people who make Xbox Live Arcade games. But far and away, most Xbox Live Arcade games are made on our professional toolset with our native code environment. So we offer these, but more of its focus is around enabling the community.

You've got to remember, though, that within XNA, we have a whole separate toolset that's for the professional developers. I'm super proud of it, and the guys have worked really hard on it, and that's the best professional toolset in the industry. That's what everyone's using to make those triple-A, blockbuster games. That's what we hear from developers, that it's far and away better than anything our competitors are doing. The good news is that it makes them easier for them to start building great games, not wrestling with our platform.

I've heard of developers using XNA as an easy way to start prototyping, then moving on from there, depending on what their target ends up being.

CS: You have a great point. I went on a developer roadshow that went around touring and talking to major development and publishing studios at the end of last year, and what was interesting was that nearly every publisher had done a project with XNA as a prototype.

The biggest problem they normally get is that they start prototyping, and of course it's a super-productive environment, and they don't really want to go back and go, "Ah, now I've got to go and re-implement in native code, because I want to do a big, disc-based game."

But yeah, they find it really good for just throwing ideas together and testing the gameplay, and going, "All right, that works. Now let's go implement it and upgrade the graphics and everything else."

And also I think that it'll probably help, because if there's one thing I hear from developers, it's that they need more ability on the front end of projects to get those ideas, explore their ideas, because the more pre-production they do, the better things go over the course of development. So it could be beneficial, to have an environment for people to prototype in. That has to be of use.

CS: Yeah, it's much easier to... it's funny, I think the industry is getting away from it somewhat, but eventually, that stage of huge design docs...you know, if you wanted to get a contract, you had to have a hundred-page design document!

One hundred? (laughs) Five hundred, seven hundred...

CS: I think what's happening is that people are getting in that, and it's like, "That doesn't mean anything. I want to get my hands on it. I want to play it, and I want to feel it." I think that prototyping really gets you there. Slowly, we're back on the contents. We didn't really want to see big design documents. What we really wanted to see was, "Show us the game."

I think big design docs -- and granted, I'm not a developer -- but I think they're often a waste of time.

CS: I think you want to get in and play the game. Now when you're making a working MMO, you've got some serious on paper, or spreadsheet, or database design to be able to balance that world out. But I don't want to read the doc that's just talking about why this will be fun to play. I want to play it. "Come on, let me play!"

I think what you talk about with people, and you get it from a lot of developers now, is that the play between the disciplines is how you get good games. People writing documents in Word doesn't play between disciplines.

CS: So I think if you can use XNA Game Studio as a way to do that prototyping and get those disciplines together, that's a win. Certainly on the professional side, and I think you can find that in our toolset. They get things running much faster, and they can start iterating on the game, versus fighting with the platform.

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