The first keynote address of the Game Developers Conference kicked off the event properly today, with Microsoft's John Schappert stepping up to deliver "A Future Wide Open: Unleashing the Creative Community".
Although John Schappert had been billed as the speaker, Microsoft relied heavily on its developer friends to carry the keynote, as gameplay demos mixed with lighting technology, cute spoof documentaries shared the stage with XNA tools, and new game announcements and brave handheld ambitions were unveiled.
Schappert took the stage relaxed and calm, gently mocking the headline-grabbing antics of these show-boating affairs. "As a new guy here at Microsoft there's an expectation that I'll come out here with a gaming tattoo, or give away a truck load of HDTVs. Sadly, I have neither — no tats, no TVs," he said. The stage wasn't drenched with branding either. This was a confident and welcoming start to the hour long presentation.
As head of Microsoft's Xbox Live services, Schappert launched into the theme of the keynote — developers are key to the Xbox 360's success, and it's the community, collaboration and camaraderie between the two that is singling Xbox 360 out from its competitors. This keynote wasn't a pissing contest, this keynote was a love-in. By the end of the session, all of "our good friends" would have wandered on to the stage and showed off their wares to enthusiastic applause.
"For all of the hardware innovations and all of the runaway growth of our industry, it's the developers that are the true pioneers of our industry," stated Schappert. "It's my top priority to invest in your success and your creativity."
With a recap of 2007, Schappert rolled out a list of big-hitting games that Microsoft has been proud to see running on their console. The big hitters of last year — Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, BioShock, Assassin's Creed - "led the way for a holiday season where Xbox 360 drove more software revenue than any platform in history," he said.
"You probably heard for years that our industry generates more money than the box office, but that was from a few years ago," commented Schappert. "What you might not know, is that according to Juniper Research, as of 2007, gaming is also bigger than the music industry on a global basis."
With the might of the development community behind Microsoft, the other key point of Schappert's session was empowering the user. He believes that Microsoft is again helping to lead the charge of user interaction, and bringing developers and users together via Xbox Live is pushing the 360 to new heights in 2008.
"The Halo 3 community is uploading approximately 100,000 pieces of user-created content each and every day. Every day the Halo community alone is uploading 30 per cent more content than all of the daily uploads on YouTube. With opportunities like this Xbox Live is truly changing our industry," he said.
Following talking heads footage of Bungie, Ubisoft Montreal, 2K Boston, Harmonix and Bethesda praising the changes that Xbox Live has enabled in the industry — microtransactions, downloads, community management — Chris Satchell strode on to stage to talk about the next stage of XNA development.
Xbox Live Community Games will showcase the best of XNA development — where enthusiastic amateurs and professionals alike can submit, rate and play XNA games on Xbox Live. Satchell demonstrated the simple process — users start with their Creator ID, like a regular GamerCard but containing their development history, before submitting a game to the Creator Community for review. Titles are rated for contentious issues such as violence and cruelty, and copyrights are checked to ensure legal issues are upheld. Once approved, they're ready for delivery via Xbox Live Marketplace in the same way as Live Arcade titles are.
Joining Satchell on stage was James Silva, amateur game designer and one of the winners of the Microsoft's Dream Build Play competition. Following a spoof documentary showing Silva's development process and staged banter between the two designers, Silva's Dishwasher title was shown to the attendees. Satchell also revealed that free trials of Dishwasher and a number of other XNA-created games were on Xbox Live Marketplace from today, ready for users to go hands-on.
"As a creator you have a huge audience with which to share your work," said Statchell. "If we're going to unleash this creativity we need to put the power in the hands of the community."
"We're going to democratise game distribution. The community is going to manage the content. I am not going to be the arbiter of what the community does," he stated.
Going back to XNA tools, Satchell said that it was ideal for cross-platform creation, allowing a lot of developers to start on Windows before porting over to the 360. But the next stage for cross-platform development, explained Satchell, was creating and playing game's on Microsoft's handheld — the Zune.
The Zune's hard-drive, touch-pad input, clear screen, Wi-Fi capabilities and the ability to play music during play can enhance the gaming experience, said Satchell.
"Not only is it possible on your Xbox and on Windows, but you'll be able to build XNA games on your Zune. If you want to see a gamer smile, put this in his hands.
"At GDC 04 we talked about the vision for XNA and we've more than delivered that. We gave you a programming system to make it easier to build games. We've opened up the Xbox 360 to democratise development. We gave you a programming system that spans platforms. This year we can complete that mission. We can democratise distribution."
"I think of it as gaming created by the community, managed by the community and enjoyed by everyone," said Satchell summing up.
Next, Microsoft wanted to show its love for partners, with Epic Games' Michael Capps and Tim Sweeney demonstrating the next generation of Unreal Engine 3 running on Xbox 360.
It was impressive stuff, with new lighting techniques, over 100 characters on screen, improved matinee features and destructible environments just some of the tweaks, all using the Gears of War engine.
"It's been about a year and a half since we launched Gears of War on Xbox 360. We've been pretty busy since we launched the game, we've added a lot of new features and we've really optimised it for the Xbox 360," said Capps.
With Schappert returning to the stage to enthuse about upcoming games for 2008 — all of which are already on the pre-release radar, there were no new blockbusters to discuss just yet — he then introduced Tecmo's Tomonobu Itagaki for a ten-minute game demo of Ninja Gaiden 2, followed by Peter Molyneux and a look at Fable 2.
The real intention seemed to be to demonstrate more features that take advantage of the Xbox Live service. Ninja Gaiden 2 will allow players to upload and share gameplay footage, while Molyneux demoed a new Xbox Live Arcade game which will reward users with currency that can then be spent in Fable 2. He also showed a co-operative mode where users can invite other Fable players to bring their character in to another's game and share rewards and experience between them.
If there was a feeling that showing these forthcoming titles highlighted the fact that Microsoft hadn't yet revealed any new blockbusters, fears would soon be allayed. But not before Schappert returned to sum up today's keynote.
"Ninja Gaiden 2 and Fable 2 are just a taste of what will surely be an exceptional year for gaming," he said.
"We'll be backed up by opportunities for all of you, from professionals to amateurs, to aspiring game developers, to share the creative and commercial success of our industry. We're pushing harder in terms of community, and to creators, for games by the people, for the people."
"It's all of you that see further," he said, referring to one of his earlier slides featuring an old EA advert along those lines. "Professionals and amateurs alike. You are all the future of our platforms."
And with the love almost over, it turned out that Microsoft would have a 'big reveal' after all. The rumours had been around since the first game came out, but a Gears of War 2 teaser trailer confirmed the game was in development and due this November, followed by Epic's Cliffy B carving his way on stage with a chainsaw.
It may have begun as a modest and welcoming gathering, but it ended with the stage trashed by a cocksure party-crasher. But then everyone's invited to the Microsoft party; they're just so happy to have you there.