Earlier this year Microsoft announced plans to allow small independent developers and individuals to put their games on Xbox 360 using the XNA Game Studio and the subscription-based XNA Creator's Club. Under this system developers will make a game with XNA, submit it to peer-review from other members of the Creator's Club and release it on Xbox Live marketplace.
Chris Satchell, XNA's general manager, talked to GamesIndustry.biz at the recent GameHorizon conference about the project - the issues behind censoring user-generated content, games with a social agenda, keeping the industry creative, and the effects that digital distribution will have on traditional publishers.
Q: During your speech at GameHorizon you talked about the "insidious" side of games production by companies responsible to their shareholders rather than them making a creative game. How much of a problem do you really see this as and how do you think developers and publishers can counteract it?
Chris Satchell: "Insidious" was probably not the best word to use, but what I was getting at is that everyone recognises the rising cost of development, but sometimes miss the impact this has on the amount of concept risk publishers can take. The games may still be creative, many are, but the problem is that because of the cost, it is hard to have lots of completely new concepts or IP in a portfolio.
That is not to say that large publishers don't create new concepts, they do, but I believe it would benefit the industry and our medium if we could get more new ideas started. In the long run I think this is essential to keep our medium growing and continuing to be relevant to a broader set of people.
Q: You spoke of a rising social agenda in gaming, what do you see as the major rewards and challenges associated with this?
Chris Satchell: I think the rewards are that our medium can increasingly drive positive change. I believe by having more socially relevant games we will increase the relevance and audience for our medium. The challenge is that we are a relatively young medium and we will have to tackle some challenging subject matter along the way. However, I think this is part of the long term growth of the medium.
Q: Don't games run the risk of simplifying the issues?
Chris Satchell: Games can actually add another dimension to peoples understanding of the issue, by doing something no other medium allows: interaction. The player can make choices and see the outcome of those choices reflected in the game environment. This is a classic learning tool and a great compliment to the passive media approach to educating on social issues.
Q: The growth of community integration is becoming more and more pervasive throughout gaming - what effect do you think this will have on single player games? Do you think they'll ever become irrelevant?
Chris Satchell: I do not think single player games will be irrelevant. What I do think is that while you are in a single player game you will still want to be able to easily stay connected with your friends and community. This is exactly how we designed the cross-gaming communication and community features in Xbox Live.
We noticed this trend and made sure no matter what experience the gamer is engaging in they are connected. This is definitely a trend that will continue. Also, like our achievements system, meta-games that put single player games in a broader context will be vital for gamers.
Q: You spoke of American Idol as being a type of transmedia product and a meta game of a sort, where do you see Microsoft's role in creating these games going?
Chris Satchell: Firstly, we are creating a great platform in Xbox Live to allow developers to explore new transmedia experiences by providing a network of 12 million - and growing - gamers. Secondly, you will see us likely take a lead in showing how this new type of experiences can evolve.
Q: Were achievements ever planned as a sort of meta-game?
Chris Satchell: Exactly. And gamers love them. I often hear of folks with multiple console systems playing the majority of their games on Xbox 360 because the meta-game of achievements is so important to them. It gives a broader context to everything you do and a way to share with your community.
Q: What do you think your long term relationship with publishers will look like in light of a growing digital distribution business?
Chris Satchell: I expect our relationship to continue to be extremely positive and we will continue to make sure that Microsoft platforms are the best place for them to deliver great experiences to their customers. As the mix of online and retail distribution continues to evolve I also expect us to continue to offer the best business opportunities for our partners. Feeding this is a huge and growing community on Xbox Live, one that is very actively transacting online.
Also, with the release of community games distribution I think we will see a new class of micro-community "publishers", i.e. small community teams that publish their work exclusively on Xbox Live. This means more diversity of content for gamers, a huge audience for up-and-coming developers and new creativity and talent in the industry, talent that will also fuel growth at large publishers.
Q: You mentioned that Pegi and the BBFC couldn't rate all the community content, why is that and do you think they ever could?
Chris Satchell: With the expansion of user generated content we have to look at models that can extend effectively. Today, PEGI is doing a great job in rating the ever increasing volume of online gaming being produced, but given the expected explosion of user generated content we need to build supplemental approaches that potentially allow users to be more proactive in rating their own content. This should be in concert with the official processes such as PEGI.
Q: Do you think that the community can police itself and what tools will you provide to allow them to do that?
Chris Satchell: Absolutely. I really believe that, given the right tools, the community will step up and police itself. When you look at strong communities there is always a core that will work really hard to make sure community standards are maintained. What we are doing in XNA is giving the community a powerful set of distribution tools to allow them to do just that. Already from the beta we are seeing the positive effects of forming this partnership with the community; a lot of submitted games do get rejected at first, due to either bugs or rating descriptors being inaccurate.
Q: What is your view on companies that are adopting 3D (or stereoscopic) technology for games? Do you see a future for the technology in the games medium?
Chris Satchell: This is a very interesting area of graphics technology. We have done experiments with this at Microsoft and the results are extremely interesting. However, the current systems that work well require wearing active shutter glasses and I think it is hard to be mainstream with asking people to wear headgear to play games.
There is some very interesting technology being developed that can overcome this obstacle and it will be interesting to see where this leads. So, some way to go yet. I love that some developers are experimenting along this path. It is a great way to move industry technology forward.
Chris Satchel is the general manager of XNA. Interview by James Lee.