Microsoft's Xenon to Herald the 'HD Era'
J Allard regales GDC attendees with information for Microsoft's upcoming Xbox successor and the future of high definition in the living room.
In the future, people will want high-definition experiences, they will want to be able to customise these experiences however they can and they will want to be able to share them with anyone at any time. This is the 'HD era', and the vision of J Allard, corporate vice-president and chief XNA architect at Microsoft.
Speaking on Wednesday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Allard gave the 3,000-strong crowd of games professionals a glimpse at the ideology behind the upcoming Xbox successor, codenamed Xenon, and how it will fit into the lives of a market Allard thinks is on the brink of massive expansion.
No hardware was shown - Allard said that this would have to wait for E3 in May - but enough was revealed to reinforce the belief that Microsoft has its eye firmly on controlling the living room of the future, where widescreen, high-definition television and full surround sound will be standard features. Xenon will support the newest home entertainment technology and introduce, in Allard's words, the "HD era" that will "change the way that people play our games".
One potential pin to Allard's balloon is the uptake of this relatively new technology around the world. In Europe, for instance, high-definition televisions sales are almost negligible. Citing information gathered by European market researcher GfK, the Hollywood Reporter observed in September 2004 that high-definition televisions accounted for less than 1% of sales in Europe. It's generally believed that what is needed to drive sales is content, so the question is whether Xenon is the platform to offer that content?
Part of Microsoft's strategy to wrest control of the living room is the Xenon Guide. This is a new front end for Xenon that allows you to instantly track your gaming progress and to meet up with other people. It's essentially a revamp of the current Xbox Live interface reinforced with a lot more information, such as what games you've been playing and what achievements you've made in those games.
The Xenon Guide also displays more personal information than before, allowing you to share your interests and location with Live users, so that you can meet other people online who share your tastes. And there will be plenty of opportunites for meeting up with people - Microsoft has stressed to developers that all games must be Live-aware.
And because the guide will be built into Xenon at the hardware and integrated software level, you'll always be able to see if any of your friends are online or they can challenge you directly while you're playing a different game. By integrating the Guide into Xenon, gamers will be presented with a standard interface to reaching out to their friends, pushing forward the online community.
Another integral aspect of the new user interface that falls in with Microsoft's customisation thrust is the media player. Unlike with the current Xbox, where only select games use the feature, all Xenon games will support custom music playlists, allowing you to listen to your own music in any game and at any time.
This implies the presence of a mass storage device, something that has been the subject of much speculation over the last year. Previous reports have suggested that Microsoft has opted to produce two versions of the Xbox - one with a hard drive, and one without. According to GameSpy, which spoke to developers in possession of alpha-version Xenon development kits, this is indeed the case.
Another area of customisation is related to how people experience a game. Xenon will make it a lot easier for both game creators and gamers themselves to modify games. Through a micro-transaction setup integrated into the Xenon Guide, you'll be able, for example, to buy individual parts for your car in a racing game or new outfits for your characters in a fighting game for as little as a few pence. The technology is there in a user-friendly and standard form for game creators to use and gamers to take advantage of.
During his speech, Allard took Sony to task, too, calling the company's approach to the design of the PlayStation 2 a "science fair approach", where the hardware was built to impress rather than to ease the job of games developers. But this is already something in the past.
For PlayStation 3, Sony has taken a more developer-friendly approach to its hardware design. Speaking about Cell - the PlayStation 3 processor jointly developed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba - Mark DeLoura, manager of developer relations at Sony, told CNET that the company is working with game creators to simplify the creation process. "The Cell is a complicated piece of machinery," said DeLoura. "What we can to do to make it easy for [developers], we'll do."
But will Microsoft's vision of the 'HD era' appeal to gamers? According to Allard - definitely. While top-selling games currently peak at about five million sales, Allard hopes that in the next generation the industry will see top games selling up to 20 million copies.
"Today we have the opportunity to make video games the center of the HD era," said Allard. "We have the opportunity to establish ourselves as the cultural force that other media looks to when they're looking for cues to the future. We have the opportunity to dramatically expand our audience. If we're smart and we really capitalise on the HD era, I'm confident that we can double the size of our audience this decade."
The stakes are huge as we enter into the next generation of video game hardware. Microsoft has said all along that it will be first to release its new console, and it is poised to do so later this year. The company has built a solid foundation with Xbox that will be used to as a springboard into the future.
With Microsoft's cards now coming in to view, all eyes are on Sony and Nintendo.
Editor, Kikizo Games