Last year was the year of big games, big console sales and big, big revenues.
This year, it’s all about community. Or, at least, that’s what Microsoft Vice President John Schappert wants you to think.
In his keynote Wednesday at the Game Developer Conference, Schappert didn't reveal an acquisition, a streamlined Xbox 360 lineup or a partnership with Netflix. He announced an eBay-meets-YouTube service for Xbox Live. Games created by gamers, playable by Xbox Live members.
Oh, and “Gears of War 2.”
“There weren’t any huge announcements, but in the context of the audience, it was a positive message,” says Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets. “Microsoft continues to provide support to game developers, and then, utilizing the Xbox Live Community, making developing and distribution of games more accessible.”
(Msnbc.com is a Microsoft-NBC Universal joint venture.)
Microsoft released its game-making toolset, XNA Game Studio, about a year ago. It’s a full-scale development environment, tailored for consumers. So if you’re a game enthusiast with some programming chops, you can make a game. And Microsoft says its seen 800,000 downloads of the tool since its launch.
But unless you’ve got a PR firm on retainer or a well-trafficked Web site, you have no way to share your creation with a wider audience. Until Xbox Live Community, which Microsoft hopes will “democratize” game development and game distribution.
“The time has come for the games industry to open its doors to all game creators, enabling anyone to share their creations with the world,” said Schappert. “Our goal is to drive a creative and social revolution in games with the same transformative power that we’ve seen in digital music and video sharing.”
The service, which launches this fall, will rely on user policing, much like Wikipedia and eBay. You sign up, make a game and submit it to the wider community for review. Once it passes muster, it graduates and goes live.
Microsoft had few details about service. Xbox Live Community is a working title. The business model (read: how much dough you’ll make if you make a game and tons of people play it) hasn’t been figured out yet. And the user-rated submission process is still being worked out.
If you’re looking for inspiration, though, Microsoft has made available seven user-created games on Xbox Live. They include “JellyCar,” which features a pliable car driving through equally pliable worlds, “Little Gamers,” a 2-D side-scroller based on the Web comic of the same name, and “The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai,” a game about a dishwasher who goes crazy and kills everyone.
Its creator, Utica, N.Y.-based James Silva, drew upon his own experience as a dishwasher in a restaurant for the game. (Except for the murder part.)
"I was at the point where I thought it was time to grow up," he said. "But thanks to XNA…I can put that off for about five years now."
So, in the democratic future envisioned by Microsoft, one where dishwashers can make games and anyone’s a potential hit-maker, what does that mean for the industry, with its million-dollar game budgets and super-specialized workforce?
“I think the future’s equally bright,” said Schappert, himself a former game programmer. “People are still going to want to play those games.”
At the tail end of the keynote, Microsoft also trotted out a few glimpses of three upcoming big-budget games. Tomonobu Itagaki, who leads Tecmo’s Team Ninja, had translator in tow to show “Ninja Gaiden II,” the follow up to the super-violent fighting game for the original Xbox. Peter Molyneaux, creator of the ‘Black and White” franchise, showed off a live demo of “Fable 2.”
And in the waning moments of the keynote, Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski, burst out from backstage, faux-hawk expertly gelled, chainsaw gun in hand, and announced “Gears of War 2.” The game, which will ship exclusively for the Xbox 360, is due out in November.