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"HD Era" Coming to Gaming

Jason Cross

In his opening keynote to the Game Developers Conference today, Microsoft's Chief Xbox Architect and Corporate VP J Allard focused on what he calls the coming "HD Era" of gaming.

He began by talking about the hi-def living room. HDTVs are selling like hotcakes now, because once you experience the Super Bowl in 16:9 hi-def, you just can't go back. But Allard also added that the hi-def living room is about more than just resolution. In the hi-def living room, people are listening to music stored on their PCs, displaying photos, time-shifting with a PVR, and more. This is the first of three big trends for the coming era of gaming.

The second trend is toward "hi-def connectivity." This is the idea of being always connected. Kids today choose their coffee shops based on the Wi-Fi hotspot quality, always have a cell phone on them, and text message each other non-stop. The future of games, Allard says, will take advantage of this hyper-connectivity.

The third major trend is toward personalization. The youth of today remix songs, customize and trick out their cars, get tattoos and piercings, and essentially want to leave their own imprint on everything they do. This is exemplified by ring-tones on cell phones, and is responsible for the ring-tone business being $3-4 billion per year. "Today we stand on the leading edge of a new era: the HD Era"

The combination of these three trends is what Allard refers to as the "HD Era," an era where everything is in High Definition, Connected, and Personalized. According to Allard, Microsoft is building the hardware, software, and services to take advantage of it all.

"We have the opportunity to make video games the center of the HD Era," he said. "I'm confident that we can double the size of our audience in this decade." To do this, games are going to need to move toward wireless connectivity, multiplatform interaction, and on-demand content. The tools to make all of this are going to be key. Allard said, "To realize the opportunities of the HD Era is going to take an integrated platform. One that combines software, hardware, and services in a balanced fashion." There was a bit of a preemptive admission that Sony's next Playstation might be more powerful, on paper, than the next Xbox, as Allard commented that "it doesn't matter what kind of theoretical performance you have. If you can't make the hardware sing, you've got nothing." Continued... On the software front, Microsoft is integrating their developer tools: DirectX, PIX, XACT, and Live. Allard mentioned that the company has shipped over 3,000 Xenon development kits in the past year (Xenon is the internal code name for the next generation Xbox). The biggest boon to software makers is going to be XNA Studio, coming in the next year. It will be based off Visual Studio 2005 Team System (shipping this fall), but where Visual Studio is primarily for programmers, XNA Studio will integrate art asset management into the pipeline, fully integrating the entire game project development into a single application to track workflow and assets.

When it came time to talk about hardware, Allard was up front with the audience. "There's been a lot of speculation about what we're going to do in the next generation. And, I'm not going to tell you about it! I can't disclose the details. We're saving that for E3." Still, he leaked a few tidbits of information. He said, "This system is a monster. It's going to deliver over a teraflop of computing power," and "We made a conscious choice to go to multi-core general purpose silicon." Still, he seemed to want to downplay raw performance, instead focusing on the system's balanced overall design. He summed it up with a phrase that got a chuckle out of the audience: "Our approach here was Bruce Lee, it wasn't brute force."

The next generation of Xbox will usher in some unique new services. First, every game will be made to access a new Xbox Guide interface. Allard gave a live demo of this based on real running code, but the demo was still scripted and "faked" to some degree, with the game Forza Motorsport used as the guinea pig. After a race, the Xbox Guide was brought up, sliding in from the left to cover half the screen. The top showed the current player's "Gamer Card," a sort of ID card listing accomplishments in online and offline play. Below that was the Xbox Live friends list. Then, the soundtracks section—every next-gen Xbox game will allow for custom soundtracks. Finally, the Mod Shop, an example of an online marketplace, tailored for Forza Motorsport, where developers can offer up free content for download, or charge very small amounts for custom content. Gamers could customize their game with little 5 cent or 1 dollar downloads, and the developer wouldn't have to worry about all the transaction fees.

For the next-gen Xbox, all these features are going to be in every game. This is what Allard was talking about when he said the future of entertainment is always connected and customizable. Microsoft really wants to expand the audience for games. Allard alluded to the fact that a current top-selling game will sell 5-8 million units tops, but that "We're designing the platform to have the first title to do 20 million units."

Beyond that, no real technical details were given, nor were other features of the next-gen Xbox or future Windows gaming initiatives demonstrated. But there was one last gimmick, a real crowd-pleaser that got everyone excited. Samsung and Microsoft gave away 1,000 HDTVs to members of the audience who had a colored badge that matched the color of the winning car in a Forza Motorsport race.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in ExtremeTech.

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