The future?

 Bob Portrait


Pardon the tired cliché, but you will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile.  The Microsoft collective plans to make the game industry their bitch.

At the 2004 GDC, Microsoft announced a new strategy for game development called XNA.  XNA is designed to allow developers access to tool sets that will speed the development of games across multiple platforms and, in theory, reduce costs for game development.

XNA will allow easy porting of games from the PCs, Xbox, and Windows based mobile units, by creating a common environment in which games can be designed.  XNA will be more important for future development than Direct X is today.

The question for gamers and developers alike is if this is a good thing or not.

The gaming industry today is in the worst state it’s been in for over a decade and a half.  Not since the dark ages of the late eighties has the future of computer gaming been so bleak.

In the late eighties computer games seemed dead and buried.   The early hopes of game developers laid buried under the sands like a million unused ET  cartridges.  With the exception of companies like Sierra, Origin and Electronic Arts, few companies were able survive the collapse of the market.  With no common platform for developers to use, games were left unsold on the shelf and computer stores were closing left and right.

With the release of Wolfenstien 3d, the game industry revived.  A new renaissance occurred, leading to electronic entertainment eclipsing the profits made by Hollywood.  The growth of the computer PC market sparked new advancements in PC hardware, new advancements in software and helped fuel the growth of the internet across the world.

Now the cycle is in danger of repeating itself.  While console gaming still generates enormous revenue, the profitability of the PC game is practically nil.  For every game that succeeds in the marketplace, 8 others fail.  Developers are forced to invest millions of dollars into a game that will only turn a profit if it becomes a best seller.  Publishers are able to take the risk, but for the developer every release becomes a life and death affair.

Microsoft says they can change this.

XNA is a strategy that sounds good on paper.  If early speculation is true, the new standards will allow cheaper access for developers to new physics engines, online billing, hardware integration and better delivery systems for developers to release their products. 

There are still many questions.  The first is cost.  Will access to these tools be limited only to people who perform strategic partnerships with Microsoft?  If so, will that limit access for the independent developer who doesn’t have the clout to form those alliances?  One possibility is that this will force developers to get deeper under the heel of publishers who have the pre-existing relationship with Microsoft.  The publishers will have the license, so developers will have to dance to the publishers tune.  It may be too expensive for a small garage developer to afford on his or her own.

Will the new copy write protection hurt the players?  The dirty secret of the game industry is that despite fan support, few players actually pay for new products.  Everyone reading this article has a game or two they copied from a friend.  With XNA, copy write protection will be more complete.  Will PC owners sit still for this or will they turn away from the PC because of the restrictions placed upon it.  If Microsoft’s new operating systems no longer allow you play your MP3 collection, will you buy that OS?  Will it encourage the growth of competing operating systems, increasing the already segmented market?  Will a developer be willing to make a game that can play in Linux if it’s cheaper to make the game in the XNA environment?

Are hardware makers really going to get on board?  Microsoft recently severed their relationship with NvIdia.  How does this impact the video card industry?  One of the major changes of the computer game industry was the advent of the CD player.  Myst helped to change the industry from floppy based to CD based delivery, giving the PC a distinct advantage over the console.  If the next big leap in hardware technology happens, will it help games if developers are tied into a XNA strategy that encourages cross compatibility?

Change is coming for the industry.  Will XNA be a part of it?

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