DirectX, Longhorn and the Future of Windows Gaming

June 28, 2005

It's the tenth anniversary of DirectX. In honor of this occasion we spoke with Chris Donahue, the group manager for Windows gaming and graphics. Chris discusses the evolution of DirectX, the impact of the next Windows (Longhorn) and 64-bit gaming, how XNA will help developers on Windows and Xbox, where Windows gaming is headed and much more.

GameDAILY BIZ: For our readers who may not be familiar with you, can you please explain what your job at Microsoft entails?

Chris Donahue: I head up the Developer Relations team for Windows Graphics and Gaming Technologies. I lead a team of people working with all the game development companies to help them make the best use of DirectX when building their games. We also work with the major hardware companies, to sync up new features they are working on, and making sure that game developers will be able to make the most of these new features. We work within Microsoft promoting games in the next version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn. And I try to play games as much as possible. Lately I've been playing a lot of Battlefield 2-it's an awesome game!

BIZ: DirectX is now ten years old. How has it evolved over the years and why did it become such an important part of Windows gaming?

CD: DirectX started off as an underground project, with a bunch of guys hijacking resources, both money and people, and building a set of tools to make it easier to make games for Windows because they knew that Windows was going to be a great platform for games. DirectX has transformed the industry with a common set of APIs (application programming interfaces) that support a wide range of hardware vendors making products with differing features, while making it easy for programmers to write their code for one common platform. DirectX has been adopted by the overwhelming majority of game developers making games for Windows, so this has been an incredibly successful endeavor.

BIZ: Video, sound, and 3D technologies progress at a phenomenal rate. How does DirectX keep up with the pace of innovation?

CD: Well, with a lot of work! Seriously, we have about 200 people helping to define these new technologies, and we send out an updated SDK on a bi-monthly basis, which anyone can download and use for free. This month, we released improvements to the PIX Performance Investigator. This August, we're planning on releasing a final version of the Microsoft Audio Creation Tool (Xact).

BIZ: How will future versions of DirectX strengthen the gaming experience? What sorts of features can we expect in this regard?

CD: DirectX is a core component of the next version of Windows-it is the graphical foundation for Longhorn. There are other steps we're taking to improve the gaming experience in Windows, but we'll have more to say about this at Meltdown in July and in the months ahead.

BIZ: The MMO market continues to see excellent growth. Will DirectX, or Windows in general, in any way enhance or improve on the online gaming experience?

CD: The flexibility and power of Windows as a development platform (as well as the mouse and keyboard being the best interface for these types of games) has been a key reason for the strength of online gaming on Windows-that's part of the reason that InStat says there are 20 times more gamers online using Windows than all the consoles combined. There is also an incredibly strong community around Windows gaming-the mod community as well as the ability to create and join guilds and other game-centric groups makes Windows the natural place for this style of gaming.

[ "In the next few years, you could easily see online revenue eclipse retail sales, providing amazing business opportunities on the Windows platform." ]

BIZ: The next version of Windows (Longhorn) is supposed to be more console-like in that it's going to eliminate the need to download drivers and installing games will be easier. What can you tell us about Longhorn as it relates to gaming?

CD: There are many things about console gaming that we can apply to make the Windows game experience better. Install is one area where we're working with game developers and publishers to simplify the overly-complex install process—do you really need to answer all those questions and click on all those buttons to play the game? We have also re-architected the graphics driver model-the Longhorn Display Driver Model will make the process much more stable and trouble free for gamers. Gaming is a key pillar of the consumer Longhorn experience, and we're excited about what the future holds.

BIZ: How do you think the fact that Longhorn is 64-bit might impact the future of PC gaming?

CD: We're beginning to see support for 64-bit in games, with more detail or longer draw distances, but this is just the start. By the Longhorn timeframe, many mainstream computers will be 64-bit, and you'll really see games take advantage of the new technology. As with all new technology, we fully expect game developers will be on forefront of adopting 64-bit.

BIZ: We've heard about a communications tool included in Longhorn called Athens that will streamline voice, text, and video chatting. Does MS have any plans to work with game developers to perhaps incorporate Athens and its features into gaming?

CD: We have nothing to announce at this time, but we're constantly working with game developers to help them incorporate the latest Windows features in their games where appropriate.

BIZ: Seeing as how DirectX and XNA are important to both Windows and the Xbox and upcoming Xbox 360, what kinds of interesting crossovers can we expect between the Xbox and the PC?

CD: With XNA, which incorporates both DirectX and the Xbox/Xbox 360 Development Kits, we're making the tools to make it easier to make games for Microsoft's gaming platforms. We're looking to the game development community to surprise gamers with new ideas of what they can do with these tools—and of course, we're helping developers build games that can take advantage of the huge power of the next generation of hardware, both Xbox 360 and Longhorn.

BIZ: XNA, like DirectX, seems to be a step towards a standardized means of developing games for Windows. What can you tell us about this?

CD: Both sets of tools are aimed at making developer's lives easier, so they can focus on making the games detailed and exciting. By combining techniques, hopefully we'll get better games in the long run as well as allowing not only programmers but artists and other members of the game dev teams to leverage their skills across multiple platforms.

BIZ: Nowadays all the focus seems to be on console gaming, especially with the next-gen systems fast approaching. What strategies does MS have in mind to further encourage PC game development?

CD: Windows gaming is kind of the Energizer bunny of gaming platforms-it just keeps going and going. And it keeps on innovating. Windows is where new and innovative technology happens first, and it's where new and exciting game genres show up first. Windows is still the place where "garage developers" can develop a game (just look at Crytek and "Far Cry.") Microsoft is encouraging development for Windows with things like XNA, which is making life easier for developers. With Longhorn, we're looking at how we can eliminate pain points for consumers, while opening up other genres through things like Microsoft's universal gaming controller standard, which will give gamers more choices about how to play games on Windows.

BIZ: The ATI vs. Nvidia battle seems to be heating up again since the PS3 will incorporate NVIDIA's RSX chip and Xbox 360 will use ATI's Xenos chip. Having worked at NVIDIA you probably have a unique perspective on this. What's your take on the respective technologies from these graphic chipset makers?

CD: The competition between ATI and NVIDIA highlights one of the key benefits of Windows. The hardware does not stay the same for the next 5-6 years-you can always take advantage of the latest and greatest technology no matter who the manufacturer is. And don't forget to add the fact that the technologies going into the new console systems migrate from the Windows platform-for example NVIDIA's recently announced 7800 line of cards will be similar to the RSX chip, and we'll see what ATI comes up with next.

BIZ: Finally, is there anything you'd like to add that we perhaps didn't cover?

CD: We're really excited about the present and future for Windows gaming-Battlefield 2 just released, and it's amazing. There are many other great games coming this holiday season. At the same time, we're seeing tremendous growth for online revenue—from the two million people paying for World of Warcraft, and other MMOs, to services like Valve's Steam, to downloadable casual games, to the many new direct download services. In the next few years, you could easily see online revenue eclipse retail sales, providing amazing business opportunities on the Windows platform. But didn't you want to hear about the toga party and the alien spaceship?

BIZ: Thanks very much for your time, Chris.

CD: My pleasure! Thanks for the opportunity to talk about Windows gaming!

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