YouTube for Games?

Microsoft's Chris Satchell explains the plan to bring a gaming version of YouTube to the Xbox

XNA Game Studio Express is a Do-It-Yourself game programming tool, that enables consumers to create console games from home. It has the potential to change the way games are consumed, and how they are perceived. It also has the potential, like similar initiatives in the past, to slip quietly into oblivion.

The investment is significant. The core team of about 36 people have been working on this for three years. Plus, other resources internally have been pulled in. You’re certainly looking at tens of millions of dollars. Why is Microsoft spending all this money on XNA Game Studio Express?

XNA boss Chris Satchell says, “We’re making massive investments here. There’s no huge financial windfall at the end of this. This is not a P&L that we built.”

Microsoft sees this as a benefit to its platform, and also to the industry as a whole. The benefits to Xbox 360 are building community, generating content and, possibly, generating revenues. The benefit to the industry is in drafting more talent.

Lowering Barriers

Chris Satchell says, “There’s tons of creativity out there, but people don’t have the same access to the tools and the platform as high-end developers. That’s where XNA Game Studio Express comes in. It’s like giving those guys a platform that they can build on. It’s really lowering that barrier for entry.”

Creators will, some time next year, be able to upload their games (assuming approval) to a new channel on Xbox Live dedicated to community games. Satchell says, “Anybody on Xbox Live can pick your game up. You’ll have an audience of six million people that can go and play your game. You don’t have to have a publisher, you can now just share with the world. It’s a really good differentiation for our platform to have those tiers of content, ranging from Triple A to Arcade to Community.”

It’s yet another example of companies working hard to demonstrate their belief in community content. The YouTube / MySpace thing has come to gaming through Express, and through other initiatives like Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. The games might not all be classics, but the enjoyment is in the sampling.  “Sure, a lot of these games will be homages to arcade games. But it’s just fun exploring what people have done. I think that’s a really unique thing for our platform.”

Aside from community and content generation there is the possibility of revenue generation. Microsoft says it won’t charge for community games but is looking at an advertising model. It also says that any really good games that emerge may be taken out, polished along with the creator, and promoted to Arcade.

Satchell says, “There’s possibilities in the future to monetize this. Maybe we can monetize it through advertising. But I’m not a big fan of charging for the games. Free is a really good price point for consumers.”

But this begs the question, can consumers actually make games that are worth playing? So far, the signs are promising. Microsoft has initiated a number of contests to kick-start demonstrations of how much can be achieved by home-brew programmers. In its Dream-Build-Play Competition, entrants were given les than three days to mod a 2D space shoot-‘em-up.

Satchell explains, “We got 69 entries and I’d say the top five were really good. If we gave them a few more weeks they’d be amazing. That makes me feel really good that in two and a half weeks people could do some really cool stuff. What’s consistently blowing me away is just how much talent there is out there in the community.”

He adds, “I guarantee publishers are going to be looking at these games, looking for new talent, looking for new ideas, just like Epic Records trolls MySpace looking for new people.”

Throttling our Industry

There’s also the notion of Microsoft doing its bit for the industry as a whole. It would be too easy to brush off this last point, but the fact is that the big players in this business – EA, Nintendo, Microsoft et al—recognize that they need to take action to encourage new and fresh generations of game developers.

Satchell explains, “One of the things that’s throttling our industry—and it throttles us as much as everyone else—is not enough good people. We’re not getting enough people coming out of university who can do this stuff. Computer science admissions have been falling. It’s getting really hard to get enough good graduates. The one thing that gets them excited is gaming. If you can bring gaming into a course people get excited about it. This is a great tool to help teach computer science with gaming. This isn’t a silver bullet but it’s one more thing that we can do with academia to get more people into computer science and gaming.”

XNA Game Studio Express is not without its challenges. Although the PC version is free, anyone who wants to transfer their work to Xbox 360 must join a club with a subscription of $99 a year. Microsoft is keen to stress that this represents good value.

“You get access to a lot of materials from us. We give you models so you don’t have to build games from scratch,” says Satchell. “We give you the tools to get you into your game faster. Partners like GarageGames are giving away their tool sets free to all the people in Creators Club. We’re giving away true drag and drop game development. You don’t even have to program to build games.”

Endless Knock-offs

The infrastructure for sharing game sis far from ready. Even PC developers have to use their own resources for sharing. And, again, there is the fear that all this effort will wind up with endless knock-off driving games and 2D shooters.

Satchell believes that the best content will make it all worthwhile. Of course, of the 250,000 people who have downloaded XNA Game Studio Express, many will be “tire kickers”. Many more will not have the skills to create anything original. But we’ve seen from video upload sites that truly great content does get itself in front of the public, even among the morass of goo.

For Satchell, community is a survival instinct. “Consumers-as-creators is a major force in our industry over the next five to ten years. You give them a way to take delight in the system. You empower them. The thing I’ve learned about communities over the last few years is, en mass, they’re really, really smart and really, really persistent. So you either get with it or they just off somewhere else where they can do it.”