XNA boss Satchell says games development must become more accessible and socially relevant

Microsoft: â??Poor workforce diversity slows games industry growthâ??

The games industry needs a more diverse workforce and more socially relevant experiences if it wants to grow further, XNA boss Chris Satchell has warned.

In his opening keynote of this week’s GameHorizon conference, Satchell told over 100 assembled industry execs that games development must harness the power of would-be games maker communities to grow the medium.

“I am absolutely convinced that the community taking a large role in the industry isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” he said, while outlining Microsoft’s current activity behind its free-to-use XNA development tools.

By removing “development friction” in the industry, in terms of development, participation and distribution, Satchell said,the industry will not only grow its workforce by attracting more diverse people into games development, but also make games more socially relevant.

“We need more diversity in our studios if we want to reach out to a broader audience,” he said.

“And I absolutely know people will enter the community and move up from [XNA and homebrew development] into the games profession.”

He added: “It’s really tough to find great programmers. And we’re still not as diverse as other industries.”

Plus, the big publishers dominating the games industry control the resource for development – the studios – and that “it’s really hard to get new ideas out in the industry”.

But XNA Game Studio is helping to challenge traditional bottlenecks in the games development pipeline, such as the cost and challenge of development itself through to distribution, said Satchell.

XNA has 700 universities worldwide using it and has been downloaded over a million times by amateur developers he said. Plus the XNA Community Games portal has had over 54 new games uploaded and added to its since its launch four weeks ago.

Academia was a key entry point for getting new people into the games industry – but not just at a degree level.

“When colleges offer gaming as a minor on a degree applications go up,” said Satchell as it “makes maths and computers science mediums relevant.” But that’s not enough, said Satchell saying that the industry should also reach out to high schools and even younger people interested in games development, so that the industry cold be getting to potential employees “when they are young”.

Satchell explained that a recent Microsoft collaboration with Digipen highlighted that a number of the educator’s summer software camps attracted 40 per cent of young females interested in games development, who Satchell argued would be keener to stick with games given that they have encountered games development early in their education

At the same time, games development and the games made need to embrace social relevance, said Satchell: “When you think about am medium and you think about its growth, the key is to talk to people, to be able to say more about the world.

“It’s important because we found that Gen X and Y is much more socially conscious – far more than the baby boomers. Two third of them buy products form companies that make donations to charity. So we need to find a way to bring that to games.”

A recent initiative Microsoft has run via its Imagine Cup competition has asked aspiring developers to make games that incorporated environmental themes, Satchell pointed out, inviting a raft of submissions from student games developers who wanted to comment on social issues.

However, the industry must be ready to open the door to all kinds of social themes – no matter the sensitivities around the issue: “We’ve got some difficult times ahead as people bring in more uncomfortable subject matters into gaming.”

Ultimately, Satchell said, a general diversifying of the way games can be made and topics they cover, plus trends in the industry such as academia fuelling the talent pipeline, and the long tail of games sales will fuel industry growth.

 “If you give people the right tools, and give them a good distribution medium, and talk to them about more than just fun, we will grow the industry.”

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