A look behind the curtain as Natal gears for launch

Microsoftâ??s Board talks building new platforms

So Gamefest was a big success. If you were there I hope you found it entertaining and useful (and that you were honest – in a nice way – on your feedback forms). After the months of planning, with the spreadsheets full of delegates, sessions and speakers, and all the conference calls and the email threads that could stretch to the moon and back, it felt faintly weird that it culminated in an actual event.

Maybe that’s the coder in me. Software engineering is industrial-scale abstraction. It’s called engineering because it’s a process far closer to building a car than to writing a book, yet like the latter the result is an experience entirely for our minds.

At times as a producer I’d look at a building site and try to imagine creating something tangible. Virtual worlds I’ve helped create have been at least as complex as an office block; but it’s quietly profound that we spend our careers creating things that are ontologically challenged, metaphysically speaking – they sort of don’t exist.

Making hardware, though, is something else. Compilers and 3D modelling tools are replaced by soldering irons and, well, more 3D modelling tools, but this time plugged into big, oily machines that spit out stuff you can actually hold in your hand. I was allowed into the birthplace of the Xbox once – the Redmond hardware lab – and it might as well have been Mars. These people had screwdrivers – and not just to change their graphics card.

It’s refreshing when the conceptual becomes physical, and in our world this year it will happen twice. Natal is one, and the other is Windows Phone 7 Series, both due to launch at the end of this year. We may not be manufacturing the phones ourselves – we have hardware partners, with their own screwdrivers – but both will offer new opportunities for developers. And both are keeping us busy.

The mornings may be frosty and the crocuses reaching for the snooze button, but the team readying Natal for release might be wondering why they can’t buy tinsel in the shops yet. Anyone in games dev can attest to how the calendar contracts in the last stages of a project. When you’re shipping a platform that counts double. In one sense the street date for Natal directs manufacturers and marketeers more than software engineers, who have a much more pressing deadline: long before launch the XDK team must provide developers with the final libraries approved for inclusion in the first wave of Natal titles. For the Natal software team Christmas has come early this year.

But there are other aspects of the development of new platforms that are equally important as its software. For one, new policies and technical certification requirements (TCRs) need to be drafted, debated and decided.

Why do we define TCRs? In the simplest sense, we’ve gone to the bother of building hardware and software that we want players to enjoy safely whatever game they’re playing, and so we define TCRs to set minimum standards in four key areas – security, integrity, consistency, and policy – and employ a Certification team to enforce them. Let’s look at those areas.


Security is vital. Developers, publishers and Microsoft put their IP on the box and want it to stay there. Any hardware or Live-accessing behaviour that gives the Cert team the fear will result in a swift condition for resubmission (CFR).

Next, if Johnny’s spent forty quid on a game it should also work reliably, with no repeatable crashes or poor performance that reflect on the platform as well as the title, so we set standards accordingly. We also believe that players should do platform-specific stuff identically no matter what the title, such as reading the same terminology, spending points in the same way, having one way to send and act on game invites, and the like, to lessen the risk of confusion.

Let me stress the fourth one – policy. TCRs exist to ensure we all meet our obligations to our players’ legal rights, such as their privacy, but you should be aware that TCRs are not the only hurdles towards certification. You may know that publishers submit a Concept Submission Form (CSF) to us in order to get a title approved.

This important document calls out significant features in the game, and can trigger conversations with your DAM if it describes policy-sensitive areas. We love to see great Live features, though, and if you get in touch in good time we can guide you through. We can also put you in touch with the Cert team at any time, or help you arrange a Pre-Cert or Optional Final to improve your odds come final submission.

Our two new platforms for 2010, Natal and Windows Phone 7 Series, will bring their own sets of standards. The DAM team can help developers learn about both of these new platforms, their features, requirements, policies and opportunities.

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