As the final piece of the XNA intiative falls into place with Xbox Live Community Games, we caught up with XNA lead Chris Satchell to get more detail on how distribution to ten million Xbox Live subscribers will draw even more into game development and help the struggling talent pipeline...

Q&A: Chris Satchell, Part 1

Do you see this as being the last big piece of the XNA initiative?

Yeah – a lot of people want to show people what they’ve done and that’s what we hear a lot. We’ve given you great tools for building a game, and now we’re giving you great tools to distribute it to the community. And the great thing is that the people on the other end of that pipeline are super-enthusiastic games players – there’s no point in having a big community if they don’t care what you’re doing. I mean, you saw the stats in the keynote – a billion hours played on Xbox Live, that’s an engaged community – so that’s really good.

Do you think it’ll drive more people to XNA?

I definitely think it will. We hear a lot of people in the community saying, ‘This is great, but I don’t want to put a lot of effort in until I know that I can show everyone’. So I think this is a really big piece of the puzzle – but our user base is really big already, between 200,000 and 300,000 active users. And then there’s the university story, which to me is excellent, because I really worry about the university system and the decline in computer science students.

I mean, these are people we need to be able to hire for our industry. XNA Game Studio, combined with the Xbox 360, has been a really good way to get people excited about that. When you think about what you learn – maths, physics, computer science techniques like parallel processing – it’s really setting people up for success and helping our industry too. So we’re really excited about that.

The XNA initiative has unified lots of distinct teams within Microsoft. Do you think are other parts of the company left that you can bring into the project?

I think there is. We’re finding that XNA is a great development system if you’ve got anything visual, and we’ve found that people really want to partner with us. We built XNA with partnerships – the .NET Compact Framework people, the Visual Studio people, the porting, optimisation – so it’s great. And then when you give these great tools to our education people. or give them to the research guys to get people excited about research – it’s really good to be able to get other parts of the company engaged with this.

The GDC presentation gave a brief overview of the content submission and ratings process – could you tell us a little more about this?

What I showed was a very abridged version; in reality it’s no more difficult, just longer. But there’s some cool stuff that I didn’t get to show – for example, I showed a couple of content descriptors, but on the submission website there’s about another eight or ten ‘category buckets’ where you can say ‘here’s the level of nudity’ or whatever.

The other thing is that you don’t just pluck an arbitrary number out of the air for your ratings – we have descriptions for each number, and those descriptions can vary by territory. We know we can’t just overlay American values on other territories in, say, Europe, because you’ve got your own. Also, when you submit the game, you can get private feedback from your peers – so rather than just saying ‘I don’t agree with your rating’, they can give their reasoning as to why they think differently.

Another thing I didn’t get to show is that you can add things in when you submit a game through the website – from things like the flavour text to screenshots. You can even post a video, which I think is really cool.

Do you think that Xbox Live Community Games means a great deal to gamers?

What it means for gamers is that they’re going to get more choice than ever before. I mean, we’ve got a great portfolio of titles on the 360 and a lot of statistics to say that cross-platform games are better on the Xbox, and that’s because we empower developers to do a great job. We’ve also got over 110 of the best independent games on Xbox Live Arcade. So when you add community games to that, now you’ve got a full spectrum of things to choose from and I think it’s just going to be great for consumers. You’re going to see things that you won’t see anywhere else, stuff that’s truly different and weird.

Do you think that these community games will push Xbox Live Arcade developers to up their game?

It might do. But if you look at the real top guys on Live Arcade, they’re doing great work, and they’re often experienced multi-person teams that have been in the industry for years. I think that you’re going to start seeing new ideas in the community, new stars coming up.

I think you’ll see some backwards-and-forwards between this and Xbox Live Arcade. Imagine this scenario: we make a game, the first couple of levels of something, and put it out to the community. People love it, they’re blogging about it, it shoots right to the top of the Most Downloaded chart. Then we go to a publisher and say, ‘We’ve been working on this, we’d quite like to finish it.’ And because with the way XNA is structured, once you’ve got that deal you can get the XNA Arcade extensions and make a really easy transition. I think an influx of creativity and talent is going to raise everyone’s game.

I get so excited, because is how I grew up, but I was there in the playground with my Commodore 64 going ‘Play this!’ Nobody gave me tools like XNA Game Studio and ten million people to put my game in front of.

There are going to be people that make a name for themselves, and from that publishers will come knocking. We saw that with Dream Build Play last year – after announcing the results, we had e-mails from publishers saying ‘Could you tell us who made this game? We’d like to hire them,’ and then they got hired. It’s great that people are getting in the industry this way.

Part 2 of this interview will be published tomorrow.

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