An exclusive interview with Microsoft’s Chris Satchell.

Q&A: Chris Satchell, XNA Group general manager, Microsoft

Chris Satchell is general manager of Microsoft’s XNA Group, which delivers tools and services to developers, including the XNA Games Studio platform and its consumer-friendly Express spin-off. Earlier today, organizers of the Develop conference and expo announced that he will be delivering a keynote at the event; Develop sat down with Satchell to find out what attracted him to visit the UK, the country of his birth, for the talk, how Microsoft plans to increase support for European developers and what the rise of online communities means for games development and Microsoft.

What’s attracted you to conduct the keynote at this year’s Develop conference?
I grew up in the UK in that period which I think was a bit of a golden era for gaming – the C64, Spectrum, Atari 800 all meant gaming was an excellent thing but there weren’t many people involved, be that good or bad. But what was incredible was the creativity coming up and how you felt you could be part of the industry. I remember running down to the shops to get CVG magazine and typing in listings, feeling that I was part of this great videogame culture. I think we felt that much stronger in England and Europe than perhaps in America. Certainly for my generation when I was growing up at school this was one of our defining things – it was what we were doing with out computers. And because they were computers you could program them – we were little geeks running around.

So with XNA Game Studio Express we’re bringing that experience and excitement back. I can take the machine I am playing my games on, my Xbox 360, and develop and build games for it – and Windows, of course, but whatever platform I’ve got I can make games for it.

Bringing that back to England, which really defined that whole ethos for me when I first started doing this – that’s super exciting for me. Europe will be a place where this will really take off, I think, so the excitement will grow again. So it’s a bit like coming full circle for me as I started programming on the Atari 800 and ZX Spectrum and now we’re bringing that creativity back to current generation game systems.

Europe has some great game developers, so it’ll also be great to meet and talk to them in person at Develop.

With that comment in mind, what’s the current status of Microsoft’s efforts when it comes to dealing with developers in the territory?
Well, we do have an account management team in Europe that deals with developers and publishers, and our certification staff is split between the US/UK. So that side of dealing with developers in Europe.

What we’ve done up to now is lots of travel to Europe from Redmond. That’s been good for us, but it adds a difficulty – time difference. Even though it’s only eight hours it makes a a big difference. If someone gets up in the morning in Europe and wants to talk about it, they have to wait until the afternoon for us to see it and then may not be able to reply until the next day, which adds time to it. But we’ve always supported the European community, with our conferences for education on platforms, developer visits, and working with them online to solve networking issues. Yet, when we were building the platform things moved so quickly in Redmond you’d find that we’d never have the most up to date information for developers – now that has slowed down some.

Last year we had an experiment where, alongside all the visits and shows, we took our very best technical mind who was great with developers, Bruce Dawson, and put him on the ground in Europe to spend a year there and see what it would be like to see if it would really help being in the same time period to help out at short notice. We wanted to make sure we had our best mind out there on the ground in Europe – and Bruce is a force of nature all by himself. So he’s been visiting developers once a week. It’s been very successful and what I’ve seen is that we need a permanent developer support basis in Europe, so we’re going to start ramping up a European team.

Is that team going to be ready by the time the Brighton conference takes place?
I don’t know if we will have done all our hiring by the time of the conference – because first we want to get the first person in for Bruce to train up. We’ll ramp up slowly because, although things have slowed down a bit, we want to make sure that the people in Europe will be completely up to date with what’s going on in the US, because I’m completely committed to making sure that the developers in Europe don’t get information that’s old, and I want them on the inside track. The way we have done that before is send people that live that world here in America day-to-day and send them to Europe – we want to keep that level of input, and not lose that, but at the same time be able to speak to people in their own time zone and go out there and talk to them on a day’s notice for instance to help out.

We’ve had great feedback from developers on this already – they absolutely love having people on the ground. Once Bruce’s year is up in the UK he’ll have seen about 50 developers, and we’ve got such great, invaluable feedback from developers on what we need to improve. So the next step is to ramp that up.

Back to the keynote – you’ve said it will be talking about the community and user-generated content…

Yes, but it’s also about a broader pattern that is emerging at the moment which is that there is a broader pattern in media at the moment – and that is that consumers are becoming creators. We are seeing it in music and we are seeing it in video – I think we’re going to see it really ramp up in gaming. Online communities in games are constantly redefining themselves, it’s really gone from just having a friends list for IM, to MySpace – and now we’re seeing that a lot of the Web 2.0 sites are allowing people to congregate and collaborate – and a lot of that is about them being creative. Even tagging content – that’s creative and is something that’s going on. It’s not just community – it’s community with creativity layered in. I seriously think that’s something which is going to apply to our medium as well. We need to stop thinking that we create and people just consume – we need to think that we create and the community creates and there is a process between them. The community can take what we do, and remix it and share it.

In other industries they have reacted very defensively, thinking that at all costs, whatever the communities want. And they have tried to put technology into that breach or litigation – that works to a point but what we know about communities is that, en masse, they are super-smart and super persistent. They will just do what they want – they will do it whether you work with them or not. So the keynote will encourage developers, not to give up their own creative brilliance but realise that you have to engage the community now and give them ways to participate and ways to be creative, and embrace that. It’s something that will really define people’s game experiences for the next ten years.

We’ve heard a lot about that idea, but not seen many examples – except Sony’s one notable announced game – can you given any examples where those principles might find themselves in terms of gameplay? How might a game be impacted by communities?

I definitely think we’ll see games like that – but I don’t think anyone has necessarily built one yet. LittleBigPlanet -that is a great idea. For us, Forza 2 is a big push towards this. In the first game you could get see some amazing customised cars by players, but in Forza 2 we’re letting people customise cars and then auction them off to other players. With the in-game money you can buy better cars – so players get rewarded not for being good at a game but being creative or artistic.

It doesn’t take long to see what might happen in future if you could design the tracks, or customise the tournaments. There are plenty of things where people will start coming around and start thinking about how to encourage that process.

One of the keys to this movement is the challenges involved which we’re going to overcome as an industry when it comes to IP ownership, fairness, how revenues get divided, how you provide a safe environment that parents can trust, how do you respect age ratings, how do you stop explicit or offensive content. There are a number of issues we as an industry are going to have to wrestle with if we want to take our thinking beyond ‘us and them’, which is something we have to do. We can’t just throw content over a wall and then disavow all knowledge of it, because then there is never a good creative conversation.

And there are no correct answers for all of that right now – but it is something Microsoft is learning with creators on XNA as we ask how we let users on Xbox Live share their content. So something else I will talk about in the keynote is how we are dealing with that and some of the things we are doing in XNA to help that.

Do you still maintain that as XNA empowers people to be creative it widens the talent base for games as well?

Absolutely. I have this paranoia that I used to talk about a lot – but I’ve spoken less about it now given that we are doing something about it – that the best ideas out there are locked up in the minds of people but we’ll never get a chance to find or hear those ideas because by the time the person that had them might get into the industry and in a senior position where they can get their creative idea out there… well, it’s probably been beaten out of them.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people in the industry with great ideas – there are, and I want to address them as well; it’s about whoever you are, where ever you are, being able to say ‘I have a great idea’ and then shortening the distance between having that idea and making it reality and let people play it. Part of that is the technology – we made it easier with XNA Game Studio express, and we’ll make it easier in May when members of the Creator’s Club get free access to the Garage Games suite of tools for 2D drag and drop.

But then I think we need to look at other technology features on top of that, asking what’s the video game equivalent of mash-up software – can we not even have drag and drop and just take two games or concepts and link them, in the way there are web mash-ups. That’s really way out there – but it’s the ease we need to make things to get involved.

Then the other question is asking how we share those ideas, that’s something we’re very focused on with XNA this year.

Not that games aren’t irrelevant to people’s lives now, but do you think encouraging creativity this way will make games a more attractive proposition to consumers?

That’s something really fundamental. One of the problems with games and social relevance is that there is a time window – if it takes you two years to get a game concept made and out you can be socially relevant, but it has to be about a really big issue. What’s fun about YouTube is that it’s spur of the moment, a video can be made and uploaded quickly and can be related to anything, be that something personal for you and your friends or something about a current affairs topic. It can be funny, or niche – either way, it’s because video has been made accessible and easy to create.

So imagine how we could quickly develop the idea for games – emailing to your friend a link to a game that was made yesterday. Or making a game quickly that raises awareness about global warming or and issue like that. That’s something that’s too difficult for a $20m project – but if me and my friends can do it for fun with free tools, that changes everything. There could also be a way to encourage that by starting a competition where people have to make a game related to a pertinent, burning issue. That would educate and inform – and might even lead us to whole new genres that haven’t been fully explored yet.

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