GDC: Allard talks Xbox Next, confirms E3 appearance

Chief XNA architect shows off a few of the features of Microsoft's next-gen console in San Francisco, cements its unveiling in May.

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When Microsoft announced that J Allard would give a keynote at the 2005 Game Developers Conference (GDC), most industry watchers took it as a sign that the next Xbox would not be unveiled at the event. Although Allard holds the esteemed titles of XNA architect and Microsoft corporate vice president, the presumption is Bill Gates himself will present the machine, mostly likely at E3 in Los Angeles in May

In San Francisco this morning, Allard joked about the fact he couldn't even name the next Xbox, and finally officially confirmed that the device would be on display at E3. "l'm not going to tell you [about it]," he said of the console. "We're going to save it all for E3."

But no sooner had Allard teased the audience with that statement than he began to reveal tidbits about the console, which he referred to only as the "next Xbox" or "Xenon." He gave a few select nuts and bolts to the developers present, saying the "monster" machine would have more than one teraflop of targeted computing performance. He reminded the audience that the next Xbox was "designed with software in mind" and would feature a customized IBM processor and ATI graphics chip. Allard also said more than 1,000 engineers had been at work for years on the console.

However, the majority of next-gen details unveiled at the GDC keynote had to do with the next generation of Xbox Live, which isn't that surprising given Allard's assertion that next-generation games will require an online component. Specifically, he pushed the online services the next iteration of Xbox Live would offer. After saying his goal was to increase Xbox Live subscribers from nearly 2 million to 10 million by the end of the decade, Allard outlined some of the tools Microsoft would supply to provide the "consistent gamer experience" to attract those currently "intimidated" by online gaming.

After explaining how today's youth--which he dubbed "Generation Remix"--demands customization, Allard laid out how the next generation of Xbox Live would cater to them. The main vehicle for this customization is a new user interface, which Allard dubbed the Xbox Guide. Unfortunately, most of the Xbox Guide features Allard showed off had already been revealed in a press release sent out earlier that morning in Europe. However, it was a chance for those present to take a look at the features up close and personal on large-screen displays of said features, which included:

Gamer Profiles: Similar to GameSpot's own community profiles, these will feature information about individual next-gen Xbox Live users. Besides the Gamer Card, which provides basic information about the gamer, the profile will feature stats on said gamer's Xbox Live experience, allowing newbies to spot veterans easily (and vice versa). It will also list achievements earned for various feats of gaming prowess, similar to those lists handed out to GameSpot Community members; Allard likened them to "merit badges." The profile will also allow gamers to display their mottoes and "instantly connect with people who have similar skills, interests, and lifestyles," according to Microsoft's press release.

Marketplace and Microtransactions: Designed to exploit Generation Remix's demand for customization, this feature will take Microsoft's practice of occasionally charging small amounts for new Xbox Live content to a whole new level. Small customization features will be available for next-generation Xbox Live games...for an equally small price. "We will allow for microtransactions: $1 for a car; five cents for a tattoo," he said. After assuring the developers present that Microsoft would "take away the transaction costs associated with credit cards," presumably by handling said charges itself, he showed how the Marketplace could be used to buy custom rims, paint jobs, and engines for the forthcoming racer, Forza MotorSport.

Custom playlists: Last but not least, Allard said all next-generation Xbox games will have customizable soundtracks. This will be done via the Xbox Guide and (obviously) whatever medium the console uses for memory, be it a high-capacity flash memory card or some type of hard drive.

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