D.I.C.E. 2006: Moore promises more for PCs

Microsoft executive apologizes for his company's recent "dereliction of duty" in supporting its "number-one platform;" shows off game-centric features of forthcoming Vista OS.

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LAS VEGAS--Peter Moore is sorry. As he kicked off his Friday address at the D.I.C.E. Summit, the corporate vice president of Microsoft's interactive entertainment division apologized for the nasty cold he picked up at the Super Bowl in Detroit the prior week. He was also sorry for being "the only suit here up on stage hawking my wares."

Moore's real regret, however--which he repeated over and over again throughout his address--was that Microsoft has been neglecting the PC as a gaming platform. "I want to apologize for the dereliction of duty to our company's number-one platform, the PC, in terms of gaming," he told a crowd still recovering from the previous evening's award ceremony. "We've been a little distracted for the past few years," he said, referring to the company's drive to release the Xbox 360. "Mea culpa, we've been busy."

Moore also apologized for the shortage of Xbox 360s. "We took a three-continent view of the Xbox 360," he said, referring to the console's near-simultaneous launch in the US, Japan, and Europe. "Controversial? Yes. Clearly it's caused some short-term shortages in all three territories." Moore promised those present that, "You should be able to walk into a store in the next four to six weeks and see [Xbox 360] hardware on shelves."

Before going on to cover his speech's main subject, "The Changing World of PC Games," Moore took the time to tout some Xbox 360 statistics. Though he gingerly avoided overall hardware sales figures, Moore was more than happy to talk up the fact that the 360 has had a "record attach rate" of four games and three accessories for each console sold. He also made much of the fact that 50 percent of all Xbox 360 owners use Xbox Live, of which the basic Silver edition is free, versus just 10 percent of original Xbox owners, who had to pay a subscription fee.

"Our focus is the connected state between the gamer in their living room and the PC and the outside world as a whole," boasted Moore. "Xbox Live is the distinguishing factor between us and our competitors--they want to see a character on screen and know that's a real-life person in New York, London, or, eventually, Beijing."

The executive also made a point of promoting the success of the Xbox Live Marketplace. He said, to date, over four million "pieces of content" have been downloaded via Marketplace, including games, skins, and demos. He also said that the popularity of movie trailers on the service has made "Hollywood take notice," and hinted that Microsoft may soon begin to offer a range of music downloads on the service. "Music is just starting on Marketplace," he said.

Moore also offered Xbox Live Arcade as an "alternative platform" to developers beset by the high cost of next-generation development. "Xbox Live Arcade is bringing entertainment that is less intimidating to the consumer and conditioning consumers to play online," he said, adding that there have been two million downloads on the service to date. He also underlined its "high conversion rate," which sees an average of 20 percent of people who download a demo for an Xbox Live Arcade game going on to buy the game itself. For the service's most popular game, Geometry Wars, that rate is 36 percent.

"We will continue to invest, invest, and invest in Xbox Live Arcade," Moore said. "It will broaden the audience...We think of Xbox Live Arcade as a new platform for independent developers--it's the Sundance [Film Festival] of the game world."

After neglecting the subject of PC gaming for a few more minutes, Moore showed off some of the game-centric features of the forthcoming Windows Vista operating system. Set for release later this year, Vista has several core features targeted specifically at gamers.

First, "Games" will be an option embedded into the Windows start menu, just as the "My Documents" and "My Pictures" folders are in Windows XP. Vista will have its own dedicated "games explorer," which shows all games installed on the computer in one place. It will also have an option to display basic game information, such as publisher, developer, ratings, and Web sites, via a metadata system.

Casual gaming will also be emphasized in Vista. Microsoft is looking to re-create the success of Solitaire and Minesweeper, albeit with games that don't wear their age quite so readily on their sleeves. Moore showed off Chess Titans, a slick 3D take on the ancient strategy game.

As with the next-generation gaming consoles, Vista will have parental controls for gaming built in. Unlike most current parental control methods, the system doesn't block games based on their overall rating; rather, it will allow parents to disallow play based on specific game content descriptors, like "blood and gore" or "strong sexual content." Parents will also be able to regulate how much time their children can play games, with an Outlook-like schedule that lets them restrict gaming to certain hours of the day.

With Vista, Moore said Microsoft is also looking to simplify the installation process, saying it's scaring away a lot of consumers in its current form. The goal, he said, is to make it as simple a plug-and-play process as one would find on a console. Moore then talked about DirectX 10 and its Direct3D renderer, highlighting the detail it could create in 3D environments, ranging from whitecaps on water to individual blades of grass and rays of sunlight.

Pretty visuals don't help out much if a game crashes every five minutes, however. Microsoft evidently understands this, as it is also emphasizing stability as a key point of Windows Vista gaming.

In addition to the presentation, Moore answered some questions from the audience. When asked about the process of getting content up on Xbox Live Arcade, Moore said that Microsoft has a dedicated platform team specifically for Marketplace, and that more nongaming content, like the movie trailers that are currently available, is on its way. "Music is starting to get put up there," he noted.

Another audience member brought up a recent BusinessWeek article in which Moore talked about a possible Microsoft-built competitor for Apple's iPod. In that article, Moore was quoted as saying that whatever device Microsoft came up with, it would have to be more than just Microsoft's version of the iPod. The article explored the possibility that such a competing product would include gaming capabilities and carry the Xbox brand.

"The piece in BusinessWeek is pure speculation," Moore said. "And, as you know, 'Microsoft does not comment on rumors or speculation.'" He added, "It was the journalist's words, not mine."

Moore also faced a question about when the massively multiplayer online genre and its persistent worlds would come to the Xbox 360, to which he responded, "That is still the realm of the PC, but we may have something to talk about in the near future." He also noted that it's an expensive proposition. Final Fantasy XI and an MMO game carrying the Marvel comic book license are both in development for the 360.

While the talk covered many of the specifics of Microsoft's plans, Moore also said a few things indicative of the company taking a broader perspective. One such broader perspective dealt with focusing on a broader audience.

"We need to have a standardized delivery system, which will deliver content to the consumer," Moore noted. "We're working on it. I can't tell you much more about it, but it is seamless, efficient, and it goes across all platforms."

Platform-agnostic content was a theme carried over into the pervasive way Moore wants people to experience Microsoft's products. He brought up the example of a real-time strategy game that people could play on their PCs, develop strategies for while at work using their phones, and then download extra content for on the Xbox 360.

Hawking his wares wasn't the only thing on Moore's agenda, however. He also talked about a common game plan used by pretty much everyone in the industry today to fuel sales and how it could serve as a long-term detriment to gaming.

"I am very concerned that we are too reliant on sequels, formulaic gameplay, and licenses from outside our medium," Moore said. "The stagnation we may be seeing...is that we are becoming like TV and film in that we are sticking to a formula, and publishing out number three, number four. We are a superior medium, and we should take the next step to rekindling originality."

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