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GDC '08: Community gaming Gears up Microsoft keynote

New XNA/Xbox Live program to distribute independent developers' titles unveiled; cross-platform gaming coming to Zune; 1 billion achievements unlocked; Gears of War sequel official.


SAN FRANCISCO--The 2007 Game Developers Conference was blessed with two of the highest-profile speakers in the game industry: Sony Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison, who unveiled the PlayStation 3's home service, and Shigeru Miyamoto, who picked up a lifetime-achievement award. This year, the keynotes were a bit lower-profile, coming from John Schappert, corporate vice president of Live, software and services, and futurist Ray Kurzweil.

Although the latter keynote will likely be more conceptual, the former built up quite a head of speculative steam (despite being somewhat preempted by Nintendo's announcement of the WiiWare and Wii Fit launch date). The previous day, two lower-profile presentations hinted that Schappert would announce a new version of Microsoft's XNA development toolset as well as the launch of 360/PC-mobile crossover play via Live Anywhere.

Add murmurs of a Gears of War 2 announcement, and the cauldron of rumors about Schappert's keynote--titled "A Future Wide Open: Unleashing the Creative Community"-- was at a full boil hours before the event got underway. Long before the doors of the South Hall of the Moscone Convention Center opened, people gathered outside to ensure themselves a seat--and were herded out of the rain into the futuristic expo venue's North Hall. Before long, though, the sun broke through the clouds, which allowed eager and damp developers, executives, and reporters access to fill into the sprawling space.

[10:23] The South Hall seats about 2,000 people, and it's filling up fast. Epic Games' outspoken vice president Mark Rein is sitting front and center in the second row. Is this a sign of what's to come?

[10:23] Techno remix of James Bond theme plays as a booming voice tells the crowd to sit down.

[10:25] At least seven languages can be heard amid the din of the crowd. A group of boisterous Japanese reporters jostle for position in front of the stage, with pink-shirted GDC staffers and chicly attired PR reps eyeing them warily.

[10:26] An animation of an ever-shifting organizational tree shifts onscreen, with various technical terms bouncing around.

[10:27] The omnipresent, invisible announcer tells people to sit down--presentation will start in 1 minute.

[10:28] The crowd complies as Sony Worldwide Studios president Phil Harrison casually strolls up to the VIP area. He seems pretty cheery for being in the den of the enemy.

[10:30] GDC director Jamil Moledina takes the stage and makes reference to the presidential race. "Change is a powerful motivating factor this year in politics and development." He says "dissolving" the boundaries between casual, hardcore, and social gamer is a top trend.

[10:31] Moledina talks up Schappert's resume as Tiburon founder, former EA worldwide studios president.

[10:32] Schappert takes the stage and jokes with the audience. "Sorry, no game tattoos to show or truckloads of HDTVs to give away," he quips, referencing past Microsoft GDC and E3 presentations.

[10:32] He's on to his roots now as a hobbyist programmer, and his first game: Desert Strike for the SNES.

[10:33] Next up is Madden Football 1992, another of his first big games. Video clip shows the infamous ambulance taking the football field.

[10:34] Schappert says in the past, game budgets were in the tens of thousands of dollars. Now, they're in the tens of millions.

[10:35] Now it's applause-line time: Tells audience to give themselves a hand. "Developers are the true pioneers of the industry."

[10:36] On to his new gig with a brief history of the Xbox and the Xbox 360. He says the console's online functionality was the key to innovation.

[10:36] Says according to Jupiter Research, games have now eclipsed music in terms of worldwide revenue.

[10:38] Schappert says that the problem with the Xbox 360 was that it was out of stock due to so many popular games. Singles out BioShock, Mass Effect, Call of Duty 4, Guitar Hero III, and Assassin's Creed as all selling over 1 million units on the 360 alone during the holiday season.

[10:40] Now it's time to talk up achievements. "It's changed the way people have played games." Announces that as of this morning, over 1 BILLION achievement points have been unlocked. "One Billion Achievements Unlocked!" award pops on the screen with the distinctive sound.

[10:42] Whoa: Over 100,000 pieces of user-created Halo 3 content are uploaded each day. Schappert says that's 30 percent more than all the video clips uploaded to YouTube each day.

[10:43] Silenced cell phones start popping with text messages that Gears of War 2 has just been Italy? Hooray trans-Atlantic PR SNAFUs!

[10:45] Cue clip reel with developers talking up Xbox 360. Bethesda's Todd Howard jokes that he thought achievement points could be used as Microsoft Points to buy things on Xbox Live. He asks incredulously, "You mean I'm not earning money by doing this?"

[10:46] End cue reel. Schappert takes the stage to talk XNA Game Studio and how it lets indie developers make games. As an example, he mentions the recently released Poker Smash.

[10:48] "There are thousands of developers out there chomping at the bit--we need to unlock this potential," says Schappert before introducing XNA chief Chris Satchell.

[10:49] The imposing but amicable Satchell runs down how Microsoft has "democratized game development" by handing out XNA Game Studio to 400 schools.

[10:50] For four months, Microsoft received 200 XNA game submissions from independent developers, and chose four finalists.

[10:52] Short comedy clip profiles one of the winners, James Silva. The poor guy is shown being harassed by Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb, who is the host of a fake True Hollywood Story-type show about him.

[10:53] Hryb asks to meet Silva's development team. "Uh, they're at an offsite," he says, before a fast-motion clip shows he did all the dev duties himself.

[10:53] Silva takes the stage to show off his game, Dishwasher.

[10:54] "When I was working as a dishwasher, I thought it would be a great to make a game about a dishwasher that kills everyone," says Silva. "Now, thanks to XNA, I can...and I can also wear sweatpants around my apartment all day."

[10:55] Here it is: Starting this year, Xbox Live will launch a new service, Community Games.

[10:56] "We need to put the power in the hands of the community...and we'll do that by democratizing the development process," says Satchell.

[10:58] Developers will be giving "creator identities" very similar to Gamertags; it will track what games you've made and submitted. When games are submitted, they'll have ratings for various factors such as violence. The games will then be reviewed by other game creators to vet for objectionable content.

[10:59] If a creator's game passes all those tests--voila!--it goes on Xbox Live. Satchel estimates that at least 1,000 games will be on Xbox Live via this service by next year.

[11:01] Satchell shows various cute games made on the service. One, called Little Gamers, shows exactly what isn't objectionable content: a Peanuts-like child drinking beer and shooting zombies with shotguns. "Beer and shotguns--it's a great combination!"

[11:02] Surprise! The four games shown today are now available in demo form on Xbox Live.

[11:03] Now Satchell shows off one of the first games that can be played on Xbox 360, a laptop, and...the Zune!

[11:05] It's a arcade shooter reminiscent of Galaga called Xuna, and it can also be played on mobile phones, apparently. However, it's just a test program used up at Microsoft's Redmond campus. No release details.

[11:07] Satchell yields the stage to Michael Capps from Epic to "show off the next generation of the Unreal Engine on the Xbox 360."

[11:07] "You remember a little game we released called Gears of War..." he says to applause.

[11:09] After a brief plug for Unreal Engine 3, Tim Sweeney takes the stage to show off some conceptual footage of "what Gears of Wars might look like using the latest version of UE3."

[11:10] Sweeney shows off how much better the shading and character detail is with the new version of UE3. And then--BOOM!--a clip of a thousands-strong Locust horde running through a ruined city. Very impressive.

[11:12] Now it's time to show slicker water effects by having Marcus Fenix toss barrels into a lake at sunset. Then it's time to show off tissue effects by having Fenix fight a gigantic "cube of meat."

[11:13] Some very impressive destruction effects are shown off...and then the Unreal guys walk off. The words "Gears of War 2" and "sequel" are never mentioned.

[11:14] Schappert's back. He predicts 1,000 games on the Xbox 360 platform by year's end, "not including the community games." He touts recent releases, such as Lost Odyssey.

[11:15] Now looking out to 2008: Grand Theft Auto IV launches April 2008, with the first new 360-exclusive episode available in the fall. Schappert repeats that for emphasis--and to applause.

[11:17] "Please welcome Team Ninja executive director Tomonobu Itagaki to show us the Xbox Live exclusive Ninja Gaiden 2!" Thunderous applause as he walks out in his trademark sunglasses and leather jacket.

[11:18] Via a translator, Itagaki shows off the latest build of the game, fresh off the plane from Tokyo.

[11:19] Demo begins as the translator picks up the controller--which promptly disconnects and reconnects. "See, this is on real hardware," he jokes.

[11:20] Demo shows Ryu Hayabusa in a Mordor-like city of the dead fighting some long-limbed purple demons.

[11:21] He makes short work of them and then takes on another batch of similar demons--with armor and chainsaw arms! One demon stuffs a saw into Ryu's chest. A couple of fiery spells later, though, and all his opponents are dust.

[11:23] Using a long staff with spiked balls on either end, Ryu rips a demon in half, with fountains of blood spewing everywhere. He then makes his way to a save point on a path to a massive, dark ziggurat.

[11:23] Taking a cue from Halo 3, each save point will let players save video clips of their kills. The best players can upload said videos onto leaderboards for others to watch.

[11:25] Ryu returns to slaughter some ninjas. Limbs and chunks of flesh fly everywhere--the man is a human Cuisinart.

[11:26] After torching some winged demons with some more fiery ninpo action, Ryu confronts a massive demon boss, who shouts "Impudent monkeys, submit to the archfiend or die!" Ninja Gaiden II logo comes up. Crowd goes wild.

[11:27] Itagaki reiterates that the game is an Xbox 360 exclusive. It ships in North America on June 3, with the rest of the world to follow later on in the month.

[11:29] Now it's Peter Molyneux's turn to take the stage. Apparently Fable sold 3 million copies on the original Xbox, so it's no surprise that he's here to talk about Fable 2.

[11:32] Molyneux is here to talk about "several new features" in Fable 2. The first is a pub game that looks like a combination of roulette and craps. And the game is actually a separate Xbox Live Arcade game that will let people gamble and win money, which can then be imported into Fable 2. The game--called "Keystone"--will be released on XBLA a few weeks before Fable 2 "so you can save up money."

[11:34] Molyneux then shows off his Fable 2 character, a pregnant female warrior, before announcing another new feature: dynamic co-op play integrated into the game. It will allow people to be called into a game at any time using their gamertag.

[11:36] After summoning a friend, Molyneux battles some foes using Fable 2's "dynamic crescendo combat system," which lets players use one button for swords and another for ranged attacks.

[11:38] Molyneux's character then returns to her home after a six-month absence. Her son admonishes her for being gone so long. Her husband also nags her, leading his co-op partner to blow off said husband's head and laugh. Apparently such actions are irreversible, so Molyneux tells the crowd to "be careful who you invite into your world."

[11:38] Schappert hops back on stage to wrap up. He goes over the presentation's main point, which is that developers "see farther" and "are the future."

[11:39] Then--BANG! Lights go down, all-red trailer showing Marcus Fenix and Locusts comes on.

[11:40] After the obligatory chainsawing, logo for Gears of War 2 comes on the screen.

[11:40] Cliffy B then chainsaws through a sheet behind the stage trhough a puff of smoke.

[11:41] "Gears of War one was a setup," he says, "Gears of War 2 will be much bigger and available exclusively on Xbox 360 in November 2008."

[11:42] And that's it! Check back later today for GameSpot's full video coverage of the event.

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