GDC '08: Microsoft casually crossing over onto Live?

Microsoft's Chris Early promises tomorrow's keynote will contain "an announcement" about casual games and "asynchronous play" between Microsoft mobile platforms and Xbox 360 and PC games.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Today, Chris Early, general manager of Microsoft's casual-games program, delivered the keynote at the Casual Games Summit. In the course of doing so, he may have partially revealed a surprise that will be delivered tomorrow in his colleague John Schappert's own keynote at the concurrently running Game Developers Conference.

Chris Early
Chris Early

Toward the end of his presentation, Early talked about how excited he was at the prospect of combining casual and hardcore gameplay in "asynchronous play." "I can't wait for this bridge to happen between hardcore and casual games, especially when they're separated in time," he declared before referencing a well-know minigame. "I'd love to stand in line at the bank and play that BioShock flow game. Then come home and say, 'Ha! Take that!' I'd love to take that good casual game I played home and have that be successful there as well."

Early's comments sound reminiscent of Live Anywhere's gaming aspect, an ambitious program that would allow minigames and other aspects from Xbox 360 and Vista games to be played on Windows Mobile-enabled phones and the Zune multimedia handheld. Though Microsoft's plans for gaming via Live Anywhere were unveiled with great fanfare at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo by Bill Gates himself, little has since been heard about the crossover functionality on handhelds.

That may change tomorrow. Early heavily hinted that some sort of announcement relating to a crossover between casual games on handhelds and hardcore platform games will be made during the keynote from Schappert, who is Microsoft's corporate VP of Live software.

"If you like that sort of thing, I would strongly recommend you go to Microsoft's keynote opening GDC, where you'll see a little bit of this announced for the first time," said Early. However, he did not go into further detail. "I think I've kept it vague enough not to get into trouble," he concluded.

Early's comments came just hours after Microsoft posted--and then quickly removed--a job listing promising a totally new Live experience. The listing hinted at a new effort by Microsoft to go after the mass market, which has embraced casual games. "Join the server-backed games team, part of the Xbox LIVE team that's responsible for creating a completely new way for mainstream audiences to enjoy the Xbox and LIVE," it urged.

The potentially explosive revelation came as part of Early's keynote, which was titled "The Changing Face of Casual Games." The speech's thrust was about how things such as asynchronous cross-platform play could break down the barrier between the hardcore and casual gamer. Early feels this is important, considering the rapid growth of the casual-gaming market. "It's not just soccer moms now [that play casual games]," he declared. "It's as broad as people. Well, people who sit in front of a computer."

He also dismissed the notion that games were a new concept, saying, "Games have always been there over history--the consistent factors are people and fun. The game platforms have changed. The first platforms were sticks and stones and whatever you could grab with your hands, and then there was Pong and the advent of electronic games."

Early also discussed how the very first games that Microsoft bundled with Windows, such as Minesweeper and Solitaire, were to show people how to use the operating system's then-new graphical interface. "When Microsoft first looked at games, it wasn't about gaming, it was about training to use a mouse," he explained. "Minesweeper was about using point-and-click, and Solitaire drag-and-drop... They were spurred by education."

Early then talked about some of the games that he believes have recently offered great innovations. One of these is Webkinz, a children's game in which wannabe gamers have to buy a cuddly toy in stores to get a code to "adopt" that animal online. "That's innovative because you actually buy something physical and get digital content online along with it," he said.

He also praised Facebook and MySpace games such as Zombie that let people play whether or not their friends are online at the same time as them. However, "I have more value in the game if I invite my friends," he concluded. Puzzle Quest is another recent game that Early loved, because, "Each one of these minigames is a win for me. In fact, each time you match three is a win. There's that feeling of constantly winning, winning, winning in that gamespace."

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