Microsoft talks Longhorn, XNA, and Xbox 2

Windows Gaming general manager Dean Lester updates GameSpot about next-generation consoles, XNA, and what Microsoft's new OS will mean for PC games.

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Recently, GameSpot sat down with Windows Graphics and Gaming general manager Dean Lester to discuss the current status of Longhorn, Microsoft's next PC operating system, which is due in 2006. Lester reaffirmed Microsoft's dedication to making Longhorn's game functionality as accessible as that of a modern console. However, he said the company wants to retain the strengths of the PC platform, which includes high-end graphics and sound hardware, online communities, post-release community support, and content updates, like modifications and maps.

Microsoft is already working with major hardware manufacturers, such as Nvidia, ATI, and Intel (along with OEM manufacturers), to create prepackaged PCs with varying levels of midrange to high-end hardware with appropriately varying price points. Under such a plan, prepackaged PCs with certain processor speeds, certain amounts of RAM, and certain types of video cards would be given simple classifications or "levels."

According to Lester, the plan is to simplify the process of selecting a good PC for games without having to be an expert on hardware. He provided a hypothetical example that compared a PC with a "level 5" designation that might have a medium processor speed, a medium amount of RAM, and a midrange video card, to a "level 7" PC that might have a faster processor, more RAM, and a higher-end video card. As you might expect, the "level 5" PC would also be less expensive than the "level 7." Either way, the "level" designations are not final, and they may not even be used at all. However, Microsoft is considering employing them to help newer users figure out what PCs they would need to be able to play the games they want to play.

Microsoft is also considering applying this simplified designation system to a game's system requirements. That is, while game publishers will still be able to print detailed technical requirements on the back of a game box (speed of 3.0GHz and at least 512MB of RAM, for instance), these requirements might also be given a simpler designation. In essence, this system would let newer PC game players quickly and easily determine that they need computers of at least "level 5 or higher" to play a game with certain specific requirements rather than trying to figure out exactly how much RAM they currently have.

Lester went on to explain other features that Microsoft's Games for Windows group wishes to improve on or simply wants streamline out of existence. One example was the conventional game installation system that requires users to sit through several lengthy loading screens. Lester stated flatly, "We need to make that go away." Ideally, Microsoft would like to make PC game installation as easy as the plug-and-play experience of console games, which can be played the instant a disc is dropped into a drive. Lester also outlined a more-streamlined display-driver model that would alleviate confusion with different graphics driver versions. This would be especially helpful in situations where certain versions of some drivers would work better with some games than others, depending on the hardware.

When asked about Microsoft's first-party PC game publishing strategy, Lester replied that although he can't speak directly for Microsoft Game Studios (currently headed up by MGS executive Shane Kim), Microsoft's plan is to publish "platform-defining titles" for the PC.

To that end, Longhorn will natively support the XNA development system, and Longhorn-based PCs will directly benefit from this. "Xbox 2 peripherals will all work on PC," said Lester, clarifying that Xbox controllers, steering wheels, and other console-related peripheral functionality will all be brought into Longhorn's portfolio, as will Xbox Live functionality. For game players, this will make for, if nothing else, an added convenience, since playing a game on a PC or an Xbox will [ideally] come down to little more than unplugging the controller from one and plugging it in to the other. For game developers, Microsoft hopes that the introduction of XNA will help standardize development on both platforms--to such an extent that "you won't have to choose between Xbox or PC" to develop games...and, ideally, so that players won't have to choose between the two platforms to play these games.

When asked about Longhorn's schedule and the current state of Microsoft's DirectX API, Lester affirmed that the next full upgrade to DirectX will be bundled with Longhorn, as previously announced. As such, Windows games should continue to have DirectX 9 as a stable platform on which to develop games, which is similar to the way in which console game manufacturers can stick with and specialize in developing for specific console hardware. The most recent point release, DirectX 9.0c, was to enable support for Shader Model 3.0, which is now being incorporated into newer games.

We then asked Lester one final question. Considering how the next version of DirectX, released with Longhorn, will essentially be a new development platform--similar to a new console release--would Xbox 2 be based on Longhorn? Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, Lester declined to comment.

GameSpot will have additional details on Longhorn, XNA, and Microsoft's next-generation console as they become available.

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