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Microsoft talks PC gaming, Longhorn, 64-bit, and XNA updates

The general manager of Microsoft's Windows, graphics, and gaming technologies gives an update on current and future projects.


GDC, San Francisco--Windows, graphics, and gaming technologies general manager Dean Lester graciously sat down with GameSpot to discuss the past, present, and future of Windows as a gaming platform. The discussion began with a brief history of the company's DirectX API, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary. Lester cited one of the most technically impressive games of yesteryear, 1995's Descent, which by today's standards, doesn't look like anything special. The general manager then pointed to his high-end laptop computer running Half-Life 2 and suggested that with the ongoing advancements in technology, there may be a time in the not-too-distant future when even a game like Valve's acclaimed 2004 shooter sequel might also seem comparably dated.

To this end, Lester outlined Microsoft's plans for Windows as a gaming platform, reaffirming remarks that vice president and Xbox spokesman J Allard has made both this year and at last year's GDC. Specifically, the future of games in general should involve high-definition video and much more expansion into the world of online play. For instance, considering that typical high-end PC setups run games at a resolution of 1600x1200, games for Windows are more than ready for hi-def 1080p setups. Lester also pointed out that with the maturation of DirectX, PC games have expanded technically to include not only advanced graphics effects, but also advanced modeled physics.

The general manager also pointed out another surprising statistic--that in 2004, according to third-party research, online PC gaming revenue nearly equaled PC retail revenue with rough estimates of about $2 billion each--which would mean that PC gaming accounted for some $4 billion total last year. Lester made the bold suggestion that the PC games market isn't "dying," but rather, it's in a transitional state in which online games on the Windows platform may end up being a larger driver of revenue than retail games. When asked about commonly cited sales figures, Lester made the analogy of trying to account for Xbox game sales by excluding all Xbox Live-enabled games--that is, by not accounting for online-focused and online-only games, early market reports focusing only on offline PC games may not have been telling the whole story. The general manager then made the even bolder suggestion that by 2009, Windows gaming is expected to bring in something on the order of $9 billion dollars, with online games accounting for more than $6 billion and retail accounting for only $2.3 billion.

An example that Lester cited was Half-Life 2, a game that developer Valve distributed not only through traditional retail channels, but also online via its proprietary, online-only Steam service, which let players preload the game before its release rather than buying a box at a store. "It's a really virtuous cycle for the developer, the publisher, and the customer," said Lester in reference to Half-Life 2's Steam distribution, which, according to the general manager, allowed users easier access to the game, and allowed the developer to get closer to its customers for the purposes of soliciting feedback.

Looking to the future, Lester cited that continuing developments in consumer graphics and processor technology, especially 64-bit technology, should allow developers even more freedom. He also reaffirmed the remarks he has previously made with regard to integration of XNA--Microsoft's proposed unified platform for PC and console development. Lester stated that the various tools that Microsoft has issued are "getting more mature, and showing more equivalency" across the two platforms, and even cited an example of an unnamed game in development for publisher Take-Two actually managing to double its frame rate by using XNA tools. XNA Studio (XNA's library of graphics and sound), is in development, and the Xbox's sound API is currently being beta-tested for use with XNA as well. Lester also reaffirmed Microsoft's commitment to bring Xbox Live functionality to the Windows platform, along with unified controllers.

In the meantime, Lester reaffirmed his group's commitment to making Windows gaming "a simple, straightforward, and robust experience" that isn't marked by long game-install times, driver conflicts, and downloading patches. To this end, we were shown a demonstration of "Tray and Play" with the PC version of Need For Speed Underground 2. "Tray and Play" is exactly what it sounds like--dropping a game disc into an optical drive and loading it up immediately, rather than having to install it to a hard drive. True to form, the game itself cut straight to a start-up screen in less than a minute (including the game's own built-in load time). Lester suggested that this functionality will take advantage of the generally faster optical drives that most consumers have, and that some games might be able to run directly off the disc, or use minimal caching. This new feature allegedly won't be exclusive to Microsoft's upcoming Longhorn Windows platform and could theoretically be put into games today, provided it gets planned for in development early on. Lester also commented further on the particular strengths of Windows PCs as a gaming platform--that it continues to be a strong platform both for casual gamers who may be looking to sneak a quick game in between e-mail and Web-browsing sessions, and for massively multiplayer games, thanks to the proliferation of broadband Internet and widespread use of keyboards, which continue to seem like the best tools for chatting and socializing online.

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