XNA shown off at GDC

Microsoft details and demos its new cross-platform development system at the San Jose developers' expo.

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SAN JOSE--Today, inside a hazy hall the Game Developers' Conference in San Jose, California, two top Xbox executives gave a glimpse into the future of Microsoft games. In front of a crowd of antsy developers, reporters, and gamers, Xbox chief Robbie Bach unveiled XNA, the new game development system Microsoft announced this morning.

Bach started with a lengthy introduction, in which he invoked Cinerama, the innovative three-projector, seven-speaker film projection system that briefly swept the nation 50 years ago before quickly dying out. Bach took the two reasons for Cinerama's demise--labor-intensive production and high production costs--and compared them to today's game industry. In particular, he talked about how game developers spend roughly 80 percent of their time working on a game's mechanics--versus 20 percent on its more creative elements. He also cited skyrocketing development budgets, which average around $5 to $10 million.

Then Bach asked, "How do we stop games from becoming the next Cinerama?" Of course, he had the answer--XNA. Enter J Allard, Xbox's corporate vice president, who detailed the development platform in earnest. Promising a "common architecture between Xbox and Windows games" and "seamless interoperability between platforms," Allard outlined how XNA will incorporate Windows' DirectX, Visual Studio, and HLSL (High Level Shading Language) development tools with PIX, XACT, and Xbox Live tools for the Xbox. "All these components will be the basis of the XNA system," said Allard.

Allard also displayed a list of the companies who have already signed on to collaborate in the creation of XNA, which included Havok, Vicarious Visions, Crytek, Valve, NDL, and High Voltage Software. Unsurprisingly, he voiced his hopes that others would sign on as well, boasting how XNA's unified system would allow developers to spend more time on the "artistry" of games. "When we're not focusing on creativity, we're not captivating customers," he said. "and when we're not captivating customers, we're not making money."

To drive home his point, Allard brought out Laura Fryer and Chris Donahue, Xbox's technology director and lead technical evangelist for Windows Gaming. Using an Xbox S-controller attached to an ATI-equipped PC, the duo showed off three short XNA-developed demos. The first one featured a Yeti-like creature named "Rex" who, while rendered in Pixar-like sharpness, morphed from a spider, to a dimetrodon, and then to an ankylosaurus-like prehistoric mammal. Fryer emphasized the demo's crisp sound, which showcased XNA's ability to let developers front-load audio.

Next up was "Eva," a several-minute demo of a film noir femme fatale, which was more like a cutscene than a game. Donahue stressed that XNA lets its developers "spend time on the creation" and pointed out the abundant self-shadowing that was evident. Fryer focused on the demo's physics, singling out the woman's "real-time feet."

However, the XNA presenters saved the best for last. The final demo was of a sleek looking, cobalt-blue S7 Saleen sports car, which was developed by Pseudo Interactive's David Wu. After several close-ups of the car, which highlighted the light bloom on headlights and taillights, the trio on stage gave the audience a taste of XNA gameplay. They sent the near flawless-looking car speeding off--and into a series of spectacular crash tests. The particle effects and physics displayed in the quartet of collisions sparked whoops and applause from the crowd, which is a good omen for the nascent development system.

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