NEWS - Thursday, May 20, 2004

Microsoft To Offer XNA To Rivals

When Microsoft announced XNA back at GDC, you could hear a collective groan from the assembled hacks as the stark realisation clanged like a thousand lead balloons that the Xbox 2 wasn’t going to be revealed after all. What did we get instead? XNA. XNA? More like WTF. But, as it turns out, the Redmond-based behemoth was up to its world domination plans once again, and more than a little coy with its vision, as an interview with J Allard last week proved conclusively. Far from being the suspected re-marketing and re-branding of the DirectX set of middleware tools for PC, Mobile and Xbox, Microsoft has explicit plans to leverage these tools into a something far more ambitious than a mere games console that retails for £299 at launch and plays occasionally cool next gen titles. It wants to create the entire standard of gaming across every platform. Scratch that. It wants to own the entire standard of gaming across every platform. This isn’t about warring between incompatible standards, it’s about creating a standard - a VHS-standard of ubiquity. Don’t think 3DO, think DVD. This is, after all, one of the biggest companies in the entire world, and it wants your money. Microsoft is essentially bored with the current obsession surrounding console cycles, and the obsolescence that happens every five years. It likes the way the film industry does things - the way that grand old business manages to seamlessly project movies into every conceivable corner of the market, from the box office to the handheld and every point in between. It wants gaming to follow the lead of the movies, and coin in the bucks that having invisible standards brings. The consumer doesn’t care about the technology when they watch a film, and Microsoft wants the same to apply to videogaming. Hence its point blank refusal to talk about Xbox 2 to date. It wants to talk about the software. It’s all about XNA, and only now is the industry waking up to its colossally ambitious plans. It doesn’t want to foist you to buy one incompatible device, but it does want gamers to enjoy a gaming ’universe’ across a multitude of devices - all complying to the XNA standard, natch. And would it be happy for those devices to be made by companies other than itself. As Allard points out, gaming is the only major form of electronic entertainment that doesn’t offer consumers choice. The 3DO model of providing a reference console design and allowing rival manufacturers to make their own was, he asserts, "ahead of its time". Of course, there would still be a Microsoft version of its console, but the company wants others to join in. Panasonic, Toshiba, JVC, Sharp? Maybe even Sony? Stranger things have happened. But it’s even bigger than just talking about XNA powered next gen consoles. Clearly Microsoft has designs on just about every niche you could squeeze this into. Handhelds, desktop PCs, laptop PCs, airport terminals, mobile phones, PDAs, the list goes on. It really does hurt the brain to think about how far reaching this whole plan is - it’s essentially its Windows equivalent for games. An OS for gaming, if you will. Can it succeed? Usually Microsoft cocks things up at least a couple of times in amusing fashion before it eventually works out a better way of doing things, and it’d be beyond foolish to imagine that the company will steal a march on its rivals just yet. As even Allard himself confesses, "I think it would be very hard to tap into the next gen, but you can start sneaking up on it". And that’s exactly what it’ll do. Sneak like Sam Fisher through the shadows of gaming and stealthily snatch pieces of the market until it has it by the neck where it wants it. But it won’t be easy. Certainly, the power of the PlayStation brand is a major stumbling block for Microsoft, as is Nintendo’s dogged innovation and loyal following. No one said any of this would be a stroll - but at least it’s thinking of a different way of doing things rather than just following the thoroughly predictable model of making a more powerful machine. The differentiators just aren’t there anymore - the generational leaps don’t have the impact they once had. Microsoft knows more than ever that the 5G consoles will be much of a muchness for the end user, with similar power, similar graphics and broadly similar games. It needs to think of a different tactic, and XNA appears to be its Trojan Horse to the end user and the elusive mass market that everyone talks about, but very few ever get anywhere near - at least not in the way that the movie industry does every single day. Even the mighty GTA, The Sims and Half-Life play out to puny audiences compared to the top-rated forms of mass entertainment, whatever the masters of spin conjure with their impressive financial reports, which only serve to remind us how bloody expensive games really are. The way Allard tells it, this is all about the masses. A vision that follows the film industry’s example and leverages XNA to become the gaming equivalent of DVD. He’s brimming with excitement about the possibilities of inter-compatible gaming universes ’projected’ onto all manner of XNA-compatible gaming devices both big and small. Halo everywhere, more or less. It’s a big aim, but one you have a hunch that Microsoft could pull off, given time. This motion towards a de-facto standard for gaming is "inevitable for the industry," Allard says, as confidently as ever. "Is that a 30-year inevitability or a three-year inevitability? It’s probably closer to the latter," he asserts. Time will tell, but somewhere between the two extremes seems like a fair guess. Catch the rest

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