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Microsoft looks to unite PC, Xbox games

The software giant announces a new game development platform covering current and future versions of Windows and the Xbox game console.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Microsoft announced a new set of development standards and tools Wednesday intended to cover both PC games and titles for the company's Xbox console.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference here, Microsoft executives said the new XNA platform would make it easier for game developers to handle the technical aspects of creating games and would allow them to begin working now with the tools they'll use for next-generation titles.

XNA tools will help in the creation of games for the current Windows XP operating system for PCs and the current Xbox, said Vice President J. Allard, and will be extended in the next version of the Xbox and Longhorn, the successor to Windows XP.

"As a developer, you can just depend on a stable and robust environment--and not just stable for this generation," Allard said.

"Are we going to sit and wait for hardware to decide when the next generation of gaming begins?" Allard continued. "I say no. I say the next generation begins today."

Robbie Bach, senior vice president in Microsoft's Xbox division, said in an interview that XNA will create a stable architecture so that game developers and middleware partners can develop better tools for creating games.

"What XNA is about is ensuring developers have the same set of tools to work with," he said. "It's giving people a lot more efficiency and effectiveness so they can focus on the creative aspects of making games."

XNA will allow developers to easily reuse code and tools between PC and Xbox titles, speeding the creation of games for both systems, Allard said. Many games such as sports titles and shoot-'em-up games are released for both consoles and PCs, but porting between the two is usually a time-consuming and costly process. Microsoft began simplifying the process with the Xbox, which uses common PC components and the DirectX graphics library developed for PC games, but XNA will accelerate the process, Bach said.

"Why was it so easy to get people to create Xbox games? Because they knew DirectX," he said. "This is just an extension of that same strategy."

P.J. McNealy, an analyst at American Technology Research, said any attempt to unite PC and console game development is likely to be troublesome, as the two systems have different business models and price norms. "If you're really going to merge PC games and console games, there's going to have to be a change in business strategy," he said.

PC-Xbox portability also will mean more connections between Xbox Live, the online gaming service for the console, and PCs. Back-end Xbox Live services such as billing and authentication could easily be extended to PC games, Bach said. But actually having an online game include PCs and consoles is another matter. "We'll be looking at which direction we want to go based on the feedback we get from people," he said.

While Bach and Allard promoted XNA as a way for developers to begin learning the tools they'll use to create games for , they offered no details on what that machine will be like, despite continuing speculation from game developers and fans.

John Schappert, general manager of Canadian development studios for leading game publisher Electronic Arts, said in a presentation at the conference that EA has about 100 people working on code for upcoming consoles, even though clues are still scant about what those machines will contain.

He told developers to be patient as they wait for details on the new machines. "You'll know when you need to know," he said. "These folks (console makers) are our partners...and it's in their best interest to get you the development kits as soon as possible. They're not purposely trying to keep you in the dark."

Schappert also warned not to pour too much money into new systems at the expense of current consoles, noting Sony's ongoing sales for the original PlayStation.

"PlayStation 2 and Xbox won't disappear the day the next generation arrives," he said. "Current consoles will be relevant until at least 2007...You want to make sure you're ready for the transition, but you don't want to miss where the gravy train is today."