- [This interview, conducted by Brandon Sheffield, ran on big sis site Gamasutra earlier today, and I'm bonus posting it over here because the Xbox 360 Community Games concept is intriguingly 'open' for Microsoft - especially the peer review concept for ratings - so it'll be fascinating to see how it plays out, both in game quality and submission reality.]

At GDC, Microsoft revealed the Xbox Live Community Games project, using the XNA platform and its Game Studio Express software to allow the publishing of Xbox 360 games from the amateur community.

The company has been seeking to create what is often hopefully (and elusively) painted as a "YouTube of gaming" - an environment where amateur and independent developers can freely share their creations in an accessible way.

In the longer term, Microsoft is looking to familiarize the next generation of game developers with knowledge of its own development environments, which has obvious benefits for the company down the line if they can pull it off.

According to the firm, Microsoft plans to announce more regarding its XNA initiatives and the Creators Club Online/Community Games project (which is a peer-based publishing system and currently in Beta) at its annual Gamefest technology conference in July.

In the meantime, XNA game platform general manager Boyd Multerer sat down with Gamasutra to discuss the specifics of the complex system, how it's intended to work, and some of the possible issues and solutions inherent in the new system.

The YouTube Of Gaming

Many people are looking for the whole "YouTube of gaming" thing - how exactly is the process going to be working now, in terms of differentiating content that a consumer would pay for, and free content?

BM: Well that's a good question, and it's an area that is specifically an area that we're still trying to close the details on. And the plan is that we'll have a completed story around "What is the difference between those kinds of content and how do you differentiate between them?" at Gamefest this summer.

So that's just specifically an area that I can't talk about at the moment, just because we haven't closed on it yet. We haven't finished figuring that part out yet.

OK. You're still going to have Xbox Live Arcade, correct? And so Community Games will be differentiated, right?

BM: That is right. Well, the first differentiator to think about, right now - that's a different differentiator - there's a differentiator of professional content versus community content. That one I can talk better about.

In the professional world - and when you think about XBLA in particular - that is content that has had serious budgets put into it. I mean, to make those games, and to make a high quality game that's worthy of getting big marketing money behind it, and all that, it costs money. Budgets for those games, with multiple people involved, about three hundred thousand dollars, half-million dollars, even a million dollars these days is not unheard of to develop these kinds of games.

The people I'm targeting with the community side of XNA, their budget is... can they eat? Right? Some of these people are in college, some of these people are not even in the software industry, this is what they do for hobby, and it's about giving them a channel where they can still be creative.

No one's expecting that - and of course there will be exceptions to this, but overall - no one's expecting that their games are going to compete with the professional titles, simply because they don't have the art budget for it. There will occasionally be someone who's really, really good at it, and is going to stand out, but for the vast majority of the content, you'll be able to tell the difference as soon as you see it, simply because it just takes a lot to make a professional game.

Right. It is similar tools, though, so someone from, you know, a rogue Bungee employee could make something in their spare time.

BM: Yeah, that's totally true. And I expect that kind of stuff. There will be standout items that come; there will be the brilliant kid from art school who is making great artwork; there's going to be the rogue person from a professional studio; all of that kind of stuff will be there. The vast majority of the content, overall... You'll probably be able to tell the difference. That doesn't mean it won't be fun.

Have you figured out the ranking systems yet, in terms of how things will be searchable? Will there be top, you know, top played and top rated situations?

BM: Yeah. In general, the place where these games meet the consumer side? That's the part that's being closed. So I can talk more definitively about 'What does it look like from the developers' side?' Because even I don't know exactly what the UI's going to look like. We've got lots of ideas! And we're trying to close it down as fast as we can, but GameFest is probably the right time.

How did you decide to approach for the initial games that were put up? Did you seek people out, or did people -

BM: They more sought us out. So we had the Dream, Build, Play contest last summer, and ever since then, we've got people who've been making really interesting stuff and sending them our way.

But it's more that those games kind-of found us. Maybe not in every single case - I didn't personally make all the choices as to what they were, but in general we're seeing a stronger response from the community, and more creativity, and higher level games than we expected, so it's pretty easy to find good things to show.

Content Ratings Sans ESRB

What is the publishing process? What do you have to go through?

BM: It's pretty straightforward. So you write your game, and then you go to a place on the Creators Club website - there's a Beta now out - where you'll be able to go up, and if you're a member of the club, you'll go to a page, and you'll be able to fill a form out.

There's a spot for you to put a screenshot and some text describing your game, and then there's a bunch of sliders - basically a "sex, violence, language" section, and you choose how much of each one of those, and there's a couple of sub-categories - and pretty much anything in those sliders is OK.

But what we want is we want you to say how much of each of those is in the game. You could have all the way in all the columns and we'll still pass it through, as long as you're prudent, and pretty accurate in describing what the game is.

Then you submit the game, and it goes through a peer review process, where a certain number of your peers will then download the game, play it, and then either agree or disagree with how you rated it. If you said it's a three on language, and they say it's a zero and there's none, that's not as important as if you say there's zero and they say there's three. Then it'll certainly get kicked back.

And part of the reason we're running the beta is because we have to figure out these heuristics, and how exactly should they work. It's new territory, so we're trying to figure it out.

Right. When it does get kicked back, does someone on the Microsoft side have to look at it then?

BM: No, no, no. Specifically it will get kicked back to the person to the person who made the game, with an F, and with an explanation for why it got kicked back. If it's just in the rating system, then please re-rate it, and re-submit.

There are certain things, a small set of things, that are just outright banned, and if it got kicked back with one of those, it will be explained, and you'll have to change your game and try it again.

What are those things, if you can say?

BM: Excessive nudity, explicit scenes, threats against another person. That kind of stuff.

OK. And it seems like it's possibly gray areas, like... Are you at all concerned that people will specifically - consumers like parents, or people like that - will hold Microsoft accountable for content that's created by users? I mean, I know they shouldn't, but are you worried that it's going to happen?

BM: Well first off, I guess there are a couple ways of thinking about it. Number one, we've tried to set it up so that if your game wouldn't get an M rating, then it's not going to make it through the system. So we're trying to -

You mean if it's over an M rating?

BM: If it's over an M rating, then it wouldn't make it through the system anyway. Beyond that, any of this content, when we launch, is going to be officially 'unrated', which is the highest restriction level, so if you set any parental controls on your box whatsoever, then this stuff won't play.

The third piece is, you know, our job is just to make sure that it's a decision the parent gets to make. We're trying to be better than anyone else at explaining, 'this is what you're going to get into if you download this' and you can see those ratings, and you can say, "OK, this doesn't have a lot of language, it's got a whole lot of violence," and blah-blah-blah, and let the parent make their own choices.

Right.

BM: If they don't like it, they shouldn't download it.

That's true. Though, most of them tend to just put the console in their kid's room, and then forget about it. But that's not your problem, really; that's not your fault. There's not much you can do about that.

BM: But, I want to emphasize that it's something that we care a lot about, and I want to make sure that if the parent has any interest, they can make informed decisions. It's important to us, as we're going into this space. I know it's rife with opportunities for bad things, and we're trying to be really good about letting people make their own decisions, and make good decisions.

Paying The Bills

Is the cost nailed down for this yet? Last time I spoke with someone, it wasn't, for the Creators Club and getting the XNA and all that.

BM: Well, I guess I'd say there's two different costs: One is, to make a game at all - to download the tools, to download the APIs, to download everything you need to make an XNA game - is free. Visual Studio Express is free, our APIs are free, the tools are free on Windows. So you can build your game, you can do all your creative stuff, you can get your point across without spending a penny.

Now, tools from other companies obviously aren't free - you'll need a 3D editing package and all of that kind of stuff - but to make the essence of your game on Windows is free. To get it running on your Xbox, to do the debugging and get it to the point where it runs on that device is $99 a year.

To be able to submit your game to the publishing system, you will need that subscription. So that will be $99 a year. And for that, I don't really care how many games you've made, but there is a barrier to get in in the first place.

And that barrier is in place to make sure that people are serious, right. And also to mitigate some costs.

BM: Well, I'd say there are really three goals to that barrier. One is to make sure that if you're communicating with someone who's in the Creators Club, who also is in the Creators Club, and you're talking about game development, you know for pretty sure that they're serious. So the level of the discussion is raised up a notch.

Two, a little bit of cost recovery, but really it doesn't even come close to covering the cost of the program we're running. The more interesting one is, if there are people trying to grief the system, right? $99 for someone who's really interested in making a game is really nothing, but $99 a hundred times over for someone who's trying to grief and keeps getting their account banned, that actually starts to add up.

Is it to the point where there is something in place where people can make money off of their games?

BM: We understand that there are all kinds of motivations that people have for making a game, and we're certainly exploring all the possibilities, and we'll have a better story for you around GameFest time.

Attracting The Next Wave Of Developers

You mentioned that the $99 a year is not going to cover the cost by a long shot; do you have a plan to eventually bring this to profitability, or is this mostly a community-building kind of thing?

BM: There are different aspects to the program that need to be considered, and we get different things out of them. One of the fundamental things we've always been trying to do with it is to teach people how to make games. And this is an easily-overlooked goal on our part, but it's actually really serious.

One of the problems we've got, and in fact every technical company has got, and the game companies have got, is that we can't hire enough people who know how to write games. There just aren't enough of them out there.

So one of the biggest drivers of the whole program is getting into universities, get people being taught how to write games, get Xboxes in there, and actually get more people into CompSci. Period. So I'm really happy, we're in over four hundred universities right now - which just kind of blows me away.

Yeah, that's a lot.

BM: And it's kind of a sideways way of answering your question, but my point here is that there are more things that we get out of it than just having our cost recovered, and that's actually really important to us.

Yeah. Well, in a forward-thinking kind of way, if you put this out there for them, people are learning on Microsoft tools, and then they become Microsoft tool users; so that seems like a potential benefit.

BM: That benefit isn't lost on us. (laughter) Yeah, we noticed that.

Yeah, of course you noticed. It was the plan. Or, I assume it was the plan. Microsoft is, in many ways, leading the online charge in many fronts on the console space. In some ways, Microsoft is getting ahead, but in other ways Microsoft is also spending all the money to figure out things that work, and then other people can learn from that without spending the money.

BM: That's always the risk. I mean, you always have a choice of, are you going to be a follower and try to catch up, or are you going to lead into a space, get the first-mover advantage?

Any time you do a first-mover in any kind of a subject area, you have to figure out all of the hard spots, you might take a couple of knocks, and there's always a chance that someone's going to pass you by. So you have to choose which one you're going to be in. It's a difficult for any person or any company, in, really, any technical field what-so-ever.

Do you have any kind of mechanism through which these XNA Creator creative people can seek out jobs, or anything like that? I don't know if that's too high level integration, but -

BM: No, that's a great question. One of the dreams that we have for the Creator Club website is to have a place where people in it can advertise their services, get hooked up with other people who are maybe looking for a programmer, or an artist - and I don't care if it's small teams coming together, or people trying to get into the professional companies - that is totally a goal that we have.

Every once in a while we just troll around on the internet and just look to see if anyone's posted jobs where they're looking for someone who has XNA experience, and that's like totally a validation that we're doing something interesting.

Do you foresee something where people can create teams as they would create friends lists, or something like that?

BM: Yeah, we've talked about such things. Right now we're pretty focused on just getting this publishing thing out the door. And we've got a long list of things that we've talked about building, and teams, virtual teams, and geographically dispersed teams, and all those things are on the list, it's just that we've got to get this publishing thing done first.

So is it going to be built up somewhat iteratively, in terms of -

BM: Yeah.

OK. Is there any project management software that's included, or -

BM: Ah, not really. Not really. On the list of things that we're looking at, because we plug in Visual Studio, the good news is that there's all sorts of project management that exists for Visual Studio anyway. So if we can just take advantage of all that stuff, then I don't have to reinvent it all.

OK, that makes sense.

BM: I just want to focus on the game development piece of it, and let the project management people do the project management. As long as we hook in and it all works together, it's good.

Yeah. Well, I mean, it's just in thinking about geographically dispersed teams, and stuff like that -

BM: Yeah. Yeah, totally. And I know that there are whole teams at Microsoft, and even other companies, that do nothing but worry about that. And the best way for me to get the most value out of that is to make sure that I work with their stuff, and then I'll go focus on games.

Thinking Globally

Is there much of an initiative in Japan for this stuff, do you know? I don't know if you're globally-minded with -

BM: Yeah. Japan's interesting, because there are so many great developers in Japan. Maybe it's not a strong consumer presence for our stuff, but wow there are a lot of smart developers and engineers out there.

And they just held a - the Japanese group that we work with at Microsoft, they just held the Japan version of the Dream, Build, Play contest, and there was some great stuff that came out of it, so I'm hopeful that we're going to get some really good content out of Japan.

Yeah, there is a huge, huge, huge amateur game development community there. Bigger than here by far, and if you could convince like a quarter of those people, you'd be in a good position, but it seems that it's difficult in some ways.

BM: There are a lot of difficulties. I would say that, when it comes to talking to the developers, we're - it's actually not too... The people who are in Japan who are helping us with this are pretty good at it, and they're starting to get the message out there, and I'm really hopeful that we're going to get some great content out of Japan.

Will people be able to publish globally? Can you say that, or no?

BM: Um, that would be one of those ones where you say "yes" with an asterisk on it. It's most likely going to be a regional roll-out, and we don't know the full set that we'll be supporting when we start, but it'll be an expanding list as we go.

It turns out that there are all kinds of regulatory and legal issues involved, and it just takes time to sort through those things. Long term, the goal is, yeah, we want to be able to provide developers as large an audience as we possibly can.

They don't have to all publish in English, do they? Or do they?

BM: I don't see why they would have to. That's one where we're not going to have a real large hand in declaring, "This is how you write your game." Some of that is just content. If you want to write your game in French, go ahead and write it in French.

That's good, because a lot of the console delivery stuff is very much, you know - it's not like "the internet," because on the internet you can go wherever, regardless of where you're from, but on a lot of the console stuff it's, "No, you're in America. You take the American games right now. Do it." So that would be good if it were -

BM: Yeah. Like I said, I don't know the exact order in which we're going to roll things out, but we're sure trying.