The first GDC keynote closed off a couple of hours ago, with Microsoft's John Schappert (corporate vice president of the Live platform) delivering a speech that shows Microsoft are pretty confident about this games thing. A high level summary:
* The games industry is now bigger than the music industry. The movie industry it left in the dust ages ago.
* The Xbox 360 is doing well, particularly in the online space. It has more titles scoring over 80% in game scores than the next two platforms combined.
* Over 1 billion achievements have been unlocked by Xbox gamers.
* Halo 3 video uploads, on a daily basis, are exceeding even youtube uploads (! I still am not sure if I wrote this one down correctly.)
The keynote then moved on to Microsoft's XNA studio and how successful it has been - over 800,000 interested parties have downloaded Microsoft's game development environment so far in a process they're referring to as "democratising game development". Creating excellent development tools is clearly something they're hugely proud of and it sounds like they're banking heavily on it to pave the way for future successes.
This concept was further hammered in by by the big announcement of the day - the plan to democratise game distribution. This will allow aspiring game developers to not only create Xbox games using XNA, but distribute them online for other people to play - offering an audience for their titles (remembering this is GDC, that's a big deal for game developers trying to get into the industry), and offering vast amounts of content for Microsoft to make available to Xbox owners.
The process is relatively simple:
1) Submit your game.
You'll drop it in with a high level overview, selecting some simple options to help classify your title.
2) Wait for it to be reviewed.
Your game will be peer-reviewed by other developers (I don't think regular users will be part of this process. They'll keep an eye out for "objectionable content" and other issues, like IP/copyright infringement, and then make a judgment.
3) Publish it.
Your game will become available to everyone.
They didn't go into too much detail about the final step - it's not clear if these games will be free, or if you can buy them on the market place, or what. More details will no doubt become available soon, but either way, it sounds like an awesome deal for everyone, from developers to consumers.
Another feature was the ability to do simple cross-platform support - not just between the PC and the Xbox, but also the Zune (Microsoft's answer to the iPod) - a simple shooter was demonstrated running off a Zune.
The next generation of games...
The next part of the conference involved showing off some of the next generation titles we can expect to see. Epic Games showed off some concept work from a modified Unreal Engine, showing off some awesome new effects in a Gears of War-type environment - destructible environments, improved water simulation, and deformable soft objects.
Another update was to the model renderer to allow veritable hordes of characters on the screen at the same time. A brief demo was shown of hundreds of bad guys from Gears flocking down a street in a group - very cool; all I could think of was how sweet it'd be to be at the other end of the road with a mounted machine gun.
Tomonobu Itagaki from Team Ninja showed up to demonstrate some of Ninja Gaiden 2. I never played - or even saw - the first one so I can't really comment on any improvements. Looked like a vaguely entertaining action game; not really my scene though. One big new feature for the new version will be the ability to record games and pop them online, allowing gamers to check out videos of the best players as they ninj their way through the game's hotspots.
The presentation finished a teaser trailer from Gears of War 2, after which CliffyB from Epic Games chainsawed his way onto the stage to announce that this mildly anticipated title will be hitting the streets in November 2008. If it has even half the technology that was demonstrated today, it'll be a killer.
While Microsoft aren't exactly opening up Xbox Live to anyone, this is an awesome first step. It might go no further than this, but even if it doesn't it offers an unrivaled opportunity for independent and amateur game developers to get their stuff seen - and potentially for gamers to get a wide variety of (free?) content for their Xbox.
It should be noted, of course, that this is really just like the PC now, except less free. Arguably the structure provided by Microsoft in Live and XNA, and their awesome tools, provides a more cohesive environment for everyone - but it should be remembered that it comes at some cost when compared to PC gaming - (near) unlimited freedom.