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I saw plenty of clashing and gnashing at the Game Developers Conference. User-generated games created plenty of it, but so did journalists themselves.
On those first two days, the press room was often busy. Included were the hacks for new site www.crispygamer.com, which vows not to cater to corporate interests and wants to tell it like it is when it comes to gaming reviews and news. That new gamer web site has gone into beta mode and is cruising along. There has been a lot of Sturm and Drang among game journalists about ethical issues and the nature of game journalism.
I was stunned to see so many people attending the virtual world summit, dubbed Worlds in Motion. And the Facebook gaming panel was jam packed. I sat on the floor as Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and Social Gaming Network game developer T. J. Murphy duked it out on the best way to make money from all of those Facebook eyeballs.
It felt like a ton had already happened by the morning of the Microsoft keynote on Wednesday. John Schappert, a Microsoft executive, steered into Web 2.0 territory as he announced that Microsoft would fully support the tool and publishing flow so that games created by amateurs could be published on the Xbox Live online gaming service.
Microsoft had been talking about this for a while, saying that its XNA Game Studio Express tools were in use at 400 universities. But now it formalized the process for how you could use the tools to create a game, submit it to a group of peers, and, if it passes muster, publish it yourself on Xbox Live for others to download and play. Microsoft has found that gamers are uploading 100,000 videos of their Halo 3 saved games every day to YouTube, an astounding number. So Chris Satchell, chief XNA architect at Microsoft, believes that gamers will also take to creating their own games.
Electronic Arts agreed with this idea of user-generated games, launching a tool for creating games at its new SimsCarnival web site. Those simple menu-based and visual tools made the whole process look a lot easier. EA tested the tools on 100 employees and they made more than 500 games in a month. I think this means that if you make it easy enough, you can turn anyone into a game developer. I vowed to make my own game one day, though I may not be putting my name on it.
Satchell said it would even be possible for the hobbyists creating games on the Xbox 360 to take the same XNA code and get the same game to run on the Microsoft Zune media player. I thought it was a very timid way for Microsoft to announce games on the Zune. I wrote about the potential for the Zune project to take on Nintendo and Sony in games a long time ago. But this is really like dipping its toes in the water.
Nintendo doesn’t feel threatened by this move, or by user-generated games in general. Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, said in an interview that he wanted to make it clear that WiiWare, Nintendo’s own version of this, is aimed at game professionals. He said that with WiiWare, accredited developers can create their own Wii games, get their games rated by the governing Entertainment Software Ratings Board at their own expense, and then submit them to Nintendo.
Fils-Aime said that Nintendo will upload them to the WiiWare site, where gamers with Internet-connected Wiis can download them to their own machines. The ESRB rating costs some money and takes perhaps four weeks to get it done.
“We provide no screening, no guidance for the developer,” Fils-Aime said. “Where we come into play is the discussion around when does it get launched.” Nintendo doesn’t want similar games, for instance, to launch at the very same time.
“It really is a different model than what Microsoft announced,” Fils-Aime said.
The distinction between Microsoft and Nintendo was a classic one. Microsoft doesn’t know where the next Tetris will come from and is enabling an army of developers to create their own games. That’s the same game plan that enabled Windows to conquer the world. The best rated games will rise to the top, Satchell told me. By the end of this year, user-generated games could double the number of games on the Xbox 360 console.
Nintendo, by contrast, has always known where the next Tetris will come from: its own trusted game developers such as Shigeru Miyamoto. It doesn’t want a flood of titles on its own console, but it doesn’t want to present barriers to talented game developers.
It didn’t say so, but Nintendo doesn’t want the amateurs on the platform. It’s anybody’s bet how this is going to turn out. User-generated games might turn out to be a headache. Microsoft said the peer review process will weed out games with “white power” themes and such. But in a day when AAA-rated games are produced over a couple of years by teams with more than 100 people, it’s hard to see user-generated games being competitive enough, at least on the console platforms.