XNA Game Studio European Tour – Dublin Event

Five of us went down to the XNA event in Dublin and got in early to avoid the long queues. This is the first of seven events in the XNA European tour designed to launch XNA v 2.0.  The event was of a high quality, very well organised and the five main speakers were excellent.

Dave Mitchell (Director, Microsoft XNA) was the keynote speaker and opened up the day by discussing the context for the introduction of XNA. He outlined a few recent facts and figures such as the game sales in the US last year being worth $6.4 billion and 41% of people in the US will buy a game in 2007. Games are big business and AAA titles are increasingly more complex to manage and more expensive to make. XNA has been introduced in this context and part of the motivation is to create a “youtube for games” – there are 50000 uploads of videos to youtube each day. So far there have 700 000 downloads of XNA, over 300 universities are teaching with it and it is actively used in 40 countries with 8 different languages. He discussed issues of quality control and the possible introduction of systems to enable indy developers to gain some money from their games.

He discussed opportunities for students to gain exposure through competitions like the Imagine Cup and dream.build.play. He demonstrated the winning entries from the later which were very impressive. Blazing Birds, Dishwasher, Gravitron Ultra, and ToHo Kablammo are all to appear on Live Arcade next year. An educational tool for teaching programming to young kids, Boku was shown and looked really impressive. This is basically a tool for controlling robots in different environments by dragging behaviourial objects together into sets of sequences.

Steve Collins (lecturer, Trinity Dublin) outlined a short history of game development in Ireland and expanded his presentation to discuss opportunities for starter companies in niche areas such as regionalisation, in mobile game development (worth $6 billion by 2010), casual games ($2 billion in the US by 2008), and online flash style games. For example Habbo Hotel has 80 million users and gained $80 million in revenue last year. These games are relatively inexpensive to make in comparison to a AAA title which can cost $27 million to make and needs to sell 1 million units to break even.

Charles Cox was the show stopper on the day. He outlined the changes in XNA v 2.0 from the previous version and programmed a network example in front of us in “real time” – though is was a very fast typer. Network programming looks really quite easy, which is great news for our students. A few of the new features of note are:

  • The content folder is now build in by default
  • A spriteBatch object is introduced by default into the game class
  • The content object is an integral part of the game class
  • Xbox 360 projects can be created from PC projects by the click of a button and Xbox and PC code is synchronised – excellent!
  • There is an improved device center for connecting PC to Xbox 360 and we can now connect up to 5 PCs to the same Xbox
  • Networking is introduced and access to Microsoft’s Live network has been enabled. This allows for a lot of extra functionality include access to gamer profiles and network matchmaking.

Rob Miles provided an entertaining introduction to 2d game programming with XNA and I’m sure this was a useful introduction for novices. The most interesting part of his talk for me was his idea of games with “Zero Graphics“. Ideas included racing gamepads down a slope using rumble functions, and “find the gamepad” where a gamepad is hidden from a friend and they must find it before a clock runs down (help by the controller vibrating more and more as time goes on). He was also very keen on use of components in XNA development – definitely a good idea.

The last talk was from Dr Quinonero from Microsoft’s Cambridge Research’s Applied Games Group. This was very interesting to a couple of us as we are doing some research on the topic of the talk – Reinforcement Learning in games (specifically related to adaptive state space). This an artificial intelligence approach that is used to train avatars or vehicles in a game to learn from experience. An example was demonstrated where a car would learn from example how to drive around a track in Project Gotham Racing 3 – using only information gained from sensors on the car, i.e. no in-built track information. This is related to the Drivators system for Ford Forza and the group are also responsible for TruSkill ranking on Live (efficient Bayesian inference ), AI for Go on Arcade, and they have worked on AI for Lionhead games.