LOS ANGELES, May 16, 2001 — Diehard gamers finally have an answer to one of the two burning questions in the gaming world: When can they get their hands on Xbox? Today at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2001, Microsoft announced that its first console gaming system will hit store shelves Nov. 8, with 600,000 to 800,000 consoles available at launch, and between 1 million and 1.5 million available through the holiday season. The console will sell for US$299.
Now only one question remains: Will the gaming experience live up to the high expectations for Xbox? Yes, and then some, say independent developers and others involved in creating several of its most highly anticipated games.
Developers say the gaming experiences on Xbox will far surpass previous versions of their games — or anything ever possible on a game console. They promise gaming scenarios with two to three times as many levels of play and characters as pre-Xbox games, unprecedented graphics and animation, theater-like surround sound, as well as multi-player options and broadband capabilities that add new levels of competition and teamwork to games.
“Xbox allows game artists to focus on their creativity rather than struggling with the technical constraints that have limited their visions for making great games in the past,”
said Robbie Bach, senior vice president and chief Xbox officer.
“As we speak, the developers creating games for Xbox are setting new standards for what to expect from console games. Theres no going back now.”
Developers Challenged to Maximize Potential of Xbox
Game developers had to look no further than the muscular specifications of Xbox to get a hint of its potential. By combining a custom-designed Intel 733MHz central processing unit (CPU) and custom-designed Nvidia 250MHz graphics-processing unit and media communications processor with 64MB of memory, a built-in hard disk and broadband capability, Microsoft has created a video game system three times more powerful than any other gaming console.
But as developers began to build games for the Xbox infrastructure, they found some unexpected challenges.
“It was difficult to know how to use all of the power that was there,”
said Richard Garcia, a graphics programmer and president of Monster Games Inc., makers of NASCAR Heat, a driving game that will debut on Xbox.
“Weve been so constrained in the past. Xboxs power has allowed us to think of new possibilities.”
“Xbox really challenges the design creativity of the development community,”
agreed Lorne Lanning, president and co-founder Oddworld Inhabitants, makers of the top-selling Oddworld series.
“For the first time, we dont feel totally limited by the capabilities of the hardware platform.”
“Oddworld: Munchs Oddysee”
is the first of four installments of the series that will be released exclusively on Xbox. Lanning called Oddworlds decision to move from another gaming console to Xbox
“an easy choice for a developer to make.”
He points to the scope and scale of
“Oddword: Munchs Oddysee”
as proof. It will offer eight levels of play with two to five hours of play per level — the equivalent of two or three non-Xbox games. There will also be new characters and more potential perils. In the earlier Oddworld games, a gamer might confront six to eight Scrabs at a time. In Munchs Oddysee, gamers will face four or five times as many of the hybrid praying mantis/rhinoceros creatures — each with scurrying legs and chomping mandibles.
Powerful Design Enables Unprecedented Realism
This level of reality stems not only from the component parts of Xbox, but also from the way the console uses its power, says Seamus Blackley, Xbox technical officer. The console contains three processors, one each for central processing, graphics processing and audio processing. Unlike single-processor game consoles, Xbox can parse its duties, freeing up the CPU to exclusively control the actions and movements — or
— of characters and other on-screen elements. The hard drive within Xbox — something no other game console offers — also allows the processors to offload static images and tasks.
“Suddenly, you have this really powerful 733 MHz Pentium chip with nothing to do,”
“So, it can focus on doing really detailed physics.”
He compares the CPUs in other consoles to a person who is trying mightily to get a big project done while receiving a flood of phone calls with additional tasks.
“With Xbox, the CPUs phone doesnt ring,”
As a result, the action never stops in Halo, an Xbox-exclusive combat game set in outer space
Unlike combat games on other consoles, players wont have to wait for screens to load when a battle moves from outdoors to inside, or if a character jumps in a vehicle. Created for Microsoft by game developer Bungie, Halo will be released at the same time as Xbox.
Xbox gives games like NASCAR Heat an unprecedented degree of realism.
Unlike most other driving games, all of the cars in the Xbox version of NASCAR Heat will simulate the physics of real cars. Each of the tires on each of the cars will contour to the track. If two cars collide, they will lurch and skid exactly as two cars would in a real collision, with the direction and force differing according to speed and which parts of the cars make contact.
Thanks to Xboxs hard disk, if a car scrapes a wall on a curve or leaves a skid on the track, that scrape and skid will remain throughout the race. And gamers who want to show off their driving exploits to friends wont have to worry about losing any of the action, Garcia expects the Xbox version of NASCAR Heats instant replay function to store about 10 times more action than previous versions, Garcia said.
In Mad Dash, a different type of racing game, which also debuts on Xbox this fall, gamers race colorful cartoon characters around lush landscapes in search of parts of the master weapon needed to defeat the games bad guy, Hex. Freed by Xboxs processing power, the games developers let their imaginations run wild. How wild? One weapon shoots flaming chickens that explode in a sea of feathers on impact.
“Before Xbox, we wouldnt have bothered with this kind of special effect because we couldnt have made it look realistic,”
said project director Glen Schofield of game developer Crystal Dynamics.
Similarly, when the cartoon characters run across a snowy terrain, they gradually sink into the white stuff and run slower. When they run through a desert, sand blows across the dunes as it would in a real desert. If a boulder gets dislodged on a mountain, it bounces and rolls unpredictably, like a real boulder.
“There are so many special effects that the average player might not notice them all right away, but we know they are going to appreciate them,”
Xbox Offers Unmatched Audiovisual Quality
Developed jointly by Microsoft and nVidia, the consoles custom-designed graphics processing chip can process as many as 125 million on-screen graphical polygons per second, twice that of the nearest competitor. The chip also takes anti-aliasing to a new level, smoothing out the jagged appearance of diagonal lines, developers say.
“Everything just looks beautiful,”
said Schofield. He and other developers at Crystal Dynamics are used to creating games on a PC and seeing the visual fidelity degrade when they port them over to the game console.
“We bring it over to the Xbox and the graphics look great. They look so much nicer, so much richer.”
When the game developers at Japans Tecmo Inc. began designing Dead of Alive 3, they couldnt believe the visual fidelity. Previous versions of Dead or Alive, which ran on another gaming system, could offer no more than 60 visual frames per second. Initially, Tecmo developers were able to create 130 frames per second on Xbox. Now more adapt with Xbox, they have got the rate up to 180 frames per second, Blackley says.
Tecmo was so impressed that it asked Microsoft if it could create DOA 3 exclusively for Xbox.
“Their designers didnt want to have to dumb down the game for other systems,”
For the first time, Monster Games can add four layers of graphic detail — everything from the reflection of the sun to simulated dirt and grime — to each of the tens of thousands of pixels that make up NASCAR Heats onscreen image. As a result, they can place gleaming grains of sand on the black hot tarmac track and create realistic-looking bumps in the road.
The potential is so great that the game developers have had to study photographs of actual racetracks and cars to make sure they are not leaving out details they overlooked in the past but can now include in the game.
“Normally we can only do one base set of textures,”
“With Xbox we can combine four textures to make the most photo-realistic game ever.”
Xboxs audio components — including a dedicated audio processor with 256 audio channels and Dolby 5.1 surround sound — have allowed Monster Games to create their most realistic-sounding game ever.
“The sound hardware in the Xbox is amazing,”
“Gamers wont even have to watch the screen to know when a car is passing them. They will hear the roar of its engine in the rear speakers and hear it gradually fade along one side into the front speakers.”
Multi-Player Gaming Expands Entertainment Options
As avid gamers themselves, Garcia and other developers at Monster Games are especially excited about another feature of Xbox: system-link play. For the first time, 16 or more of them will be able to race at the same time.
“We are going to love it,”
Gamers will be able to connect as many as 16 consoles, using Xbox system-link cables. Once linked, the consoles work together, allowing gamers to compete alongside one another, each on a full screen with no degradation in the picture or gaming experience, Blackley says. Other consoles require players to compete on a split screen with slower frame rates and limited details.
Despite these benefits, system-link play hardly compares with the multi-player possibilities Xbox will offer, beginning in the first half of 2002. Using Xboxs built-in broadband connection, players will be able to play live, head-to-head over the Internet with an unlimited number of gamers around the globe. They also will be able to download content for games and chat with other gamers using an add-on headset.
Some 27 top game developers — see list below –committed to supporting Xbox online.
Infogrames expects to incorporate online features into all of its major new games and projects.
“You cant overestimate the importance of Xboxs broadband connection and hard drive for adding new content to games and enriching the experience gamers will have online,”
said Jason Bell, senior vice president for North American publishing for Infogrames.
Said Craig Relyea, vice president of worldwide marketing for game developer Interplay,
“The online features of the Xbox are exactly what weve been wishing for to take our console products to the next level.”
Microsoft Offers Top-Notch Support for Developers
According to developers, one key to the superiority of Xbox cant be found on any spec sheets and wont be one of the features gamers drool over. Its in the quality of the game development kits and assistance Microsoft has provided game developers.
Within a week of receiving Microsofts development kit, Monster Games had NASCAR Heat running for Xbox.
“It took us six months on another big-name gaming system,”
“Microsoft did a good job putting together a development kit that is clear and easy to use,”
“You can definitely see their strength as software developers at work in the kit.”
Crystal Dynamics is used to having console makers ship them manuals so thick and complicated they might have been written in a foreign language.
“We have to figure everything out ourselves,”
With Xbox, Microsoft technicians have helped answer every question.
“They look at the code and tell you how you can make the game look and play better — and they get back to you fast,”
“They really want to make the games the best they can be.”