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X-Box. More than just a console

March 20, 2000
by Zac Belado

Last week at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Jose, Microsoft formally announced their X-box game console: the most well-known "secret" in the computer industry since the announcement that Windows 2000 had a lot of bugs. As you would expect the computer press covered the event in a manner akin to the fawning adoration displayed by the Three Wise Men in a Catholic depiction of the manger scene. So what does the new X-box mean to gamers and software developers? And, perhaps more importantly, why is Microsoft launching a gaming console and directly entering the hardware market after avoiding it for so many years?

While it might be a slight exaggeration to suggest that the code-gnomes that run Microsoft won't be satisfied until Redmond approved genetically altered super children are born in Microsoft branded eugenics chambers to live a life of consumption of Microsoft products, it isn't much of one to suggest that Gates, Balmer and Microsoft stock owners everywhere are much happier when they see developers making products that use or access Microsoft APIs. The X-box is less about games and more about Microsoft retaining control of the software that games run under.

Microsoft currently has a very big problem on its hands. Game developers are getting sick of having to develop for the staggering number of hardware targets that represent the PC using world. PCs are like snowflakes and while this diversity is what makes a winter afternoon a diverting and enjoyable experience it makes game developers want to pull their hair out. And unlike their software developing brethren, game developers can, and will, stop developing for the PC. If your average database developer gets tired of hardware conflicts on their end users' machines, well... well they're screwed. Even if they wanted to develop for the Mac or Linux, the sad fact is that they won't make as much money. Game developers though can write games for consoles like the PlayStation, Dreamcast or the recently released PlayStation 2.

A PC game that sells 100,000 copies is a success. A console game that sells 100,000 copies is a borderline failure. What has kept PC developers from jumping wholesale to game consoles has been two things: 3D hardware acceleration and internet connectivity. PC games looked better because of cards like the 3Dfx Voodoo and the ATI Rage. And the games sold in great numbers once gamers found out that they liked playing against their friends via modem. While consoles offered blocky graphics and no connectivity options, they didn't present a compelling enough alternative for PC game developers.

But things have recently changed. The graphics delivered by game consoles has become significantly better than the pixilated offerings in systems like the original PlayStation. As well, Sega is planning on offering some sort of high speed connection for their Dreamcast, and Sony is going to be offering either cable modem or ADSL connection options for the PS2. And while the graphics in the PS2 will never reach the level of the upcoming chips from 3Dfx and nVidia they are good enough for most gamers.

So Microsoft finds itself in an uncomfortable position. It has to do something to keep game developers using Microsoft software and also to keep developers producing games for the PC. And the hardware manufacturers that Microsoft also relies on also need games that run on PCs. I've mentioned before how much games drive the advancement of PC software and hardware. The first Windows 2000 patch was primarily to add compatibility for games and Intel used Quake 3 as a compelling reason to upgrade to a Pentium III. Games are probably the biggest reason why average consumers upgrade their machines. It certainly isn't to use a new spreadsheet or OS (no matter how bad Microsoft's programmers get). The PlayStation that I bought to play Battle Area Toshinden (one of the very first PlayStation games) is the same machine I use to play Rollcage Stage II, a newly released game. You can be sure that the machine I played Doom on is not even remotely capable of playing Quake III.

Developers use Microsoft development products to build games that require faster and faster computers (and faster 3D cards) in order to run on machines that require a Microsoft OS. Every developer that stops making PC games has an enormous effect. Which is why the X-box uses DirectX.

At first this might not seem like a very important point. But the inclusion of DirectX in the X-box makes no sense. DirectX is an API layer that, in simple terms, acts as a standard interface for a disparate number of potential hardware devices. If a game developer uses DirectX it can, theoretically, interact with any number of different hardware devices as long as they have DirectX drivers. This is certainly beneficial, especially on the PC, as it means that developers have to do less work to support the many different cards and devices that exist.

But the inclusion of DirectX makes no sense for a console. The hardware specs of the machine are always the same. Unlike a PC, a console always has the same hardware interfaces. You don't need any form of hardware abstraction for a console since you always know what the hardware target is. If anything, using DirectX will make the system slower since, unlike the PlayStation or Nintendo 64, developers won't be able to get direct access to the hardware. Microsoft has effectively crippled, or at least lowered, the optimal performance of their console.

Which is probably not an issue for Microsoft. The X-box is less about providing some sort of Microsoft branded gaming device and more about ensuring that developers use Microsoft products. How so? Because Microsoft has never ported DirectX to any other platform. Nor will it. PlayStation developers might be able to use Linux systems to make their games but X-box developers will be using PCs running a Microsoft OS and using Microsoft's tools. And when they are done producing their games they will port it back to the PC. And since the X-box doesn't have Glide or OpenGL support, that ported PC game will probably not support these non-Microsoft APIs either.

Which probably won't make Gates and Balmer all that upset.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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