Builder AU recently caught up with Dr Jeff Pobst to talk about the future of software development on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console. Is it just about games?

A long time games programmer, Dr Pobst worked on many of Sierra’s PC games such as King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight III. Since moving away from programming he has had a variety of roles including work on Half-Life, Lord of the Rings, and Homeworld.

A doctor in aerospace engineering, Dr Pobst is now the lead technical game manager for the Xbox 360 which is due out in Australia in early 2006. We caught up with Dr Pobst while he was in the country for the annual Australian Game Developers Conference to talk about programming for the new console, what new opportunities are in the new console, and his thoughts on hacking the Xbox.

Builder AU: Thanks for your time Jeff. First up, what is new for developers who are
looking to build games or applications for the XBox 360? Is it
dramatically different from the original XBox?

The exciting thing about what Microsoft has done for the Xbox 360 is
that while the hardware is radically different from the first Xbox
having dramatically more computing and graphics horsepower, the software
interface to game developers is almost identical to what they were used
to on Xbox with almost all of the same tools and interfaces available
for them to help them develop and optimise their code.

This was a
tremendous task in the undertaking for Microsoft, but is so worth it so
that the ramping of up new developers on Xbox 360 is extremely fast.
Because the hardware is so different, though, later development such as
optimisation and taking full advantage of the hardware does require some
new skills and approaches – namely multi-threaded programming and
architecture and also more advanced memory and cache management.

the next generation graphics processors are very much pixel and vertex
shader-based and that was available in the original Xbox, but there were
other valid approaches that no longer make sense on the Xbox 360. With
all the pixel and vertex shading power now present, some developers will
need to come a bit up to speed on their graphics programming to properly
make the transition.

We’ve heard a lot from Microsoft about live services and applications
lately. What new ‘live’ applications will software developers be able to

deploy with the XBox 360?

Xbox Live is a full service and set of software functions that game
developers can innovate on top of. We’re extremely excited about all of
the new opportunities provided to game developers with Xbox Live on Xbox

The ability for the console itself to manage friends lists,
messaging, presence, notifications, players lists, feedback and more
means that game developers don’t have to program those features in their
games – saving them time to focus on the most entertaining aspects of
their games – while consumers have a consistent interface to online
features that is the same regardless of which game they are playing.

Meanwhile, our new matchmaking back-end technology, coupled with
consumer abilities to self-select the environment in which they play
(zones) plus new innovative gameplay from game developers makes online
play on the Xbox 360 more fun than ever. Additionally, there are two
new avenues for Xbox Live on Xbox 360 that are new avenues for game
developers to have a relationship with consumers.

The Xbox Live
Marketplace is a place where players can directly access easily in the
console and offers hundreds, perhaps thousands of downloadable free and
premium content items from demos and trailers, to personalisation items
such as gamercard images and dashboard themes, to content for games such
as additional levels, characters, tracks, etc.

Also available in the
dashboard is the Xbox Live Arcade where smaller “bite-sized” game
experiences are available for download, trial, and purchase ranging from
classic arcade games, to casual titles, to new concept efforts from game
developers. We’re extremely excited about what online now brings to the
game console experience.

Why is there so much secrecy and exclusivity for developing on the XBox
360? Part of Microsoft’s general developer strategy is to be open and
transparent but for the XBox 360 the process to get involved is much
more difficult. For example, to be part of the XBox 360 tools and
middleware program developers need to work for an existing gaming
company or be specifically approved by Microsoft. On top of this
developers then need to sign non-disclosure agreements. Why?

I actually wouldn’t say there was much secrecy with game developers on
Xbox 360. Last June we had an event open to all game developers in the
US as well as in London providing all details about the Xbox 360 under a
very simple NDA.

What has needed to happen through the launch of Xbox
360 was a prioritisation of a limited set of hardware and people
resources to make sure that consumers who purchased an Xbox 360 had the
best and largest list of games available to them when they bought their
console, so our initial and earliest efforts were with the publishers
who we knew could bring titles that consumers were looking for out on
launch day. As for middleware vendors or developers being approved by
Microsoft, that is the same as on Xbox and the same as on all consoles.

Do you think the XBox could gain a greater following if developing for
the platform was easier and more open?

I actually believe that developing for the platform is the easiest of
all the consoles and is very open to game developers. We have a
tremendous following with over 6000 game developers having final
hardware development kits worldwide right now with more getting hardware
all the time and over 200 games currently in development for Xbox 360
with more and more concepts coming in every week.

The exciting thing is
that the games that consumers want, from the top teams in the industry,
as well as new and innovative titles from up and coming developers are
all a part of that.

If developers are approved to develop games or applications on the XBox
360 what skills do they need? What are the tools of the trade for most
XBox developers out there?

Making a game on any console requires a tremendous about of skill and
frankly requires a solid team of people. Game development teams now are
as large as 150 people with a large portion of those teams being artists
and designers. In the next generation, from a programming point of
view, multi-threaded programming, cache management, and deep
understanding of pixel and vertex shader operations are important.

an art point of view, never before has so many graphical techniques not
only been possible, but now common – from normal mapping to specular
mapping, from new animation approaches to new modeling techniques, new
particle and environmental per-pixel effects, that the level of fidelity
is such that artists are taking their work to a whole new level.

For the designers the capabilities of the platform open up a vast
new set of possibilities that were previously unavailable to designers –
they’ve gone from a situation where they’re designing games in
constrained situations to situations where more is possible than they
initially predict. It is a very exciting time for game developers.

The original XBox saw a lot of homebrew developers and modders using the

XBox for a variety of tasks other than games. Some used it as a media
centre-type PC, others installed Linux, and some put enormous hard
drives inside them and ran their games/movies off that. The open source
community even built software development kits (like OpenXDK). What is
your thoughts on homebrew developers hacking away at the XBox?

Because we are a platform for partners to engage in business, we have a
responsibility to our partners to protect their intellectual property
and provide them an avenue to connect with the gaming audience.
Microsoft is a company that loves innovation and wants to actively
support the community in many ways. What we are working on, and will
continue to work on, are ways to support the community, while at the
same time not compromising our ability to give our partners the best
environment possible to conduct business. Because we have just
launched, we’re not as far along on this as we hope to be at some point,
but we do think right now, we offer the gamer the very best experiences
in gaming, high definition fidelity, online play and feature set, and
additional functionality supporting digital entertainment right out of
the box. There is no value right now like that in Xbox 360 in what you
get for your gaming dollar.

Maybe it is a touch of my technostalgia but a good game is few and far
between these days. What is going to make a great game for the XBox 360?

Is it all about better graphics, frame rates, and surround sound?

I believe a great game is always going to be about great gameplay and if
any story has been somewhat under-reported so far in my opinion, it is
that the group of launch titles play better than anything we’ve ever
seen on a gaming console. So many of them feel “right” and provide very
seamless experiences that are “fun.” At the end of the day, a game
should be judged on how much “fun” you have as a game player. That
said, the Xbox 360 not only provides resources for game developers to
innovate in new and exciting game play mechanics, but it allows them to
do so while providing high definition video and audio and keeping games
at a high frame rate so they feel responsive – it is that powerful.