GDC: Microsoft details AR for Xbox alongside plans to break down game publishing barriers

Announcements made during this year’s GDC (Game Developers Conference) provide a tantalising sample of the exciting plans Microsoft has for the future of gaming.

This year is arguably the most important for Xbox in the history of its business. A poor launch strategy under previous Xbox chief Don Mattrick left the PlayStation 4 to dominate Xbox One sales every month at the start of this console generation. A more gamer-focused strategy under Mattrick’s replacement, Phil Spencer, has narrowed the monthly sales gap significantly, but a less-powerful console is still holding it back.

Microsoft confirmed AR experiences are planned for 2018

Exclusive games are what ship consoles. Xbox has clearly paid a lot of cash for some of its exclusives this generation whereas it requires less incentive for a platform like PlayStation to attract developers when it has a much bigger userbase to sell games, along with a more powerful console to enable creative freedom.

You can never guarantee where users will flock but often the more powerful console attracts more developers, and their games attract more consumers. It's clear Sony launched the PS4 Pro to improve PlayStation VR but, while offering better performance than on the original, the upgraded console was rushed to market before hardware reached a cost-effective point to offer an optimal experience. Some developers even went to call the PS4 Pro a “half-assed” console.

Xbox pledged to launch “the most powerful console ever” this year with Project Scorpio to remove the now even wider power gap between the Xbox One and PS4 Pro. Unlike the latest PlayStation, the new Xbox claims to offer native 4K gaming, but that’s not all.

Augmented Reality

We already know VR is coming to Project Scorpio in partnership with the gurus at Oculus and the latest console’s six teraflops of performance should provide a great experience closer to high-end PCs. We’ve also seen impressive AR demos of HoloLens being used for games such as Minecraft to see your world from a top-down perspective, but Microsoft has even grander plans for mixed-reality experiences across its platforms.

This year is arguably the most important for Xbox in the history of its business

Rather than completely obscuring your view, AR alters the real world around you. This could be characters running around your room, it could be something more simple like a heads-up display for things like waypoints and remaining health, or it could be atmospheric such as fish swimming around your room when your player is underwater.

Microsoft believes AR is the next big thing and the upcoming “Creator’s Update” for Windows 10 focuses on working in 3D and building objects which can be shared and used for things like holograms. To further this vision, Microsoft is launching a new AR developer kit called the ‘Acer Windows Mixed Reality Development Edition headset’ with the following specs:

  • Two LCDs at 1440 x 1440 each

  • 90 Hz refresh rate

  • Audio and Microphone support through 3.5mm jack

  • Single cable with HDMI 2.0 (display) and USB 3.0 (data)

Instead of relying on external cameras to understand where you are in a room, the headset uses inside-out tracking which provides a key advantage over the competition. Developer kits will ship later this month (unless you were at GDC, in which case attendees left with a unit.)

As for Xbox, Microsoft confirmed AR experiences are planned for 2018 and represent an area we’re yet to hear of any plans from PlayStation. The ability to create 3D models on Windows 10 and deploy across its related platforms, including Xbox and HoloLens, will be difficult for Sony to match and offers serious opportunities for both gaming and business use.

Indie Game Publishing

The next big announcement for Xbox and Windows 10 is that of a similar program to ID@Xbox, the independent developer outreach program.

Everyone knows how big and complex the video game industry has become and it can be difficult to get started as an independent developer. Once upon a time, you could just sell your game to a magazine like Elon Musk did with his “Blastar” game back in 1983, but now you need to get a deal with a publisher or find alternative ways to get your game distributed.

Make no mistake, Xbox One is now an open platform for publishing

ID@Xbox has always been a great program to help indie developers get started without the usual cost of publishing but it still had the barrier of requiring manual certification which can be a long process (as anyone familiar with iOS app development will know.)

The new Xbox Live Creators Program aims to remove more of the barriers in getting your game published and noticed. There’s no approval process, and the only cost is a one-time fee of $20.

Indie developers using the Creators Program have access to:

  • Xbox Live sign-in and profile, including gamertag.

  • Xbox Live presence, recently played, and activity feed.

  • Xbox Live social, including friends, Game Hubs, clubs, party chat, gameDVR, and Beam broadcast.

  • Xbox Live leaderboards and feature stats.

  • Title Storage and Connected Storage.

The aforementioned Xbox Live features is officially supported in existing UWP projects using the Construct 2, MonoGame, Unity, and Xenko game engines, but Microsoft says others may also work.

As usual, there are some caveats. Published games will be posted in a dedicated "Creators" section of Microsoft's digital games store and will be unable to use Xbox Live for multiplayer. While there is no certification process, Microsoft also reserves the right to remove your game if it’s found to contain illegal or inappropriate content.

"Make no mistake, the Xbox One is now an open platform for publishing," says Chris Charla, Director of ID@Xbox. “I think it’s gonna be rad.”

This announcement will allow small developers to get their games in front of the millions of Xbox and Windows 10 gamers without the usual publishing barriers. And of course, for Microsoft, it has the benefit of bolstering their library and making their platforms more attractive.

Are you excited about Microsoft’s announcements? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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