|Amidst the flurry of PlayStation
2 announcements, Segas second generation, and Nintendos scant Dolphin tidbits,
Microsoft has continued to push their console system, the X-Box. The rumors have been
flying for months now, and it was only at the Game Developers Conference this spring
that we received confirmation that Microsoft would indeed bring us another console. Since
that announcement, gamers have argued and posited what the impact would be. Will consumers
go for a new console system, especially one designed by the juggernaut of the information
age? Will it play PC titles? Is it a plot to shut down PC gaming forever? Does it play
DVDs? Can I use it to access the internet?
By now, lots of these questions have been answered. Yes, it is planned to play DVDs, and to come out with internet capabilities built in. It will not play PC games, although Microsoft is hoping for PC developers to join in on the system. And, no, it is not a plot to destroy the world of PC gaming, although it is a part of the generation of console systems that will bring living-room gaming up to the same level as PC gaming. At the Microsoft press-only demo of the X-Box, they stressed that the X-Box is a gaming system as they said, it should not be compared to PCs, although those comparisons can be made.
The GDC demos focused on the graphics capabilities of the X-Box, enabled by a custom Nvidia processor that provides thoroughly spiffy visuals. The E3 demo also showed off these capabilities in the Two to Tango demo (the one with the woman and the giant robot dancing together), but went beyond them to demonstrate the exciting new sound capabilities provided through the DirectMusic processor. DirectMusic enables the system to compose music on the fly, in real time. The days of repetitive soundtracks and incessant looping will be left behind.
The Garden Demo shows a garden with a pool in the middle. Textures are mapped perfectly onto 3D models, and the reflections, shadows and colors are gorgeous. The music is not scripted for the demo, but mixed in real time from different sound swatches and patterns. The garden theme is a composition of strings, very sedate and lulling. With a press of a button, 1000 butterflies enter the garden, swarming over the brick walls. Each butterfly is controlled by its own AI, and each casts an individual shadow. When a butterfly lands on a leaf or flower, the plant moves under its weight. Again, we are reminded of just how much graphics processing power the system possesses. In addition, the butterflies bring a new soundtrack lilting flute lines provide the appropriate background music for a flock of butterflies. The butterflies can fly in formation, assembling themselves into the letters to spell X-Box.
Things get interesting when the butterflies are commanded to go home. Because each operates on its own AI, they dont all leave at the same time. This presents a problem for DirectMusic how to balance the soundtrack of the empty garden with the music of 1000 butterflies? The system handles it perfectly, creating a mixture of strings and flutes that comes off as if it had been written by human musicians.
In addition, Microsoft showed off its music mixing demo, a "brute force" demonstration of the systems mixing capabilities. Four balls hover, each in a corner of the screen, with the name of a genre of music on each. As the pointer is moved around the screen, the system flawlessly mixes music in accordance with the cursors proximity to the music orbs. Mixing between techno and jazz was no problem, and the system even handled the mix between country and disco just as efficiently. The resulting dance-twang symphony was enough to make us squeal like pigs.
After seeing the demonstration, it would be easy to perceive the X-Box as nearly finished. Microsoft stresses that the unit shown was only 10% complete, a scant shadow of the finished product. It also wont necessarily look like a big silver X, which, as a console design, presents some problems for incorporating it into your home entertainment system. They say the X-Box is 16 months away from completion, making a launch impossible until at least Fall of 2001. With developers signing on at breakneck speed, it looks like the X-Box will have plenty of titles available for launch. So far the list of developers includes: Electronic Arts, Konami, Eidos, Namco, Acclaim, Activision, Infogrames, Capcom, Take Two Interactive, Ubi Soft, THQ, Sierra, Lionhead, Midway, Hasbro, Universal, Rockstar, Fox, Koei, Titus, Hudson, and Bungie. Microsoft credits much of the X-Boxs appeal for developers to the fact that it is being designed in an art-driven process. The X-Box is a system designed by software engineers for software engineers, and the technical wizards in the Microsoft hardware division are bringing the dreams of developers to life.
With so much support and such impressive demonstrations, there is no doubt that the X-Box is a very viable system. Although the console market is about to get very crowded, there is no way to predict what system will dominate or fizzle. All of the next generation consoles have a lot to offer, and as the old cliché goes, itll ultimately be all about the games. With developer support, plenty of resources, and some of the best minds in technology development, Microsoft has gotten a foot, and a leg and arm, in the door, and with the persistance of Microsoft as a corporation, were guaranteed to hear a lot more about it before the next E3.