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SAN FRANCISCO (CNN/Money) -
After more than a year of teases and false starts, Microsoft is finally starting to talk about its next generation game machine.
Every title for the next generation Xbox will offer high definition graphics, custom personalization and be tied into the online world, said J Allard, Microsoft corporate vice president and chief XNA architect at an ongoing game development conference.
"This system is a monster," said Allard. "In this decade, I believe we are going to double our audience."
Allard stopped short of discussing hardware specifics of the machine, which is expected to go on sale later this year. Those details, he said, would be revealed in May at E3, the industry's annual trade show.
He did, however, talk about what the gamer experience for the system (which will likely be named Xbox 360) would be like. Next generation games will allow players to have constant access to an online buddy list and their digital media, such as MP3 music files.
Microsoft also plans to greatly expand its online network in its next generation, letting players and developers form their own marketplace, selling in-game content for real-world cash via small micro-transactions. Racing game enthusiasts, for example, will be able to buy a faster car to give them an edge in the game for a slight bit more, should they wish. Similarly, players who design, say, clothing or tattoos for their own characters will be able to sell those to others.
This is something of a departure for game developers. While there has been a thriving market for in-game items for some time on eBay and other auction sites, game companies have typically frowned on the practice. Currently, massively multiplayer online games, such as "EverQuest" and "World of Warcraft" see the biggest demand, with sales of advanced in-game characters reaching several hundred dollars.
The marketplace will also allow developers to publish games one "chapter" at a time, which could cut development costs and increase the flow of new gaming content. Episodic content has been attempted before on the PC (with limited success), but never for the larger console audience.
As with Xbox Live, the marketplace will also allow players to download new game levels, maps, weapons and more. (More than 2 million Xbox owners currently subscribe to Xbox Live.)
Because the next generation Xbox will be tied into the home network, it will have access to digital entertainment stored on external hard drives. As a result, Allard said players will be able to customize the soundtrack to any game, choosing what music they feel is most appropriate.
"Our customer is going to expect to be able to connect to their content wherever they want, whenever they want," said Allard.
Connecting like-minded players has been one of the goals of Xbox Live this generation and Microsoft (Research) said it plans to expand on that philosophy. Players will be able to quickly scan information about each other, finding people who have similar skills, interests and lifestyles.
"I think of this as a gamer baseball card," said Allard.
The increased emphasis on high definition capabilities has long been expected with next generation machines. While some current Xbox games offer a high definition option, it's not mandatory – and to see the benefits, users must purchase special cables.
Allard said the company feels it's a short matter of time before high definition becomes the mainstream.
"As more and more people get exposed to the HD medium through television, the more their expectations are going to go up for other mediums," he said.
Allard also hinted at (but did not expand on) a few other long-rumored features for Microsoft's next system, including wireless controllers and wireless networking as well as possible games on demand system.
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Morris is Director of Content Development for CNN/Money. Click here to send him an email.