Microsoft Playing Games with Developers

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2006-08-14

Microsoft Playing Games with Developers

Tapping into the mass market appeal of its popular line of Express developer tools, Microsoft is taking its tool set for game developers to a broader set of developers with XNA Game Studio Express, based on the companys XNA Studio platform.

And, like Microsofts Visual Studio Express is aiming to democratize application development by putting development tools into the hands of novice and hobbyist programmers, Microsoft officials hope XNA Game Studio Express will democratize game development by delivering the necessary tools to hobbyists, students, independent developers and studios to help them more readily create games for the Xbox 360.

This democratization will enable game players to more easily become game developers, company officials said.

Chris Satchell, general manager of the Game Developer Group at Microsoft, announced the new technology during a keynote on Aug. 13 at Gamefest 2006, a Microsoft game developer conference in Seattle. The new tool set will enter beta this month and become broadly available this holiday season.

XNA Game Studio Express will be available for free for Windows XP users. And by joining a "creators club" for an annual subscription fee of $99, developers will be able to build, test and share their games on Xbox 360 and access other materials to help them develop games for the Microsoft platform, Microsoft said.

Scott Henson, director of platform strategy in Microsofts Game Developer Group, said XNA Game Studio Express is based on Visual Studio Express and, like those tools, it is built on the .Net runtime. The original XNA Studio, announced at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2005, is based on Visual Studio 2005 Team System and is a team-based development environment tailored for game creation.

However, the Express version of XNA Studio represents the first significant opportunity for novice developers to make a console game without a big investment in resources, Henson said. The technology makes game development easier for smaller projects, and increases the opportunity for developers to get their game ideas beyond the concept stage and into production, he added.

"For the smaller and independent developers, this can take them from simple code to a fully realized game," Henson said.

Henson said Microsoft will release a beta of XNA Game Studio Express on Aug. 30 as a free download for Windows XP. This offering contrasts with game development platforms that typically cost several thousands of dollars, he said. The final version of the technology will be available during the coming holiday season. And in the spring of 2007, Microsoft will release another XNA tool set. This one will target professional game developers, Henson said.

"Well build on the existing XNA offerings with a professional offering: XNA Game Studio Professional," Henson said.

A Microsoft product manager says the company nixed the possibility of adding Visual Studio Express tools to Vista, partly for antitrust considerations. Click here to read more.

With the Express version, Henson said, Microsoft is targeting three primary communities: hobbyists, academia and independent developers. "The idea here is to open up the community," he said, noting that even professional game development shops have bemoaned their ability to both find talent—as the pipeline of developers coming out of universities has fell off some—and to retain talent.

Moreover, Henson said the new Microsoft Express game development tools could help bring new blood to the developer ranks, just as the Visual Studio Express tools are doing for application development.

Next Page: Game development goes back to school.


Dave Mitchell, director of product marketing for Microsofts Game Developer Group, said already more than 10 universities have pledged to teach courses on console game development and incorporate XNA Game Studio Express into their curricula. Such universities include the University of Southern California, Southern Methodist University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

"Great game ideas are incubating in the minds of students everywhere," said Michael Zyda, director for Gamepipe Labs at USC, in a statement. "With XNA Game Studio Express, Microsoft is investing in these next-generation innovators, creating the canvas for dreamers to express their powerful game ideas. In incorporating XNA Game Studio Express and Xbox 360 consoles into our Gamepipe program, USC will be able to better provide game studios and publishers around the world with a newfound wellspring of talent and opportunity. Its ingenious."

Meanwhile, companies like Autodesk and are partnering with Microsoft in this effort. Satchell showcased these partners technology during his keynote. Through a Microsoft relationship with Autodesk, which develops 3-D authoring software, game developers can now more easily incorporate content into XNA Game Studio Express via Autodesks FBX file exchange format. Mark Frohnmayer, president of GarageGames, joined Satchell in his keynote to demonstrate ports of GarageGames next-generation Torque tools and technology over to the XNA Game Studio Express platform.

For his part, Henson said the worlds of application development, game development, and development for mobile devices and embedded systems are beginning to all come together in terms of basic needs and platform support. And basing the Microsoft game development tools on the companys existing .Net framework was a given, he said. "We built everything on the stuff those guys have built," he said referring to Microsofts .Net architects.

This is only the beginning for Microsofts efforts in the game space, particularly for its efforts to empower developers," Henson said. He referred to the recent activity in games and being the "crawl" phase. "As we move from the crawl, to the walk phase in the next two to five years, our goal is to blow out the Xbox world and make it more like a community-powered arcade."

Henson said Microsoft has been "paying a lot of attention to empowering people through communities."

Meanwhile, the company is also very interested in trying to get more girls interested in becoming developers. One way could be through games and game development around games and content that appeals more to girls, he said. Indeed, some of the university partners that Microsoft is working with hold summer software development camps where 30 percent of the enrollees are girls, he said.

Through these and other programs, "Were reaching below the teen ranks," Henson said. "Were going to engage earlier and also bring a whole new set of games that girls like," such as Viva Pinata, Bejeweled, card games and puzzle games, he said.

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