Microsoft Playing Games with Developers

The company announces XNA Game Studio Express, a free version of its game development platform to empower game developers to build games for the Xbox. The offering is based on Microsoft's popular Visual Studio Express tools.

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.

/zimages/2/28571.gifA 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.