Microsoft has announced the release of XNA Game Studio 2.0, the game development platform for the Xbox 360 and Windows, as “the next step in its initiative to democratize game development.”

The new version of XNA Game Studio adds more that 15 new features, including the ability to create cross-platform multiplayer games using Xbox Live and Windows Live. Many of the new features, such as game matchmaking, are supported by the software with minimal or no coding necessary, and the platform fully supports all versions of the Microsoft Visual Studio product line.

Chris Satchell, XNA general manager at Microsoft, said, “When building XNA Game Studio 2.0, we wanted to offer everyone the opportunity to utilize the rich gaming environment of Live used by AAA developers for titles such as Halo 3 and Gears of War. We accomplished our goal with this new toolset, and, best of all, it remains highly accessible to students, hobbyists and pros alike.”

As it did with the release of the original XNA Game Studio, Microsoft is holding a Dream-Build-Play 2008 contest in which entrants create a game for Windows XP, Windows Vista or the Xbox 360 using the XNA Game Studio 2.0 toolset. Prizes include an invitation to the Game Developers Conference 2008, in San Francisco, a $3,000 stipend per team for each finalist and an interview for an internship at Microsoft Research, Lionhead Studios or Rare Ltd. This year’s theme is Artificial Intelligence; entries will be judged on the role of A.I. in the game, fun factor and production quality. Rules and entry details are available at XNA Game Studio 2.0 is available as a free download here.

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