In the world of science, DNA is a recent discovery. In the world of game development, XNA is even newer. Simply put, XNA is an easy-to-use software suite. It lets you make games for both the PC and Xbox 360. First announced as an initiative at the Game Developers Conference in 2004, the project was led by J Allard. By the end of 2005, the proof of concept was up and running. At the 2006 GDC, Microsoft released the completed XNA framework.
XNA makes game development more accessible. “It’s really about providing the same tools, the same libraries, the same capabilities of both platforms,” says Dave Mitchell, Director of XNA’s marketing department. “So you can write your game once and have it run on both platforms. The real sweet spot is casual games.”
In the Beginning
It all started when Microsoft decided to build their technologies specifically with developers in mind. Mitchell says XNA came about when Microsoft realized the small-time developers, people new to development, were encountering “the ‘country-club mentality.’ You sort of have to know someone to break in [to console development].”
It’s a big catch-22: Developers need at least one game under their belt to attract a publisher, but developing that first game without a publisher’s substantial investment is usually impossible. “We just saw all of these complexities and challenges,” Mitchell says, “among indies, hobbyists, students, university settings, in particular, of building a pipeline of creativity to come into the industry.” After identifying that problem, Mitchell recalls looking across the rest of Microsoft for answers. “One of the things we take great pride in is really engaging with the hobbyist and enthusiast level with a lot of our technology and arming and equipping them.” Visual Studio Express serves as one example.
“We really then set off to see what we could do to open up the Xbox 360 as a console,” he says. “We were asked internally, can you make games on Windows? Sure, check. Can you do that on a console device? No, you really can’t without getting thousands and thousands of dollars in equipment. And, of course, getting an agreement in order to get to that point.”
So, in the beginning, the XNA team wanted to democratize game development. XNA represents the first time in the 31-year history of console gaming that retail units are also development boxes.
Of course, when you open up game development to anyone, the result isn’t always something Microsoft wants its name on. People can create anything from AO-level games to games that violate any number of copyright laws. Mitchell says they’re hoping to address the problem gradually. For example, in XNA version 1, online play was disabled, though they plan to slowly introduce it over time.
Our Best Hope
What XNA means, is a much greater number of people are going to give game development a go. “If it’s not only accessible, but we’re doing the right things, hopefully the rest of the industry jumps on board.”
Mitchell looks to what he referrers to as sister industries – video and music – to see a current evolution in the game industry. In order for this industry to remain healthy and grow, Mitchell believes we must embrace the role of the consumer-created content.
Microsoft wants players to be peers with developers, or become de facto developers themselves. “We’d love to see that direction embraced by the game industry.” Mitchell hopes that developers can find ways to engage users to contribute more on an ongoing basis.
It might be hard to understand why Microsoft is offering this technology in such a freely philanthropic manner. “It’s in our DNA,” explains Mitchell. “We’ve been doing this for many years – making the commercial technology also available to hobbyists and students. The other aspect is we’re all gamers, we love games, and we want this industry to be healthy and profitable.
“Ultimately, we as gamers will benefit, and we as platform owners will benefit. Fresh ideas will be out there in the industry. And we, like the other platform providers will go after them.”
As part of their initiative, Microsoft is extending XNA to universities and students. Some students wanted to focus on fun, others on their individual projects. “We’re just wrapping up our Dream-Build-Play contest,” Mitchell says. Two hundred game demos from over 100 different countries were submitted for the PC and Xbox 360. The game submissions ran the gamut. Mitchell recalls one game, which featured art assets hand-drawn with crayon. Another featured rich trees and vegetation, imported from a SpeedTree license into XNA.
As an added benefit to Microsoft, giving universities a cheap but high-class development platform means more students will learn how to develop specifically for Microsoft. Mitchell says “it’s becoming less and less of an issue. … [Games are] always ported to other platforms.” He thinks a number of games will start off on XNA Studio Express 360, where, “if we’re successful, we’ll absolutely see them on other platforms as well as ours.”
As for Microsoft’s competitors, Mitchell can’t speak for the other console manufactures’ ability to support a technology like XNA, which might allow user-created games to run on a PS3 or a Wii. “For the overall health of the industry, I certainly hope that they look to enable some of that.” Considering what XNA has the potential to do, we can only hope other shops lift their licensed curtains, as well.
N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.