Looking to harness untapped creativity in the gaming community and spurred on by its own need for cost-effective game development, Microsoft has launched XNA Game Studio Express, a program designed to turn players into developers.
The application empowers users to create detailed video games on their home PCs and then move them over to their Xbox 360 consoles. Once they’ve subscribed and downloaded the XNA Creators Club package (US$49 for four months or US$99 for a year) from the Xbox Live Marketplace, gamers will have access to thousands of video game assets, models, starter kits and tutorials.
According to Dave Mitchell, director of marketing for the Microsoft Game Developer Group, the top end of the youth demo is expected to rack up some heavy usage of the program. ‘We are making it easy to take something from concept to reality, even for kids in their early teens.’
To this end, game developer partners such as Turbo Squid and Garage Games designed the software with easy drag-and-drop functionality. For example, on the Turbo Squid website, XNA subscribers will be able to browse through thousands of compatible models of tanks, airplanes and other popular game staples, and then grab the ones that fit into their own creations with a simple mouse click. ‘We hide the plumbing,’ explains Mitchell.
The concept behind XNA taps into the user-generated content tide that has swept over the cultural landscape in the last year or so, with YouTube’s success only the most glaring example. In this spirit, the Microsoft program’s stated aim is not only to help layfolk make video games, but also to facilitate an online community where their creations can be downloaded, discussed, tweaked and rated.
The hope is to complement the high-powered, high-gloss, big-budget titles that are in development at well-established gamecos. With so much money going into these games, sometimes the stakes are too high to take a gamble on a really innovative idea. Mitchell anticipates the XNA community will be the perfect breeding and testing ground for out-of-the-box concepts, given its next-to-nothing overhead. ‘XNA users are going to dive off the deep end and create things that are completely off the wall,’ says Mitchell. ‘And a lot of people out there are starving for something different.’
Mitchell envisions a future model in which the most successful games are plucked from the XNA community and released through mainstream retail portals, with the content providers being compensated for their creative work.
In the short term, however, the company is pleased with the initial activity on the network. More than 250,000 customers had downloaded the beta version at press time, and the first game was posted within five hours of the program’s launch on December 11. Although it’s not talking about its expectations in detail, Microsoft hopes to turn a fair-sized portion of Xbox Live’s four million subscribers onto XNA.