Microsoft unveils 'anybody' XNA

Everyday gamers can get a shot at making cross-platform PC, Xbox 360 games with XNA Game Studio; company envisions user-created games as "fully realized" as Halo 2.

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Looming over the game industry are big problems, Microsoft warns.

Stressed game developers are burning out, universities are graduating fewer programmers and game designers, and small-game developers--forced to pay large licensing costs to make games--don't have the time or money to turn their innovative ideas into playable games, the company says. But a new piece of Microsoft's development technology is aiming to wipe those troubles out, all at once.

On the eve of Gamefest, the company's conference for developers in Seattle, Microsoft announced the XNA Game Studio development platform, "a far easier environment" that small developers, game enthusiasts, and students can use to make games. XNA Game Studio is an extension of Microsoft's cross-platform XNA technology, which offers gamemakers a standardized set of tools for both PC and Xbox 360 development.

Anyone can freely download the toolset, available in beta form on August 30 and full form by the end of the year. The toolset comes in two flavors: the entry-level XNA Game Studio Express and the advanced XNA Game Studio Professional. Developing games using Express and releasing them on the PC will be free, but those who want their games available for download on the Xbox 360 must pay $99 a year as part of Microsoft's Creators Club.

In spring 2007, Microsoft will release the professional version, the only way to sell games created using the toolset. The pro version will feature "new capabilities more geared toward professional game developers" and a higher price, said Scott Henson, the director of platform strategy at the Microsoft Game Developer Group. Henson declined to reveal the amount. All the various methods of selling games--digital distribution, Xbox Live Marketplace, and boxed retail games--will probably be available to gamemakers, but the details haven't been decided, he said.

Launching alongside the August 30 beta toolset is a starter kit containing tutorials and basic but "fully realized games" that beginning developers can tinker with to learn the ins and outs of programming.

Ports of classics like Pac-Man and Galaga on Xbox Live Arcade are just the "low end" of what the toolset can create, Henson told GameSpot during a phone conference prior to Gamefest.

"Our ambition is to get a game as fully realized as, maybe, Halo 2," he said. "We don't know if we'll get there...but certainly we envision being able to do that with this technology."

As larger companies focus solely on making guaranteed hits, they often fail to imagine new ideas or genres, Henson said. Counter-Strike--the mod to Valve Software's original Half-Life that became one of the most popular games in history--is one "great example" of ambitious game hobbyists producing something fresh.

"Who's going to be the next Doom? Who's going to be the next Counter-Strike?...All [their developers] were, quote, hobbyists at some point," Henson said. "And that's where the really inspired ideas that really bubble up and create the next phenomenon come from."

More than 10 universities, including the University of Southern California and Georgia Tech, have agreed to use XNA Game Studio Express in their curricula, said Dave Mitchell, the director of marketing at the Microsoft Game Developer Group. In an industry whose developers are only 1 percent female, university-sponsored "boot camps"--where kids, and especially girls, can get an early introduction to programming and game development--are crucial, he said.

Though some criticize best sellers such as The Sims 2 and World of Warcraft for stalling innovation--the two regularly dominate sales charts, pilfering money away from new titles, critics bemoan--people forget that Blizzard's massively multiplayer online role-playing game and EA's virtual-life sim were landmark innovations upon release, Henson said. And it never hurts to usher in new blood.

"All of the dynamics that we've talked about--why we're so excited from an enabling perspective--is why [World of Warcraft] is so popular," he said. "We've got a growing industry in terms of overall dollars, but we don't have a growing audience. And if we're going to grow the audience, we're going to have to see more than the types of games topping the charts."

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