XNA returns to GDC

Two years after Microsoft launched its XNA initiative in San Jose, the company is back, talking about progress made in making game development easier.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--In 2004, Microsoft came to the Game Developers Conference to unveil XNA, an initiative to make game development easier and less expensive for developers. At this year's event, the company returned to tout the progress XNA has made.

GameSpot had a chance to sit down with Chris Satchell, general manager of the game developer group at Microsoft, to get the latest update from the software giant.

According to Satchell, XNA is all about helping developers trim costs and develop better games. And the fruits of that initiative were on display last year with the Xbox 360 launch, which he said was successful partly because of the lineup of games delivered by developers who could rely on the company's familiar DirectX 9 technology to transition to the next generation. Now, according to Satchell, Microsoft is introducing a new wave of XNA tools and technologies.

Microsoft has released a community technology preview of XNA Build, which is a set of technologies that are designed to help studios manage the complexities of game production.

In addition, the company has unveiled XNA Framework, a very "big thing," according to Satchell.

XNA Framework is a set of new tools designed to make cross-platform development simple. To demonstrate just how easy cross-platform development has become, Satchell showed us two screens running the same demo. At least, it looked like the same demo.

The demo showed a small spherical planetoid covered with 15,000 flowers swaying in the wind, along with butterflies, realistic physics, and a dynamic world. It turned out that the demo was actually running on two machines, one a PC and the other an Xbox 360. He explained that Microsoft commissioned an outside developer to make a demo quickly using XNA tools, and the developer was able to port the code from one system to the other in a day. In fact, Satchell said it would have taken less than a day had the tools not been in alpha at the time with many undocumented functions.

In another example, he showed off a game of mahjong on a smartphone running Windows Mobile. Satchell explained that Microsoft had brought the game's developer to its offices and had asked him to port the game to the PC and Xbox 360 using XNA tools. The developer had the game running on both systems in a day, and it took an additional six days of labor to gussy the game up to next-generation graphical standards. The result was a game whose underlying code was essentially identical on all three platforms, save for the graphical updates for both the PC and Xbox 360.

So what does this mean to the general consumer? Satchell explained that if Microsoft can make game development easier, then "content developers spend more time making game features," which hopefully means better games. However, it also means that the company hopes it can entice new developers to its platforms. While XNA was designed to help bring the massive development costs down for the major publishers, it has the added benefit of opening up game development to smaller developers. As a result, the company has released the source code to MechCommander 2, a 2001 strategy game, along with its XNA tools. The idea is to give newcomers an example of a working game so they can dissect it and learn how it works but also to give them a foundation to build on and experiment with.

Satchell wrapped up with updates on Windows Vista and DirectX 10. Even though the consumer version of Vista (and, as a result, DirectX 10) have been delayed to January, he noted that they could still help reinvigorate gaming on the PC.

Vista will sport some gamer-friendly features, such as a game advisor, but, more importantly, DirectX 10 represents an important new start. Microsoft has basically rebuilt DirectX 10 from scratch, getting rid of the older legacy libraries and replacing them with new code. Satchell hopes this will mean better graphical performance for the PC--which is important when so many in the industry are focused on next-generation console gaming.

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