Earlier this year, Microsoft announced plans to allow small independent developers - even individuals - to put homemade games on Xbox 360 using a new version of XNA Game Studio and the subscription-based XNA Creator's Club. The idea is simple: make a game with XNA, submit it to peer-review, release it on Xbox Live. At the time we were told that a beta test would go on behind the scenes in spring, with a full launch later in 2008.
That beta is now on the verge of beginning, and here Chris Satchell, XNA group manager, offers his thoughts on the motivations behind XNA, as well as some advice on how to tackle it.
Q: What do you see as the long-term goal for XNA? Do you want literally anyone to be able to use it?
Chris Satchell: I think it starts with the development side but really the ambition is to be able to take all the people out there in the community with creative ideas and connect them with all the gamers who'd love to play those ideas. And we're doing a number of technologies to bridge that gap.
On the creative side there's the development technologies like XNA Game Studio and then we've got distribution technologies like we demonstrated at GDC where we're democratising distribution and giving you a way to reach the masses with that creativity.
You've sort of hinted at this - at the moment you still need some game programming experience, I think it's a very easy system to use and that kind of restricts a little bit who can use it although there's hundreds of thousands of users and I think over time we're putting layers on top that make it easier to tap into the rest of that creativity because there's so many good ideas out there that you don't want to put any friction in the way if you can help.
Q: What are the current user numbers? Have you seen much growth since GDC?
Chris Satchell: I think there's two ways of looking at it. On the tools side, that's pretty constant. And our best estimates are there are 200-300,000 people that regularly use XNA Game Studio and how I base that is they download all the updates, they download the redistribution packs, they just keep sort of going with it.
What we saw after GDC was an uptake on the number of people joining the Creator's Club, so really getting into the core community that wants to develop on Xbox 360, the people that will be doing the peer reviews of all the content and really sort of the heart of the community. That really spiked up after GDC and I think we'll see that again when we do the beta in May and then at the end of year when we actually launch the first version of the service.
Q: Regarding the beta - John Schappert stated that you hoped to launch in spring and then full launch in autumn.
Chris Satchell: I think I've been consistent in always saying end of the year. Fall is a great target but my core goal is to make sure we get it out by the end of the year and get those consumers - those 10 million people on Xbox Live - connected with those hundreds of thousands of people building games, and make that connection and make sure we do it this year.
We always said spring [for the beta] and we think May is a good time to make sure we've got all the pieces in place for us to record what people do; to make sure we can really understand what the community's up to.
Q: How many XNA games do you anticipate going through the beta and how many at launch, given that in the past you've mentioned the possibility of having hundreds there?
Chris Satchell: I think the beta will be relatively small because what we've found before is that a lot of people are like, 'I know the big thing's coming, so I'm going to save it for that', and we saw that with Dream Build Play where in the months preceding Dream Build Play all the flow of games onto websites really stopped and they were like 'we're saving it!' so I think the beta will be a relatively small number, and that's fine because we're just trying to test if the pipeline works.
I think in the fall, we are going to have a lot of games. We're doing a second competition this year. We're doing a second edition of Dream Build Play and a lot of those games will go there.
Q: Has that been officially announced?
Chris Satchell: We haven't done the official press release on it yet, but we did talk at GDC that there was going to be a second Dream Build Play, so what we haven't announced is timing and prizes and everything else, but there will definitely be a Dream Build Play 2 this year, and I think a lot of those will go into the pipeline, and there's still a lot of games from Dream Build Play 1 that I think the developers will want to move up to the latest system and put through, so I think there will be games available in the hundreds.
But also what's important is people understand that that doesn't mean that day one there will be 200 games there. They have to go all the way through the pipeline. The community's going to have a certain amount of time they can spend reviewing stuff - I guess a lot of them will have jobs and school and things to do - so it will take some time for all that stuff to filter through, but I think we'll have a pretty good sort of stockpile that will start getting fed through the pipeline.
Q: What kind of resource at Microsoft actually goes into XNA? When you come out to GDC or CES and show it off, it seems like there's this massive surge of support for it behind the scenes but really most people's experience of it is occasionally hearing about an initiative like Dream Build Play.
Chris Satchell: It's a big effort here. Remember this is just the community end of XNA - there's the professional side of XNA as well, which is what all the big triple-A games in the stores are built on, and we have a huge effort behind that.
We've put - and we have put for the last seven years - a huge amount of engineering effort, time, talent into our professional offerings and I absolutely believe they're the best in the industry. So that's still a huge effort for us.
On the community side, again it's a really big effort. We could only do this because of the technologies we'd already built up at Microsoft and the support we get from other groups. And I have a lot of people working on it in my group, but we also work with Developer division, we work with Live; we partner with all these teams to actually produce this great end to end set of tools, so there's this constant effort going on here and you sort of see us come up at shows and go 'Hey look, this is happening!' and like I was saying to you when we were just chatting at the beginning, then we go away and really work!
But there's things like the academic programme that people may not see as much but are always on. We're always working with universities; that's why we're up to 400 now, because we're constantly working with academic institutions around the world to help them use XNA Game Studio to improve their courses and get more students in.
Q: The community side - in and of itself is it an effective business?
Chris Satchell: At the moment we haven't got business models behind it. It's more about how we take the things that we're great at, which is understanding developers, develop the tools, partnering with brilliant people out there in the community - how do we get that creativity pushed towards Xbox 360 and pushed towards Windows, and try to connect the games on one side with the community on the other.
So at the moment it's not really about business models and transaction models and everything else, it's about 'let's enable that creativity and that connection, that community', because I think that's what will make our platform stand out, that's what gamers would love - with the hundreds of new games they can play with creative concepts - and that's what creators want - they want a stage to perform their best work on. So we've really focused on the infrastructure to do that more than a business at the moment.
Q: That seems a little odd - going into something without a clear view of how it will make money. Is that really how it is?
Chris Satchell: Yeah it is [laughs]. We've been extremely focused on how we enable a great experience on all sides, from people in the community that have creativity that want to build and create something and gamers that want to see new concepts.
We've really focused first on how we enable all of that - if you think about the way we've approached this, first we put out the tools for all the developers, now we're working on the distribution to really, if you think about it, to enable the gamers to see all that great work, and the next to last part is, 'is there a business model here?', 'what would it look like?', 'what would be a great way to do this?'
So yeah, we've really focused on it that way, which is let's enable creativity first and worry about the business side of it later.
Q: Coming full circle, what advice do you have for people who look at XNA Game Studio, your devices and think 'I'd like to do that, but have absolutely no experience at all'. What first steps can they take to get on the road to making an XNA game?
Chris Satchell: I think a good one would be going to our site - creators.xna.com - and we've got some great tutorials. There are great video tutorials, like 'create your first game in an hour' and we have great written tutorials, and really it's step by step, follow the tutorials, download the tools.
Don't even start on Xbox 360 - just start on your Windows machine, download the tools, they're free, follow the tutorial, build your very first little app, and that just gets you over the hump and 'hey, I've done something - it wasn't that hard'.
And then we've got lots of not only tutorials and samples, but we have starter kits, where you can say 'hey, here's a simple game - I can download it, press Shift-F5, it builds and it runs, now I can just start modifying it; let me see if I can make the ships blue, or let me see if I can find out how to make them go faster' and just start tweaking what other people have done and learn what they have done to understand.
Also, there is a lot of community sites out there on things like Xbox 360 homebrew, and they have hundreds of tutorials on them. It's amazing how much the community will support itself to really help other people to start off and do great work.
That's what happened when we first launched. I thought everyone would want to show off their game, but the community was like, 'hey, before we do that, let's start talking about how you can do all these different techniques', and it's amazing to see how supportive the community are of each other.
So I would say start with that; start simple, follow the tutorials, go look at some other community sites, they have good tutorials, and then really just pick up a simple programming book that will get you into C#. I haven't looked, but I'm sure there must be a C# For Dummies or C# In 21 Days.
Those are good, and there's XNA books as well; Build Your First XNA Game, XNA Gaming in 21 Days or 3 Days - I can't remember the title, I've got a bunch of them on my shelf but I can't quite see it from my seat. There's a good few books out there that will take you through step-by-step teaching you techniques.
That's really how I started when I was really young - I got other people's work and looked at it and followed the tutorials in magazines, and I think that's a great way to get into it.
Q: Do you thinl that if you started now completely from scratch that you'd be ready for the launch of the new XNA and to make community games for 360?
Chris Satchell: I think some people would. When I think about it though, that's probably a challenge to go from 'never ever built anything' to a game that other people would want to play in six or seven months. But here's the thing - you don't have to magically hit launch.
There's always going to be room for games to come up and new ideas and new content, so start now and maybe you come out this time next year, maybe you come out next January or February - it doesn't really matter, there's always going to be a great audience for you there.
Chris Satchell is Microsoft's XNA group manager. Interview by Tom Bramwell.