In under a year Microsoft's XNA platform has gone from strength to strength, and with full Xbox Live support in version 2.0, it's clear that this is just the beginning. Develop caught up with XNA head Chris Satchell to discover what the future holds for Microsoft's inclusive development initiative...

XNAbling everyone: Part 1

Your team had previously mentioned that, in addition to offering the free XNA Game Studio Express software, you’d also be releasing a Professional version for those developers signed for Xbox development. At Gamefest, however, you announced that the two would be merged from the next release onwards, resulting in XNA Game Studio 2.0. What was the reasoning behind this decision?

We’d always said that there’d be an enthusiast version and a professional version, but that we’d keep the technology similar so that you didn’t feel that, if you went from Express to Professional, you’d have to re-learn everything.

As we looked at the technologies, it became more and more apparent that there was no real reason to separate the SKUs, and that played even more to our original concept of removing barriers between enthusiasts wanting to develop games and user-professionals.

To people wanting to make that jump, everything should be as familiar as possible. So we thought, ‘let’s make the technologies available to everyone’, with the caveat that at the moment there’s a few extra libraries that the professionals will need to use to get through certification and do the other things you need to get on the shelves or on Xbox Live Arcade. We can do those sorts of extra little pieces once someone’s got a publishing contract, but as much as possible it focuses the group on having one great set of tools that can span that whole continuum.

For release window, we’re planning on this fall – it’ll be towards the end of the year, somewhere in the last calendar quarter is when we’re aiming to release XNA Game Studio 2.0.

In terms of cost, our current plans are to do the same as the moment, where it’s free for the toolset and then if you want to develop on your retail 360 you’ll need an XNA Creators Club subscription.

Both of the 360 publishing channels – boxed retail and Xbox Live Arcade – are managed portfolio channels, so if you want to make that jump in and make a game that’ll be on Xbox Live Arcade you’ll need that publishing contract. So, you can get all the tools free, but if you want to then go and do the final steps to bring your game up to full specification for either of those vehicles, it’s going to be a case of working with our account management team to get a licensing agreement in place, and then you’d need to buy at least test kits from us to do those sorts of final bits.

The key thing, the thing that’s great about the system, is that you can get the tools and be building your game quickly and cheaply, which helps keep that barrier of entry low. And then you can show a publisher, show us and say ‘Hey, here’s a game I’ve made, I think it’s professional quality and I’d like to get it on to those publishing channels’.

Opening up Xbox Live to XNA developers, arguably the biggest of the new additions to Game Studio 2.0, will mean that anyone can develop a game that uses Xbox Live as the multiplayer service. What was the reason behind doing this?

Well, I’ve had people requesting it, pressuring for it, and generally laying on about it to me ever since we launched version one. It’s like ‘Hey, that’s brilliant, you opened up the Xbox 360! When do I get Live?’ [laughs]

But especially, universities really want to be able to teach their students networked game design and the associated issues like real-time syncronisation. They thought it was great that you could just use it in Windows, using the .NET network stack, but they wanted to do it on Xbox 360 as well, so there’s always been that desire.

I think in the enthusiast community too people were like ‘Come on, online gaming is the future, we love Xbox Live and we want to be able to do some of that in our game.’ So since we released – even before we released – we finally worked out a way to be able to deliver that in a way that’s consisitent with the rest of the framework and secure enough to make our consumers feel good about the integrity of Xbox Live.

I think one of the things people take from it is that it shows our commitment to these developers – I mean, you can see the sheer quality of talent out there from the Dream Build Play competition we ran. You know, they get exactly the full range of capabilities that the professionals do, and I absolutely believe that, much like how we’ve seen some really innovative and creative ideas from Dream Build Play, we’ll see the same online. People will do online game styles that’ll make us go ‘Wow! I haven’t seen that before!’ and so really we just wanted to make sure we were able to get it into people’s hands.

Of course I’m now looking at the forums to tell us what the next thing people want is – I’m sure there’s something!

Obviously, giving people access to Live is a big step – especially since it’s a closed network being used by commercial titles. Did you encounter any resistance within Microsoft towards this idea?

Not resistance, but I think people were very concerned that we’d get the programming model right and that we would make sure that we were going to not compromise the network in any way.

And that’s one of the reasons why it took longer to do – we have to go through as many scenarios as possible and make sure we are considering the integrity of the network. The last thing I’d want to do would be to ruin people’s game experiences on Xbox Live by opening this up, so we’ve been very careful to make sure that what we are doing won’t impact people playing games on Xbox Live.

So internally, it was more that people really wanted to make sure that we got it right, and work together to get it right. But there’s been a lot of enthusiasm around it. I thjink one of the things about Microsoft as a company, and Xbox too, is that the people really love games. People here really love the Dream Build Play games, and I think they felt much better when they saw it and thought ‘Wow, I didn’t realise the community could do this.’

There’s a group of that that already believe that, but now these people think ‘Okay, now giving people Live makes a lot of sense – let’s see what they can do with networked games’.

And so, in some ways, the community has justified itself by doing such great work in Dream Build Play and on community websites, YouTube and other places people have been displaying their work.

Was one of the aims of Dream Build Play to show people that XNA was a worthwhile use of Microsoft’s resources?

There’s a group of us that has always believed that enabling the community is vitally important to our long-term success, and I think Microsoft does too. I think DBP was really about getting the community excited itself and giving people the content and get them kick-started on doing that.

But I’m not going to be at all upset about the fact that people were… well, not disbelieving the program, but were inquisitive about what we’d get from the community. You know, like ‘Will they be good? Will it all it just be clones?’ And the fact that the community came up trumps and did an amazing job just really helped to reinforce people.

What it’s really done, more than convince people – because people here always believed in it – is that it’s been a proof point, it’s got people excited, and now people look at it and say ‘Hey, when’s your next competition? I want to see more!’ – so I think more than anything it’s really crystallised the excitement both in my group and in the Xbox department generally around community-driven content.

A few people have expressed concern that opening Live in this manner might make the service more vulnerable to hackers and cheats. What would you say to reassure them?

Obviously, we take the security of Live really seriously. We really value the game experience we’re providing for people, so we’ve done everything we can from the ground up in terms of how we’ve engineered the development environment in Game Studio so that we’re not going to give an open environment for people to launch denial of service attacks or other sort of malicious things online.

99.9 per cent of people have no interest in doing that, but we’ve always got to guard against it. Some people are just interested in experimenting and some people take a malicious glee in that. But also, remember the core console is incredibly secure, and we’ve really worked hard at that as well. So in providing the sandbox of the XNA framework, we’ve got a great environment for preventing malicious use of the network while still allowing the key features a game developer would need.

You don’t want what people are doing on Game Studio to affect the millions of people that’ll be playing Halo 3, for instance, and really that’s down to the code security things we have in place on the console. There’s no real interaction between the code running in Game Studio and the code running while Halo 3 is doing its thing.

And then on the server side we’ve done the right security features and the right things in the framework to make sure that use of that by the hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts using Game Studio won’t affect experience on the network.

At this year’s Games:EDU event at the Develop conference, you talked about how XNA can be used by universities to appeal to computer science students and revive interest in the subject. What do you think, out of the core features of 2.0, will be really useful in that context?

I think networking is the real key one – it’s what academia has really wanted, to be able to take Xbox 360s and teach networking concepts like real-time networking and managing the network stack. Another one that I think people find useful is the changes we’ve made to the content pipeline, that’s going to be one that helps people at universities get into their projects. It might also open people’s eyes to a different way of doing a content pipeline, because it’s pretty non-traditional.

Part two of our interview with Chris Satchell can be found here.

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