XNA Game Studio Express Doubters Get It Wrong

I don’t really have the time to comment on some of the rants about the Microsoft XNA Game Studio PC and XBox360 games tools initiative, but it cuts so close to home for GarageGames that I have to. Certain perspectives are so skewed and wrong that the only conclusion that I can come to is that they are either trying to get a little more famous for having another rant or they are truly threatened by opening up game development to indies, hobbyists, casual developers, or anybody that would like to experience creating a game for a console.


In spite of the rants, the combination of a managed code development environment that is free on the PC and $100 per year to access the XB360 is revolutionary. Add in the low cost of Torque X, a full C# game engine, and anybody that mows lawns or gets an allowance will be able buy one and make games for a next generation console. Having a unified development platform on managed code will allow many more people to learn game development methodologies. It is a nice step toward making game development easier. Personally, I am not threatened by having many more people making games. I welcome it and look forward to seeing the kind of vibrant and creative community we see from Flash developers.

People want to make games for consoles. It is a unified hardware platform, it is cheap, and their friends have one. Hobbyists will do it just for fun, educators will use it to teach game making, and even experienced developers will flock to this system just for prototyping. Any time in past history, prototyping your game on a console was “unobtanium”. Even if you could get approved, the cost of a development kit was out of range, so only large publishers could get access.

Imagine this scenario. An Indie developer, “Trying Really Hard“, spends two years of their life energy, using all of their spare time making a game, call it “My First Indie Game“, for lack of a better name. They sign it up for on-line distribution, and it quickly goes to the top of the charts. Not being a game that is appropriate for the casual portals, a hit game on the appropriate channels may sell 200 units a month (OK, I’m being generous). Some quick math. $20 retail – credit card fees – download fees = $19 (again, being generous). 50% of $19 is $9.50 * 200 units = $1,900 per month is the cut that TRH gets.

Even though TRH knew it was going to be hard to make a living as an Indie game maker and knew they would have to build a portfolio of products to make a living, this is tough. Hmmm. What to do? They can decide to wait for promises of raising venture capital for portals to build bigger markets, but that might not be in their best interests. Maybe exploring other markets would be appropriate.

So, they decide they would like to leverage their intellectual property and attempt to bring FIRST to the console market. Here is where it gets good, and is the part many people don’t seem to understand. TRH spends no money and downloads XNA Game Studio Express for the PC. Next they decide to spend a small amount for Torque X (GG have not decided how much yet, but it will be inexpensive) to save time rolling their own engine. Now, without even buying the $99 per year Creator Club subscription, TRH is creating a nice demo of their game that accesses shaders, game controller, etc. Development is going extremely quickly because of the managed code environment. Once the game is done, it is good enough they decide to pay up $99 for the Creator’s Club and actually demo the game on an XB360.

The next step is to either present the game directly to Microsoft or to one of the many, many publishers that are actively seeking content for the XBLA download channel (all of these publishers are easily accessible, and even Microsoft is incredibly accessible when it comes to XBLA for the XB360). Because the publisher gets to play the game directly on the XB360, there is little left to the imagination. All of the development risk for the title is gone. The publisher can easily do the ROI calculations, and it makes negotiations for TRH much easier, allowing them to keep ownership of the FIRST intellectual property as well as get a higher royalty rate and advance. At that point, they upgrade their Game Studio Express IDE to the professional version or negotiate with the publisher to loan them a full XB360 development kit or use some of their advances to actually buy their own development tools. In a few short months, they have made more money than they will EVER make on PC download channels. In addition, getting FIRST published on XBLA raised the profile of TRH and gets them offers to make games for the Wii, PS3 downloadable channel, DS, and other newly emerging platforms. How can that be bad???

GarageGames was founded seven years ago on the premise that tools and technology as well as distribution needed to be democratized for Indies to be able to be successful. We have done a great job on the tools side of the equation, but building up huge sales directly to the player has been harder, and we realize it will take a long time. With that in mind, we have advocated for Indies everywhere. We have worked hard to open new channels of distribution, to explore any and all channels and opportunities that we can find. Sometimes these things have seemed a little silly, Phantom anyone?, sometimes they are middle of the road (coin op), sometimes they are absolute hits. Helping pioneer channels such as XBLA on the original XBox or be first in line to get good products and technologies on XBLA for XB360, is good… no make that great, for Indies!

To wrap this up, I would ask people to really do their homework before coming to a conclusion on Microsoft’s XNA intitiative. Look at people that have a track record of shipping a lot of games and starting successful companies instead of ranting voices in the wilderness that make no sense.

-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker ::: Make It Big In Games ::: GarageGames

27 thoughts on “XNA Game Studio Express Doubters Get It Wrong

  1. Dan MacDonald says:

    This is something of a tangential issue, but clearly there is movement towards democratizing game development. I wonder where this all heads? In the past developers were really the top of the food chain in game development. But as tools and technology become more and more accessible designers and artists will become the scarcer commodity.

    Time to work on the old design skills i guess… :)

  2. Glad to see this post. I’ve been doing some defending of this on my own (on both Greg Costikyan’s blog and now over at my blog). I really think it boils down to two things: expectations and biases.

    The expectations that were setup by the media headlines (and seeded by Microsoft, of course) was of a much more open system, i.e. turning Xbox Live Arcade into the equivalent of eBay where anyone and everyone can post a game and make some cash. But that misconception is to be understood from non-technical types who prefer their tech explained in analogies to other tech, hence “YouTube of Video Games” (which it really isn’t, but that’s okay).

    It’s the biases that come through in our fellow indie game developers… a strong bias against anything Microsoft and a suspicion of anything that Microsoft does. Sure, MS isn’t doing this for altruistic reasons, they’re doing it because it’s smart business to attract the hobbyists to your console (and get them learning your techs). But just because there’s a business motive it doesn’t mean that it’s mutually exclusive with benefits for the community.

    Unfortunately, a great deal of the indie community is filled with the same type of folks you find in the open source community, which I consider the software development version of angst-filled emo “rebels.” They see MS as evil, thus their actions and opportunities are suspect, regardless of the facts on the ground.

    To be honest, that’s fine. Those folks aren’t swaying the industry nor the mainstream public at the end of the day, just ranting to hear themselves (again, see emo’s). I wasn’t surprised, but I certainly was disappointed by some of those that completely failed to see the opportunity and only saw where it came up short (which, in most cases, was only because they’re expectations or assumptions were simply counter to what was actually being offered).

    Please do come check out my thoughts on the subject on my blog (no ads or anything, I’m not trying to pimp myself): YouTube of Video Games and Why all the hate?.

    Keep up the good work, Jeff, and congratulations on all the good press GarageGames has been getting lately… wish I could have been at Gamefest to meet/greet you guys (last minute optimization work on some PS3 launch titles — ugh!).

  3. Troy,

    Thanks for the support. I was actually going to link to your blog post as a voice of reason, but ended up making my point without it. Cool stuff on your blog !


  4. Here is my question: Will Microsoft make ALL the Indie games developed available for the general public to buy? Or only for people that have bought the dev kit. From what I’ve read (and it might not be correct), they will only become available for purchase by the general public IF Microsoft thinks the game is worth it. I don’t see this as democratizing games. I see this as a way for a gatekeeper to get a look at a lot of stuff, and then only release what they want. It’s nice that this gives Indies a leg up in making a Console game and allows them to get in front of a publisher quicker, but this isn’t going to help off-beat and quirky titles get out there because MS isn’t going to approve those, or are publishers going to fund and publish them.

    P.S. Yes, I am one of the people that is very cynical over this announcement.

  5. Ron, nobody is going to do what you are suggesting. Everything to do just that is available on the web right now. For a couple of thousand bucks anybody could put up the infrastructure to do so. Manifesto is a good example of this, and even they have set the bar really high as to what products they will sell.

    Just because MS is a huge company does not mean they should do something dumb. Will MS make money in some way off of this deal? Of course. As to being a gatekeeper and only cherry picking the best titles, can’t they already do that? They bought Bungie, they bought Rare, they published Marble Blast, and Geometry Wars. Did they cherry pick those titles from the PC? Yes. Is that bad? No.

    As a place for struggling Indies to show off their creativity this will give a leg up to those that are working hard. Is the music industry any different? Struggling bands give their shit away all the time just get get noticed by ANYBODY. Should games be any different?

    I don’t have all of the answers. A pot of money to fund Indie titles is not going to magically appear. Getting your products onto consoles today when it was not even possible a couple of weeks ago is LOT of progress.

    As to approving quirky games for XBLA, they are actually doing that. Ross Erickson loves games, loves innovation, and wants to allow it to happen in the XBLA channel. Whether or not he can continue to do so remains to be seen. All I know is that there is as much possibility to make creative games in the industry now as I have ever seen.


  6. On the whole, I’m cautiously optimistic about these moves. There are a few things I’d like to see come out of this:

    Microsoft open a new XBLA feature, a “game search”, kinda like an itunes. So that the distribution channel becomes wide instead of narrow.

    The addition of network support. I prefer networked games.

    Hmm, thats about it I think :)

  7. Hmm, I posted a pretty big post to the blog before and it got throw into the pit of oblivion, so I’ll keep this short again.

    One of my biggest concerns was not with the development, but of creating a really “democratized” distribution channel. After all, development isnt just about making something, its about distributing it.

    Right now, from what I hear from people doing XBLA stuff, the channel is pretty much full. It can take plenty of time to get a slot etc. So this poses the biggest risk to indies, in that in all likelyhood, EA is going to eat that slot, or someone else. Even if a publisher is going to take you to the channel, they have to wait in line.

    Narrow controlled channel with lots of content providers fighting for space? sounds like a publishers wet dream and a developers nightmare. Essentially it becomes a choke point. And we all know that choke points are where you aim your guns right? :)

    Seriously, if this is going to work, then they have to move towards the widening of the distribution channel. A more “search oriented” thing. I’m sure thats what they have in mind, but I’m hoping to hear more on that because I think its THAT that will revolutionize console development.

    But all good steps I think.. pehaps more importantly, it may even tip the hand of Ninty and Sony. Perhaps not, but at least make them think. I’d love to do some wii prototyping stuff. I wouldnt even care about sales on that particular platform, I just want to play with it :)

    Anyway, as you say, its an interesting time to be an indie.

  8. I with those that want a “democratized” distribution system, but I think such a channel should be separate from XBLA. Maybe another channel within XBL. I think XBLA should be reserved for the really good games, games that are good enough to get passed the “gatekeeper”. The reason I say this is that if any and all games could go on XBLA, XBLA will be flooded with mediocre games. If a gamer then bought a few XBLA games and found that they were all mediocre (or even just plain bad), he wouldn’t by any XLBA games in the future.

    So, XLBA should not be the “democratized” channel. The democratized channel should be separate and clearly marked, so gamers know going in that the games on that channel might be bad, mediocre, or good.

  9. Jeff, Troy … well said … Also, Phil and Brutus’ posts about a search oriented portal on XBL, and separating XBLA and this indie channel were spot on.

    No, I didn’t have anything else to contribute other than that :-)

  10. Ron makes a point I’ve seen several others make (thankfully he made it in a much more even-handed way): MS is the gatekeeper to what moves into XBLA, which isn’t an improvement over the current system. I consider this a misconception of the whole announcement, not one based on fact but rather perspective.

    There were many developers who want to see an “open” console, a guaranteed platform in the living room with a seamless distribution channel as accessible as the Web. In others words, they want to be able to remove the OS/hardware/version compatibility problem out of their PC game equations. And they want to play on what we all know is considered the “big leagues” by everyone not in the game industry (and many of those in, however biased that may be).

    I think we all want that. And I hope we one day see that, possibly in a future year of the Xbox360 once the hardware costs have dropped low enough that MS can make money off hardware and not software — because that’s the only way that there’s going to be a fully open distribution platform.

    But… MS has given us a spectacular hobbyist distribution platform. Imagine sites like TheCodeProject.com devoted entirely to managed code development for the 360… users swapping their best games, engines, technology, resources, tips, ideas… they can’t sell them, MS has restricted that (from what I’ve heard, though I need to confirm that). So it’s automatically all open source if people want to share… just like the code in the old Commodore64 and Amiga magazines, the games can only be transmitted in source form! It’s brilliant… it’s more like socialism than Manfiesto! ;)

    So, instead of creating the ultimate free market (which seems to be what folks like Ron and Greg were expecting/hoping for), they’ve instituted the ultimate FLOSS (free libre open source software) market. And from MS… it’s really a very interesting, very bold thing they’ve done… they’ve effectively given the far “left” philosophy of distribution exactly what it wants while simultaneously satisfying the far “right” philosophy required by it as a publicly traded company. Brilliant…

  11. For a hobbyist your greatest dream is that you make some neat little game, you actually get it posted on a demo site as shareware AND maybe 10 people download it.

    If your game is available to every other developer on the network you instantly have the potential for downloads. (Please correct me if im wrong about the distribution model)

    Second to that, I know from interviews and conversations with others that there is nothing better than having an experienced developer tell you that your version of breakout or miniputt is awesome. Im sure there will be some interesting people using XNA. It might be a good way to make some contacts with other likeminded developers.

    I’m not sure if Troy was touching on this at all but, one thing I repeatedly see from members of the indie/open source community is an immediate disregard for anything that isnt written in the lowest level language.

    In every conversation I’ve had so far managed code becomes a hot debate. It seems that the existing indie community really hates managed code.

    To be honest I’m tired of writing the same code to flesh out every single idea I have. I would rather have 5 quirky games with wild ideas than 1 bland game running native code at 6000 FPS!

    Its the cool little games that can really milk a new idea, and its these games that I can see dominating such an environment.

  12. I am a dev on the XNA team and I’ve wondered if I should stay out of this discussion but I can’t: it’s fascinating. It definitely shows the passion around this product!

    Following the comments and linked blog posts I want to point out that I don’t believe we have made any official choice regarding the future of a broader distribution model yet. I see some people here talking like XNA has laid all its cards on the table. That’s not the case. In fact XNA has only played its first card with the v1 of XNA Game Studio Express and it’s not even out yet. A Pro version is coming next year and Boyd Multerer, the person in charge of the XNA project at MS, has said on our team’s blog that the limitations with the distribution model for the Xbox 360 are well understood and only temporary. IMO we want to put a product out there for people to use soon because I strongly believe there is a lot of value already in what we have to offer and it’s better to ship often and improve with customer’s feedback than to build an overly ambitious project in a vacuum for years. With a v1 it also helps a lot to get market validation early and demonstrate we are creating value for the company. I get to keep my job…

    For the future we have been exploring many ideas, but since there is a lot of work to be done we obviously can’t talk too much or make what could be interpreted as promises. It’s a difficult balance. We have been looking at ideas like a more open “Community Arcade” though, built on a model similar to XBLA. Along the same lines, Peter Moore has been quoted as saying he’d love to send a royalty check to a kid with a great game. I can’ speak for others but I think this feeling is shared by many people on our team and beyond.

    When we spoke of the “Youtube of videogame” I personally believe it was more to help people understand our vision and the direction we’re choosing than a product description. The announcement at Gamefest was the first step on an ambitious journey, we hope many people will see this, join us, and help us define where we should go. We’re definitely listening.

    Anyway, thanks for all the interest and passion! This really makes my work incredibly exciting!

  13. Just to follow up. I think that one of the main things, is that a ratings based search based channel, where nothing is “out of bounds” would be the key.

    Content might be for instance, made available as trial and complete downloads. The ranking scheme would have to be carefully monitored to stop spammers trying to rank up thier games. Another thing would be that a pay-per-play model would maybe work too.

    What really interests me going forward with the XNA stuff, once pro comes out, is the possibility of adding different payment models and delivering session-based online play, where sessions are instantiated. I’ve seen this exact model in action, with a micro-payment thing for content and free-to-play play model. I think it is definitely my preferred way of heading.

    I guess we should look to Asia for exemplars of online play/delivery/distribution/payment.

  14. I don’t see how this can be perceived as anything but a good thing for indies. Even if this was the only step MS was going to take with XNA Game Studio (which it’s not, as confirmed by Julien), this still makes it easier for indies to develop and get published on the 360. How can that be bad? Yes, some games won’t get picked up because they’re too quirky or different, but how is that any different from the current situation?

    At least now there’s an easier way to get your indie game from a concept or prototype on the pc, to getting it showcased to a publisher as a potential game on the 360.

    My only hope is that both Nintendo and Sony follow in MS’s footsteps and offer their own solutions similar to Live Arcade, further expanding the digital market for indie games (shameless plug to my own thoughts on this matter).

  15. I just want to comment on this whole ‘Microsoft the gatekeeper’ I keep reading about. It seems to me that a lot of people have a problem with MS saying ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ to what goes up on XBLA and I honestly believe that these people are wrong.

    As users of the XBLA environment, we need Microsoft there to keep the quality of service high. I don’t want to ‘search’ for my own games, I only want the highest quality games delivered to my doorstep. Because, seriously, a lot of games that will be made will simply not be up to par. Let’s look at another example for a moment: desktops.

    I love cool desktop wallpapers. Around the office I am known for it. Now, I have to work too hard to find those desktops because most of the sites will just let anyone with a cracked version of Photoshop 7 and a (bad) idea upload their creations. As an end user, how does this benefit me? It doesn’t.

    Microsoft is there to protect the end-user from the loads of low-quality content that will inadvertantly get created. The gatekeeper is key. (pun intended) Sure we can have sites to trade and check out in-progress code but XBLA is not it.

    On another note, my comic from last week on XBOX.ca deals with this issue. Check it out.


  16. Am I the only one who sees this as a very poorly disguised way for Microsoft to get hordes of young programmers using C#?

    And about gated content (Jeff Jenkins especially): look at indie music. Instead of three giant publishers, there are hundreds. Yes, if you personally waded through all the music that was released, it would be a chore. But thankfully there are blogs (and other independent filters) to help you find what you like. The reason this is a better model is because you are free to CHANGE filters at any time — just look at a different blog.

    With XBLA you’re stuck with Microsoft deciding what’s good — personally I trust hundreds of independent game-bloggers a lot more when it comes to discovering creative, fresh content.

  17. Hmm,

    I don’t get one thing. Why do you need the XNA game Game studio in the first place. I thought one could make games for the XBOX 360 with the Torque engine already?

    Can someone enlighten me?

  18. I agree with Jeff Jenkins about liking Microsoft as a gatekeeper to keep the quality high. There will be an explosion of XNA-based games coming out in the following months and having to wade through them all means that the real gems will get lost.

    In my eyes raigan’s idea of music and “changing the filter” doesn’t work with XBLA. Here’s why:

    1. You can’t just “look at a different blog”, you are stuck with exactly one blog/source, that being XBLA. They would have to create an entirely new section just for XNA-based games.

    2. Even if you did create an XNA-based section it would have to be a) free and b) locked down to prevent kids from accidentally downloading some horribly inappropriate game.

    3. No indie developer wants to be stuck in an XNA-only zone, they can’t make any money there. They want to become an XBLA member, so they are still going to have to jump through a lot of the same hoops as before.

    4. While you *can* root through blogs and magazines to find those gem indie hits there are a lot of casual gamers out there that don’t want to. They want to know that every single game that is available to them via XBLA is of a certain quality and worth their time to at least download the demo.

    I also find it odd raigan that you think Microsoft doesn’t employ people that enjoy creative, fresh content. It’s as if “Microsoft” is this one guy that’s a real boring jerk that can’t tell a great game from his gimlet. So far I’ve been impressed with what they consider “good enough”: Lionhead Studios “Fable 2″, Bungie’s “Halo” series, Rare’s “PDZ”, Epic’s upcoming “Gears of War”. Someone with pretty good taste picked Geometry Wars and Marble Blast.

    As an aside, I don’t see what’s wrong with getting young programmers using C# vs. any other language. I myself cut my teeth on Basic (not Visual Basic, I mean straight up QBasic), doesn’t mean I’m still using it. Over the last 15 years I’ve used VB, C, C++, PostScript, Assembly, PHP, Java and currently use Delphi, JavaScript, C# and Ruby on a daily basis. A language is just a language, it’s the concepts that are *much* more important and once you have those you can pick up new languages very quickly.

  19. @shawn: i left out the implicit “C# being a proprietary language” part (yes, mono exists, but i don’t think it’s ready for cross-platform gamedev anytime soon). trying to push a proprietary language sucks for the same reason that trying to push a proprietary graphics API sucks — they might both be terrific development tools, but by relying on them you’re supporting Microsoft’s efforts to squeeze everyone else out of business, which i don’t think is going to be the best thing for all of us in the long run.

    If everyone used DirectX then you wouldn’t be able to play games on a mac.. that’s not cool!

    about filtering: it doesn’t matter if Microsoft has lots of great people filtering out the good games — there will ALWAYS be “better” (i.e more inline with your or my particular tastes) filterers out there.

    the whole concept of having a committee of executives decide what content is “good” is plain stupid, regardless of the pedigree or tastes of the committee members.

    i wasn’t arguing about XNA or XBLA specifically, just that systems which provide gated content vetted by a single company/committee/group are never going to be better at satisfying a particular gamer’s tastes than systems where content is vetted by any group who wants to, because the latter is a superset of the former (and thus is more likely to provide gamer X with a selection that better matches their specific taste).

    for instance, compare all of Sony/BMG’s albums released in 2006 vs all of the albums rated well on Pitchfork or other music blogs in 2006. which would you rather listen to?

    i guess the main thing is: the criteria for selection that publishers/distributors use is mostly sales-based, which isn’t the heuristic i (or many other gamers, i would hope) would use when trying to select the “best” games from a random pile.

    a related problem is that the developers that DO get their products put out are more likely to be the ones who are the best at dealing with bureaucracy, making deals, and presenting sales pitches.. not necessarily the ones that are best at developing fun games.

  20. anonymous_vip says:

    I would like to know why Microsoft is going after indies though instead of commercial developers. There’s hardly any money in it for both groups, so I don’t see why Microsoft doesn’t just expand what they already have with DirectX and make it more easier to develop professional games with it. Who really cares about indies? Microsoft does now? Stop XNA and just focus on the bigger guys who are in need of better tools.

  21. SparkysShocker says:

    anonymous_vip is a very simple minded person and very unintelligent. Indie games open up the 360 to a broader spectrum of audience and so far Micrsoft hasnt forgotten about big developers they actually are doing better at supporting third party than Nintendo and Sony (to hard to develope on the cell chip at the moment) for the time being. Hell Marble Blast Ultra is one of the best XBLA games so far. Just imagine some genius who has never had the opportuinity to show off their talent does with XNA and gets discovered because they actually have something published. Plus XBLA is a nice break from killing people.

  22. Talk is cheap. Only time will tell if XNA is good for indie developers in the future. Playstation actually offer you an option to download linux. Linux has tons of ide and API out there for already.
    While the cell processorr is new and confusing, it will shine in the future. I know game Cube and Playstation have confusing dev kits, but don’t worry there getting better. Overall in mi overall personal opinon XNA is a good learing tool, since it is completly object oriented you can jump into JAVA, C++, OpenGL and DirectX and other. To anwser alot of poeples question I would wait and buy Playstation, since you can install linux on it you can then make any game you want and distribute it freely or even keep in open source. Even better upload it to Source forge I use this site lots… What I do not understand is why Torque not compatable with PowerPC platform. Maybe in the future GG will easly convert there engine to PowerPC platform and we you can develop on Playstation 3 in Gentoo….. A little advice to all keep learing torque forget about playstation 3 and XBOX 360 make a game for the PC and target your audience. Remember that the PC is the #1 game console.. And with Torque i see that you can develop for MAC, LINUX, and PC… NOw thats great…


  23. I’d advise you keep away from mono. In the .net eula it states that .net can only be used on a microsoft OS. I searched the mono site, and they only say that they’re chummy with some .net engineers. Wait ’till they meet the lawyers.

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