XNA game development platform will be free for Windows, $99 for Xbox

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Seattle (WA) - As an attempt to re-create the spirit of individual initiative that marked the late 1970s and early 1980s in computer gaming, Microsoft announced this morning it will be making an Express edition of its XNA game development platform available to prospective developers for the same price it charges for all its other Express platforms: zero.

Last March, Microsoft began releasing community technology previews (CTPs) of the XNA development platform, while at the same time, making its XNA Studio edition of its top-of-the-line Visual Studio 2005 Team Edition development environment available to game studios. But with the XNA Game Studio Express edition, announced today at a Microsoft-oriented gaming conference, a novice developer can get his hands on a basic environment that gives him access to the same technology infrastructure. XNA is a set of APIs that represent common game functionality, and that also make it possible to develop for both Windows and Xbox 360 simultaneously, even though their hardware fundamentals are quite different.

As an incentive for novices, Microsoft will also establish an Internet-based network it describes as a "creators club" not only for access to the latest documentation, but to let developers congregate and share ideas and code. Members will pay a $99 annual fee, or $49 for a four-month fee, for the access they need to be able to conceptualize, test, and deploy a real console video game. A Microsoft developer in Germany, Boris Schneider-Johne, reports today that this fee will include tools that upgrade the Xbox 360 itself, to a kind of developer-class system.

"Personally I can't wait to start writing code for my Xbox 360," writes Microsoft Vista developer Ian Moulster on his blog today. "It takes me back to the early days of home computers of cranking out breakout-style games using about 4 kB of RAM....Keep that sentiment but wind forward 20 years to the power of the Xbox 360 and who knows what kind of cool stuff we'll be able to create."

Microsoft developers report the first beta of XNA Game Studio Express will be made available on 30 August, with a final edition released - still for free download - before the holidays. The product requires Visual C# Express, but that's also free. This is not a Vista-only product; it will run just fine with Windows XP Service Pack 2. Visual Studio Express lead product manager Dan Fernandez reports on his blog this morning that programmers popular among the Microsoft gaming and hobbyist communities, including Andy "The Z-Man" Dunn, have been working on tutorial packages and other contributions, to be made available soon.

Since its introduction, fans of Sony's PlayStation Portable have lamented its lack of openness for developers who simply want to write their own code for their own purposes, in the name of protecting the system against piracy. Here, we may be seeing a respectable alternative, albeit on a home platform: a way for people willing to pay a small fee to unlock the Xbox 360, to make it "developer-accessible."