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  • Microsoft's XNA: A Primer

    - Alistair Wallis
  •  Introduction

    It's undoubtedly an interesting time to be looking at getting involved in the games industry; there's indie initiatives like the Independent Games Festival and a swell of support from the immense and passionate community that surrounds that side of things. There's also plenty of support for student and independent developers from companies like GarageGames and, most impressively, Microsoft, who released XNA Game Studio Express in December, after a number of beta versions over 2006.

    In this primer, we'll talk a little about what XNA is and how it can help you get your games out to the public. We'll also discuss how to find out more about XNA, and talk to Julien Ellen and Joe Nalewabau of Microsoft about the system, as well as two developers (Benjamin Nitschke and Alex Okafor) who have worked with XNA to great success.

    An Ecosystem of Services

    So, let's step back a little: what is XNA?

    "The term XNA regroups all Microsoft's effort for game developers," says Julien Ellie, XNA Software Design Engineer at Microsoft. "It's a whole ecosystem made of services, tools and a community. XNA Game Studio Express is a key part of this offering and is a new and easier way to create games for PC and Xbox 360."

    The basis of XNA as a whole is its framework. If you're not experienced in making games, that can be a difficult term to understand, so let's look at exactly what it means.

    The framework, essentially, is a set of code development libraries that makes it easier to write a program - which in the case of XNA would be a game - and gives users a common ground and guarantee of common behaviors within the framework. It's easiest to think of it as a set of rules that govern how the program runs, and can be transferred easily between different target platforms, like PC and Xbox 360. The usage of the XNA framework also has the advantage of meaning that users can easily integrate tools such as Microsoft's XACT Audio Authoring Tool, amongst a quickly growing list of others.

    Games that run within the framework are written using C#, an object oriented programming language developed by Microsoft that emphasizes simplicity for beginners, but also provides enough sophistication and functionality for high end users.

    Game Studio Express

    Development for the XNA framework is further simplified through the use of its Integrated Development Environment; Game Studio Express. This is how Microsoft intend to make development more attractive to hobbyists and homebrew developers: by providing them with of documentation and starter kits to give them an idea of where to start, and how best to go about making their game.

    The Game Studio Express download also contains the XNA Content Pipeline, which is a set of management tools that assist users in debugging, compiling and managing assets for their game - particularly, according to Microsoft, 3D art assets.

    Game Studio Express is a free download from the XNA site - as is Visual C# Studio, which is a requirement for running the Game Studio.

    Game Studio Professional, which is due later in the year, is aimed more at those intending to use their XNA developed games in a commercial manner. Microsoft haven't talked a great deal about it yet, but this higher end IDE will allow users to create games intended for retail sale or Xbox Live Arcade inclusion - though obviously this will still require a publishing agreement.

    Homebrew Console Games?

    While XNA does, in many ways, mean that homebrew console games are a reality, there are a few blocks in the way of getting your game onto your Xbox 360. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, you'll need to have a subscription to the XNA Creators Club, which can be purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace for $99 for a year, or $49 for four months. The actual sharing of games between users is also somewhat complex at this point, and involves having to actually compile a shared game - though Microsoft is quick to note that they are working on a solution to make this easier.

    Microsoft is also working on integration with the Live network - something they seem very aware is an important omission from the first release of XNA. Currently, there's no exact date set for when it might be included within the framework, though it appears to be a high priority with the team.

    XNA - as the developers interviewed later in this primer point out - is not a way to quickly build games in an afternoon. Like any other method of game creation, it's not an easy road, and requires an understanding of some reasonably difficult concepts. The exciting thing is that it's an easier road than most, though, and promises more back for anyone willing to attempt it - and what's even better is the wealth of information out there even at this early stage to help you understand.


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