Microsoft wants to do for video games what YouTube has done for video: open it up for do-it-yourselfers.
The first step toward that goal, to be announced Monday, is the release of a free set of game-development tools called XNA Game Studio Express on Aug. 30. Prospective do-it-yourself game developers can download the program (from www.microsoft.com/xna) to their Windows PC and create games for PCs and for Xbox 360 systems.
Then during the holiday season, Microsoft will launch a "Creators Club" membership on its Xbox Live online service ($99 annually) allowing fledgling game developers to test their creations on their Xbox 360. Eventually, Microsoft plans to allow independent game makers to demo and sell their games on Xbox Live. "We want to be able to get consumer hobbyists to create games that run on Xbox 360 with an interface as simple as drag and drop," Microsoft's Peter Moore says.
The announcement was scheduled to be made today in Seattle at the software company's GameFest for game developers.
To get a game published on a console system, from the original Nintendo to Sony's PlayStations, has traditionally required approval of the console maker and purchase of expensive development kits. "This is the first time that video game consoles have been opened up, allowing people to create games on their own and play them," says Josh Williams, CEO of GarageGames, a Eugene, Ore.-based game developer that has a popular game, MarbleBlast Ultra, available on Xbox Live.
XNA Game Studio Express, a streamlined version of Microsoft's XNA game development program, will serve as the programming skeleton that a game is created on. Also included will be GarageGame's Torque Engine, a program that makes it easier to fine-tune and run a game. While game development still requires a fair amount of computing know-how, a free game included in the package, Spacewars, can be easily modified and run by beginners.
Moore hopes the availability of easy-to-use programming tools will spark independent game development at many levels, from garages to universities. Already 10 universities have committed to adding Game Studio Express to game design curricula this fall. "We think high school science teachers will embrace this very quickly," Moore says.
Georgia Tech University video game design instructor Blair MacIntyre says his students will now be able to buy an Xbox 360 ($299-$399) rather than a high-powered PC to test their game prototypes. "Imagine how exciting it will be to be a student and be able to show your friends your class project running on their Xbox, hooked up to their TV in their living room," he says.