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Microsoft XNA: Ready for Prime Time?

How far can XNA take you in game development? Find out what seven experts in the game development industry have to say.

o longer constrained to enterprise systems, database-driven applications or web service layers, with XNA, .NET developers can now spread their digital wings and let their pixelized imagination run wild. Their favorite development platform and language now enable them to explore new worlds and new challenges of their own making, all in full high definition (HD) at 60 frames per second!

But who is XNA for? Is it a serious enough initiative, platform, and set of tools for professional game developers in the gaming industry? Eager to answer those questions, I (virtually) sat down with a number of professional game designers, studio directors, and developers for a chat to discover: Is Microsoft XNA ready for prime time?

Before attempting to answer the question, it's useful to frame the discussion around what XNA truly is and means.

What is XNA?
XNA as a whole is Microsoft's game development platform. XNA is composed of three major pieces:

  • Tools and technology (like Microsoft's game SDKs and DirectX)
  • Solutions (like Game Studio Express)
  • The ecosystem (what the XNA community and Microsoft partners are building).
XNA tools and technologies are what most developers in the industry are using today to make retail games for Xbox and Windows. This includes such things as DirectX, PIX, XACT, and the Xbox and Xbox 360 developer kits, meaning that XNA as a whole is the name of Microsoft's overarching initiative and offering for game development on Windows and Xbox 360, whether you use managed (C#) or unmanaged (C++) code.

XNA Game Studio Express is a way to ease developers into XNA. In Microsoft's words, "XNA Game Studio Express is a game development solution targeted primarily at students, hobbyists, and independent game developers. XNA Game Studio Express is based on Visual C# Express 2005 and lets developers create games for both Windows and Xbox 360."

If you have never heard of XNA before or if you want to learn more about the technical features of XNA and discover how to get started with game development using XNA Game Studio Express, you should read the CoDe Magazine article "Introducing XNA Game Studio Express," by George Clingerman.

Author's Note: For the rest of this article, all references to XNA imply development with managed code using C# and XNA Game Studio.

Off to the Game Developers Conference
While Microsoft's initial XNA offering is clearly aimed at amateurs, hobbyists, and students, Microsoft will surely generate a lot of buzz in the professional game development industry. As a matter of fact, Microsoft held several sponsored sessions on XNA at the last Game Developers Conference (GDC) in March 2007 in San Francisco. The conference featured the "XNA Lobby Bar" where GDC attendees could hang out and have a drink while watching rolling demos of Xbox 360 games on HDTVs, or observe four development teams hard at work on the premises, building XNA games in only four days.

Josh Williams: "Studios who use more efficient practices will start eating the other guys' lunch!"
Clearly Microsoft has a vested interest in catching the attention of professionals when it comes to their latest game developer tool for Windows and the Xbox 360. I spent the week at GDC and questioned a lot of people about whether XNA was of any interest to them as game developers. Not everyone was convinced—few, in fact. Most people seemed to brush XNA aside as a non-issue, or perceive it as another gimmicky wacko idea by Microsoft to push their platforms.

Not content with simple hearsay, expo floor buzz or opinions bordering on zealotry, I set out to gather the opinions of industry professionals about XNA to bring a perspective on the gaming industry to IT developers already familiar with .NET. I reached out to many experts and studios, and while many declined to comment on XNA, had little to say about XNA, or simply failed to reply, the following game industry veterans graciously answered my call and provided me (and you) with the insights and opinions found in the rest of this article:

  • Michael Austin, Chief Technology Officer, and Mark Terrano, Design Director, both founders of Hidden Path Entertainment
  • Jamie Fristrom, technical director of Torpex Games
  • Raph Koster, president of Areae
  • Dave Mitchell, director of XNA game platform marketing in the Game Developer Group at Microsoft
  • Benjamin Nitschke, founder of exDream Entertainment
  • Josh Williams, CEO of GarageGames, developers of the new Torque X game engine for XNA
See the sidebar "Subject Matter Experts" for full background information about the subject matter experts interviewed, their respective companies, and the games they build.

Editor's Note: This article was first published in the September/October 2007 issue of CoDe Magazine, and is reprinted here by permission.

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