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Microsoft XNA: Ready for Prime Time? : Page 9

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

Commercial XNA Games
Torpex Games and Microsoft announced earlier this year that Schizoid will be the first XNA game to be released commercially for Xbox LIVE Arcade (XBLA) on the Xbox 360. This marks a major milestone in the young lifetime of XNA, especially considering how Microsoft has not even disclosed and let alone shipped its professional edition of XNA Game Studio. But is this a marketing stunt, a fluke where Torpex had a stroke of luck, or are we seeing the beginning of a new trend of commercial games built with managed code? Fristrom sees a new trend where more XNA games will enter the market as full-fledged entrants, competing alongside the big boys like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft.

Josh Williams: "I really just care about how much fun I'm having when I'm playing. I really don't give a s*** about how realistic my character's eyebrows look."
Williams agrees, and offers a piece of advice to other prospective developers. "[Schizoid] is certainly not a fluke. Microsoft is putting a lot of effort into this initiative and will no doubt support the development of commercial games using XNA (developers take note!)" he says, and even extends an invitation to the indie game developer community. "Create a quality game and send it in to talk with us about! We love indie games, whether they're on Torque, Torque X, or some other technology. We will give Torque X and XNA games the same consideration as any other game."

Mitchell discloses a bit more about how the Schizoid deal came to be, saying, "The portfolio managers in Xbox LIVE Arcade evaluated a prototype of Schizoid and felt it lived up to the platform's standards. The folks at Torpex decided to make their game using XNA Game Studio Express."

Mitchell continues, "A key benefit of XNA Game Studio Express is greatly increased productivity. Many of the benefits in our enthusiast offering translate very well to professional scenarios. [CEO] Bill Dugan and his studio, Torpex Games, are great examples of why even accomplished veterans in the video game industry are turning to using XNA Game Studio Express today as the tools and technology to build their next shipping title on. Using XNA Game Studio Express, Bill and his team are able to iterate on design ideas much more rapidly than ever before in the development of their upcoming Xbox LIVE Arcade title: Schizoid. Their first game prototype was up and running in just four days, and within a couple months they sailed through the Xbox LIVE Arcade portfolio team review and received a green light."

Williams also stated that GarageGames is considering doing some full-release games on Torque X and XNA. He adds, "Having been in the trenches with this stuff for over a year now, we believe more game developers will start coming to this realization over time. We will continue to support C++-based game engines and technologies for the foreseeable future, but we see XNA and managed code-based technologies as a bright prospect for more efficient game development across the board." He also adds, "We are indeed considering this, and like any game project technology decision, we'll weigh all aspects of a solution in making such decisions. We'll look at performance issues, art pipeline support, developer talent pool, available tools, and the like. Obviously, we're very optimistic on XNA prospects for use in full production games!"

However, while XNA Game Studio express may allow you to code and iterate on your game faster, it won't provide any shortcuts when it comes to the Xbox LIVE Arcade certification process. Mitchell confirmed this saying, "The submission process for Xbox LIVE Arcade games is universal no matter what tools you are using to develop."

Fristrom can vouch to that, having been through the Xbox LIVE Arcade certification himself. "It is the same as with any XBLA game. We don't get any special exemptions. Which is a little scary, because we're waiting on a feature or two from the XNA team to pass the requirements that aren't even done yet." Fristrom then added. "The initial idea came from the XBLA guy we first showed Schizoid to. We expected we'd have to rewrite it in C++ to get it on XBLA. He said to talk to the XNA guys and maybe we could work something out."

Dave Mitchell: "Most of the major studios have all inquired about our XNA road map and when the professional technologies will be in place."
But XNA only supports Xbox 360 and Windows as target platforms, making the offering less interesting for developers and studios targeting other consoles like the Sony PlayStation 2 or 3, the Nintendo Wii, or portable gaming handhelds like the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and Nintendo DS. The same goes for games destined to run on other computer operating systems like Linux or Mac OS X.

Some, like Fristrom, still see the upside: "Although currently we're using C# and XNA for Schizoid, we'll port it to C++ and different SDKs for other platforms. Eventually it would be nice to have a unified SDK but right now the best thing for us is to target one platform as efficiently as possible."

Terrano also believes in a new trend of XNA games that will spearhead game development initiatives centered on innovation, saying, "I hope the systems aren't seen just as venues for casual and retro titles. The area that we think holds most promise is for high-quality 'smaller slices' of full games. Publishers know that innovation is needed, all gamers (not just casual) want a complete experience that fits in around their lifestyle, and everyone wants to see something that takes full advantage of their system. We call these premium casual experiences; premium refers to the quality of the experience, and casual describes a short time commitment and low investment in learning controls. While the AAA games will put more polish on existing franchises, big movie licenses, and tried-and-true gameplay formulas, the most exciting development space is going to be in downloadable [games]. We'll have more freedom to innovate, niche audiences can be profitable, and we'll be able to introduce new aesthetic and game play experiences."

Fristrom sees potential in the XNA platform and plans to use it for future commercial projects, and so does Austin. As for other developers eager to publish their commercial XNA games for XBLA and the Xbox 360, Fristrom offers this piece of advice: "I see a lot of developers get sidetracked into engine development and speculative generality. They start making a game, and then they think they should make sure the code's general enough so they can just push a button to make the next game, and before you know it they've spent a year developing this über-technology but they don't have a game yet."

XNA Adoption by Professional Game Studios
The question on most people's minds is whether we'll see full-blown commercial XNA games sold at retail for the Xbox 360 in the foreseeable future. Can XNA really crack the console nut? Fristrom thinks so, but is not sure when that will happen.

Dave Mitchell: "The more people we can get excited about our industry and pursue careers as game developers, content creators, audio engineers, etc., the better."
When asked if other studios will follow the XNA path, Mitchell says many are already considering it, telling us, "There are quite a few well-established studios and even individuals who have left such studios to form their own indie game studio who are strongly considering XNA Game Studio Express and more appropriately, the professional offering for developing their games. Torpex Games is one such studio comprised of former leads in Activision's Treyarch Studios." He adds, "Most of the major studios have all inquired about our XNA road map and when the professional technologies will be in place for them to further evaluate."

Nitschke did not name any names in terms of game studios adopting XNA, but he sees a lot of interest himself, saying "I receive many emails per week of people asking me about XNA, both beginners and experts, and the answer is always the same: Just try it. You will be amazed."

Williams knows what awaits professional studios who want to adopt or migrate to XNA, based on his team's experience with porting Torque to XNA. He warns, "One of the biggest challenges we faced was conforming to standards that .NET developers are used to. We have our own coding practices and standards that are common both within our community and in C++ development in general, and we had to make some changes. Most of the programmers working on Torque X had some experience working with C# and .NET prior to working on the project but not to the extent of creating an entire game engine. So it was a learning process for everyone." He adds, "Additionally, a lot of work was put into understanding how the XNA Framework's garbage collection would work, and designing optimally performant subsystems to deal with that."

Microsoft has become well known for eating its own dog food, where employees are required to use Microsoft products to help drive quality and understand the issues users face every day. If Microsoft pushes a new set of tools and technologies for game development, then are Microsoft-owned studios like Bungie Studios (Halo series), Rare Ltd. (Viva Piñata, Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo) or Lionhead Studios (Fable) eating the XNA dog food too? I asked Dave Mitchell what has been their feedback regarding XNA and if they are interested in using XNA for future games. Mitchell did not have any definitive answers, but says the response so far is positive.

"There's absolutely plenty of interest internally from a number of MGS [Microsoft Game Studios] game teams around the XNA Framework. Much like external third-party studios, several of our MGS teams are playing around with XNA Game Studio Express and assessing its capabilities. Of those who have spent some time with it, we've received a good deal of positive feedback and in many cases, they were quite amazed with the ease and speed at which they could get simple game prototypes up and running. For our XNA Game Studio Express launch event in the UK, several members of the Rare Ltd. team created sample games in their spare time over the course of two weeks."

Koster thinks Microsoft should carefully choose where they push XNA to drive adoption by other major studios. "Well, I guess to some degree I question the premise. If it truly is a better solution, then sell it to the people who understand that it is a better solution. They'll then prove it. Selling it to folks who don't want it doesn't make sense. You have to make people want it, and that only comes with proven success. The first XNA hit, or hit where XNA was clearly a factor in the success, will silence doubters."

Professional Games and Development Budgets: XNA to the Rescue?
Game development costs keep getting inflated to what some would consider ridiculous proportions. An average AAA game budget runs in the $10-20 million range nowadays, with some games, especially MMORPGs, going even higher. It remains to be seen whether managed code frameworks and technologies like XNA are the key to faster development turnarounds, and therefore, lowering development costs.

Josh Williams: "It's more important that you learn how to program and solve problems in general than it is that you learn how to implement systems that handle memory leaks and dangling pointers in C++."
Mitchell thinks XNA can help, saying, "There are many efforts currently underway across all of XNA for our native as well as managed code solutions. Managed code frameworks specifically such as our XNA Framework can certainly help to contain the escalating costs for a growing number of commercial game scenarios. XNA Game Studio provides our developers with a new option that is tuned for maximizing productivity over maximum performance. For many games, this is a trade-off many developers are eager to embrace."

But Austin does not equate high budgets to coding time, but still sees a platform like XNA as having a positive effect overall. "Most of the growing game development costs are in content not code at the moment, which managed code doesn't particularly help. However, I think that XNA is suited to making preproduction much more efficient, which has a huge impact in avoiding production waste."

Terrano agrees with his colleague when it comes to properly evaluating XNA's ROI. "It is easy to lump all game development costs together. While the cost of AAA game development typically shoots up at each generation, there is a corresponding rise in the tools, middleware, and standards to help offset the costs. The difficult time is at the transition (2006–2008), and then things will get easier until we make the next jump. I look at XNA as a cost and risk reduction solution along these lines. As an industry we must make advances on cross-platform standards and middleware tools that just work better together. As we can rely more on the tools and established standards we can focus on making great content."

Williams also sees problems beyond development costs, explaining, "Big-budget games require big budgets for a number of reasons, and dev time is only one. As long as people are buying games, some of those games will be allocated huge teams and huge budgets in an attempt to make the next big thing. Similar to summer blockbusters of the movie industry, or stadium bands of the music world, big budget games aren't going to go away no matter how affordable game development becomes."

Fristrom agrees with Williams that the budget problem does not lie in the time required to code the game. He even goes as far as blaming the gamers themselves, boldly stating, "What will keep budgets in check is if people stop buying games! There will always be a budget arms race where every publisher wants their game to be the biggest-budget game that will still sell enough to be profitable, so everybody looks at what they expect to sell, calculates the money they'll make off that, knocks off 20 percent so they get a decent ROI, and boom—there's your budget. Better tech just means we can use that budget more efficiently."

Josh Williams: "On a technical level, managed code isn't a free ride."
However, Austin sees new platforms like XNA as a risky proposition for certain developers, studios, and publishers. "In a hit-driven industry where a majority of games lose money, mitigating risk becomes very important. It often makes more sense to stick with what has worked in the past and is familiar than to add another variable."

Williams agrees with Austin, adding, "Since the size of a game's budget is typically proportional to how risk averse [game publishers] are likely to be, big budget games are often the least likely to adopt new technology or methodologies."

Koster also sees benefits but warns, "In general, rapid iteration is the key. Whatever gets you the rapid iteration is what will work. And while managed code has some benefits, there are lots of approaches. I wouldn't call it a silver bullet."

Williams says, "What XNA can and will have a great deal of effect on, though, are small- to mid-budget games (and no-budget games!). Independent or smaller commercial studios should certainly look at XNA as a way to reduce development time and cost."

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