XNA: The Power and the Potential

Following recent comments from coding shop Binary Tweed, the Xbox Live Community Games project appears to be in dire peril due to a combination of factors. The Clover developer says that the size of the XBLCG market can't sustain the required development costs, while gamers might argue that there's little point visiting the portal at all when the quality of content is, by and large, seriously sub-par and in many cases, somewhat over-priced. A 400 point virtual fireplace any one?

Put very simply, the tools give hobbyist programmers and pro-developers alike a rich resource of coding potential. XNA effectively allows for full access to the Xenos GPU along with four of the six processing threads on the main CPU. While it's always difficult to draw analogies in processing and GPU power, development sources speculate that XNA performance on the console is roughly equivalent to the Intel Atom CPU commonly found in netbooks, but with the added support of a NVIDIA 7800/8800 class GPU. Not a bad combination, and a whole lot of horsepower for a USD 99 buy-in.

In terms of the XNA engine itself, one Xbox 360 and PC developer described it to me as being "well thought through, showing experience and pedigree. Most engines I've seen at fellow PC studios are much worse in terms of architecture on the elegance/sloppiness scale."

Of course there are drawbacks. Available memory is an ever-present issue, especially acute for developers used to working with PC. The C# programming language used compounds this problem by serving as a "nanny OS" that takes care of memory management itself. Coders call this the "Garbage Collector", the in-built controller that reclaims memory used by data that is no longer being used by the code.

Despite these limitations, let's attempt to give some context here. XNA should easily be able to cope with a massive range of not-so-old PC titles and there is no reason why any PSP, Wii, iPhone or Flash game should not translate beautifully into a high-def XNA game. And with that in mind we approach the crux of the Community Games problem from the gamer's perspective. With a few exceptions, the content is, by and large, a waste of time and nowhere near close to realising the potential of the platform.

So, bearing in mind the richness of potential in the tools, what can be done? Perhaps Microsoft should consider opening up the community games portal to match the length and breadth of scope inherent in the iPhone App Store. Why not allow proper internet access? Why not get Google Earth running on Xbox 360? Build a range of must-have free content, not necessarily exclusively games-based, and then you'll enough of an audience so that development of more impressive software could perhaps be financially viable.

As it is, the portal is in desperate need of finding its own distinct identity, simply because the alternatives full retail games and the Live Arcade offer so much more value and enjoyment. Without a unique selling point, better marketing and irresistable content, XBLCG is threatened with extinction, a massive shame bearing in mind the power and the potential of the tools on offer.

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