Earlier this year, Microsoft announced plans to allow small independent developers - even individuals - to put homemade games on Xbox 360 using a new version of XNA Game Studio and the subscription-based XNA Creator's Club. The idea is simple: make a game with XNA, submit it to peer-review, release it on Xbox Live. At the time we were told that a beta test would go on behind the scenes in spring, with a full launch later in 2008.
That beta is now on the verge of beginning, as we found out when we caught up with XNA group general manager Chris Satchell this week. "We always said spring, and we think May is a good time to make sure we've got all the pieces in place for us to record what people do," he told us, with a full launch "by the end of the year". We also spoke about those XNA community games we all got to play in February, XNA on future Xbox platforms and how security sometimes gets in the way of best intentions.
Eurogamer: What specifically will be part of the beta?
Chris Satchell: Well, the beta will be closed - it's for people in the Creator's Club, so it won't be open to everyone on Xbox Live. It will be open to anybody that joins [the Creator's Club], but what we're really trying to test is the full end-to-end process. Can somebody create a game, can they upload it, rate their content, can the community review it. We're going to go through all those stages of build-submit-review-play and make sure that whole pipeline works smoothly, and then also find out how people actually use it.
As a normal consumer, this will go on under the covers, because you'd need to be in the Creator's Club to be able to use it, but if you're in the Creator's Club you'll be able to go to the websites and see what new games there are, get involved in the rankings, and rate the game against the content, and then also when you're on Xbox Live you'll be able to go to a page and see all the games that are coming through and play them all, and really experience what the community's doing.
Eurogamer: At GDC you uploaded a few games so that Xbox Live users could check them out. Are you thinking of doing any more of those bundles to keep interest up?
Chris Satchell: Probably not. It would be great to do, but that was a real kind of one-off special technical case, and we're so focused on making the real pipeline work that we don't really have the resources to go in and do that special case again. And also, I think one of the things we found is that - you probably found this from using it - it was a little contrived to have to go in and do everything.
Eurogamer: Yeah, it felt like a bit of a hack.
Chris Satchell: [Laughs] Funny that! We had to do a bunch of special cases to make that happen, and I think it's well worth it because it's great to get the games out and show people what we're doing, but I don't want that to be the consumer experience and that's not the consumer experience we're planning. We're planning something much smoother and better, so I prefer to put all our efforts into making that great rather than doing another special case that doesn't feel quite right.
Eurogamer: We've heard things about the next generation of Xbox Live - shadowy whispers, etc. Will whatever happens next in terms of the platform be built to incorporate this XNA community stuff from the ground up?
Chris Satchell: Well, there's kind of two parts to it. One, there's the tools - and that's always a core part of our platform, it's something we pride ourselves on. We fully believe - whether it's professional or non-professional - that if you give people the best tools it lets their talent shine. I think that's why you see the best games on our platform. When you look over the portfolio, they tend to be better because we fully believe you enable those people.
Now, in terms of making this community pipeline part of our future, I absolutely think that's the case. I think on an ongoing basis you'll see this idea of democratisation of distribution and a great consumer experience be part of our platform going forward. It's sort of like what I said earlier, where you tried that trial and experienced it and it wasn't quite what you wanted - our future plans are to be streamlined and just make it part of your overall experience, so I think as we move forward with our platforms you'll see XNA - both the toolset and the community distribution, etc - be a core part of that.
Eurogamer: Is there a way to bring independent developers who already have their own methods - making Flash games, making games using X, Y or Z - together with this process to democratise distribution for them as well?
Chris Satchell: It's a little difficult. On the console, understand that one of our key concerns is always security, and that's both security for our publishing partners - we don't want their work being pirated or hacked in any way - and security first and foremost for the gamers - we don't want anything bad to happen to their system.
The core of XNA is, when the games run they run in a sandbox we created, and what we can do then is make it very secure, and we built security from the ground up to make sure there was nothing an XNA Game Studio game could do to the console. So we've got that layer of protection in there and we've put a lot of effort in to try and make that secure and that there are no unintended consequences from running a game.
So that allows us to do the distribution of this community content. The trouble is that if people have built in another system - well, if you take something like Flash, Flash has a Runtime, and if we were to go and take the Runtime and somehow port it to our system, the difference is we architected for our security methods right from the ground up, and other people won't have done that. That's no comment on them - there's no reason why they should have done - but it makes it hard for us to trust any other kind of development system or Runtime because it wasn't designed to be secure in the way ours is.