February 16th, 2007, 05:02 Posted By: Talvish
A couple of days ago the site Pensive Gamer explored Homebrew on the Wii. Today it continues with the XBox 360:
As a company, Microsoft's success is partially attributed to its support of the developer community. So when Bill Gates saw a modded original Xbox it seems appropriate that he was curious how homebrew developers could be engaged.
In August 2006 Microsoft's answer came with the announcement of the free development tool XNA Game Studio Express and the subscription-based XNA Creators Club.
Released in December, this is the only mechanism to do legitimate homebrew on the Xbox 360. Unlike the PS3 and Wii a web browser is not available. Until Microsoft believes people really want a browser and Microsoft is comfortable with the security implications, a browser won't come.
Unlike like the other console makers, however, Microsoft has built and continues to build infrastructure, tools and marketing programs around their homebrew platform.
The XNA Strategy
The enabling technology for Microsoft's homebrew strategy is the XNA Framework and its Common Language Runtime. In a nutshell, the framework provides APIs to access features of the Xbox 360, and the CLR is the sandbox/operating environment applications run on.
For amateur game developers there is plenty to like about Microsoft's strategy:
So what has been created so far? There are emulators for the NES and ZX Spectrum, third party development tools, and of course people are building various games.
- The tools are free and allow you to build applications for Windows and the Xbox 360.
- There is plenty of information on the Internet and at Microsoft's developer site.
- Your code runs on the 360's standard operating system and allows remote debugging.
- The framework gives you access to much of the console's abilities including 3D graphics acceleration, audio, private storage and rummblable controllers.
While the XNA strategy is starting strong, improvements and changes are needed in order to gain mass market appeal.
First, some examples of minor annoyances ... 3D sound is not supported and Achievements cannot be dished out. The lack of 3D sound support is odd considering the betas had it. The lack of achievements, however, is understandable. They require coordination with Microsoft to integrate with Live, let alone malcontents would artificially inflate their Gamerscores.
Higher on the missing features list is the lack of networking support. Without it you cannot create networked games or full media centers. The Microsoft XNA FAQ states networking support is actively being worked on. It is unclear if this is a new Live-oriented API or if they are going to enable the .NET Framework's existing API. I'm hoping for both. But Microsoft will want to attempt to prevent applications from accidentally or purposefully attacking Live or other machines.
The biggest impediments to mass market homebrew, however, are the need to spend $99 US on an annual subscription (or $49 US for four months) and the requirement to share and compile source code in order to use a homebrew application. This is undoubtedly a situation of testing the waters. After all they have a lot of customers to consider. By customers, I mean:
Essentially we are in the early stages of a longer term strategy. I equate this to how Microsoft approached Xbox Live in 2002. We are witnessing the developer-oriented first homebrew step. I'm hoping Microsoft's second step is both broader from an audience standpoint, and deeper from a technical standpoint. Let's see what they reveal at GDC.
- The homebrew app writer who wants to create anything they can think of.
- The mass market homebrew app user who wants to use a homebrew app without compilation, worrying about security, and paying for the privilege of homebrew.
- The existing publishers and developers who probably want to minimize competition from free applications and won't pay for dev kits, tools, etc, if full featured alternatives are freely available.
- Microsoft itself, who wants to support a development community but minimize the impact on the customer support team from users of homebrew applications. This is on top of Microsoft's need to manage the situation should any of the above groups get particularly unhappy.
Bottom-line: Unlike the other consoles makers, Microsoft is attempting to ensure the homebrew experience is part of Xbox 360 proper. The potential is strong but the mass market showstoppers include the need to purchase an annual subscription and the need to compile the source code of the application. Undoubtedly Microsoft will address this. Hopefully they will address it soon.
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