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Reflections on XNA

February 5, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next


The end-all, be-all, can't-believe-it's-not-butter part of the whole XNA thing is that you can develop and publish your very own video games to a contemporary, powerful home console. Over the years, there have been pushes towards hobbyist console development, ranging from the XGameStation to the Net Yaroze. But still, nothing comes close to being able to walk into a store, buy an Xbox 360, download some software and start making games on that very system.

Microsoft launched the Community Games channel in November 2008. My company's own Weapon of Choice was a launch title. As can happen with uncharted territory, Microsoft made missteps, such as not having a rating system in place, not sharing sales data till later the next year, and sometimes-poor maintenance of critical sorting lists in the marketplace.

But the entire build it-test it-publish it system worked. Amazingly smoothly too; you develop on your PC and run games right on your retail Xbox 360 using XNA Game Studio.

Even things like the peer review system, while not without hiccups, have shaken down over the years to a fairly well functioning state. It's still a mind-blowing experience to have people across the world playing a game on their TV that you made.

The Xbox Live Indie Games channel did go through changes -- starting, obviously, with its name. The saddest thing was that Microsoft itself seemed frequently internally conflicted about how to handle the platform.

Obviously, an unregulated marketplace will have lower quality and amateur products show up; it's inevitable. But instead of acknowledging the prospect of amateur titles and then pointing to the best games on the channel -- such as Miner Dig Deep, Beat Hazard, Soulcaster, Protect Me Knight, or Breath of Death VII -- Microsoft publicly seemed to ignore the channel. Several Xbox 360 Dashboard updates would seem to further try and hide the XBLIG "problem."

How the games are presented to users greatly impacted what games are popular and played by more people. Problems surrounding these public-facing lists were a big issue when using XBLIG. The Top Downloads list showed what were supposed to be the most popular games. But this list, which users expected would update frequently and consistently to reflect new games arriving, often lagged -- sometimes resulting in stilted game launches.

Initially, sorting methods were limited and finding games was difficult. These are not problems only inherent to XBLIG or XNA, and have since been solved. Now the Xbox dashboard supports a search option and recommendations which increase discoverability of all games. But there were certainly growing pains for XBLIG.

The Allure of TV

The first time I got something rendering on my TV using my Xbox 360 it felt incredible --something magical, arcane, and forbidden. Growing up with Atari, the Sega Master System, and playing Super NES, there was no possible way, no matter how hard you tried, to make your own games for console back then. That dream came true with XNA and XBLIG. Barriers were broken; the smallest independent developer could accomplish the same as the largest, wealthiest publisher, selling a game on a home console.

I can still remember how excited I was to get my first tree drawing on the Xbox.

The particular timing of it all is key. Braid is released in 2008 and Flower follows it in 2009; independent games are suddenly blossoming. Employees were leaving big companies, forming indie studios. For those seeing full-time indie development as possible, now XNA made it an option on a console, not simply for PC.

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Kevin Strickland
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I'm so glad this article exists! XNA was my first time messing around with code and really getting to know how to make software and games. If it weren't for XNA, I don't really think I would know as much about games or be writing about them as much as I do now. Even though XNA was tucked away in a sad little corner, I thank Microsoft for allowing so may people like me to use it freely, even if it was just for learning.

Thanks, Nathan, for taking the time to write this! It really brings back memories!

Matthew Mouras
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Here here! XNA was my first foray into serious games development. I guess it's time to check out MonoGame or Unity, but I will miss the idea of XNA.

Thanks so much for the article. It was a great read.

I've purchased all of "Mommy's Best Games" on XBLIG. What's next for you, Nathan?

Nathan Fouts
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Thanks all, I'm really glad you enjoyed the article. It felt good to look back on how influential the open console platform was for many developers, ourselves included, and how quickly things have changed.

We're still working in XNA, but also Java as we're looking at the Ouya. Obviously our next big game is in XNA and will be on XBLA, which is thrilling. After that, a smaller, strange party game for Ouya, then maybe something bigger. I plan to look at MonoGame as well down the road. Seems like it's still maybe a touch rough, but is shaping up nicely.

Obviously, I really, really hope Microsoft offers some way as open as XBLIG for their next console, and that Sony considers it as well.

Matt Spaulding
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I really hope the next XBOX has an indie section. :(

Bryson Whiteman
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Great read, it really puts things into perspective.

Benjamin Quintero
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Now if only someone with the power to make things happen at Microsoft could actually read this. I'm sure that there are plenty of people on the old XNA team with ideas for XNA 5.0. DirectX 11 support would be a good start, but a good portion of XNA is pretty future-proof.

Tom Spilman
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The core problem is that an official XNA5 would likely be limited to just Microsoft platforms.

IMO i'd rather see Microsoft offer the same open development environment and marketplace on the next Xbox as they do today on Windows 8.

This leaves room for projects like MonoGame ( to support it as well as a bunch of other non-Microsoft platforms.

Chris Oates
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All I want is an officially supported way to make DX games with C# as the primary language and targeting Win8, Xbox and WinPhone. I don't care about other platforms. Whether that's XNA, a new MDX, or something different entirely. SharpDX and MonoGame still seem to be too far away from being fully baked...

R. Hunter Gough
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Great article, Nathan!

Karsten Wysk
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We hope that some XNA developers will like our Delta Engine which is basically the same as XNA plus the ability to develop for all platforms at once (currently Win 8 & WP .. soon Android & iOS etc.)

Brian Anderson
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I moved from DirectX to XNA, and fell in love, guess I'm going back to DirectX :(

Camilo R
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Same thing happened to me but from OpenGL. I learned computer graphics in OpenGL but finished my first small game in XNA and loved it. Back to OpenGL for me, never did like DX syntax.

Jaco Gerber
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XNA was always a bad idea. Don't limit yourself to developing for one company's platforms. Use Monogame, use Unity, use a lower level language - anything but platform-locked solutions.

Adam Bishop
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XNA was a fantastic idea. I had never made a video game in my life (aside from some brief experiments in high school in the 90s) when XBLIG first launched. Several months after learning about XNA I had finished and released a game on the Xbox 360 that was played by thousands of people. That was thrilling for me as an enthusiast and budding developer, it was a great learning experience, it helped me land my current job, and it provided me with an unusual experience that I would never have had anywhere else.

That it was platform locked to Windows systems was irrelevant as I was never interested in releasing games for smartphones and there was no viable path onto any other console. Being able to release games on the 360 and Windows PC with a very low barrier to entry, not to mention the great tools, is a tremendous boon.

Chris Oates
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The problem with Unity is that it is terrible for programmers. Only supporting Y-up, limited ability to actually write code (as opposed to scriipts) and the list goes on. XNA was much much better for game programmers, as opposed to game designers.

Wasin Thonkaew
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Thanks for this.
To be honest, I feel glad that I already moved to another platform creating game around 1 year before it announces. But after reading this article, it takes me back to think about the old day making a game with my old team at University, and opens a whole bunch of opportunities.
Yes, you will be missed.

Kenneth Baird
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I love XNA, and I feel the same way as the author about tinkering on the 360. That mystical magical and horribly expensive world of devkits and derpy debuggers is ours for a hundred bucks!

The reality was not quite so enticing, but the PC builds are no slouch. Garbage collection is rarely a problem for a pc, so you can just be sloppy and get things done quick. Need a fast tool? Fire up a winform next to the xna window. Ludum Dare? No problem.

I suppose ending support means killing the xna redist download link at some point? That will be a sad day, but surely by then Monogame will have the 3D side sorted. (go go monogame!)

Axel Cholewa
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Great article!

Although I haven't finished the game I started with XNA, just making things appear on screen and respond to a controller was a fantastic feeling! Plus, I worked in particle physics and had to use code libraries written by physicists having taking a few C++ introductory courses only. Tens of thousands of classes. After using XNA for the first time, I knew that bad documentation and obscure variable names where not necessary :)

Ignatus Zuk
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Good read, I a specially liked the twitter posts, it feels like someone really close to us died. :)

Thomas Happ
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Like Nathan I'm a professional developer who uses C++ and DirectX for AAA games, but, without question, it's a pain in the butt, whereas XNA cuts through the bull and lets you get to the stuff that matters. It's mind boggling that Microsoft is cutting off their indie support while they're in the midst of being clobbered by platforms that thrive on it.

Nathan Fouts
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Still really excited about playing your game Axiom Verge. Lookin' great!

Daniel Dobson
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Great article Nathan. Well said.

Alexander Jhin
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Moving from DX to MDX to XNA felt like discovering fire and the lever. And now, back to the stone age of DX...

Lars Kokemohr
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XNA being discontinued is just as sad as there not being anything else like it.
The defining aspect of XNA for me was the whole mid-level-concept. You can prototype so easily in XNA, because you get a set of tools (for programmers that is) but not a set of hurdles unlike in full-grown engines like Unity where you get a set of "here-let-me-do-that-for-you-buttons".
I have to admit, I don't have nearly enough experience with Unity to judge that specific engine, but in all my projects with engines I sooner or later encountered the situation where you get stuck because you did not build your project from the ground level but jumped onto a construct that you couldn't know in the beginning and that might or might not fit perfectly.

If you ask me, the number one risk in game developlment is using a toolset that does not really fit your needs. 99% of your tasks will be easier than without a toolset but the last percent might eat up that saved time or even break your back.
XNA offeres less help (no built-in culling, no built-in animations etc.) but on the good side you do not have to rely on black-box code.