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Monday, March 05, 2007

Build, Dream, Play ... Maybe

Microsoft has announced a XNA Studio Contest. One lucky winner will get ten grand and an XBLA contract. Some other folks will get some other stuff and not an XBLA contract.

I'm rather mixed on this. I'm never against a company spending to create a groundswell of hobbyist development.

It's just ... well ... I've seen this before. It doesn't really work out the way people think it should. A couple lucky Joes do not sit down with a lot of pluck and time and get a level of attention from professionals to help foster community of like-minded lucky Joes that might actually create a groundswell of hobbyist development. Not just a breakthrough title, but a breakthrough community.

I suppose I should say - it probably won't play out the way I think it should.

See, the thing is - I do have a problem with Microsoft's XNA solution as it stands. Right now it's a development path which is only good for one thing - sharing with other XNA developers. If someone has a 360 and wants to try your game, this is how they have to do it:

# The individual you are planning to share the game with must be logged in to Xbox Live and have an active subscription to the XNA Creators Club
# The receiving user must have downloaded the XNA Framework runtime environment for the Xbox 360
# The receiving user must have XNA Game Studio Express installed on their own development PC
# The game project, including all source and content assets, must be shared with the receiving user. The receiving user then compiles and deploys the game to their Xbox 360.
-- XNA Frequently Asked Questions

So if your friends aren't willing to spend the extra scratch to join into the XNA club (and they aren't) then you're essentially developing this for your own entertainment and the entertainment of other people trying to build a game.

That last part might not be so bad.

Until now.

Now there is money involved. Now there is a contract involved. Now there is a chance to not be a hobbyist but a professional. Why would I want to play your game and give you any feedback on it if it might help you beat me to a license? Heck, why would I bother helping you with any coding if it might help you beat me to a license? Why should I talk to you at all?

For those who are reading this and thinking I'm just reading too darkly into the human condition and I should have faith - I'd responded with ... I've seen it all before.

Epic had the Make Something Unreal Contest which offered a professional license to the Unreal Engine to the winning team. I'm not laying everything here at Epic's feet - they were just the last in a long line of taking modders to the market. The last MSUC was kind of a contained example, though.

There were mod teams with NDA agreements. NDA agreements. I mean - sweet Christ on a stick - how crazy has a community gone when it tries to enforce legal doctrine to keep secrets. Forgetting, of course, that if the first modders had similar notions that virtually no mod team would even get off the ground. The source code to the UnrealScript portion of Unreal Tournament is like reading the leftover scripts of a dozen programmers rushing to a deadline. Largely because it's the leftover scripts of a dozen programmers rushing to a deadline. It's not that it's badly documented it's that it's not documented. Well commented in sections, sure - but if it weren't for people spending hours either bugging Epic for answers (which they often would mercifully give) or simply trial, error and reporting (which they would mercifully share) ... most UnrealScripters would spend so much time getting off the ground that they would never make a deadline.

Now the contest is over. From what I'm told - the Unreal mod community is something of a wasteland. Well, OK, modding in general has turned into something of a wasteland. Like I said - I'm not laying anything at Epic's feet.

So I get why Microsoft is doing this ... but I don't they should. I don't think it will foster the kind of community they would want. Instead - auction off something of value to the whole community. First, fix whatever problems keep XNA devs from sharing their games with just about anyone who has a 360. Second, make a Gold Circle within the XNA Dev Studio and give the winners of this contest access to that Gold Circle. This would give members better access to Microsoft support, development tools and whatnot. Gold Circle members would then be better equipped to share information with everyone else.

And with a community not fiercely divided in a competitive struggle to "be professional" - they would share. And every one would be making the community stronger ... not weaker.

American Idol produces a ton of humorous failures and a couple of stars every year. It does not, however, raise the bar when it comes to talking about singing. This makes it a poor example for game development.

But hey - it's just one ex-modder's opinion on the subject.

Fun Fact! XNA stands for "XNA's Not Acronymed" ... how GNU for you.

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Unknown said...

First up, would you be interested in adding a direct-to-the-leave-a-comment-page link in your post template? I always click on "N comments" (where N = 0, 1, 2, ...) and then the Post a comment link. I'd like to have a post-a-comment link without the intermediary.

Second, aren't you just saying that Microsoft can't build the kind of creative shareware/independent model that Windows enjoys on top of a closed platform with a pay-for-entry developer toolchain and distribution model? Would removing the must-share-everything requirement really remove the barrier to building a community? I mean, communities build up in the Free Software world all the time and everything is given away there too. The little Richard Stallman in my brain says that the real issue is a lack of Freedom.

Josh said...

1) Huh, good idea. I've got to hit the office early and be home early ... might look into it today.

2) Not really because for a change I'd say MS actually has an extremely low cost barrier for entry. The toolkits are free and you pay for support with the 360. You don't even actually need the support, it seems, so you can develop for free as long as you like and then pay $8/mo when you want to try and see your work on your console.

I think it's enough of a barrier, along with all the installation and juggling of software, to distinct between the hobbyist dev and someone just interested in trying out games.

If anyone on Xbox Live could browse anyone they knew ... or any community they knew ... and try out games ... that's a better incentive for people to try and build something than racing for a finish line or trying to beat each other out for a prize (imho).