Featuring our good friend Matt Davis of Barkers Crest, creator of Easy Golf.
Feature: Xbox Community Games
Sunday, March 29 2009, 06:00 BST
The gaming industry is built on a foundation of hobbyists creating their own games, with many of today’s programmers learning their trade by swapping sleep for long nights of bedroom coding. Whether it was on Atari or Commodore, out of the box computers could code a fully functional video game with (what was then) current generation visuals, gameplay and sound – as long as you knew the language and had a flair for design. While home programming has always been active on personal computers to this day, on consoles it’s become a lost art (Sony’s PS1 Net Yaroze and PS2 Linux kits proved too expensive) and the only way to get a foot in the industry is an expensive trip to university.
XNA Creators Club and Community Games aims to change all that. With just an Xbox 360 and a PC connected to the internet, you can make current generation games and sell them on the Live marketplace. We aren’t just talking about simple Pong clones either; while many developers are focusing on 2D right now, you can create sprawling 3D adventures or first-person shooters without forking out for a pricey development kit. With experience in programming and some homework on the C# language, you could technically make the next Grand Theft Auto.
Take Matt Davis of Barkers Crest, the one-man team behind Easy Golf: Course Architect. “Designing a game with XNA is a dream come true – who would have ever thought a bedroom coder could make game and then publish it on a video game console that wasn’t called Atari?” With no design or development experience, but a degree in Computer Science and experience of the .Net and C# framework, it was enough to create a full-blown golf game complete with online play, a map editor and a host of weather effects that change how each course plays. Aside from the 3D models and music, and a little help from his wife to play test, he did everything himself. “When XNA first released I jumped right in and never looked back.”
He’s not the only one to make the leap into games development; in the four months since the service launched in November, over 200 games have been released in the Community Games section, priced at 200 (£1.70), 400 (£3.40) and 800 (£6.80) points, all with demos to try before you buy. While they aren’t rated by any official advisory board such as the PEGI, every game is subjected to a peer review to ensure no obscene content or game-breaking glitches go through. And like their Live Arcade cousins, they all have screenshots and boxart, and are all available right now through the Game Marketplace.
So what drives someone to make a game? “I’ve played a lot of PC golf games, but the course editors were always time consuming and difficult to use, so I decided to make an editor that allows anyone to create cool looking courses in a matter of hours,” explains Davis. “And the fact that current golf games on the Xbox 360 do not have a course editor made Easy Golf a perfect match for the Community Games channel.” Right now the games on offer on the service vary in quality and type – although there’s a selection of polished and innovative products, there’s an abundance of basic shooters and simple puzzle games, showing that many are learning the ropes when it comes to programming and design – which is what the service is all about.
“Designing a game isn’t easy. It takes a ton of time and effort. As a matter of fact, if you take all of the hours I spent on the game and divided by zero, well, you’d have a giant black hole the size of the moon,” says David, showing that even with his extensive programming experience it’s not a straightforward process. While some of the games are low budget, with scrappy boxart and menu screens, they all have an irresistible indie charm and are all fully working products. It’s not just games on the service either; virtual fireplaces, aquariums, dead pixel tests, and rumble pad back massagers are currently being bought in their droves. As long as it’s bug free and has a purpose, Community Games will have it, and it caters for that budget-priced application drive that currently feeds the iPhone.
So how do the developer and Microsoft benefit? For one, MS picks up part of each sale – based on the price and publicity assigned to it – with up to 70% going to the developer. While the pricing system is flexible, Davis explains a few technicalities: “The only restriction is that games can only be priced at 200 points if the file size is less than 50MB,” he says. “Also, I would have preferred to price Easy Golf at 600 points but that price point was simply just not available.” Although there are various features that aren’t available for games on the service – achievements, leaderboards, and flexible pricing are just a few, Microsoft is listening; it just announced avatar and party play support, as well its third Dream Build Play contest later this year.
“The amount of effort and support Microsoft has put behind Community Games is astounding and it gets better all of the time,” says Davis, who is also impressed with the feedback from players. XNA members can sign up to forums full of eager designers, programmers and artists for help, ideas and recruitment, and with detailed tutorials of making full mini games and technical code to mess around with. Although development is tough, XNA ensures that there is always a tool or member on hand to give you help, and with new games released daily and features rolling out all the time, it’s never been a better time to get involved.
“The learning curve is steep but if you stick with it publishing a game you made on to the Community Game Marketplace is quite a rewarding experience,” says Davis. Whether you are a player or developer, XNA and Community Games is a welcoming and inexpensive way to both make and play games. Be sure to check out some of the many excellent titles made by tomorrow’s future game’s developers – and for as little as 200 points, you’ll be nurturing growing talent and getting a cracking game to boot. How’s that for community spirit?