A million little game developers … blessed by Microsoft?

I’ve been giving Microsoft a hard time about its wasting Xbox Live Arcade’s potential. Today the company made an announcement that could — if Microsoft somehow manages to avoid being its closed, monopolistic self — be one of the most significant in video game history. Or it might just be hype.

Here’s the deal: Microsoft says it essentially wants to democratize video game development the way cheap PCs and equipment have started to revolutionize music and TV production. The company wants to make it much easier and cheaper to make video games and make these amateurs’ experiments accessible to any gamer — a kind of YouTube for video games. To that end, the company is releasing a free program (or set of programs) called XNA Game Studio Express that greatly simplifies game development and will let people share, via Xbox Live Arcade, games they make with the program.

It sounds like a great idea. But don’t throw out your Bill Gates voodoo doll just yet. As best I can tell from parsing a number of stories about this, here’s how it’ll actually work:

— Anyone can download XNA Game Studio Express for free. Creating games on PC and releasing them on PC will be free, according to GameSpot.
— But to put those games on the Xbox 360 from PC, you’ll have to pay $100 to join the Microsoft Creators Club.
— To play other people’s amateur games on the Xbox 360, you’ll have to pay the same $100. You can’t share games with regular Xbox Live users, only fellow Creators Club members. (1up’s Luke Smith suggests a workaround where you email your game file to a friend — but if they want to transfer it from PC to Xbox 360 they’d still presumably have to have paid the $100.)
— You can’t sell games created with Game Studio Express.
— The games aren’t going to be wowzers. The New York Times’ Robert Levine puts it this way: “Programs created with XNA Game Studio Express will not look as good as most packaged titles.” Microsoft honcho Peter Moore says only “rudimentary” games are possible, according to IGN.
— A more advanced version of XNA Game Studio will be released in the spring. The professional version will allow game makers to sell via Xbox Live. Joystiq quotes a Microsoft official saying they’re “looking at a price point of absolutely under $1000” — which probably means $999.

It’s a long way from all that to this vision from Microsoft’s Scott Henson:

“In the future — we don’t have a specific time frame — we envision investing in the infrastructure to create a friction-free distribution environment very similar to what you see with YouTube. You’ve got these really cheap accessible tools, now wouldn’t it be really cool if you had a way to share this stuff with people online, potentially sell it in time to people online, and what if we, Microsoft, created the platform and the distribution mechanism as a part of the Xbox Live service so you could do that. So our vision and our ambition is to actually create a community-powered arcade.”

It sounds good. But there are a zillion details left out. Of all those stories I linked to above, only 1up’s Smith actually questions Microsoft’s PR push:

Who will own the software? If one considers how rigid Microsoft’s certification process is right now for Live, how will it change when users are uploading games to that space? What about viruses and potential hacks? What if another platform holder likes what a user is creating on Xbox Live and decides they want to publish the game?

Is Microsoft really aiming for a YouTube model, where anyone can put up anything? Or a Google video model, where anyone can sell anything for however much they want (including nothing)? If either is a goal, why not immediately open Xbox Live Arcade up to the thousands of amateur game developers who don’t need XNA Game Studio Express — the thousands who already have amateur games of their own that I’m sure they’d be thrilled to put on Xbox Live.If people can share their PC games without paying the $100 fee, how do they do that? Via email? Or posting them on a blog? Can’t they already do this? As Smith points out, what if PopCap games or Yahoo games somehow finds one of these games and buys it? How does Microsoft prevent people from selling games they create with the Express program? Or does the selling prohibition just refer to selling on Xbox Live Arcade?

The New York Times story says

“Microsoft will not own any rights to products created with these tools,” but is the company really going to be that hands-off and altruistic? Is the goal just to create a massive minor league of developers that they can poach from, a la the Lonely Island guys and Saturday Night Live? To entice people to pony up $100 a year to play all these amateur games, or to sign up for Xbox Live Arcade once they become available outside the Creators Club? How will Microsoft make enough money to support a much-more data-intensive version of YouTube?

I’d like to think Microsoft hasn’t answered these questions because the idea is relatively new and they just want to get these tools into as many hands as possible. But the company has earned exactly zero benefit of the doubt. So until I’m convinced otherwise — and especially after reading all the unquestioning coverage — I have to wonder whether this utopian vision is just marketing hype. I hope this turns out to be a turning point. But I won’t be holding my breath.

— August 14, 2006

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