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Last Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006, 15:31 GMT 16:31 UK
Let's play
Technology commentator Bill Thompson looks forward to programming his own games for the Xbox360.

I used to be a programmer, working for a small software house in Cambridge on the development of a database management system.

Two young men play on an Xbox 360 in the US
Millions play games, but few end up writing the code behind them
I wrote programs in C, running on a multi-user Unix-based system that supported 16 dumb terminals with half a megabyte of main memory and, if I remember correctly, a 10 or 20MB hard drive.

They were happy days, even if the entire office was running from a system less powerful than my swanky new XDA mobile phone, with its 2GB memory card. I still describe myself as a programmer sometimes, mostly when I want people to leave me alone at parties.

Of course it's a long time since I wrote serious code, and these days my programming is largely limited to tweaking other people's PHP or Perl to try to get installations to run. I haven't written a program from scratch for a good five years.

But I've just downloaded half a gigabyte of data from the Microsoft website and installed all the applications, libraries, help and associated material I need to develop my own games for the Xbox360, so I may be about to get sucked back into the development world.

New tools

XNA Game Studio Express, now available as a beta release for people to try out, is aimed at students, hobbyists and anyone who has fancied writing their own computer games.

Bill Thompson
The UK games industry owed its success to the relatively open architecture of the Sinclair Spectrum and tens of thousands of adolescent boys who painstakingly created their own games
Bill Thompson

It's special because although the first release only lets you build working games for a PC, when the final components are available, which should be by the end of the year, I'll be able to write games on my desktop and transfer them over to my son's Xbox 360.

And if we sign up for the XNA Creators Club - which will cost $99 a year - we'll even have a way to let other people play our games over Xbox Live.

Microsoft's game development framework, XNA, has been around since 2004 and gives games developers a working environment that deals with lot of the details of programming, leaving the designers to focus on the trickier and more creative aspects of the job.

Now they are giving those tools to anyone who wants them, and Microsoft is clearly very positive about what this all means.

At the announcement back in August Microsoft executive Peter Moore described this as "our first step of creating a YouTube for videogames". He may well be right.

Talent scout

Some years ago friends of mine shared an office in Cambridge with Zoonami, a small games development company.

I remember being impressed by just how much kit, including special development hardware, they needed to make their games, but now it seems a reasonably-powered PC will do.

Hand at a keyboard
The mysteries of game coding have been hidden away for years
Of course it is a complex system, and you need to be a capable programmer to use it effectively, so some skills are needed. And it is not by any means a short cut to creativity - aspiring developers will need a lot of persistence and skill to create something worthwhile.

But many US-based schools and colleges are signing up to offer XNA-based teaching to their students as they see it as an easy way to give people real expertise with a real programming environment, and we may well see a lot of good games and new ideas coming from those who take up the toolset.

It is not complete yet, of course. The mechanism for integrating content from other applications, like audio and video, won't be ready for a while, and you can't yet run your newly developed games on an actual Xbox 360, either via Xbox Live or by burning a DVD.

But this will come, and the real importance of Game Studio Express is that it provides developers, especially kids who are just getting into programming, with an easy way to get their hands on one of the latest generation of consoles.

New wave

Five years ago Sony offered a Linux port for the PS2 which gave programmers access to the hardware, and it still has an active user community. And you have been able to hack your Xbox to install Linux and run your own programs - voiding your warranty in the process, it should be pointed out - for a while.

Now programmers have a fully-supported system which will let them get their hands on a next-generation console, and the results should be worth watching.

Some will complain that this is not an open source or free software solution, and any games that are developed for the 360 will include Microsoft's proprietary libraries and depend on Microsoft hardware.

But the real importance of the new tools is that they will offer coming generations of games developers the opportunity to explore a real console and learn how to code effective and compelling games.

I am one of those who believes that the UK games industry owed its success to the relatively open architecture of the Sinclair Spectrum, launched in 1982 and seized upon by tens of thousands of spotty adolescent boys who painstakingly copied programs from magazines and then locked themselves away to create their own games.

As most game-playing moved from general purpose computers to specialised consoles from Atari, Nintendo and Sega, culminating in the launch of the PlayStation in 1995, users were locked out from the hardware and fell back to PC gaming, but the general-purpose platform simply could not keep up with the consoles.

Even today there are few interesting Linux games coming out of the free software community.

That could be about to change, especially when Sony offers similar tools for the PS3, as they surely will do now.

Of course I'm a rubbish programmer these days, and probably too old to have any good game ideas that anyone else would be interested in.

It took my son weeks to teach me how to play Halo, and I still find myself looking down at the buttons because I can't remember which is 'B' and which is 'X', so my opponents nearly always manage to frag me.

So far I've managed to use the new system to get a picture of me standing outside the Birmingham Selfridges to bounce around inside a window on screen.

It's not much, as Max didn't hesitate to point out to me, but it is a start. Who knows - by the end of the year perhaps my head will be floating around in an Xbox game.

Fortunately a lot of more talented coders will be doing cool stuff, so I won't have to.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet




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