Bits and pieces of information are appearing from Microsoft about the status of indie developers for the new Xbox One. It seems there is no place any more for anything but the big blockbuster games. If you want to create a new game for the Xbox, you'll need to find a publisher.
News Flash May 30:
Microsoft now says there will be indie support for the Xbox One - but not what or how.
News Flash continued at the end of the article.
With the Xbox 360 Microsoft ran a nice little racket taking $99 per year from any programmer wanting to get a program into Xbox Live Indie Games. For your $99 you got some free development software and the right to run your creations on a retail Xbox - so they sold you the hardware and then asked for money year-on-year to run your own programs on it. This is, of course, a practice that spread to Windows Phone and WinRT apps. In fact it seems to be Microsoft's default approach to programmers - if you want access to your hardware you need to pay us an up-front charge every year.
So much for Developers!, Developers! Developers!.
Even so, if you paid your $99 you stood the chance of getting your creation through a submission process that might then get it into a games store that might mean that you could make some money. Of course even if you didn't Microsoft still had your $99.
This wasn't good but at least, as long as you were prepared to swallow Microsoft's total control of what could be run on an Xbox then you could develop software and run it for real. Now with the Xbox One even this small freedom seems to have been removed.
The full story took a while to dribble out, and it is still possible that there are fragments waiting to be assembled and added. It all started when Eurogamer reported that the EMEA corporate VP said that the Xbox Live Arcade and indie channels were being replaced on Xbox One by a single unified gaming market. This was then later expanded upon by Shacknews and a number of other sources that Matt Booty, general manager at Redmond Game Studios and Platforms, said that indie developers would need to get a publisher - either Microsoft or one of its approved partners.
This sounds bad enough in that it certainly kills off the causal game idea being tried out on a personal machine, but if you put it together with Microsoft's intention not to develop XNA Studio beyond the current version then you can see that this really is the end of casual development on the Xbox. It also seems to provide the answer to the question "what follows XNA Studio" answer "nothing at all" because there is no need for a free games tool if you can't do anything with the games so created.
You might ask why does this matter?
It seems that now the only way you can get a game idea onto the Xbox One will be to make a pitch to Microsoft or one of its partners. You won't have the tools to create a demo so all you can do is storyboard it and outline its qualities in a promo. This is limiting, to say the least, as many the playability of many games only becomes apparent when they are demoed.
The other casualty of the restriction is the pool of young potential programmers who got XNA Studio because they wanted to get a game onto their Xbox. This is a powerful motivation for a beginning programmer and even if it never turns into a hit game the real payoff is in creating a new programming resource for the future, i.e. programmers.
It is shameful and disappointing in the extreme that Microsoft shuts down the Xbox One as an educational tool in this way. Of course, Sony and Nintendo do no such thing and you can create programs for both platforms. Even here, however, there are similar restrictions to access as found in the Xbox 360, but now there are the only option. The closure of Xbox as a development platform may also boost the popularity of lesser, but open, hardware platforms such as the Android-based games machines typified by the OUYA.
No matter how good the Xbox One is in terms of hardware and blockbuster games, a little bit of the old excitement of creating a silly 20-line demo game seems to have gone out of the system.
A sad day - if Microsoft doesn't change its mind.
News Flash May 30:
Microsoft seems to be putting out confusing messages on the Xbox and keeps adding that there is more news to come. This probably means that it realizes its mistake, wants to correct it, but isn't entirely sure how to.
An interview on Kotaku with Microsoft Interactive Entertainment chief Don Mattrick delivers a promise that Microsoft will offer support for independent developers. This seems to take the form of some sort of indie developer program, but more interesting is the comment:
"We're going to give people tools. We're going to give more information."
Tools would be good, but it still leaves open what is going to replace XNA Studio. Microsoft's problem seems to be that XNA Studio is a managed DirectX environment and it wants to drop this to funnel programmers into WinRT. However, XNA Studio is that only way at the moment to create Xbox 360 games and hence presumably a candidate for Xbox One game creation. So one part of Microsoft wants to kill XNA Studio and another part needs it to keep indie developers happy.
Of course Mattrick could be talking about indie programmers that are much bigger than a one-programmer-and-a-dog team and he might not be referring to all of those impressionable young beginners.
The bottom line seems to be that Microsoft recognizes the error but doesn't have a solution. So we have to wait while it works it all out.