Earlier this month, Microsoft celebrated the 10th anniversary of the reveal of its ID@Xbox indie game publishing program. Microsoft's efforts have led to over 3,000 games being published for its Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and Xbox Series X consoles from small indie teams.
However, well before ID@Xbox, Microsoft was trying to get people to publish small digital games for its Xbox 360 console. 17 years ago today, on August 30, 2006, the company released the first beta version of its XNA Game Studio Express development tools to the public
XNA Game Studio Express was an extension of the company's XNA game software development platform, which was first announced in March 2004. The platform was supposed to make it easier for game developers to make games that would work on Windows, Xbox, and Windows Mobile devices.
Microsoft also launched Xbox Live Arcade in 2004 for the original Xbox, and it was included with the Xbox 360 when it launched a year later. The company wanted to promote the fact that both consoles could actually let people purchase and download small digital games directly to those consoles, which was a fairly new idea at the time.
However, Microsoft wanted to go a step further and give anyone a chance to make games that could be sold on the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade. So it decided to release XNA Game Studio Express for small teams to make games that could be released for the console.
In Microsoft's initial announcement of XNA Game Studio Express (archive by Wayback Machine), the company stated:
By providing an integrated, seamless development environment based on Visual Studio Express and .NET that simplifies the integration and use of game content, XNA Game Studio Express makes game development easier to accomplish for smaller projects, strongly increasing the chance for great game ideas to make it out of the concept stage and into the hands of gamers everywhere.
The tools even included "starter kits" as templates to quickly make games in specific genres like first person shooters and real-time strategy games. The tools could also be used to make Windows games. but developers who wanted to publish their titles digitally on the Xbox 360 had to join the Microsoft XNA Creator's Club for an annual fee of $99.
After the initial release of XNA Game Studio Express, Microsoft updated the tools several times. It also dumped the "Express" part of the name with the release of XNA Game Studio 2.0 in 2007. Along the way, the updates added features like cross-platform multiplayer support and more. The last update of the tools was released in 2011.
Nathan Fouts, who worked at Insomniac Games, decided to leave the developer to make indie games on his own and used XNA as his platform. In an article he wrote in 2013, he says that a number of popular indie games, including titles like Bastion, Fez, Dust: An Elysian Tail, and Terraria, were first developed, at least in part, by using Microsoft's XNA Game Studio tools.
In February 2013, Microsoft announced it would no longer offer updates for its XNA platform or its XNA Game Studios development tools. It was the end of one era of Microsoft supporting indie developers but it was quickly replaced with the ID@Xbox program later that year, which is still going strong today.
In 2023, indie game developers can access many powerful tools to make PC and consoles games for free or for a very low cost, like Epic's Unreal Engine, Unity, GameMaker, and more. However, Microsoft was one of the first to encourage small teams to make downloadable games with XNA Game Studio. It helped to lead the way to democratize development for anyone who has a passion for making games, and that's no small achievement.