Making Homemade Video Games Just Got Easier

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, which is releasing a new program called XNA that will allow users to play homemade games on XBox consoles. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jason Killingsworth, Paste Magazine editor, discusses XNA, a new Microsoft product that enables users to build original video game content that can then be rendered to play on XBox game consoles.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So in a lot of ways, the Internet cuts out the middleman. Right? Musicians can now make music on their own, sell it straight to fans without record labels. Authors can write books and sell them online independently without publishers, and people can express themselves through blogs, cutting out the middleman in the form of that pesky editor, Trish McKinney.

Now in the world of video-game design, new software is aiming to open up the process to indie game developers who have traditionally been on the outside of this little bubble. But don't count the middleman out entirely quite yet. There's some money to be made. Here to explain is Jason Killingsworth, Paste Magazine's Deputy Editor and Games Editor. Hey, Jason.

Mr. JASON KILLINGSWORTH (Deputy Editor, Games Editor, Paste Magazine): Hey, how are you doing?

MARTIN: I'm doing fine. Thanks for joining us. So the first product we want to talk about is Microsoft's new software. It's called Xna, and this is not an acronym, right? It's just Xna.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Right, yeah, it's just Xna.

MARTIN: It's just - they don't need an explanation.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Is that like DNA? Is that the deal?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: You know, I guess. I don't know any - I can't think right off of many words besides xylophone that start with X.

PESCA: It's just, throw an X in everything. Make it cool.

MARTIN: It makes it high tech. Jason, how does this software work? Let's walk through the process of how this works.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Right. Well, they made the Xna, the initial release of Xna, 1.0, was made available in December of 2006. So it's been around for a little while, but they just released an update, so 2.0 is out now. And you can download the program for free, and it runs on your PC, and it basically provides you with a tool set for designing video games.

And you know, you still have to have a basic understanding of writing code and programming, but it just makes little things here and there easier and more straightforward to save you time and just be more efficient in the ways that these developers are working.

MARTIN: And these, I mean, kind of the exciting part about this is that, as a game developer, you now have the opportunity to make your product. Maybe you've been making them before, but now you can get them to the point where people can play them on their actual Xboxes, right, not just a PC?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Right. That's one of the most exciting things for the game developers themselves because you have to realize that these developers, you know, when they were, I don't know, in fourth and fifth grade, they weren't, you know, sitting there on their - you know, on their PCs.

They were playing "Super Mario Bros," and "Tetris," and you know, "The Legend of Zelda," and some of these, you know, really classic eight-bit Nintendo games that have, you know, become these huge worldwide franchises. So, the idea of creating something and actually getting to, you know, hold a game controller in your hand when you play it instead of just tapping on the keyboard is hugely enticing and exciting for these developers.

MARTIN: I mean, it's been written - we saw in some of the research that this is like, if you're in our world, if you're a journalist and you have your first story on NPR or you see your byline in the New York Times, as an indie game developer, if you have your first game on Xbox, that's a big deal, right?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. It's huge. I mean, you were talking about distribution in the intro and that's been a huge hurdle for a lot of these, you know, small developers, you know, single developers or small teams of two or three developers. And you know, there haven't been that many different channels to get your games out into the world.

I mean, people have been, you know, the indie games community has been just thriving, and it's been growing all the time, but now you're finally starting to see these ways to reach millions instead of just a few people who happen to stumble across this site on the Internet where they're being made available.

MARTIN: So millions of people could potentially be downloading these. Clearly somebody is making a little money off this situation, right?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. You know, right now Microsoft Xbox Live Service has ten million users around the world. So, you know, in the fall when they finally - right now with the Xna program you can develop the games, play them on your own Xbox, but you can't make them available to the whole Xbox Live community just yet.

So, that's coming in later this year. But once you can, you know, anybody who's using the Xbox Live Service, which has a subscription fee can get these games, and then the games will, you know, have a small price tag as well, but then it's available to the whole community, and of course, Xbox and Microsoft is going to take a little bit of a cut there.

MARTIN: So, describe to us, Jason, what are some of the nuts and bolts of this new software? What are some of the tools that indie game developers are going to get from this that they didn't have access to before?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Well, you know, one of the things is the physics engine aspect of game development. If you have a game where, you know, a character is jumping in the air, or you know, is throwing Chinese stars as ninja or something like that, you have to have physics in that game world that it's going to reflect, give you some sense of real life.

So, you sort of take that for granted when you're playing a game like "Tetris." You're like, oh, well, the gravity makes the blocks fall. Well, you know, you have to - the game designer has to create that gravity inside the game, so with the Xna system there - even though there isn't a built-in physics engine, there's been a physics engine developed by a guy named Jeff Webber of Farseer Games that you can download for free and pull into the toolsets he used in the game.

So, that's one thing that normally a developer would have to either write their own physics engine or go to, you know, a really - you know, a very well-established company that designs these huge engines. For the indie developer, that's a huge advantage. And also just things like controller inputs.

You know, to be able to map the controller to the game so that when you hit the A button, you know, your bazooka goes off, and you hit the B button, and you do some huge acrobatic leap in the air. You know, having that already worked into the program where you don't have to write the code to get all the...

MARTIN: It's very important to have the bazookas go off on time. That frustrates me when I play.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. You know, you don't want to hit the button to hit an alien, and then, you know, have that be like the self-destruct button and all of a sudden your head blows up.

MARTIN: So, what I thought was interesting about this particularly was that as part of this new push by Microsoft, they're really trying to cultivate a new generation of stars in this industry, right? Specifically, there's this guy James Silva who's this up-and-coming indie game developer. They're trying to create more of James Silvas. Describe who this young man is.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: James Silva is a developer from Utica, New York, and he actually - he designed this gamed called "Dishwasher: Dead Samurai."

MARTIN: Which sounds awesome.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. I know. You want to buy it all ready.

MARTIN: I do.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: And he won - Microsoft came up with this contest called Dream, Build, Play, and it was a way to start getting people interested in the XNA service, and he actually was one of two sort of winners who shared the grand prize from the first Dream, Build, Play contest.

And at this past February's game developers' conference, he really was sort of brought out on stage at the Microsoft keynote and, you know, put out there as sort of this new rock star, basically, of indie game design, and it was funny, you know, because everyone on the stage was wearing, you know, all the Microsoft execs had on their suits and ties and were looking super professional, and then out strolls James wearing like a hoodie sweatshirt, you know, and jeans...

MARTIN: Looking all indie.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, but this is like the new MySpace artist of indie game development.

PESCA: But do you think he wants to be an indie gamer? or he'd rather just get gobbled up for a couple hundred-thousand dollars by one of the established gaming companies if he's so good?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. You know, I talked to him about that actually, and he said he's - he really enjoys, you know, kind of the small-shop feel of it. And, you know, these huge developers, Activision, who make great games, "Call of Duty 4," "Guitar Hero," they have enormous teams that are working on these games.

And so I think it depends on what you want. I mean, some people want, you know - to use the musician analogy again, some artists want to be in a huge band with - you know, where there are 20 instruments, you know, something like the Polyphonic Spree. And then some people just want to be a singer-songwriter and they want to have, you know, just control over every aspect of the sound.

MARTIN: It sounds - I mean, this is clearly similar to what's happened in music, right? With editing software and Pro-Tools. Is there - do you see a large trend here in gaming and media in general?

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, this is just starting to happen in the gaming world, but I mean, as you mentioned, this is something that, you know, the Internet has sort of blown wide open. The means of distribution have been handed to you and me, and you know, and the guy next door.

You know, we can get online, set up a blog in two seconds, and you know, be writing for a potential worldwide audience. And you know, it's happened in every media, you know, with iTunes and other websites like that. You can record a CD in your basement and all of a sudden, you know, put it out into the world without even getting a CD press.

MARTIN: Well, until they come up with software that's basically the "Dummies' Guide" to creating a video game, I still probably am not capable enough.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: Well, it's funny that you say that because there, you know, Xna, you have to have the programming background, but there are other people who are designing these game development tools who want to lower the bar even further.

MARTIN: "Sims Carnival"!

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: "Sims Carnival," yeah.

MARTIN: Yup. Electric Arts is doing the "Sims Carnival" thing. I'm going to look into that, because you know, I might have an inner-designer inside me that wants to develop video games. Hey, Jason...

PESCA: Let them out.

MARTIN: Yeah. Let them out. Jason Killingsworth, Paste Magazine's deputy editor and games editor. Jason, we appreciate you being with us today. Thank you.

Mr. KILLINGSWORTH: It was a pleasure. Thanks a lot.

PESCA: I have some sad news. We meant to hang up on Jason. We wound up setting off a bazooka instead. Our bad.

MARTIN: Oh, shoot!

PESCA: Yeah. Should have pressed B. Next up on the show, the patented segment called the Assisted Listen where sometimes we talk you through an artist. What we're going to this time is talk you through an entire genre of music. It's called go-go music. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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