Talking on the eve of its Gamefest event in Seattle, Microsoft has revealed XNA Game Studio Express, a new product which will allow indie developers and students to develop simultaneously on Xbox 360 and PC, and share their games to others in a new Xbox 360 'Creators Club'.
The details of the new tech are as follows: XNA Game Studio Express will be available for free to anyone with a Windows XP-based PC, and will provide them with what's described as "Microsoft's next-generation platform for game development." In addition, by joining a "creators club" for an annual subscription fee of $99, users will be able to build, test and share their games on Xbox 360, as well as access a wealth of materials to help speed the game development progress.
[UPDATE - Further information on the new XNA product has been released by Microsoft as part of an official XNA FAQ, including plenty of specific details on how and when the service will debut, and what pre-requisites to game sharing and collaboration are included.]
In an official statement related to this major announcement, Microsoft suggested that the new product "...will democratize game development by delivering the necessary tools to hobbyists, students, indie developers and studios alike to help them bring their creative game ideas to life while nurturing game development talent, collaboration and sharing that will benefit the entire industry."
The games created with XNA Game Studio Express will not initially be available to regular Xbox 360 users, but a longer-term goal is to create a less restricted distribution market using Xbox Live - the company has commented that "Eventually, you’ll be able to distribute that code to other Xbox 360s, opening up a unique publishing avenue which will democratize game development on consoles."
In the meantime, a second XNA toolset named Game Studio Professional, originally scheduled tentatively for an early 2006 release, is now due in spring 2007, and is intended to cater more directly to professionals aiming for Windows and XBLA game releases.
Microsoft has enlisted the help of several partners for this major announcement - indie publisher/developer GarageGames, technology provider and creator of Marble Blast Ultra, has migrated both its Torque Shader Engine and new Torque Game Builder 2-D visual game designer over to the XNA Game Studio Express platform, and Autodesk announced that game developers and enthusiasts can now more easily incorporate content into XNA Game Studio Express via Autodesk's FBX file exchange format.
In addition, more than 10 universities and their game development schools — including University of Southern California, Georgia Tech College of Computing and Southern Methodist University Guildhall — have already pledged to integrate console game development and XNA Game Studio Express into their curricula for the first time, and Xbox 360 will be the only console at the center of all coursework.
The XNA Game Studio Express beta will be available Aug. 30, 2006, as a free download on Windows XP, for development on the Windows XP platform. The final version of XNA Game Studio Express will be available this holiday season.
Microsoft's general manager of the Game Developer Group, Chris Satchell, commented on this major announcement: "By unlocking retail Xbox 360 consoles for community-created games, we are ushering in a new era of cross-platform games based on the XNA platform. We are looking forward to the day when all the resulting talent-sharing and creativity transforms into a thriving community of user-created games on Xbox 360."
[UPDATE 2 - 08/14/06, 10.29pm PST - added link to XNA FAQ, further information on universality of user-created games.]