The end-all, be-all, can't-believe-it's-not-butter part of the whole XNA thing is that you can develop and publish your very own video games to a contemporary, powerful home console. Over the years, there have been pushes towards hobbyist console development, ranging from the XGameStation to the Net Yaroze. But still, nothing comes close to being able to walk into a store, buy an Xbox 360, download some software and start making games on that very system.
Microsoft launched the Community Games channel in November 2008. My company's own Weapon of Choice was a launch title. As can happen with uncharted territory, Microsoft made missteps, such as not having a rating system in place, not sharing sales data till later the next year, and sometimes-poor maintenance of critical sorting lists in the marketplace.
But the entire build it-test it-publish it system worked. Amazingly smoothly too; you develop on your PC and run games right on your retail Xbox 360 using XNA Game Studio.
Even things like the peer review system, while not without hiccups, have shaken down over the years to a fairly well functioning state. It's still a mind-blowing experience to have people across the world playing a game on their TV that you made.
The Xbox Live Indie Games channel did go through changes -- starting, obviously, with its name. The saddest thing was that Microsoft itself seemed frequently internally conflicted about how to handle the platform.
Obviously, an unregulated marketplace will have lower quality and amateur products show up; it's inevitable. But instead of acknowledging the prospect of amateur titles and then pointing to the best games on the channel -- such as Miner Dig Deep, Beat Hazard, Soulcaster, Protect Me Knight, or Breath of Death VII -- Microsoft publicly seemed to ignore the channel. Several Xbox 360 Dashboard updates would seem to further try and hide the XBLIG "problem."
How the games are presented to users greatly impacted what games are popular and played by more people. Problems surrounding these public-facing lists were a big issue when using XBLIG. The Top Downloads list showed what were supposed to be the most popular games. But this list, which users expected would update frequently and consistently to reflect new games arriving, often lagged -- sometimes resulting in stilted game launches.
Initially, sorting methods were limited and finding games was difficult. These are not problems only inherent to XBLIG or XNA, and have since been solved. Now the Xbox dashboard supports a search option and recommendations which increase discoverability of all games. But there were certainly growing pains for XBLIG.
The Allure of TV
The first time I got something rendering on my TV using my Xbox 360 it felt incredible --something magical, arcane, and forbidden. Growing up with Atari, the Sega Master System, and playing Super NES, there was no possible way, no matter how hard you tried, to make your own games for console back then. That dream came true with XNA and XBLIG. Barriers were broken; the smallest independent developer could accomplish the same as the largest, wealthiest publisher, selling a game on a home console.
I can still remember how excited I was to get my first tree drawing on the Xbox.
The particular timing of it all is key. Braid is released in 2008 and Flower follows it in 2009; independent games are suddenly blossoming. Employees were leaving big companies, forming indie studios. For those seeing full-time indie development as possible, now XNA made it an option on a console, not simply for PC.