Compared to all the love that Nintendo has been getting for innovating in terms of how we interact with our games, both Microsoft and Sony have been accused of not innovating enough to provide for a compelling reason to purchase either platform simply to get prettier versions of yesteryear's games.
Certainly, Live is a huge innovation on Microsoft's part, but an old one that has existed since the original XBox (yes, it wansn't the first online console, but it was the best implementation (and still is)). But it still seemed like it fell short a bit by not allowing for far greater possibilities, namely, user generated content (community created games). This was the first thing that I thought about when I read about XNA before the XBox 360 launched.
Well it seems like Microsoft is going a step further by releasing a free version of XNA (much like the Express versions of SQL Server and Visual Studio):
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.
Nice! This is quite awesome as it opens up the home console to anyone with a few dollars and the ability to write code. In itself, this is quite an innovative concept in the cosole gaming arena (it's been done on the web in the form of Flash games for years now), but it will surely also lead to innovative games and gameplay concepts as it will allow quirky, oddball ideas to flourish which would otherwise flounder in today's mass market games development.
Certainly, my feeling is that the ratio of good games to bad will be very low, but even if 1 in 10 is a keeper, I think it'll be an amazing success and offer a much greater variety of gameplay aside from FPS style games which XBox 360 is known for ("Bald Space Marine" syndrome) at an affordable price which will likely draw in a larger audience.
It will be interesting to see how Microsoft handles the various issues and questions that arise from this and how they build the marketplace to sell these user created games (or are they free?). Will users be charged for the distribution of the games (to help pay for bandwidth and hosting)?
Regardless of the details, it's a ground breaking innovation in the area of console gaming and hopefully, it'll bring into the fold a new generation of console games developers who have the freedom (not constrained by big budget funding) and desire (not forced to program shitty games to put food on the table) to create new gaming experiences.