Notes from the Inside

A post appeared this morning on Hacker News that claims to be from someone inside Microsoft, close to the XBLIG and XNA teams, during the time of launch.  I don’t have any verification that this is true, so read this with a grain of salt, but the author is linked to Brandon Bloom whose resume and blog backs up the claim.  I’ve reposted the entire post here, just incase it should disappear (tin foil hat engaged!).

sigh This is a subject that is dear to my heart: Until recently, I worked on the team that built the XNA Framework, Tools, and Xbox Live Indie Game ecosystem. More specifically, I primarily worked on Visual Studio integration.

Xbox Live Indie games has been an incredible, internal, uphill battle from the start. No one on any of the teams really wanted any of those restrictions, but a lot of factors were conspiring against us.

1) Legal: Indie games went into development long before Apple released the iPhone App Store. There was sooo much fear about allowing arbitrary content out there. There are also privacy concerns (think about people selling Facebook user IDs and stuff; similar things apply to Gamertags) preventing open internet access; specially considering young kids may play Xbox. Startups can “get away with stuff”. Hell, Google and Apple can get away with this stuff. Microsoft can’t, or simply won’t.

2) Security: Full Xbox 360 titles run with full control over the box. Registered developers are trusted fully. This is in part due to simplicity, but also because games are really demanding software that want to avoid kernel call boundaries and other low level performance sucking security measures.

3) Cannibalization: Xbox Live Arcade (professional downloadable games) is big business. Leadership was terrified that people were going to systematically clone all of the best selling games. Hence silly rules like no free games and segregated Top Games listings.

4) Internal support: The XNA team is full of amazingly talented engineers. And amazingly savvy project managers. There are sooo many dependencies that go into XNA, it is simply incredible. Between the various platforms, SDKs, APIs, web services, etc. It could take two full days to just install all the stuff you need to be able to use a dev machine effectively. Such is the pain of working on a product that cross cuts about a dozen different layers of the technology stack; each layer independently written by a team larger than the entire XNA team itself. With so many partner teams, it is a miracle that Indie Games shipped at all.

5) Politics: At Microsoft, success is poisonous. If your team is talented and effective, if your product is sexy and fun — and XNA was certainly all of these things — then every middle manager in the entire damn company wants a piece of your action. We got re-org-ed so many times, I lost count. When XNA 1 launched on Xbox, it was a triumph. Then we spent a ton of time onboarding the latest platform, like Zune or Windows Phone, that management forced down our throats.

There is more, but this post is getting out of hand….


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