Game, set, develop

An entry-level game developer kit from Microsoft could help Canadian university students make the leap from part-time programmer to development professional.

The XNA Game Studio Express, a Windows-based game creation package designed for the Xbox 360 gaming console, will be available as a beta later this month. A full version should be ready by the end of the year as a free download with a US$99 annual fee to share and test the games online.

XNA Express was designed by Microsoft to allow hobbyists and amateur programmers to create their own games cheaply but has also attracted the interest of several Canadian universities. Among them are the University of Waterloo and the University of Western Ontario. Both are planning to make XNA Express a part of their curriculum starting as early as this fall.

UWO, in London, Ont., was already planning to offer games development as a degree minor, said Mike Katchabaw, an assistant professor in the department of computer science. The university was looking for a suitable development platform when Microsoft serendipitously came to the forefront with its XNA suite.

“We wanted to find something that was very exciting, very interesting for the students and we were having a hard time,” said Katchabaw. “Then we heard from Microsoft, saying, ‘This is what we’re going to be announcing in a couple of weeks, do you want on board?’”

Katchabaw said UWO will use XNA Express as a means to port an older game that the university created to the 360 environment and also to allow students to create new games.

Katchabaw envisions a team of students working on a single game, breaking down the development tasks into different areas like graphics rendering, content integration and artificial intelligence.

“We want to approximate as close to an actual game studio as possible,” he said.

Glenn Stillar, director of the Canadian Centre of Cultural Innovation, at the University of Waterloo, Ont., plans to deploy XNA Express in his own department. Stillar said he will focus on the basic building blocks of game design but also other elements like narrative and the more cinematic aspects of gaming, like how to produce cut scenes (a short movie that stitches one game level to the next).

At only US$99.00, XNA is a relatively small investment, said Stillar. The university had looked at other 3D development suites like Maya, but they were prohibitively expensive.

“We like the democratizing angle on this,” said Stillar.

Students from UWO and Waterloo will own any intellectual property that results from their game classes. Both Stillar and Katchabaw suggest there could be development jobs waiting for them when they graduate – or opportunities for them to start new companies of their own.

Demand for developers in the gaming industry is rising, said Daniel Shapiro, academic program manager at Microsoft Canada, and development studios are continually scouring universities for new talent.

“(XNA) is opening up what we hope will be interest from new students – individuals who maybe didn’t consider joining the IT industry in the past but can now see what’s possible,” he said. “Game development is a phenomenal way to teach computer science.”

Big Blue Bubble Inc., a game development house based in London, Ont., has hired students from both UWO and Waterloo, according to its CEO Damir Slogar.

But, said Slogar, pre-packaged solutions like XNA will only take a student so far. Graduates with the best job prospects are those who pursue development projects outside their university careers and focus on the fundamentals.

Slogar said it’s important for them to have skills outside any single development platform and have the necessarily grounding in programming, mathematics and physics.

“In our experience, those are the students that actually have the best results when they start working here,” he said.

XNA is “very nice . . . but who knows if it’s going to be applicable to anything they’re going to do two years from now?”

Big Blue Bubble is one of the local developers that Katchabaw consulted when putting together his curriculum for games development. He said the university is committing to XNA since its affordable, but also because its one of the few products of its kind on the market.

Katchabaw said he would entertain developer kits from Sony and Nintendo but “they’ve got bigger things on their plate right now trying to roll out their own next-generation consoles.”

The Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii console aren’t expected to hit the market for months.

Stillar said he hopes XNA Express will have applications beyond pure gaming. “I think that technology could be used for an awful lot of things from designing learning modules to various kinds of simulations. We’re hoping that there’s a lingua franca that can develop out of XNA,” he said.

A number of universities in the U.S. have also expressed an interest in XNA, including the University of Southern California. A second version of XNA will be released next year, one geared to professionals that are already working in the market.


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