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The prophesied "death" of Xbox Live Indie - developers respond

"I'm not even annoyed. It's disappointment."

This week, Microsoft let slip that the freely available XNA Game Studio software - the technology behind such delightful games as Fez, Dust: An Elysian Tail and Bastion - is "no longer in active development". That's to say, there are "no plans for future versions of the XNA product", though the publisher will continue to support existing versions across Xbox 360, Windows and Windows Phone.

This struck us as a rather ominous turn of events for Xbox Live Arcade as a whole - besides a set of relatively easy-to-use tools, the XNA environment is a key point of entry for Xbox Live Indie. Unless XNA is being retired in favour of a superior, unannounced alternative, Microsoft's decision not to move forward with it suggests that the Indie channel may not have a future on Xbox. OXM contacted a number of independent developers for their thoughts.

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According to Size Five Games founder Dan Marshall (@DanThat), XNA is "a stunning, beautiful set of tools. They're an absolute delight to work with," he said, "and I'm hugely grateful to Microsoft for all the effort that was put into developing a toolset that allowed hobbyists and curious minds to make games that can be played on a home console.

"It was, and still is, such an incredibly bold and mind-blowing move, and the sort of thing I really think we need to seeing more of from the bigwigs in future."

"That said, it never really got the full support it deserved elsewhere from the Microsoft family," Marshall went on. "Xbox Live Indie Games was sort of shunned, and some (boring, framework-based) key issues weren't properly addressed. My next game The Swindle was initially XNA, but I made the decision some time ago to move away from it because everything had started to trend in a worrying direction. It seems I got out at the right time, I'd hate to be three-quarters of the way through an XNA game right now.

"I'm not even annoyed," he added. "It's disappointment. We need more accessible tools like this in order to keep indies making the sort of amazing games they've been making. Maybe since Unity came onto the scene in such a big way for indies it's not such an issue, but it's such a shame."

Adventures of Shuggy designer David Johnston is also sad to see XNA go, but argues that the writing has been on the wall for a while. "I don't think it's come as a massive surprise to anyone working with XNA that it's being wound down. The support for it has been slipping continually over the past couple of years.

"It's a shame because it was always a great framework to work with. People who used it seemed to really enjoy XNA as you can tell with the #becauseofXNA hash tag that has started appearing on Twitter. It's also launched a few careers (including my own) of people that might not have got the chance to make their game if it weren't for the simplicity of XNA.

"I had already decided that I wouldn't be writing my next game in XNA because it was obviously going to be dropped," Johnston admitted. "However, I've recently started porting Gateways to MacOS using MonoGame and have found it very easy to use. It actually made me reconsider my position because I can see MonoGame taking over from where XNA has left off.

"At the moment assets need to be compiled on Windows using XNA but support is coming for the content pipeline in MonoGame and then it'll be able to stand on its own. Being cross platform makes it even more valuable to me as a developer."

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He's pessimistic as to what this says about Microsoft's community strategy at large. "Clearly XNA isn't going to be used for indie games in the next generation of Xbox. Considering how things have gone with the indie channel it's doubtful there will even be an equivalent on the next Xbox.

"However, if Microsoft introduce some new technology for a new indie channel I can see a lot of people giving it a wide berth. Some great games had relatively poor sales figures and there will be the worry that the new technology will go the same way as XNA in a few years time. I for one won't be rushing to adopt anything new from Microsoft."

OXM spoke to Marshall, Johnston and a number of other leading Arcade developers about the future of Xbox Live Arcade last year. Their comments are worth revisiting, in light of this week's revelations.

Update: Fez programmer Renaud Bédard has chipped in on the debate. "It was expected for a long time," he said of the XNA phase-out. "When Win RT was announced there was a Q&A that mentioned that XNA wouldn't be supported for Metro apps, a clear sign that they would eventually phase it out.

"For Polytron and FEZ it's not a big deal anymore, thanks to MonoGame, which is a crossplatform implementation of XNA's API. FEZ is almost done porting to it, which opens a lot of doors for available platforms and cut off all dependencies to XNA," Bédard added, echoing Johnston. "So it's a bit odd and I'm sad to see it go, but I consider myself and us lucky to have been able to make FEZ a reality using XNA, it's been fun!"

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