Community Games Feature: Introduction

When the New Xbox Experience became available for download last month, it caused a lot of excitement. Instead of just a small update with new tweaks here and the Microsoft completely changed the dashboard interface. A lot of people where excited about many of the new features, such as the Avatars, the new party system, and the ability to install a game to the HDD. Many video game blogs and websites reported on the new functionality while ignoring a new aspect to the interface, the Xbox Live Community Games.

There are websites out there that will try to blame the lack of coverage on this new feature due to some of the games being very low in quality. I guess if the only game you’ve played on the service is the horrible A Kitchen Sink Wars, you might think that is true. You might also have to contact a proctologist to help remove your head from your lower intestine, but yeah I can see why some people would think that way. Unfortunately the Community Games was just released at the completely the wrong time. We’re in one of the biggest Fall seasons in video game history and I don’t know about the rest of you but these last few months have been pretty demanding on my wallet with big title releases like Fallout 3, Fable 2, Gears of War 2, and on and on. Plus the New Xbox Experience had so much little stuff to play around with that it was easy for the Community Games to get lost in the shuffle. Had the Community Games been part of last years Fall dashboard update it would’ve stood out a lot more.

So there hasn’t been too much coverage of the Community Games. Even right here on DiehardGameFAN. Let’s try to fix that.

If you just picked up an Xbox system this year, or just don’t know much about where the Community Games even come from, let’s go over a quick history of XNA.

What is XNA and what does it have to do with the Community Games? XNA is a set of tools that are meant to help make video game development and management easier. It’s a framework and a natural evolution of the .NET Compact Framework. Essentially it allows access to specific libraries and utilities to make the development of these games between the 360 and PC a smoother experience. XNA has gone through some improvements over the last few years, but it wasn’t until the DreamBuildPlay competition of 2007 that more attention was paid to XNA. Part of that attention was gained due to the fact that some of the games where playable on Xbox Live for a short period of time, and of the games featured there was a short playable demo of a game that I’m STILL waiting to be released to Xbox Live Arcade: The Dishwasher.

This demonstration proved that with a little bit of effort independent developers could use the XNA toolset and create some really unique but really great games. During the 2007 contest many of the games were offered Xbox Live Arcade contracts since at that time there was not a distribution model for playing the Community Created games over Xbox Live. Finally, there is such a distribution model.

Not that just anyone can create a Community Game. The XNA toolset is just that, a framework to make things easier, however it is not a cut and paste style game creation tool. You will need to have at the very least a basic understanding of using the C# programming language. Microsoft has provided some useful instructions on their Beginner Developer User Centerotherwise if this is something that interests you then it would be good to find some related books on the subject or check out websites such as Programmer’s Heaven C# Book.

Personally as a kid I always wanted to create a video game. I remember back when I was in grade school I used a program called HyperCard to make a point and click adventure game where zombie rabbits where trying to take over a shopping mall. With XNA I could read up on the C# language and actually make that game again, and distribute it to a mass of uninterested people on Xbox Live. How much does the XNA and Visual C# Express Edition cost to get started? Nothing. There is a cost to subscribe to the XNA Creator’s Club ($49 for 4 months, $99 for a year), but you can download the tools and start creating at no cost right away. The XNA subscription is necessary for peer reviews and to submit your completed game to Xbox Live however.

While it’s largely being ignored at the moment, I believe the Community Games to be one of the most important steps for the Xbox Live service. Between XNA and Xbox Live Microsoft is providing a service to help members of the community to develop their own games and then distribute them. Look at the PC scene, while some people believe the PC game scene is dying off, the independent development community for the PC is stronger than ever, with titles like N+ starting off as a free PC game then becoming a game released to multiple systems.

There are some downsides to the Community Games however.

The games are offered at three different price ranges 200 points, 400 points, and 800 points. This is great because for the price of the average Xbox Live game you might be able to purchase multiple community games. That’s not a problem. However Community Games also do not have any official Xbox Achievements to unlock, or Xbox Live leaderboards.

Several Developers have found ways around this with many offering Trophies, Goals, Accomplishments, etc. These all give reasons to keep playing the game, occasionally in ways you might not have thought of. Unlocking these do not add to your gamerscore however, and there will be people out there who will have an issue with that.

Some have found unique ways around leaderboards. Snake360 for example will give a code for your score, which you can then go to the official website for the game and enter the code so you can enter your name on a high score list. There are other interesting ways that developers gave gotten around this issue, such as the developers for Biology Battle, which have a working top score list through using P2P technology.

The demos for all of the Community Games are restricted to 4 minutes. There are some games where you can tell right away that they’re very good quality, or the opposite, but there are a couple of games on the service that the time limit really hurts. Audiball is one such game; by the time you get the hang of the game the demo expires.

Also for any of the Community Games you need to be connected to Xbox Live in order to access them. This is not really a problem for me since due to more than one system failing I need to be connected to Live to access most of my Arcade games as well since I’m too lazy to spend time trying to figure out how to transfer the licenses over to my newer Xbox.

That said there are a number of great games on the Community Games service, as well as some truly horrible games that should be avoided at all costs. Over the next couple of days we’ll be going over some of the best and worse of the Community Games from different genres as well as hearing from some of the developers of the Community Games. Please check out the first part of the series and stay with us all week as we look deeper into the Community Games.

If you are more interested in finding out more information about XNA, or Community games, make sure to check out the official XNA website. Also check out a feature from Official Xbox Magazine where an editor attempted to create a game and has some great information. We will have an interview later this week with Paul Hudson who wrote about the Community Games service for OXM and who actually completed a game that is available on the Community Games service. Also check out XNAplay for up to date information and brief information about the different Community Games.

Part 1:
The Action/Adventure Genre
Interview with Weapon of Choice creator Nathan Fouts

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