During GDC this year, Microsoft announced that important game development tool MonoGame would support Xbox One. XNA-based games like Axiom Verge (and many other popular indies) need MonoGame to work. We spoke to Tom Spilman of Sickhead games, stewards of MonoGame and creators of classic Windows game ARMED, to learn about MonoGame's Xbox One progress, UWP development, and much more.
It started with ARMED For Windows Phone
We met Tom Spilman, programmer and co-owner of Sickhead Games, when his Dallas-based studio released ARMED on Windows Phone way back in 2011. ARMED is a competitive real-time strategy game with intuitive touch-based controls and online multiplayer. Compared to Xbox-enabled Windows Phone games of the time, Sickhead's game featured far more graphical polish and advanced online features.
Sickhead chose to develop ARMED for Windows Phone first because the platform was new. If the platform succeeded, Sickhead's game would be on the cutting edge of smartphone platforms. Things didn't work out that way, sadly, as Windows Phone has struggled with market share over time.
Next Sickhead ported ARMED to Windows 8 and 10 (using MonoGame) and began work on an iOS version as well. But sales of the Windows versions began to stall, so they shelved the iOS version. ARMED is still available on Windows Phone for $2.49 and on Windows 10 for free with in-app purchases.
In hindsight, Tom feels they could have done a lot more to promote ARMED. "Marketing is ninety percent of selling games," he learned. Indie developers like Sickhead often narrowly focus on making a good game in hopes that it will sell based solely on quality. But seeing that ARMED didn't take off as well as it should have, Spilman and co will put more energy into marketing their future games.
After making ARMED, Sickhead Games created an application for museums called Be the Astronaut, which Tom describes as a "multigame space simulator." The studio has also assisted with the porting of Escape Goat 2, TowerFall: Ascension, Dust: An Elysian Tale, and Axiom Verge to PlayStation 4, as well as the Vita version of Octodad: Dadliest Catch. But Xbox gamers will be most excited about Sickhead's MonoGame project and the games it will bring to Xbox One.
What's MonoGame? Before we talk about that, let's look at XNA. Microsoft XNA is a freeware set of tools created for Xbox 360 game development (and later Windows Phone) in 2006. All Xbox Live Indie Games for Xbox 360 were developed with XNA. Active development of the XNA platform itself ended at the beginning of 2013, but the tools still exist and are used by some indie game developers to this day.
MonoGame was created in 2009 (initially as XNA Touch) to facilitate the porting of XNA games to other platforms. The MonoGame framework allows games written developed with XNA to be ported to Windows 10, PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Android, iOS, Linux, and (eventually) Wii U. Many games that were initially developed for Xbox 360 (or by Xbox 360 developers) are now available on other systems thanks to MonoGame.
Using MonoGame to convert ARMED to Windows 8 and 10 sparked an interest in Tom. In 2014, he and Steve Williams (an Australian developer who worked on games like Full House Poker and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger) took over stewardship of the MonoGame project from Dominique Louis and Dean Ellis. Since then, Tom and his team have worked to improve MonoGame, bring it to more platforms, and assist with the porting of XNA games to those platforms.
Xbox One versus PlayStation 4: Indie game support
The Xbox One is no slouch in the indie games department, but it lags behind the PlayStation 4 in the sheer number of indie games available. Part of that can be attributed to console sales, but the PS4's indie dominance really started with Sony's indie outreach at the beginning of this console generation.
After the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced in 2013, Tom's team approached Microsoft and Sony about bringing the MonoGame framework to the new consoles. Spilman recalls that the Xbox crew liked MonoGame and its Windows support, but "at the time, their priority was not on getting indie titles to the [Xbox One] platform."
Sony had the opposite reaction. During the PlayStation 3 era, Sony had relatively limited indie support. Tom believes that the PlayStation 4 team saw that deficiency and chose to rectify things this time out. It took a few months to hear from Sony after the initial pitch, but the callback eventually came. Sony wanted the MonoGame team to assist with porting the arena combat game TowerFall from the ill-fated Ouya console to the PlayStation 4 (where it became known as TowerFall: Ascension).
With MonoGame support for PlayStation 4 secured, Sony reached out to the developers of numerous games made with Microsoft XNA, a set of tools created for Xbox 360 and Windows Phone development. This initiated a wave of XNA game ports for Sony's console, including Bastion, Axiom Verge, Skulls of the Shogun, Salt and Sanctuary, and many more. Sony had these indies lined up before the PlayStation 4 even shipped, whereas Microsoft chose not to focus on indie recruitment at that time.
Thankfully, Microsoft eventually changed gears on its indie gaming focus. After the Xbox One's first year of release, the Xbox team has pushed its ID@Xbox initiative much harder. "I think they're starting to get back into [indie outreach], and you're going to see a bunch of indie titles show up on Xbox One soon," Tom predicts. Again, the Xbox One already has lots of great indie games. But gamers always want more, and MonoGame will help facilitate that.
MonoGame for Xbox One
Earlier this year at GDC, Microsoft finally announced that MonoGame support would be coming to Xbox One. Much like Sony did for the PlayStation 4, Microsoft contracted the MonoGame team to implement that Xbox One support. Bringing MonoGame to new platforms is a tremendous amount of work for a very small team, so financial support from the console manufacturers really helps.
The first announced Xbox One to use MonoGame is Axiom Verge, a fantastic sci-fi Metroidvania-style platformer that features NES-like 8-bit graphics. Axiom Verge was developed by a single person, Tom Happ, using XNA. Spilman and his team have been instrumental in bringing the game to Xbox One – it should arrive later this year.
Other Xbox One games that use MonoGame are in development as well. Raining Blobs, a Steam (and former Windows Phone) puzzle game that resembles Puyo Puyo crossed with Puzzle Fighter, will hopefully make the trip to Xbox in the next few months. More titles developed with MonoGame are in development, including the much-loved Stardew Valley and several unannounced big-name indies already available on PlayStation 4.
Raining Blobs will be a Universal Windows Platform (UWP) title as well. The UWP allows a developer to create and deploy games to his or her Xbox One without being an approved developer. UWP titles receive less CPU, GPU, and memory access than natively developed titles.
The UWP developer can then apply to become approved. If successful, that game can then receive Xbox Live integration and be officially launched for sale on Xbox One. The alternative game development path, native development, provides greater access to system resources but is only available to developers who are already approved by Microsoft. MonoGame works with both UWP and native-level Xbox One titles.
Axiom Verge is already playable on Xbox One, although still in development. Does that mean that MonoGame for Xbox One is fully ready to go? Basically, yes. "We have the initial port that has the core features that are used by almost every game," Spilman reveals. There will still be cases in which games require features that MonoGame doesn't support yet, though. When that happens, the MonoGame team will do what it always does: work to implement those features so that the title can be fully ported over. "It's really done in an indie sort of way," Tom admits.
Tom's team will continue to invite indie developers to port their games to Xbox One using MonoGame. That means more unique and interesting indie games for Xbox One, so MonoGame support is a win for bother gamers and developers.