How MonoGame is bringing more indie developers to Xbox One

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.

ARMED for Windows Phone

ARMED for Windows Phone

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 (opens in new tab) 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.


Ty the Tasmanian Tiger

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger

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

Towerfall Ascension

Towerfall: Ascension

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).

Skulls of the Shogun

Skulls of the Shogun

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

Axiom verge

Axiom Verge

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.

Raining Blobs

Raining Blobs

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.

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley

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.

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!

  • It is sad that MS decided to not focus on indie devs from the start. It is good that they are catching up but as Paul said, still way behind Sony for this generation. Truely mind boggling when you think about XBLA and the awesome indie games they helped bring to life.
  • MS made a bunch of ill advised decisions this generation and that's why they're getting clobbered. I remember Xbox fanboys saying ps4 had no games, just indies which no one wanted, and now look where the discussion is at lol
  • Love to see more indies
  • Bring them to wp
  • Great interview with developers insights!
  • Great read, interesting behind the scenes details on indie gaming.
  • Why was XNA abandoned? Why is it so good that indie developers want to use it nowadays? :(
  • XNA was a "managed runtime" for game development.  Basically a .Net for games. (Think like Java.) Why was it abandoned? Well, I'd love to see an expose sometime, but as a complete outsider who's read lots of claimed inside info, it looks like the problem was that Steven Sinofsky was literally the worst guy who could have been put in charge of Windows at the time Windows 8 was being developed. There was a war of sorts between the developer tools group, which had been working on managed code approaches like .Net and offshoots like Silverlight and XNA, and Sinofsky's windows dev group that pushed for native code. We ended up with the WinRT runtime which by all accounts is very much like the managed Silverlight API which was on WP 7.x but was directly incompatible for political reasons, and focused on native, rather than managed code. So at the time where Windows was being pushed for divergent hardware platforms (e.g. ARM for Surface RT/WP 8.0, x86 for Surface Pro and PCs), instead of having a managed code (.net, Silverlight,XNA) approach that allowed for a single app to run across platforms, we needed custom compiled apps. Or the shorter answer is that MS threw away whatever they had to chase some ephemeral potential gain and are now trying to walk back from that decision.  So SOP.
  • i hate replying to my own post, but I've love to see either a confirmation or retort to this blog which influenced my perspectives on the whole Win 8.0 situation:
  • This is exactly what happened. It's the "native code mafia".
  • Thats just wrong. WinRT supports native (C/C++) as well as manged (C#) development, very similar to .Net/CLI. The more interesting question is, why is WinRT so different to .Net/CLI+WPF? In any case, if you develop native, you need to compile for all processor architectures. However that is not an issue, as Microsoft provides both ARM and x86 compilers such that you always getting both binaries. This was true for Windows 8.1...for Windows 10 you cannot compile for ARM anymore.
  • more windowsphone support is all i want to see
  • No more indies. We want more games with better graphics and gameplay
  • Not a great response at all.
  • Why? Cause I think a console with the power of Xbox One deserve better games?
  • No. It's because your reply was stupid. Indie devs aren't going to start making AAA games with cutting edge graphics.
  • No... We want to have fun. Doesn't matter if it is a free game with 8-bit graphics or a triple A title with a billion dollar development budget. We want to have fun.
  • Personally If I want to have 8-bit action on my home I can connect my Sega Master System again and have fun. These games ruin Xbox One and PS4 cause we pay much money for a console with great power and graphics, better than older consoles and 6 out of 10 games are indies. Νο. Enough with these indies. I just want to have fun with a game that is really build for Xbox One and not 8-bit cartoon indies
  • Personally If I want to have 8-bit action on my home I can connect my Sega Master System again and have fun. These games ruin Xbox One and PS4 cause we pay much money for a console with great power and graphics, better than older consoles and 6 out of 10 games are indies. Νο. Enough with these indies. I just want to have fun with a game that is really build for Xbox One and not 8-bit cartoon indies
  • Okay, I rather use one system for all.
  • Or emulator :D
  • Or, you know... On my Xbox One..? Which can do it?
  • If you mean emulator on Xbox One if all apps be available through Windows Store there are plenty of emulators that can be available through Xbox One. Or else you can play on your computer with these emulators. Till then we wait
  • This doesn't even have to be a discussion. We want to have fun. That is why we have consoles. That means everything from indie to AAA.
  • Sorry, dude. Alex Ridd wants us to have less games. He wants people like the person this story is about and countless other game developers to be out of a job. One person has narrow tastes, so we all have to suffer. Oh well.
  • Empathy? You should be more kind mr Paul. Its not bad for people have different thoughts than you. And if you think you are suffer from comments like mine then you can block me from your articles. And looks like you can't disagree with me with the thing I told you in other comment (about xbox one power and indies) so you talk about empathy?
  • Just because you don't like something and have narrow tastes, that doesn't mean everyone else should be the same. You should understand that other people like different things than you, and that's okay. And it definitely doesn't mean game developers should cater to your whims.
  • Yes. Because I don't like something and because WC have the comments I can write and share my thoughts with others. Even if we disagree it doesn't matter. But if you think I have empathy just look at yourself and look at these games and think: Should I pay 300-400 bucks for Xbox One, the next generation console, with the great processors and ram and blah blah just to play the games you have in the photo of the article? I am sure you will think where I am right in this. So think about empathy
  • Yes, you should. Now please stop commenting on this story. You have nothing of value to add to the discussion about this article's topic.
  • Shame on you pal...
  • You can write and share your thoughts and we can criticize them for being stupid.
  • Apparently this is the case unfortunately. I remember a time when graphics had nothing to do with the entertainment value of a game.
  • Many thanks to Tom for giving us this interview and for the MonoGame team in helping bring more indie titles to the Xbox One!
  • great video saw it on youtube a few days ago.
  • "(eventually) Wii U" Really? They're going to push forward with Wii U support when it's essentially dead? OR do you mean it just came much later (and is now available)? This is cool, seeing so many Microsoft-helping tools for software/game development, be it MonoGame, Xamarin, or the UWP. It's hard for me to get excited about indie stuff, though. It's a moderate leap of faith purchase to support an unknown developer, especially with the abundance of quality titles from well-known teams now. I feel like I can't get around to the major releases I want to play, let alone open up my wallet for a lot of unknowns. Still, I like when developers get a chance, because that's how you establish those major development teams.
  • Very good and informative interview. Thanks Paul!
  • How MonoGame is bringing more indie developers to Xbox One... and W10/M?... fail MS, fail. with the low incentive that gives MS, the store will continue as poor as ever  
  • More action on the roads games plz racing with a twist