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Microsoft today pledged to bring Xbox 360 programming to the masses, but ordinary folk will have to wait until the end of this month to get their hands on the tools they'll need to get coding for the console. Professionals will get a version in Spring 2007, the software giant said.

Microsoft will ship a pre-release beta version of XNA Game Studio Express on 30 August. The software will be be free, and runs on Windows XP. There's a catch: to test code on an Xbox 360, users will have to cough up $99 a year to join Microsoft's XNA users group, an online forum that will provide documentation and a game-sharing facility to allow other users to test unfinished titles. The software can also be used to create Windows XP games, Microsoft said.

Of course, XBA Game Studio simply allows game creators to program code and then build in audio and visual content into a final, playable game. Developers will still need a range of other, third-party tools and, in some cases, middleware.

The final version of XNA Game Studio Express will be available this coming Christmas, with the pro-oriented version following three or four months down the line from that.

To date, console development has largely been closed to individuals and smaller software developers, largely because of the cost of acquiring console vendors' software development kits. The difficulties of CD-only distribution - let alone cartridge production - have also hindered amateur console game creation. Connected consoles finally allow a route for small-scale developers to offer their work.

While XNA Games Studio Express may not generate many top-tier games, it will make possible a variety of lesser titles of the kind computer users are well used to downloading as freeware or shareware.

Indeed, it's this kind of arena Microsoft is undoubtedly hoping to establish, the better to attract games to its console family and associated online services. There are plenty of folk out there put off buying a console because of the cost of commercial games. The presence of a range of more basic, but cheaper titles might just be what's needed to encourage them to start console gaming. ®

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