SAN FRANCISCO – Microsoft Corp. said Wednesday it will make Xbox 360 video games developed by players available for download through the console's online service.
The new service will double the size of the Xbox 360 game library, to 1,000 games within a year of its launch, scheduled for this holiday season, the company said.
To distribute a game on the Xbox Live service, game creators must use Microsoft's XNA Game Studio software, which requires a $99 per-year subscription, or be an XNA Creators Club member.
Each game will be vetted for quality and appropriateness by the online community itself.
Creators Club members will be able to test a beta version starting this spring.
In addition, Microsoft announced that game developers also will be able to build games for the software maker's Zune digital media players.
"The time has come for the games industry to open its doors to all game creators, enabling anyone to share their creations with the world," John Schappert, a vice president of gaming at Microsoft, told an audience of about 6,000 game developers at a San Francisco conference.
Microsoft also said this week it will give students free access to its XNA Game Studio 2.0, its video game development program.
The moves to encourage Xbox 360 game development come as the company faces fierce competition from Nintendo Co. and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation in the game console market. Nintendo last year unveiled its own game development tool, called WiiWare.
Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Lazard Capital Markets, said he didn't expect the Xbox download service to appeal to mass-market consumers, but it could encourage independent developers to create Xbox 360 games.
"This would appeal to the more independent developers, people who want to break into the market, and get them started on the Xbox," Sebastian said. "It makes the development and distribution of video games more accessible."
But Microsoft would not say Wednesday whether the downloads would be free, or if the service would generate revenue for game developers.
That's a key detail independent game creator Phil Fish says he wants to know. Fish, who with two others just launched Montreal-based Polytron Corp., has developed a game called "Fez" using XNA software.
He said even with Microsoft's tools, gaming development will never be easy. He hopes to reap $10 per download on his game, using his own Web site.
"I wouldn't like to give a year of work away just because Microsoft allows us to do it," Fish said.
Like musicians who struggle to get discovered by big recording studios, independent game developers traditionally have struggled to prove themselves to a publishing company to get a distribution contract.
The new Xbox download service could create a centralized platform for developers to show off their wares without the contract worries, said Jason DeGroot, also with Polytron. Under Microsoft's plan, developers would still own the rights to the games they post.
"It's about giving independent developers a mass, wide-appeal audience," DeGroot said.
Xbox Live has 10 million subscribers who could potentially play and rate the games.
But DeGroot fears the service could get bombarded with lower-quality games.
"It's not easy to make games. They might be shooting themselves in the foot," DeGroot said.