The company plans to show off on Monday a new set of developer tools that will let college students, hobbyists and others create their own games for the Xbox 360 console, for a Windows PC or both.
Dubbed XNA Game Studio Express, the free software is expected to be available in beta form by the end of the month, with a final product available sometime this holiday season.
"The tools we are talking about make it way easier to make games than it is today," said Scott Henson, director for platform strategy for Microsoft's game developer group. Microsoft will demonstrate the new software at Gamefest, a company-run show for game developers that takes place in Seattle this week.
The approach is similar to one Microsoft has taken with software development in general, selling its Visual Studio tools to professional programmers while making a more limited "express" version.
Microsoftof its XNA tools for professional developers in March 2005, ahead of the Xbox 360's .
With the hobbyist release, the software giant is hoping to lay the groundwork for what one day will be a thriving network of enthusiasts developing for one another, something akin to a YouTube for games. The company, however, is pretty far from that goal.
In the first incarnation, games developed using the free tools will be available only to like-minded hobbyists, not the Xbox community as a whole. Those who want to develop games will have to pay a $99 fee to be part of a "Creators' Club," a name that is likely to change. Games developed using XNA Game Studio Express will be playable only by others who are part of the club.
Next spring, Microsoft hopes to have a broader set of tools that will allow for games to be created that can then be sold online through Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft will still control which games get published, and it'll get a cut of the revenue.
Down the road, probably three to five years from now, Microsoft hopes to have an open approach, where anyone can publish games, and community response helps separate the hits from the flops.
That would mark a major shift in the gaming world. While people have long been able to create their own PC software, console game titles have historically been created by a far more limited set of developers.
Everyone says they could do better if only they had a chance, says Envisioneering analyst Richard Doherty. Now gamers can match their skills with the pros, he said. "They may not have a popular game, but they can at least try it."
Plus, in creating a new outlet for enthusiasts, Microsoft is looking for one more way of winning the hearts and minds of the hard-core gamer set ahead of the release of Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii, both due later this year.
Sony tried something somewhat similar with the original PlayStation, releasing in limited quantities a $750 add-on kit called the Net Yaroze that let people write their own games.
Part of the impetus for expanding the pool of developers is the growing expense of making major video games. Many games take 18 to 36 months to develop Henson said, meaning big game companies only want to back sure hits. "Future titles look like existing titles," he said. "There's not a lot of branching off and taking risks."
A particular target of the new program is colleges, with Microsoft having signed up 10 universities to use the new software as part of their curricula, some as early as this fall.
Doherty said Microsoft is the biggest beneficiary of the program as the effort both helps tie gamers to the Xbox and potentially leads to new ideas.
"I think some new talent is going to come out of it," Doherty said. "I'm not saying it's going to be 'American Idol.'"