Microsoft today made good on a nearly three-year-old promise, unlocking the ability for all retail Xbox One consoles to become development kits free of charge.
Xbox Dev Mode is available starting today as a preview and will be finalized as a full release this summer. The mode will allow anyone to build, test and experiment with Universal Windows Program (UWP) development. Converting a console to Dev Mode requires no special equipment or fees, though to fully access the abilities, a user will need to create a Dev Center account for $19.
"Now the Xbox isn't just for playing, but also for creating awesome content," said Chris Charla, director of ID@Xbox. "We're excited to open the Xbox One to everyone so anyone can get started developing."
While the preview of Dev Mode is available to anyone now, Charla stressed that most people should wait until its full release later this summer.
"You might run into issues now," he said.
The preview only offers access to 448 MB of the Xbox One's 8 GB of RAM. When Dev Mode comes out of preview, Charla said, developers will have access to the full 1 GB of RAM supported for UWP Xbox games.
"It's also a preview," he added. "And we want to be able to test things still in the preview."
Dev Mode Demo
In a short demonstration over Skype earlier this week, Charla showed how easy it is to switch a retail Xbox One into one that can be used for testing UWP apps and games.
First, a user has to download the Dev Mode activation app from the Xbox Games Store. Launching the app kicks off a welcome screen and a link to documentation that details what to expect when you switch over from retail to a dev kit, as well as the requirements.
The requirements include that you:
- Join the Windows Insider Program
- Are running Windows 10 on your PC
- Have a wired connection to your PC from your Xbox One
- Install the latest Visual Studio 2015 and Windows builds
- Have at least 30 GB of storage free on your console
The introduction also warns that once you've converted your console over, you may occasionally run into issues running retail games. In addition, the introduction says, leaving Dev Mode will require resetting your console to its factory settings and uninstalling all of your games, apps and content.
Upon agreeing, you're given a code that can be entered on your computer once you sign into your Dev Center account. The activation can take awhile and usually requires updating your console. Once it's complete, the console restarts and returns you to your standard startup screen.
"It doesn't take a lot of time to switch to Dev Mode," Charla said as he took me through the process on Microsoft's remote console.
After setting up Dev Mode, a user simply pairs their Xbox One with Visual Studio, which sees the console as a Windows 10 machine to which it can deploy content directly through a wired connection.
"When a UWP app is running, it doesn't know it's running on an Xbox," Charla said. "It just knows it's a Windows 10 device."
Charla demonstrated this by launching a little flight game created using Unity.
"You don't have to do a lot of extra stuff to get a game to run on Xbox One," he said. "There is no specific Xbox API for Unity. You can do some things with screen resolution, but really you don't have to do much."
The space shooter game, Charla said, was created with Visual Studio Community — free software from Microsoft — and developed on a personal copy of Unity, which you can download for free and which doesn't have any Xbox-specific code.
"To us it's very important to be able to do that," Charla said. "We really see this as an amazing solution, especially for hobbyists, students, anyone who wants to get started with games."
A three-year promise
The move to make every console a dev kit was a long time in coming.
Microsoft first announced its plans to take a less restrictive approach to publishing games on Xbox One back in 2013, the year of the console's debut.
At the time, Marc Whitten, then the corporate vice president of Xbox, said that the company's plan to allow every Xbox One to become a development kit would mean self-publishing.
Whitten called the plan a "vision" and said the dev kit feature wouldn't be available at launch, but that it would likely arrive during the console's first year.
Charla told Polygon that the feature took longer to roll out than expected because it was tied to so many different things.
"The reality is that we had to do a lot of work on the back end to get to this point," he said. "We had to have Windows 10 running on Xbox One, which happened just this fall. We needed Dev Center support for Xbox One and some new services and tools to get on board before we could make this happen."
While the idea of self-publishing on Xbox One is sort of being realized with the ability to turn any console into a dev kit, the logistics of getting that self-created game onto the console are still pretty limiting.
Developers will still rely on the existing ID@Xbox system in place for getting their games onto the console.
That means that a developer will have to go through Microsoft's concept approval, which usually takes about two weeks, before the game is eligible to be published on Xbox One.
Games will still have to go through Xbox concept approval
"Concept approval is a process that every game that releases on Xbox One goes through to ensure that the games hit technical quality standards and are appropriate for Xbox One," Charla said. "We're not looking to be censors and we're excited to enable a broad range of experiences so that when players turn on their Xbox One, they have access to the most diverse portfolio of games possible."
If a game isn't approved for release on Xbox One, the developer is still able to release their creation on the Windows Store, he added. "If they want to use Xbox Live on Windows, or release a game on Xbox One, they can work with ID@Xbox to enable Xbox Live for their title or bring it to Xbox One."
If a game is approved for the console, developers will have to sign a contract with Microsoft, which includes a "standard platform royalty that everyone charges," Charla said.
"If a developer has a game that they want to publish, they apply to ID@Xbox, tell us about the game, and once the concept is approved we sign a contract," he said. "Then as they get closer, we help them out getting through certification. We also do promotion of the game at events like what we had at GDC, where we invite a lot of press."
The big change here is that traditionally, Microsoft had to give a hopeful developer a dev kit. Now a developer can just switch over their own retail console.
In allowing any Xbox One to become a dev kit, Microsoft is unlocking the floodgates to game development, but at the same time, the company is still using a restrictive system, in which Microsoft is the gatekeeper, to allow those games on the console.
The result feels almost like this new mode for the console creates an inherent conflict in Microsoft's approach to indie games, but Charla says that's not the case.
"We're excited to enable anyone to start experimenting with development using UWP and to test those experiences in the living room on their Xbox One," he said. "At the same time, for any game that ships on Xbox One, we have a promise to our players that games will hit certain standards. For all games on Xbox One, we require things such as appropriate age and content ratings and concept approval. This ensures that games hit technical quality and content standards that Xbox audiences expect. This is part of our promise to Xbox One consumers. We're not looking to be censors, and if you look at the Xbox One and Xbox 360 libraries, you can see examples of the broad range of content we're excited to see on Xbox One."
Apps, not just games
The new system, while likely to draw a lot more attention to indie games on Xbox One, isn't just for game development. Because apps doesn't need content approval and the ratings are automated, the process to create a universal app that will work on consoles and computers will be slightly easier. And Microsoft does expect to see a wave of non-gaming apps come to the console. The company is just not sure what sorts of things they may be.
While some facets of UWP have received criticism from at least one well-known developer, Microsoft believes that those concerns will be addressed and that the universal approach to game making will help spur a new renaissance in game development.
"UWP is really cool for a bunch of reasons," Charla said. "It's cool that you can make this game on Windows and then have it run on an Xbox and ship it on Windows. We think that people are going to be excited to develop a game and experiment in the living room.
"I'm old-school," Charla continued. "I remember back in the hobbyist days when magazines would list programs out in BASIC and you would type them into your computer. That era created some of the greatest game makers in history. We can hearken back to that now. If you have a PC, you can now make PC games and play them on your Xbox. I think we're going to help jump-start a whole generation of developers."
Update: Switching between Dev Mode and retail mode requires a console restart. Leaving the Dev Mode Preview program entirely will require resetting your console to its factory settings and uninstalling all of your games, apps and content.