The logo of Microsoft's XNA platform, a framework for writing games in .NET

Why Beginners Should Start with XNA

Today, I watched an interesting discussion on where someone asked why everyone is recommending beginners to start off with XNA and C# whereas the entire gaming industry is based on C/C++.

I would have expected to read something along the lines of

“We recommend XNA because it’s very easy to learn and you will hit the ground running fast. It teaches beginners the kind of thinking required to lay out the logic of a program and doesn’t discourage them by forcing them to write boring console applications for months until they know the semantics of the language well enough to use a graphics library such as SDL, DirectX or OpenGL. Some people may not even want to enter the industry, so C# and XNA is a fine choice for them. Those that do can switch over to C/C++ after they’re fluent in C# and it will be a mostly easy going, incremental learning process.”

Instead, an ugly mess resulted with people firmly stating that .NET/Mono is the way to go for games, that the gaming industry is using it for prototyping, scripting and development tools and that the only reasons for not adopting C# yet are legacy code bases and unwillingness by developers to learn new stuff or to change proven ways. People began dissecting each other’s posts one by one and, well, if you’ve been on the internet some time, you can probably imagine how it turns out.

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The logo of the WiX XNA intaller, a cheap montage of the WiX and XNA logos

WiX Installer for XNA Games

My GameSetupHelper library is making good progress. I was finally able to get some insight into the workings of WiX and Windows Installer.

I’m just about to create a small installer template for XNA games that will automatically check whether the required system components are available (for XNA games, these are DirectX 9.0c with the D3DX library from October 2006, the .NET Framework 2.0 and of course the XNA Framework).

Screenshot of a windows installer GUI showing the .NET/XNA/DirectX detection results

What I’m looking for now is feedback on the installer (you can find a download link for an example .msi at the end of this article).

  • Is the detection working for you?
  • Do you think the presentation is okay?
  • Do the logo bitmaps look abhorrent? (I’d happily accept any contributions *wink*)
  • Would people be scared by the additional slide during setup? (I tried to be honest about what the installer does to your system and at the same time follow MS recommendation to just silently install anything that’s required)
  • Do I violate any licenses with this? (I am including the official redistributables inside the MSI file, which to my understanding is legal)
  • Anything else that you think might be wrong or missing?

I plan to release the sources of this template for free once I’m done. If you absolutely need to get that installer sources NOW, just send me a mail :)

XNA Game Installers

This weekend, I’ve been thinking about ways to create an installer for my game project. For desktop applications, the technology of choice is of course Microsoft Windows Installer, which generates handy .msi files. It also automatically tracks which steps are neccessary to uninstall the application and it has the convenient repair function. However, when it comes to installing the .NET Framework, the DirectX Runtime or the XNA Framework, there seems to be no existing solution for integrating these steps into a single .msi package.

Another option would be to use NSIS, which requires you to write the uninstall actions yourself and also uses a rather cryptic scripting language, but otherwise provides all the features you expect from a modern installer. It even has LZMA compression (known from 7-Zip), which is far superior to the compression ratio of the .cab files embedded in .msi packages.

I couldn’t get my head wrapped around the declarative programming style used by WiX yet, so unless I discover a nice free MSI authoring toolkit that can be in automated builds, I’ll probably go with NSIS.

Well, whatever I’ll choose in the end, I’ve written a small DLL that can detect whether the .NET Framework (1.0/1.1/2.0/3.0) is installed, whether DirectX (9.0) is available, whether the XNA Framework (1.0/1.0 Refresh) is installed and whether the AGEIA PhysX System Software is in place. The DLL is written in pure C++ and doesn’t rely on anything, not even the C++ runtime libraries. It can be interfaced from both NSIS and MSI.

Screenshot of the NUnit GUI running some tests  detecting whether XNA framework is installed

If anyone wants to help create an installer template for XNA games, be welcome!

The Microsoft XNA logo, just the letter xna with the downward slash of the X colored orange

XNA vs Silverlight vs Native Code

If you write a game in Flash, you will have to accept some performance limitations and make some compromises in terms of available technology (eg. no Ageia PhysX or hardware shaders for you). But nearly everybody can play the game right in his browser, dramatically expanding the number of people that see your game.

Now Microsoft is hurling a competitor to Flash at the market: Microsoft Silverlight. It is based on the .NET Compact Framework 3.5 and WPF, which makes it about 1000 times more powerful than Flash. WPF also includes 3D graphics and is way faster than flash, allowing for full-screen animations where flash would slow down to a crawl. It’s being ported to Mono/Linux as well, with the help if none other than Microsoft!

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If your game needs advanced GUI capabilities, CeGui# might just hit the nail on the head for you. Marketese aside, this is a seriously good GUI library with Buttons, ListBoxes, Scrollbars, ProgressBars, Sliders, ComboBoxes and more.

Screenshot of CEGUI# rendering its GUI into an XNA window

Being a port of the well known CeGui C++ library, it is not bound to a single graphics API but can instead be easily extended to run on a multitude of environments. Out of the box, it already provides extensions to be used with: XNA Framework 1.0, Managed DirectX 1.0, SDL.NET and Tao.OpenGL.

The only real problem for XNA developers might be that it does not yet work on the Xbox 360 due to several restrictions in the functionality of the .NET Compact Framework 2.0 that XNA applications have to build against on the Xbox 360.