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Microsoft debuts new cloud-based tools targeting indie game developers

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Microsoft’s Game Stack products.

Microsoft wants more indie game developers to use its cloud services with the debut of a new suite of cloud-based tools called [email protected]

The program, announced as part of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, is intended to help “game creators and publishers learn how to adopt, develop, operate, and grow their games with cloud services,” Xbox exec Sarah Bond wrote in a blog post.

Microsoft has also launched what it calls the Azure Game Development Virtual Machine, which comes preloaded with game dev programs such as the Unreal Engine, Visual Studio, Blender, Incredibuild, and Perforce.

In theory, with a decent internet connection, the Virtual Machine lets a team set up common tools, drivers, and SDKs on a usable cloud server, then pipe into that server with whatever computers they happen to have lying around using Parsec‘s remote access tech.

You’d theoretically be able to build high-end games on low-end computers via the cloud, without needing to have expensive and/or specialized hardware on hand. It would also mean that every member of a distributed team would have equal access to the same tools, regardless of their individual budget or physical location.

Bond noted that the pandemic forced studios to rethink how game development work gets done.

“We’ve learned quite a bit in that time and believe that by shifting game production to the cloud, studios large and small benefit from rich collaboration and greater workflow automation even across vast distances,” she wrote.

The [email protected] program works along similar lines. It’s been in a closed beta at Microsoft since December, and is now generally available. The goal of the program is to help independent developers leverage Microsoft’s cloud services to assist their production process.

Members of the [email protected] program receive up to $5,000 in Azure credits, with $500 available initially; access to the Azure PlayFab toolset for building and operating live game services, such as multiplayer; and direct support from Microsoft, including a weekly video call with the Azure team.

The TLDR on this announcement is that small studios without much of a budget now have the option of throwing money at Microsoft to receive a leg up via software-as-a-service.

Microsoft previously made a lot of inroads into the indie gaming community via [email protected], which had made over $1.5 billion for developers by August 2020. That led to some substantial, albeit relatively low-profile success for the initiative, with over 2,000 games published since the program started in 2014. (Notably, [email protected] games typically aren’t Xbox exclusives; the 2000th [email protected] game, Swimsanity, is available for everything with buttons.) In theory, [email protected] is positioned to achieve similar results in a different environment.

For the average Xbox owner, this could theoretically lead to another bumper crop of indie games coming to the platform in the next few years, many if not all of which would be playable via cloud gaming.

[Errata, 9:25 AM: Clarification on the goal of [email protected]]

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