Microsoft’s Developer Mode for the new Xbox Series S and X offers some excellent and exciting features. It’s a must for users wishing to get into writing their own games.

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I’m an IT professional by trade, but I didn’t always want to be in IT. I never really liked computers to begin with because I didn’t grow up with them. I just kind of got into IT because I was decent at resolving issues, and it sort of blossomed into a career. 

SEE: Everything you need to know about using low-code platforms (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

As far back as the mid- to late-1980s, I loved video games! To me, there was nothing better or more fun. While I didn’t have any clue about my future career then, I always wanted to do something in or revolving around video games. Fast forward to 1998 when my IT career path began and, while I still loved gaming, I thought the only real-ish possibility for me would be as a programmer or game developer. There was only one little problem—I dislike programming. I respect it, but I’m horrible at it.

Microsoft has now introduced a Developer Mode for the next-gen Xbox Series S and X consoles, which allows gamers and developers of all skill levels to code and play their own games. By leveraging the technological advancements available to gamers today and the Xbox’s high-end hardware, there is now a path forward for anyone interested in trying their hands at game development right from the comfort of their homes. 

To my current self, this is an amazingly versatile and worthwhile tool for any coder—fledgling or otherwise—to take control of their destiny. From the ’80s version of my own perspective, this is a mind-blowing game-changer that was unheard of until the late 1990s when Sony released the first of its all-black PlayStation consoles with development kit functionality, the Net Yaroze. A great effort, but in 1996, the price of entry for the console and required computer were far out of many a young gamer’s reach.

SEE: PS5 vs Xbox Series X: Why I’m not buying the PlayStation 5 (TechRepublic)

Nowadays, gaming and computing, in general, are so mainstream and ubiquitous that the price of entry has been lowered to drastic levels of affordability, and gamers already have most of the requirements available to them to get started writing their first game. And who knows? This could possibly even jumpstart a career so that the gamers of today could be the star developers of tomorrow. The next Shigeru Miyamoto, Hideo Kojima, or John Carmack could be you!

Write your own games

This is why Developer Mode was created in the first place: To allow programmers to register with Microsoft’s Developer Account program to obtain access to unlocking the Developer Mode on their Xbox to begin designing games. It also allows for those games to be uploaded to the Microsoft Store where other gamers will be able to access wares—and purchase them—to play on their consoles. While Developer Mode will not write games for you (you didn’t think it was going to be that easy), it certainly goes a long way to removing many obstacles in the way to give you a solid devkit to work on your games and a path toward publishing them independently.

Emulate this, emulate that

If you haven’t heard by now, the next-gen Xbox consoles pack some pretty serious hardware. Akin to that found in custom-built PCs, the added horsepower under the hood makes not only for a capable video game console but also allows for added performance when emulating older hardware. More specifically, previous generations of gaming hardware, meaning just about any console from the 32-bit era and before works nicely given the boost in hardware. This doesn’t mean everything will work perfectly or be 100% compatible because hiccups are to be expected, but as with anything technology-related—especially newly released products—eventually, developers will work out the bugs to offer a smoother gaming experience.

SEE: Xbox Series X restock: Where and how to buy the next-gen gaming system (TechRepublic)

Sideloading applications

By enabling Developer Mode, the option to sideload third-party applications becomes available as an optional setting that must be set to allow remote access. When enabled, the Xbox Device Portal allows using a web browser to communicate directly with the console to upload packages that will install as an application on the device, allowing users to run any number of applications developed by themselves or other trusted programmers. Just like with a computer, installing apps will allow for added functionality, but the sideload option also opens the door to vast testing and collaboration between developers. It’s vastly promising and largely unheard of outside of performing unauthorized or illegal modifications to your console’s internal security.

Software limitations

Apps written to the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) are limited to accessing individual files that are a maximum of 2GB. Anything exceeding the max is not permitted and may cause issues when developing your games or UWP-based apps. Also, limits on the amount of memory that is addressable by UWP apps and games when running in the foreground are 1GB and 5GB respectively. Background apps have a limit of 128MB, but games exceeding the allowed size will be suspended and terminated. Exceeding memory limits can affect memory allocation and lead to errors.

Hardware limitations

The allocation of hardware resources varies depending on whether an app or game is requesting the resources. It breaks down as follows, as stated within Microsoft’s official documentation:

Apps: Share of two to four CPU cores depending on the number of apps and games running on the system.
Games: Four exclusive and two shared CPU cores.

Apps: Share of 45% of the GPU depending on the number of apps and games running on the system.
Games: Full access to available GPU cycles.

Apps: DirectX 11 Feature Level 10.
Games: DirectX 12, and DirectX 11 Feature Level 10.

All apps and games must target the x64 architecture in order to be developed or submitted to the store for Xbox.

Note: Since Microsoft does not make developer kits available to the public, those seeking to develop games without any of the above restrictions may wish to register with the company’s [email protected] program whereby you can self-publish digital games for not only Xbox, but also Windows 10, iOS, and Android with Xbox Live without any of the limitations listed above.

Game restrictions

Finally, Microsoft limits the console to run in either Developer Mode or Retail Mode at any given time. Switching from one to the other is as easy as selecting Leave Developer Mode from the Dev Home, which will reboot the console into Retail Mode. Conversely, entering the Xbox Dev Mode app from Retail Mode and selecting Switch and Restart will reboot the device into Developer Mode.

Besides keeping the modes compartmentalized, this also upholds another of Microsoft’s limitations, which is to prevent loading retail games in Developer Mode and to prevent running development code while in Retail Mode.

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