Home > Articles > Programming > Games

Introducing the XNA Framework and XNA Game Studio Express

Chad Carter introduces the XNA framework and walks you through how to install Visual C# Express, the DirectX Runtime, and XNA Game Studio Express.
This chapter is from the book

In This Chapter

  • What Is the XNA Framework?
  • Installing Visual C# Express
  • Installing the DirectX Runtime
  • Installing XNA Game Studio Express
  • Creating Spacewar Windows Project
  • Compiling and Running Spacewar

Most developers I know decided to enter the computer field and specifically programming because of computer games. Game development can be one of the most challenging disciplines of software engineering—it can also be the most rewarding!

Never before has it been possible for the masses to create games for a game console, much less a next generation game console. We are coming in on the ground floor of a technology that is going to experience tremendous growth. Microsoft is leading the way into how content will be created for game consoles. Soon other game console manufacturers will be jumping at a way to allow the public to create content for their machines. The great news for the Xbox 360 is that Microsoft has spent so much time over the years creating productive and stable development environments for programmers. We will be installing one of Microsoft's latest integrated development environments (IDEs) in this chapter. Before we get to that, let's take a look at the technology we discuss in this book—XNA.

What Is the XNA Framework?

You have probably heard the statement, "To know where you are going, you need to know where you have been." I am uncertain if that is entirely true, but I do believe it applies here. Before we dig into exactly what XNA is and what it can do for us, let's take a moment to look at DirectX because that is what the XNA Framework is built on.

The Foundation of the XNA Framework

Let's take a journey back to the days of DOS on the PC. When programming games, graphic demos, and the like in DOS, programmers typically had to write low-level code to talk directly to the sound card, graphics cards, and input devices. This was tedious and the resulting code was error prone because different manufacturers would handle different BIOS interrupts, IO ports, and memory banks—well, differently, so the code would work on one system and not another.

Later, Microsoft released the Windows 95 operating system. Many game programmers were skeptical at writing games for Windows—and rightly so—because there was no way to get down to hardware level to do things that required a lot of speed. Windows 95 had a protected memory model that kept developers from directly accessing the low-level interrupts of the hardware.

To solve this problem, Microsoft created a technology called DirectX. It was actually called Windows Game SDK to begin with, but quickly switched names after a reporter poked fun at the API names DirectDraw, DirectSound, and DirectPlay, calling the SDK Direct "X." Microsoft ran with the name and DirectX 1.0 was born a few months after Windows 95 was released. I remember working with DirectDraw for a couple of demos back when this technology first came out.

Because of DirectX, developers had a way to write games with one source that would work on all PCs regardless of their hardware. Hardware vendors were eager to work with Microsoft on standardizing an interface to access their hardware. They created device drivers to which DirectX would map its API, so all of the work that previously had to be done by game programmers was taken care of, and programmers could then spend their time doing what they wanted to—write games! Vendors called this a Hardware Abstraction Layer (HAL). They also developed a Hardware Emulation Layer (HEL), which emulates hardware through software in case hardware isn't present. Of course, this is slower but it allowed certain games to be run on machines with no special hardware.

After a couple of years Microsoft released DirectX 3.0, which ran on Windows NT 4 as well as Windows 95. As part of those upgrades, they introduced Direct3D. This allowed developers to create 3D objects inside of 3D worlds. DirectX 4 was never released, but DirectX 5 was released in 1997 and later had some upgrades to work under Windows 98.

When DirectX 8 came on the scene in 2000, some of the newly available graphics hardware had vertex and pixel shaders. As a result, Microsoft added in a way to pass custom program code to the hardware. Through assembly code, the game developer could manipulate the data the main game passed to the graphics card. This assembly code was consumed directly by the graphics hardware.

When there was no graphics hardware, games were slow, but they were very flexible. Later, as hardware rendering became prominent, the games were faster, but they were not very flexible in that all of the games really started to look the same. Now with shaders, the speed of the hardware is combined with the flexibility for each game to render and light its 3D content differently.

This brings us to present-day DirectX: We are up to DirectX 9 and 10. Before I talk about DirectX 9, I spend some time talking about DirectX 10. DirectX 10 was released at the same time as Microsoft Windows Vista. In fact, DirectX 10 only works on Vista. This is largely due to the fact that Microsoft has made major changes in the driver model for this operating system. DirectX 10 also requires Shader Model 4.0 hardware.

The Xbox 360 runs on DirectX 9 plus some additional partial support for Shader Model 3.0 functionality. DirectX 9 is the foundation for Managed DirectX, an API that exposed the core DirectX functionality to .NET Framework developers. There was a lot of concern about whether this "wrapper" could be as fast as the C++ counterparts. Fortunately, it was almost as fast—about 98 percent was the benchmark touted. I experienced these benchmark speeds firsthand while on the beta team for this technology. I fell in love with Managed DirectX.

The XNA Framework used the lessons learned from Managed DirectX and used that foundation as a launching pad. To be clear, XNA was built from the ground up and was not built on top of Managed DirectX. It didn't use the same namespaces as Managed DirectX and is not simply pointing to the Managed DirectX methods in the background. Although XNA utilizes DirectX 9 in the background, there are no references to DirectX's API like there were in Managed DirectX.

XNA Today

XNA is actually a generic term much like the term .NET. XNA really refers to anything that Microsoft produces that relates to game developers. The XNA Framework is the API we are discussing. The final piece to XNA is the XNA Game Studio Express application, which we discuss in detail later. This is the IDE we use to develop our XNA games.

XNA allows us to do a lot of things. We have easy access to the input devices (keyboard, game pad or controller, mouse). XNA gives us easy access to the graphics hardware. We are able to easily control audio through XNA. XNA provides the ability for us to store information like high scores and even saved games. XNA does not currently have any networking capability. Microsoft wants to use the Xbox Live technology for adding network support to XNA. However, there is more work to be done to make sure Microsoft can provide multiplayer functionality in a secure manner.

To get started using XNA we have to install some software. We need to install the latest version of DirectX 9 as well as have a graphics card that supports DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 1.1. (You should get a card that supports Shader Model 2.0 as some of the examples, including the starter kit we use in this chapter and the next one, will not run without it.) We also need to install Visual C# Express, the DirectX 9 runtime, and finally XNA Game Studio Express. Fortunately, all of the software is free! If you don't have graphics hardware that can support Shader Model 2.0 you can pick up a card relatively inexpensively for about $35 USD. If possible, you should purchase a graphics card that can support Shader Model 3.0, as a couple of examples at the end of the book require it.

At this point, games cannot be created for commercial use on the Xbox 360 but Microsoft has mentioned they are interested in supporting commercial games in future versions. Fortunately, we can create community games for the Xbox 360 with the Express versions.

XNA Game Studio Express is great for the game hobbyist, a student, or someone just getting started because you do not have to shell out a lot of (any!) money to get up and running. One exception to this is if you actually want to deploy your games on your Xbox 360. To do that, you will need to subscribe to the XNA Creators Club for $99 USD a year (or $49 USD for four months). Remember, writing games for the PC using XNA is totally free!

Oh, in case you are wondering what XNA stands for, XNA's Not Acronymed (or so Microsoft says in the XNA FAQ).

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020