Microsoft: Games to be front and center for Windows Phone 7

Microsoft is reconfirming, on the eve of Gamescom 2010, that it is making sure the Windows Phone 7 platform will be a game-centric one.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft is reconfirming, on the eve of Gamescom 2010, that it is making sure the Windows Phone 7 platform will be a game-centric one.

On August 16, Microsoft officials confirmed earlier reports that Microsoft Game Studios is creating a dedicated group to develop video games for Windows Phones. The group also will help recruit smaller, indie game makers, according to the company.

Microsoft says the dedicated group inside of Microsoft Game Studios will develop video games for Windows phones, help outside game publishers and scout out small, independent game makers. Company officials also said to expect Halo Waypoint, Star Wars, Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, and Guitar Hero 5 to all be available for Windows Phone 7 when the devices launch this fall.

All in all, there are 50 titles that will be available for Windows Phone 7. According to a spokesperson, these "are just the beginning of a full portfolio of games and applications coming to Windows Phone 7 this holiday – there is much more to come. Additional titles will be announced between now and the Windows Phone 7 launch this holiday season; once the phone launches, new Xbox LIVE titles will be added to the games portfolio every week."

Microsoft has a team of dedicated evangelists working on convincing game developers to write Windows Phone 7 versions of their products. This team is playing up the fact that developers can use the same XNA Framework and related tools as they used to build Xbox 360 games to create new titles for Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft decided rather than have different frameworks for each of its devices (Xbox, Zune HD and Windows Phone) it would fold capabilities for all the platforms back into the larger XNA gaming framework, said Shawn Hargreaves, a Microsoft developer on XNA Game Studio.

(Hargreaves spent nine years in the gaming industry before deciding to join Microsoft. He was a lead programming on the MotoGP bike racing games. While in college, Hargreaves developed Allegro, an open source game programming library.)

"We didn't want Xbox developers to have to start from scratch" when developing for Windows Phone 7, Hargreaves said, even though the two platforms are quite different. So "we thought about what could be extracted." In the end, about 97 percent of what (Xbox developers) are already doing can be applied to the phone, he said.

Microsoft's overall advice for Windows Phone 7 developers is to use XNA for developing games and Silverlight for developing other Web applications. Hargreaves said Microsoft is telling those who are building applications making use of 3D graphics to think XNA, while those using text controls should gravitate toward Silverlight. (That said, in some cases I know of developers using XNA to create non-gaming content for the phones because they've been dissatisfied with Silverlight's performance.)

The bottom line is gaming developers interested in targeting Windows Phone 7 need to learn the C# platform, Hargreaves said. Hargreaves, a C++ developer himself, said it took him two weeks to learn C# and one month to become "an expert."

Microsoft is in the process of bringing its Game Studio environment to Windows Phone 7, said Michael Klucher, a Lead Program Manager for the XNA Development Platform team. His group also has started building Windows Phone 7 developer kits, such as a racing game kit and a puzzle game kit. There's not some "magical potion" that automatically optimizes games to run on Windows Phone 7, he said, but the Game Studio could help developers move the bulk of their codebase, art and more to forthcoming phones.

"You do need to tune for the touch screen and high-resolution display," Klucher said. "You also have to think about how your game would tie together across different kinds of devices," like PCs, gaming consoles, phones and more.

(Klucher has worked on the XNA Game Studio since its original inception, and has worked on the design of features like XNA Framework Content Pipeline, Game Studio Connect on the Xbox 360 and the evolution of XNA Game Studio for the Zune platform. He started his careers at Rainbow Studios, working in the animation division. He then moved to the videogame industry, with a specialization in mobile gaming and gadgets.)

A few of the indie game developers already building for Xbox are sold on Windows Phone 7 as another potentially lucrative platform.

"This (Windows Phone 7) platform is open like the Xbox 360," said Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games. Fouts is the creator of the Xbox Community Game "Weapon of Choice."

"Initially we weren't looking at developing for WIndows Phone 7 until we heard it would use XNA and C#," he said. "After that, it was a  no-brainer. It was so easy our intern handled the entire port himself" of one of the existing games to Windows Phone 7, he said. "In two weeks, we had the whole game working and playable. Now we are just doing more polishing."

Phillipe Rapin of Press Start Studio (and TwinBlades) fame -- another Microsoft Xbox 360 indie game developer -- echoed the same ease-of-development comments.

"What pushed us the most (to do a Windows Phone 7 game) was the ease of development," Rapin said. "We had an Xbox version of Twin Blades and it only took two weeks for one of our coders to port the game onto WP7, and it worked on the device at the first attempt. With both platforms sharing a common tool -– the XNA framework -- Microsoft really eased the work of developers, with virtually no investment needed and on top of that they gave us tech and business development support."

Rapin said the way Microsoft is structuring the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace and gaming hubs also is appealing.

"Microsoft’s gaming hub is definitely more thorough not only in ensuring that great games have more visibility in the marketplace, but also with providing them with the additional value of Xbox Live services such as leaderboards and achievements linked to Xbox," he said.

Any other Windows Phone 7 developers out there writing (or thinking about writing) games for the Windows Phone 7 devices coming this holiday season? Why/why not?

(Image above is from a slide deck on developing for WP7 from Microsoft Developer Evangelist Mike Ormond.)

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