GDC Impressions: Gaming on Windows Phone 7

We already broke out the news you're looking for: Each of the Windows Phone 7 Xbox Live-infused games will offer its players 200 Gamerscore points. You'll be able to boost your Xbox rep in significant chunks without having to hunker down in front of a big screen for long stretches. You'll never again have to go so long without hearing that satisfying "Achievement unlocked" sound. The world, as you know it, has changed.

Fortunately, the channel through which you'll access these on-the-go 'cheevos looks like it has loads of promise. The handful of work-in-progress Windows Phone 7 games we were shown today at GDC didn't leave much of an impression -- however, the effortless portability of games between the platforms supported by the recently announced XNA Game Studio 4.0 opens up a lot of possibilities for development on Microsoft's new mobile device.
Only a handful of rudimentary games were demonstrated during our appointment with XNA's Michael Klucher and Xbox Live's Ron Pessner. We're talking: crude prototypes crafted by Microsoft and a couple of prolific XNA developers. Still, despite the simplicity of these demos, it's easy to see exactly what Microsoft is attempting to accomplish with Windows Phone 7 devices.

The first game I sampled was a simple, asynchronous checkers title. The gameplay itself wasn't particularly noteworthy (it's a lot like, um, checkers), though it did a great job of showing off the device's social gaming potential. Which is important, since -- as you've probably already heard -- the Windows Phone 7 doesn't support "real-time" multiplayer, either ad-hoc or over Wi-Fi.

This is a pretty big detriment for the device -- however, it handles turn-based gameplay with style. Not only could we view the intense checkers bouts we were currently embroiled in via an in-game menu, but a special "Requests" pane of the device's game hub allows you to see when its your turn to move in a multiplayer title. These menus are gussied up by displays showing your friends' Xbox Live Avatars, appended to their Gamertags and other relevant information associated with your Live profile.


I next got a look at Harvest, a 3D action title developed by mobile studio Luma Arcade. Again, the game was exceedingly elementary -- from a top-down perspective, I watched as the protagonist ran around, shooting horribly mutated, waist-high spiders. The visuals were pretty sharp -- aided by Windows Phone 7's crisp, 480x800 display. Should XNA developers choose to port their pre-made titles from Xbox 360 to WP7, it doesn't look like they'll have to suffer much visual depreciation along the way.
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The third title I checked out was Battle Punks, which has been adapted from the similarly-titled Facebook game. It was exactly what you'd expect from a Facebook title -- short bursts of single-button combat; victory in which earns you in-game funds you can use to further customize your character. This demo hinted at "Facebook connect" functionality, which could ostensibly allow you to transfer your winnings and items to the Facebook version of the casual title.

This title in particular seemed like a game that would handle microtransaction support swimmingly -- however, Pessner confirmed that Microsoft is "currently not supporting in-game microtransactions with Windows Phone 7 series." Though developers are able to easily do title updates, they won't be able to charge for new content in their games -- which seems like a puzzling, financially unsound decision for Microsoft to make.
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The final game I laid eyes on was a tech demo that we've seen before: The aptly-named Platformer. More than anything, this game was developed to demonstrate the portability of game development data between different XNA-supported platforms. I was shown the game running on PC, Xbox 360 and the Windows Phone 7; each version looking essentially identical (albeit with varying control schemes and vertical or horizontal orientation).

Pessner and Klucher touted an impressive feat for the recently revealed XNA Game Studio 4.0 platform: 90 to 95 percent of game development data crafted on XNA can be immediately transferred between platforms. With a few extra days of labor, a developer's Xbox Live Indie title can be brought to the PC, Windows Phone 7 and Zune HD. (The Zune is only supported by XNA Game Studio 3.1, but game data can still be transferred to and from it.)

If their claim is accurate, the prospect of developing a game for one platform and transferring it to three others with minimal effort could be extremely attractive to an independent developer -- perhaps even attractive enough to win them over from the microtransaction-supported iPhone market.

We've still got a ton of unanswered questions about Windows Phone 7's Xbox Live integration -- outside of Achievements and friends list viewing, it's unclear what other features from the online gaming service will be supported. It's entirely possible these elements haven't yet been cemented into the plan -- from what we saw today, it still seems like Windows Phone 7 and XNA Game Studio 4.0 are in the proof of concept phase. However, the concept upon which they're being built is pretty damn exciting.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.