Interview: Microsoft on integrating Xbox Live into Windows Phone 7 Series

Windows Phone 7 isn't just Microsoft's attempt to compete against Apple's iPhone. It's also the introduction of the first portable Xbox platform. During GDC today, we talked to Xbox Live GM Ron Pessner and XNA Game Studio manager Michael Klucher about how games integrate into the mobile platform and what gamers and developers can expect in the future.

For the purpose of this interview, Pessner and Klucher merged into one entity (they spoke over each other a lot!) to answer our questions:

Microsoft plans to separate games that do and don't support Xbox Live functionality on Windows Phone. Are there any concerns that this will turn off indie developers?

Pessner and Klucher: The short answer is "no." The way that we built the Phone and Marketplace experience makes it very easy to search for what you're looking for. With XNA Game Studio 4.0, you can use the same set of tools to build an Xbox Live game or non-Xbox Live game on the platform. The benefit that developers get for working with Game Studio is everything we just described.

We also are very interested in seeing concept submissions from the indie community, and we're out talking to a lot of independent developers. Fortunately, we're working with a lot of these folks in context of the console today, and many of the console titles that have come to us through the Indie Channel or Xbox Live Arcade, we think will also make fantastic mobile titles. So we're reaching back out to these developers and accepting submissions for ideas as a way to help make those Xbox Live titles. It's up to the developer in terms of what they want to do on the platform, but we're really excited with the response we've seen so far.
Will all developers of Windows Phone games be required to use Direct3D and XNA? Is it possible to simply port over games and experiences from other platforms, like Java or Flash?

Everything for Windows Phone 7 Series is based on the .net platform, so there's two technologies that are available: XNA Game Studio and the XNA framework, and then Silverlight. So those games need to be based on those technologies to run on the phone.

We expect people to reuse a lot of the assets they may have created elsewhere. But because it's a managed code platform, it's obviously a different development model.

Will all aspects of Xbox Live be available to Silverlight games, or will they be relegated to the "Other Games" category?

Yes. All the Xbox Live services on the phone are available either to an XNA Game Studio 4.0 game or a Silverlight game.

You mentioned some meta gaming elements that could happen across cross-platform gaming between Xbox 360 and the Windows Phone. Is it possible that you could transfer save states between the platforms?

No, save states are not a feature for the first revision of Xbox Live, although we've heard a lot of feedback and desire from publishers around this. We're actually just at the beginning stages of talking with publishers and developers and understanding what kinds of services or other meta game experiences they might want to enable. So we're very interested in what people come back with, in terms of suggestions or feedback for us.

How does Zune HD fit into the XNA Game Studio picture? Is it something developers can continue to work on?

XNA Game Studio 3.1 supports Zune development and that will continue. We actually expect that to continue. We created a new version of XNA Game Studio for 4.0 that takes advantage of all the features of Windows Phone 7 Series. So we fully expect through Creator's Club and Game Studio that game development will continue on the Zune HD platform. But we're also enabling additional development to happen.

Another big point is -- just like the portability piece we've shown here -- we've done some work internally and with some of the other Zune HD developers, and again, it's 90, 95 percent code reuse. Literally, in an hour or couple of hours, we're taking games that were written for Zune HD and putting them on the phone. We can do the same in reverse. Game Studio is a really powerful platform for portability between these different devices. We think there will be a series of developers that will want to target both platforms and Game Studio gives them a really great way of doing that.

All the great work we see developers doing on Zune HD today will easily move over to Windows Phone 7 Series. Those were the first games we actually brought up on the phone, because we already had games on the Zune HD that had touch and the accelerometer in mind that we could easily get up and run to exercise the platform.

So, something like Audiosurf Tilt ... ?

I mean, that's more of a specific title type of thing, which we're not really getting into quite yet. There's a kind of meta point there, though. There's all kinds of great stuff in the Xbox ecosystem that we think is very applicable to the phone.

Because Windows Phone 7 Series isn't a single device, how are you ensuring a consistent gameplay experience across all the possible Windows Phone devices?

Part of our approach to the market that's different than what it's been in the past is we are defining a specific hardware target and development platform that will be consistent across the various devices. Though the devices will vary slightly -- OEMs will have some choice in terms of what they want to ship and what variations they want to do -- we're expecting some interesting form factors to come to market. But the Windows Phone team doesn't have any specific news about the variations.

There is a minimum specification. There is a defined platform from a developer's point of view. There's the ability to allow some hardware variation that's meaningful for consumers, but doesn't mess up the consistent development platform. It's so far resonating very well with OEMs, carriers, and with application developers.

Are there any numbers you can talk about regarding the minimum specifications?

More news will come from the Windows Phone team next weekend at MIX10, as you've probably heard.

Will games be allowed to take advantage of hardware-specific differences between the devices? For example, LG's Windows Phone 7 Series device will feature a keyboard.

What you'll see is that we really want to drive consistency. What we're doing is trying to make sure people try and focus on what's guaranteed to be there. We certainly want to see an ecosystem where someone can say "hey, that's a really cool game, I'd really like to get that," and no matter what type of Windows Phone 7 Series device I have, I can have that same experience. That's a very core value.

We continue to hear that feedback from publishers and developers. They want a consistent target. Mobile phone gaming has been a very challenging market because of all the splintering of carriers and handsets and platforms. It requires a lot of work on the developer and publisher side to take that experience and make sure it shows up and is really good on all these different platforms. That's a key piece that we're looking to address as we go forward is making sure that there's a consistent development platform, so that developers can be confident their games are going to be great across an entire range of devices.

We've seen asynchronous multiplayer on the device. Are there any plans to support traditional real-time multiplayer?

No, it's asynchronous, meaning it's turn by turn. Given the phone is a device that goes in and out of connectivity and has different states. We thought asynchronous multiplayer was the right place to start for the phone platform. We think that's a very good multiplayer experience and also one that will appeal to a broad set of game types and game players. I think it's fair to say you could expect to see us consider other multiplayer type scenarios in our road map, but we're focused on asynchronous multiplayer for the launch of Windows Phone 7 Series.

But seriously, is Audiosurf coming to Windows Phone 7 Series?

We are so anxious to talk to you about titles. We're very excited about this platform and what it means for Xbox Live.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.