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Will Microsoft's Surface matter to game developers?
Will Microsoft's Surface matter to game developers? Exclusive
June 22, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

Earlier this week, Microsoft revealed that it plans to jump into the tablet market with the Surface, a new platform that promises to blend the functionality of a laptop with the ergonomics of a mobile device. According to Microsoft, the Windows 8 (and Windows RT)-powered Surface will offer a number of exciting opportunities for apps and games.

But do game developers feel the same way?

To find out, Gamasutra spoke to developers from all over the industry, and initial impressions were decidedly mixed, with a number of developers raised concerns over the device's core feature set.

Unlike the iPad or Android tablets, the Surface hopes to stand out by offering a touch-based keyboard that mimics a traditional PC layout. While the PC-like features make the Surface unique in the tablet space, developers like BitPilot and SpellTower creator Zach Gage said the bells and whistles don't offer anything new in terms of game design.

"I'm sure someone will do something interesting with it, but it doesn't look particularly novel," said Gage. "Most of the features are just features that are [already] on typical laptops, not really new technologies for the consumer space."

iOS developer Adam Rippon (Dragon Fantasy) agreed, saying that the Surface doesn't do anything "that other tablets aren't already doing. I suppose I could get excited about keyboards and mice, but that's not really new -- just new to tablets."

Simon Flesser with Beat Sneak Bandit developer Simogo echoed, "If a piece of hardware isn't offering anything that significantly differentiates it from the rest, I find it hard to get excited about."

But perhaps the Surface doesn't need to enable new types of game experiences to succeed. For many developers, the device's real draw is its multi-functionality.

Neil Sorens of Zen Studios (Zen Pinball) explained, "It's not just a tablet; it's more like the Swiss Army Knife of computing devices. It can be a tool or feature that is useful for many applications and purposes -- such as using an Xbox controller, HDMI out, or connectivity with other Microsoft devices including SmartGlass."

Other Ocean's Mike Mika (Dark Void Zero) said that with such variability, the Surface could become not just a game platform, but a viable tool for game creation.

"It's almost a throwback to the old home computers like the Commodore 64," said Mika. "Once I unbox the tablet, I can write a game and publish it without using any other device. It's my development hardware, my target platform, my distribution gateway, and my personal computer all in one. It's revolutionary when you think about it."

Of course, with all of these different features, developers might be tempted to create traditional PC titles for the device, and Randy Smith with Waking Mars developer Tiger Style said he's worried that some might neglect the fact that the Surface also promises to be a perfectly functional tablet.

"I have a concern about the Surface's keyboard and USB ports, specifically that its inclusion will encourage developers to do easy ports from PCs, not to think very creatively about leveraging more innovative controls such as the touchscreen for their games, and not design for the tablet demographic," Smith said.

"Are Xbox gamers going to hook up controllers and play Gears of War in coffee shops? In their living rooms, next to their more powerful Xbox? On airplanes? The Surface has the potential to be a casual device, but I worry there's not enough incentive for game makers to help push it in that direction."

Will it be worth your time?

No matter how interesting or diverse its hardware may be, however, the Surface won't mean much to developers unless they can actually make money on the platform. With the tablet market already inundated with iPads and Android devices, can Microsoft really succeed?

Other Ocean's Mika sure thinks so: "I believe in the rules of two, and those two will be Apple and Microsoft. Android will be relegated to the kids table at Thanksgiving. It'll always be around, wanting to play with the big kids, and it'll get a lot of attention, but it won't be putting the food on the table."

With Microsoft fully backing the surface, Mika is confident it'll get the resources and attention it needs to grow and surpass many of the other competitors already on the market.

"They are betting the farm on Windows 8. I, personally, like to team up with the one who has everything to lose, because you know there won't be any complacency or lack of vision and purpose," he said. "They will be the most accommodating for developers like ourselves, and they're more willing to take risks for the sake of market share."

Tiger Style's Smith pointed out that the Surface could prove particularly useful for developers that support the platform early, as they'll get a chance to establish an early foothold in a new and growing market.

"If I was just starting a new company, I would consider targeting the Surface given that there's a chance to be a leader in a new market at its inception. Clearly the iPad has a much more saturated market, although the tradeoff is that the install base is much larger," he said.

Like Mika, Zen's Sorens also has faith in Microsoft's strategy, as Zen Pinball saw strong success on Xbox Live Arcade. To him, Microsoft has already proven the company cares about supporting its game developers.

"As a developer, it's easy to like the development environment, which has always been one of Microsoft's strengths," said Sorens. "Microsoft also has an excellent history of making sure that their curated stores don't devolve into a putrid morass of cheap shovelware."

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Harlan Sumgui
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no install base, no sales. But in a years time, the answer might be different.

Sean Maples
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This article mentions Windows 8 at the top but the choice of devs to talk with and their responses seem about the Windows RT version of Surface rather then the Windows 8 version. Windows RT being Arm based, while Windows 8 is the full x86 software package for Desktops, Laptops, and Tablets.

I feel it is something worth clarifying as it makes a big difference for gaming. The Windows 8 version of Surface, with its i5 cpu and hopefully HD4000 iGpu, should be able to play major PC games like Mass Effect 3 on it, not a port or a stream, but actually run it with it's Intel hardware. Just like any low end notebook does.

Jeremy Reaban
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I'm not sure it's really like the C-64, since one of the main appeals of it (as well as the Atari) was it was so much cheaper than Apple computers at the time. Almost 1/10 the price.

Indeed, that's one of the odd trends of mobile gaming these days - the prices of games are very little, but the entry barrier is quite steep

Chris MacDonald
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It will come down to a lot of factors, but they really need to differentiate themselves from Apple and Google. There are quite a few thinks they can do but here is my shortlist: 1) Easy Windows 8 PC -> Surface code and data portability, 2) Sign on some early developers to really push the hardware, 3) Low stratification in hardware, 4) No developer fee, and 5) fast app submission process while still a heavily curated experience.

isaac pope
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To point 2 it has windows 8 and there for steam so game and the number of them that can be plaid isn't a problem pair that with chrome and you have the android marketplace + steam noone at the moment can stand against that portfolio.

Rodney Figueroa
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I am torn, here's my opinion of the situation. Let's examine the paradigm of the console cycle. The cycle exists for the purpose of allowing developers a stable and well explored development platform. Pitfalls of said hardware, limitation of RAM, CPU components, and video processing are usually more hardlined, more obvious to developers.

Therein lies my issues with mobile gaming platforms. Their hardware refresh cycle is entirely too fast for anything that I believe would be worthy of console competitiveness. I can't justify requiring an install base that has to go out and purchase a new tablet device, or a new mobile device every year in order to keep up with the rapid progression of mobile rendering capabilities.

I don't think it's as simple as deciding apple, google or ms. I think what it boils down to is the general pace set by the hardware as it comes out.

Rodney Figueroa
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Also, I'd like to explore the notion that since our console cycles typically go from 5 to 10 years, How can one truly feel out the possibilities of the mobile space if the hardware hasn't reached a comfortable plateau?

Developing for such a fast pace technology would create inherent discrepancies in the quality of their releases depending on the available hardware.

Could a consumer justify buying a Ps3 or an Xbox equivalent every year just to play the latest and greatest?

Derek Reynolds
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But the thing is, people generally are replacing their mobile hardware every 2 years or so. It's just a different market than consoles. And that's why I think mobile developers have to stay adaptable and focus on small projects with a faster turnaround time, because next year, let's say 10-25% of your audience will switch to newer devices. On the other hand, mobile devices have generally been backwards compatible, so you normally don't lose an audience when they upgrade.

By the way, when you say "console competitiveness", what are we really talking about? Graphics, revenue, getting more performance out of the hardware, something else?

Duong Nguyen
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Microsoft is getting into a totally different hardware market than they are use too (from consoles). The iteration times are 8-12 months, this is for both hardware and software. Apple does both well, Google does the software side well and leaves its partners to do the hardware iteration.. Nokia does the hardware well but doesn't have the software engineering depth to create their own OS so the Microsoft partnership. Microsoft doesn't do either well, taking years for to iterate on their OS and hardware. Microsoft have their work cut out for them..

Even then, the key to the Surface success will be the first quarter and the momentum it carries onward from there. If developers don't see a market emerging they won't develop games / app thus consumers are even less likely to purchase it thus a downward spiral. If they learned anything from Kinect success it's that it's not going to be the billions they spend on marketing that will make it a success, it will be the hype generated by the 3rd parties (hackers, indie developers, early adopters etc..) which gives a platform it's legitimacy and that will fuel public demand. I hope they have allocated enough time and energy in that regards.

Roberto Dillon
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I like Mike Mika's perspective: if this gets priced reasonably and be affordable to the "average Joe", it could really become like a new C64 or ZXSpectrum and help fostering a new generation of developers.
I'm definitely very curious about this!

Doug Poston
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It was good to see quotes from Mike Mika (I've worked with him before).

I agree with him that Microsoft is a whale in the industry. If they decide to put their full weight behind Surface/WinRT then it's worth investing in.

So the question is will Microsoft give Surface the XBox treatment, or the Kin?
(My current guess is XBox, but I'm a programmer not a manager).

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Paul Shirley
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The other difference is it's 2 different platforms. RT is very different to Pro, with different compatibility with legacy Windows. Most importantly only Pro will run existing Windows games. Even if Steam create a Metro front end the games won't run on RT.

BTW: there are plenty of Android tablets with keyboards, even more add on keyboards for Android and IOS. They haven't sold well. Ordinary people don't have much use for keyboards for what they use tablets for, not with the extra price charged for them. If Surfaces keypad is essentially free it might succeed, cost more it won't. The sort of workflow that demands a keyboard probably won't be pleasant on an ARM RT device either and a laptop will be cheaper than the Pro.

Surface is deliberately deceptive. The Pro version is essentially a touchscreen ultrabook, as capable as any Windows install. ARM RT isn't and a lot of customers risk serious disappointment if they don't notice the difference. Microsoft is talking a lot about Pro, little about ARM RT, people will get caught out.

The platform really does split here. Win8 desktop mode is mostly backwards compatible with legacy Win32/64 platforms, your games carry on running along with other apps. RT is compatible with Win8 and later, nothing earlier. You can support ARM RT/Win8 *or* XP/Win7/Win8 *or* build 2 versions. Arguably that's the same as Android or iOS but they have years headstart and an established market.

Doug Poston
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@Dan: The real difference between Surface and other (non-Windows8) tablets is the OS.

As Paul points out, the Pro version can run existing Windows games.

The ARM version will require you to develop for WinRT, but the resulting games can run on any Surface, WP8, or Window8 desktop.

Paul Lenoue
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Don't overlook Microsoft's history of failure. Despite heavy advertising the Zune never got good numbers. Despite the hype Vista was a disaster. Despite pumping one _billion_ dollars into the Kin it was such a disaster they couldn't even bring it to market. They tried bringing tablets to the market but they all sucked so bad for so many reasons the only people who remember them were the ones unfortunate enough to try to use them (like me, and let me tell you they really sucked).

Now they're hyping this new tablet that isn't even in production yet. Given Microsoft's history the Surface could be nothing but vaporware, or so anemic it can't even run Angry Birds, or so restricted only microsoft approved and certified companies can make apps for it, indies not invited. When thinking about the Surface keep in mind that Microsoft has a pretty toxic management system in place that can kill off any idea no matter how good it may be.

Bottom line, wait until it's in the stores and you actually get your hands on it before you start praising or even hoping that it's a good competitor to the iPad. I hope it is, competition is good for everybody involved, but every time I look at it I think about the Zune, Kin and Vista.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Microsoft has Windows XP/Vista/7/8
Has always controlled Desktops and Laptops.

Desktops/Consoles/And some Laptops usually have too big of a screen for touching. Nobody wants to pay $400++ for a large flat screen and have you touch it. Motion controls have also given them a scare.

Handhelds(Consoles/Cells) have really taken off with touch screens. It makes a lot of sense to add a touch screen to a Laptop or just give a person a Tablet these days. With wireless/blue tooth taking off so much, and the ability for all these screens to connect to other devices, a Handheld Screen has become the standard even a few years ago. But in the next decade will be the base default like a keyboard/mouse and control sticks and buttons on controllers.

As for developers, what are they really doing? Adding input code? Some extra graphics/sounds on the screens? Input hasn't been the greatest since the start of gaming. At least now we have more options... Let's face it, you've barely got any hardware options, you got the old d-pad controllers, the two sticks of a PS3/360/or the Wii U(PS3, swapped). NO COMPANY has any software what so ever to even allow you basic Config.cfg options like switching the right stick for the left stick. On top of that, develops give you NO options to change your Config.cfg either unless it's a PC game.

Touch Screen won't replace a keyboard/mouse and controllers. But add it to the middle of the controller, keyboard... Progress

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Also, this will include a default wireless xController reciever like an X-BoX? Those recievers are like, $20 if you wanna use an xController on your Desktop/Laptop. Otherwise you gotta get a wired controller or buy the wires(I think those are like $20 bundled with something, I never bought any).

I really wish Windows branded Desktops/Lapstops/Tablets/Consoles(Desktop or Handheld)/Cell Phones/Whatever would all come with a damn wireless reciever for up to four keyboards, four mice, and four or more controllers/OTHER.

Joe Cooper
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Who is really going to develop on these things? Just because a device has a keyboard doesn't mean you can really work on it for hours on end. Would you develop games on a Netbook? Raise your hand if you do your game development work on a Netbook. What is the difference between this and a Netbook other than lack of accurate pointing?

Trent Tait
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Has anyone here used Windows 8? It's an abomination on the desktop. It's worse than Vista. There is no way in hell you'll get me using it. Windows 7 is superior in every way.

Then there is Fischer Price 2012 ... er Visual Studio 2012. Anyone notice that you can't develop normal Windows apps any more. Metro, or pay a fee. Sure, most people buy Pro to develop, but they have just stifled any learning for the future generation, not just by forcing them to start coding in something other than Visual Studio, but by lumping them with the pile of garbage that is Windows 8.

What a massive step backwards this is. Absolutely massive.

Michael Rooney
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The metro interface isn't THAT bad, and they announced VS for desktop apps about 2 weeks ago.

Michael Rooney
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@Techni: Metro wasn't on zune.

Duong Nguyen
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Someone high up at Microsoft has a blind love for the Metro interface, so blinded that they can't see or hear all the outcries over it. The Metro and interfaces of its like are fine for phones where space is small and the browsing is shallow but when u have something as deep as a desktop where people have to actually navigate and work, using the Metro interface is a nightmare. Yes Microsoft dreams of world domination through their awesome set-top box with giant buttons / tiles which can be read from 20 feet away, but throwing away 20 years of UI advancements on the desktop to do so, well not smart.

Even now one of the main complaints against Win7 phones is the interface is "slow", not that it isn't responsive but it's slow to navigate through all those swipes and drill down to get to what you want, unless you want to memorize lots of gestures shortcuts or fastidiously manage your tiles..

Alejandro Valenzuela
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Really? Are we getting excited about a TABLET PC??? In 2012??? What, has everybody lost their long-term memory?? The only thing that is different this time is that there's an extra API. Maybe that will change things.

Well, I used to be a Tablet PC fan back in 2007 so I suppose I should get excited again. Not!

Doug Poston
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Everybody got excited about Tablets in 2010 when Apple released the first iPad.
And then they continue to get excited every year when Apple releases an updated version.
Apple: Proving that people have no long-term memory. ;)

Nuttachai Tipprasert
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@Doug That's the best line, ever.

Joe Cooper
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Speaking of long term memory, merely seconds before you wrote that post you read one where Alejandro spoke of tablet PCs and you forgot the word PC.

Doug Poston
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@Joe: I know, but it wouldn't be funny then. ;)

But seriously, the Tablet PC of 2007 ran Vista which, IMHO, wasn't a great match for a tablet platform.

Windows8 with Metro, OTOH, is designed with tablet and phone platforms in mind.

Is it worth getting excited about? Who knows. But, as a developer, it's worth paying attention to.

Paul Shirley
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@Doug: rather, Apple proving if you don't pretend its a PC customers won't be disappointed when it turns out to be crap at being a PC!

Microsoft are launching a PC and hinting it's also a good tablet (the Pro and I want to see battery life before deciding it's good at anything). Simultaneously a cheap tablet (the ARM RT and current estimates say it won't even be cheap) hoping everyone thinks it's as good a PC as the Pro.

What could possibly go wrong with that smoke and mirrors ;)

Doug Poston
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@Paul: Valid points.

If the low end Surface launches with a high price tag and can't function as advertised, then Microsoft is screwed. But I think they (Microsoft) know that.

If they release a solid product and it comes pre-installed with the applications 95% of consumers use on a daily basis (Office, IE, Angry Birds), I predict a win for Microsoft.

But, honestly, how many times has Microsoft got it right the first time? ;)