Following on from today's Xbox Live for Windows Phone 7 announcement, Gamasutra speaks to Microsoft exec Kevin Unangst about the company's plans for the platform, and what developers need to know.
In a meeting in San Francisco, Kevin Unangst, Microsoft's senior director of PC and mobile gaming, and Brian Seitz, senior marketing manager for Windows Phone 7 demoed the device for Gamasutra and answered questions about launch and beyond.
Windows Phone 7 devices will ship with Xbox Live accessible from the device's front page. Xbox Live on the phone will tie in with existing accounts for those who already play on Xbox 360 or Games For Windows Live and also allow new users to sign up from the device.
While the device supports Live functionality such as messaging between users and playing games out-of-the-box, a free app called Xbox Live Extras will extend the service to a more Xbox 360-like experience, offering full 3D Avatar support, enhanced Achievement browsing, and more.
Unlike the console version, the service will only support asynchronous, turn-based multiplayer and pass-and-play games at launch. Says Unangst, "Our focus for this holiday is building on turn-based multiplayer, but I would certainly expect that it's just the beginning of what we're going to do with multiplayer."
"Much More Like The Xbox"
Unangst says that its approach toward Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7 will be much more like Xbox 360 and Xbox Live Arcade than Apple's wide-open App Store.
However, says Unangst, "you don't have to use Xbox Live on the phone." Microsoft will offer an "open marketplace anybody can write games for and publish to" similar to Apple's App Store -- but games sold there will, crucially, not be Xbox Live branded and will not be operable with Xbox Live features like Gamerscore and leaderboards.
As with Xbox Live Arcade, however, Microsoft functions as a gatekeeper to publishing games to Windows Phone 7's version of Xbox Live. The goal is something "much more like the Xbox and Xbox Live Arcade portfolio," says Unangst. "We're going after the best games, regardless of platform; we're working with everybody from the big guys to the small indies. It's the managed portfolio approach, going after the games and the content that matters."
"No matter where that great gameplay idea comes from, we're proactively finding the best content for the phone," says Unangst. "Some of those come from the console, some come from the phone, but the priority is making them the right experience for the phone."
The launch title list includes a mix of original games and XBLA and iPhone ports -- as well as those from other platforms.
For example, Microsoft is working with developer PressPlay to bring acclaimed PC and WiiWare title Max and the Magic Marker, which integrally uses a pointer, to the device, using the touch screen to allow players to draw lines for Max to traverse. This approach that wouldn't work easily on the Xbox 360 without Kinect.
Of particular note to developers is that Microsoft will also be setting game pricing on Xbox Live for Windows Phone 7 -- and will be working to build a perception of value in consumers and help avoid the "race to the bottom" so prevalent on the iPhone App Store.
Unangst refused to discuss any specifics of its approach to pricing at this meeting, but did say that "there will be multiple price tiers, but we are taking a console-like portfolio and pricing approach. There will be lower-priced games and higher-priced games."
Xbox Live Arcade has given the team behind the phone's Live implementation confidence in this model. "Philosophically, we want to encourage developers to come to the platform, and be profitable for them, to encourage them to bring great games. That's the model we're confident in and it'll work on the phone as well."
Like on the console, "there's a demo built into every game," says Unangst, and also similar to the console, Microsoft will be managing release dates as well as pricing and game selection. "A few" games will be released every week to Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7.
What's It Like To Develop For?
Unagnst demoed a version of Codeglue's Xbox Live Arcade title Rocket Riot -- which uses the same code base as the console version. Developers will use XNA Game Studio to develop games for Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7.
Unlike the iPhone, multiple manufacturers and carriers will have Windows Phone 7 devices; Unangst demoed both Samsung and LG handsets to Gamasutra. The team at Microsoft has thus specified that all handsets have a minimum consistent feature set, including sensors, processor power, and button configuration, which it has dubbed the "Chassis 1 strategy."
"We're partnering really closely with Qualcomm so they're going to be the chip of choice... It will be a good experience with developers," says Brian Seitz, senior marketing manager for Windows Phone 7.
"Game developers want a consistent platform, and I think that's absolutely the approach the game team took," says Unangst. "Having that guaranteed set of specs and hardware... That is a fundamental change in the strategy, and helps us and made it easier for us to bring Xbox Live to the phone."
"When you think about bringing over XNA, the Xbox Live service... We want to make sure every Xbox Live game carries a certain set of features. We're going to make sure and work with those developers. That's a promise we can make to the consumers," says Unangst. Each game will feature leaderboards, and maximally award 200 Achievement Points, just like XBLA games on the Xbox 360 do.
Differentiating, Attracting the Core
The company has two major goals for Xbox Live on the phone: it has a team working on publishing quality, externally-developed games for the platform, and it also intends, says Unangst, to "build great new IP internally, and extend our IP."
Unangst boasts that Microsoft Game Studios represents the "only first party studio that's working on the phone" -- compared to other devices such as Google's Android and Apple's iOS.
Unangst demoed a high-quality, 3D, sci-fi dungeon crawler called The Harvest, a puzzle game called ilomilo, which Unangst calls a "great example of an IP built ground up for phone" that the company also plans to extend to the Xbox 360 console, and a Crackdown-themed tower defense game called Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst. -- which uses satellite maps from its Bing search service as game levels.
The company also plans to extend its Halo: Waypoint community service from the Xbox 360 to the phone.
And though the iPhone is stiff competition in the game space, with its huge number of titles and Apple's recent marketing push focused on getting consumers interested in the iOS devices for gaming, Microsoft hopes to use Xbox Live to attract core gamers who already value the Xbox Live experience on the Xbox 360, and those who currently game on the Nintendo DS and PSP.
The company hopes to show, with its lineup, "how this can be a great alternative to the DS and PSP, as much as we think [it can be to] the iPhone and the Droid. It's exactly the same as wanting to differentiate the Xbox 360 from the PlayStation," using Xbox Live, says Unangst.
Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 devices will launch this holiday.