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Games to Go: Windows CE


April 16, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next
 

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Everything

I won’t bother much with the non-handheld platforms, as this column is specifically about handheld game development, but I must mention two.

Clarion has released the first AutoPC. Virtually identical in appearance to a standard car stereo with CD player, this device appears to be straight out of science fiction. (figure 3) It has 16MB of RAM, 8MB of ROM, and is powered by a Hitachi SH3 processor. It supports IRDA and USB (with a serial port for GPS receiver,) has a compact flash slot, and comes with a built-in CD-ROM/Audio CD player as well as AM/FM stereo. It has a 256x84x8 active-matrix color display. The important factor is its voice recognition and voice synthesis. Between these two, they allow you to control the device without taking your eyes off the road. For example, via voice commands you can order it to read your email for you, which it will do with a synthesized voice you can customize. Of course, all this comes at a hefty $1299 price tag.

Figure 3: Clarion's AutoPC

Why do I mention it? After all, this column is about handheld games, not car stereo systems. But in discussing this column with a certain editor who shall remain Alex Dunne, I had an inspiration which I must share, and unfortunately lack the resources to implement. In the dark recesses of my past (also known as the College Days,) I used to drive home late at night listening to the NPR mystery theatre. In fact, this was how I was first exposed to the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" in its best form. I remember being drawn into the stories by the sound effects, the dull routine of driving a highway I’d driven night after night giving way to my attempts to anticipate what came next, what the resolution to the mystery was. You can see where I’m heading. Years ago, Infocom advertised that the best graphics were in your mind. This device includes a CD-ROM drive, and in fact has a six disk changer as an option, which gives plenty of room for audio effects, voiceovers, and musical scores. The radio theater could be reborn in the AutoPC, with a tree-like story structure no more complicated than that for Myst or Dragon’s Lair.

Other possibilities for games include the AutoPC acting as moderator for multiplayer turn-based games that the whole family could play on vacation or other extended trips. Any game which doesn’t rely on visual clues, or where audio cues could be substituted could be created for the AutoPC. While the market for most such games is fairly vertical, there’s no reason that variants couldn’t be adapted to the other Windows CE platforms; this is the strength of WindowsCE, the familiar API.

It’s no secret to readers of Gamasutra that Sega’s Dreamcast system uses a version of Windows CE. Combined with DirectX, WinCE for the Dreamcast means that it’s possible to design games for Dreamcast, with scaled-down versions later released for handheld machines. (An example of this is the variety of Nintendo and desktop games rescaled and released for the Game Boy; Abe’s Oddyssey and Shadowgate are two examples.) It could go the other way as well; a sort of proof-of-concept version of a game could be released for standard WinCE, with a full version incorporating DirectX created for the Dreamcast and Win9x machines. Microsoft has already released its SDK for the Dreamcast to registered Sega developers, and Metrowerks has announced development tools for the Dreamcast (as well as a host of other platforms.)

A Chip Off the Old Monolith

It’s pretty obvious that, as Windows CE is a subset of the Windows for the desktop, and as it’s targeted to be a "look alike, work alike" handheld version of that desktop, that developing for Windows CE is very closely related to developing for other Windows platforms. In fact, the Microsoft WinCE SDK integrates with the platform SDK and the Visual Studio development environment.

The SDK comes in two parts; the WinCE platform sdk and the WinCE development toolkit. The platform sdk is free, an can be downloaded from Microsoft’s site. This provides you with libraries, headers some samples and emulation environment. The toolkit, the part you pay for, includes the libraries and such needed to make executables for the MIPS and SH3 processors. The SDK and other information can be found on Microsoft’s development site at http://www.msdn.microsoft.com/cetools .

The emulation environment only runs under Windows NT. I think this is due to the fact that this platform supports Unicode, at least in part. It also relies on the Windows NT libraries for some of its functionality, which may lead to some incompatibility between code written for the emulator and that for the actual machines. Microsoft warns about this, and I’ll mention some implications later. You have to specifically target the x86 processor under NT when developing for the emulation environment. Developer Studio will automatically launch the emulator and run your application upon completion of compilation/linking. The Palm sdk is a separate 28MB download, and the PalmPC emulator seems to me to be a bit buggier than the HPC emulator. However, this may be due to my installation process.

The WinCE development environment integrates so well and completely into the Visual Studio environment, that you can target not only the emulator and all supported WinCE cpus in the same project workspace, but you can also target a Windows 95/98/NT version as well. This should promote the development of applications which integrate the handheld and desktop environments. I’d love to see a game where a group of friends could bring their handhelds together using a desktop PC as a host, and play a multiplayer game. Players could take their characters home with them, and possibly they could be able to play the same game, perhaps the same scenario, using different PCs as hosts. Theoretically, this could be done using the Dreamcast as host. This is similar to the situation with the new Neo Geo Pocket, a dedicated handheld game machine which integrates to the Dreamcast. I doubt that the Neo Geo Pocket runs WinCE, as it’s based around a Motorola 68000 processor. I’ll have a separate review of the Neo Geo Pocket in another article, if I can get development information for it.

I’ve concentrated on Visual C++, because that’s the environment I use, but it’s not the only game in town. The Pocket C compiler, which I mentioned in my last article, also exists for the WinCE platform. Metrowerks is working on their own Windows CE development kit, which should be coming out shortly. There’s also versions of Java, BASIC, and any number of other languages out there, as you might expect. This is, after all, a Microsoft operating system, so there’s bound to be widespread support. There’s even an effort underway to port the Gnu compiler to function on a Windows CE machine itself.


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