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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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