Microsoft recently provided me with a Windows Phone 7 handset (an HTC Surround) and free license to download and try any games that struck my fancy-an offer I happily accepted. I've been anxious to see how Redmond's new mobile OS stacks up as a gaming device.
Its primary advantage is that it leverages Microsoft's existing Xbox Live platform and community of gamers, cultivated over the last eight years on the company's two living room consoles. When I turned the handset on for the first time it asked me to enter my Windows Live ID. Then, once the operating system booted up, I saw the familiar face of my Xbox 360 avatar already waiting for me on the Games Hub tile. I tapped it and the screen transitioned to a full body view of my virtual self (currently decked out in kingly Fable III duds). My existing gamerscore and a link to my achievements were found below, and all of my existing Xbox Live friends were listed on a contact page.
Of course, one can't play games purchased for Xbox 360 on a WP7 phone. That said, I did find a few spinoffs of console games-like Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, a simple strategy game that has players download a satellite map of their neighbourhood and then defend it from Crackdown 2's relentless mutant hordes-as well as a free app for Halo fans called Halo Waypoint, which lets players keep tabs on the franchise and download a wide variety of related video clips.
Clearly, Microsoft means WP7 to be a fully integrated part of the Xbox Live experience. Games come with achievements that allow players to grow their Xbox gamerscores, and WP7 users can see what their Xbox Live pals are up to and engage in turn-based games with them.
What's more, Microsoft's XNA toolset for developers means game makers have the option of creating cross-platform software for Xbox 360 and WP7, meaning it's possible to have games for both systems talk to each other.In a chat with Rick Claus, Microsoft Canada's senior technology evangelist, I was told that studios can develop games in which players simultaneously interact with both devices. They could, say, use their handset to exercise control over something happening in a game running on their Xbox 360.
"It's really up to the developers to figure out how they want to use the technology," he said.
Keep in mind, though, that many official Xbox Live games offered via WP7 come with a high price. Most of the titles that interested me were between $3.50 and $7.50; significantly more expensive than the games I usually play on my iPhone, which tend to range between free and two or three bucks. Star Wars: The Battle for Hoth, a simple Fieldrunners-esque tower defense game, for example, costs $0.99 when purchased for iPhone but swells to $5.49 if you buy it for WP7. This was the most extreme example I found, but it demonstrates the sort of hefty premium some gamers might end up paying simply to be able to add a few points to their gamerscores.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle Microsoft faces in making its platform appeal to game-loving smartphone consumers is breadth of software selection. With WP7 arriving so late to the party, Microsoft's marketplace has a lot of catching up to do in terms of content. Apps available for Android and iOS phones now number in the hundreds of thousands.
Mr. Claus told me that porting games from other mobile platforms is simple. However, developers still need to be convinced that there are enough WP7 users-and, more specifically, enough game-loving users-to make converting their wares to Microsoft's mobile operating system worth their time and energy. This will depend largely on how well Windows Phone 7 devices sell.
Speculating on what will happen in the months and years ahead is all fine and well, but what about folks looking to pick up a new device today? Are there enough good titles available for Windows Phone 7 right now to make it a platform worthy of gamers' consideration?
I think so-though it will depend on the sort of games you enjoy and how quickly you tend plough through them. I certainly found enough titles to keep me entertained during my brief evaluation of the HTC Surround. I've listed half a dozen of my favourites below.
This charming little puzzler from SouthEnd Interactive sees pals Ilo and Milo trying to navigate blocky suspended mazes to meet up with one another. Players switch between controlling the two friends, moving them in turns and working cooperatively to bypass obstacles and help each other move forward. Its quirky visual style vaguely recalls LittleBigPlanet, but its puzzles are all its own. A companion game for Xbox 360 with additional levels was released in early January.
The Harvest ($7.49)
Probably the best action game I've encountered on Windows Phone 7, The Harvest plays a little like a sci-fi-themed dungeon crawler. Action is presented from a low overhead view; just tap enemies to begin attacking them automatically then move in and collect the loot once the dust settles. It offers lots of ways to level up and augment your character, and the crisp polygonal graphics are great-on par with what might be found in similar games for Sony's PSP. Just don't expect much in the way of narrative or character development.
de Blob: Revolution ($3.49)
A port of a popular iPhone game, this puzzler sees players painting a path for de Blob to follow through a maze, trying to collect graydians along the way. The catch? He can't cross his own paint slick. It's a pretty basic concept that's been seen in plenty of other mobile games, but Revolution offers loads of stages, its colourful graphics are a treat, and the difficulty is satisfying. The only problem I encountered was that my finger kept blocking my view of the screen. Still, it became my go-to pick for situations when I needed to kill just a couple of minutes.
This thoroughly original undead adventure based on a popular tile board game has a bit of everything-dice, cards, strategy, humour, gore...even city planning. Players begin each turn by plopping down city blocks that might contain stores or other useful buildings, then roll the dice to see how far they get to move. Careful, though; run into a ghoul and you'll need to roll again to see if you manage to defeat it. Meanwhile, other players doing the same thing try to foil your progress by playing cards that interfere with your movement and rolls. It sounds complicated-and it is-but rolling a four to blow a hole through a zombie attacker can be surprisingly gratifying.
Rise of Glory ($3.49)
A good place for flying enthusiasts to get started with Windows Phone 7, this aerial combat game sports slick graphics-including some nicely detailed old-timey propeller planes-and a surprisingly accessible control scheme that mixes accelerometer-based steering with virtual buttons and sliders to manage speed, rudder, and weapons. Fun stuff-assuming you don't mind fellow commuters staring at you as you tilt and turn your phone in odd ways on a crowded bus.
Max & The Magic Marker ($7.49)
This award-winning platformer came to Wii, Mac, and Windows last year, but this is its first appearance on a mobile operating system, making it a bit of a coup for Microsoft. If you've yet to play it, Max & The Magic Marker is an imaginative side-scroller that has players collecting ink for their markers and then using it draw shapes onscreen to solve puzzles and create ways forward (think bridges, see-saws, etc.). Plenty of touch screen titles have used similar mechanics in recent years, but rare are the games that employ them with such skill and polish.