Gaming on Windows Phone 7: A Strong Start, Room for Improvement
Even if the depth and breadth of games improve dramatically, and even if Microsoft fully exploits Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7, the platform could use some improvement in other areas.
Take the Zune software integration, for example. You can buy, download, and sync music and video to your phone via the Zune desktop software. You can also browse and buy apps, including games, but they don't actually download to your PC and then sync to your phone. Rather, the software seems to signal to your phone that the app has been purchased, and the phone downloads the item on its own. If you're not on Wi-Fi, that data use can add up fast. The Zune desktop software doesn't even keep a library of the apps you have bought, as it does with music and video.
Browsing through Windows Phone 7 apps is a bit rough in the Zune software, too. Screenshots are too small, and they're all in portrait orientation even when the app is designed to be used in landscape mode--this is especially a problem for games, most of which are made for playing in landscape orientation. Applications list their release date, but you can't easily see if or when an app has been updated, and what those updates added. Some apps are miscategorized as games, such as an app called Films (which lets you browse your Netflix queue) or another one dubbed Stopwatch (which is just what it sounds like).
Assuming that Microsoft cleans up these nagging issues in the desktop client and in the storefront, Windows Phone 7 devices themselves still need some improvement. Games appear unable to extend or deactivate the sleep timer for a device: Set your phone down for a minute to run to the bathroom or answer the door, and you'll come back to a dark screen. Wake your phone up from sleep, and you all too often need to relaunch the game rather than resume where you left off. Most games I tested ran smoothly and quickly, but I saw odd moments of stuttering, and some of the load times are unusually long.
Developers, Developers, Developers
Although developers seem to love how robust and easy to use the development tools for Windows Phone 7 are, those tools could make building premium games a challenge. Applications, games included, appear to have no access to the camera. This problem prevents the creation of apps such as Layar, or of augmented-reality functions like those in Yelp and other apps on iPhone or Android. It also precludes augmented-reality games.
Microsoft's development tools use a custom, free version of Visual Studio 2010 with Expression Blend and Silverlight. Most Windows Phone game creators will build their projects with a special version of XNA Game Studio, just like what indie developers use on Xbox 360. These tools make it easy to get an app up and running, but they can be limiting for major game development. Access to the underlying hardware is somewhat restricted, and developers can't really use third-party 3D game engines, something that is becoming all the rage for premium smartphone games. John Carmack recently showed off the hot Id Tech 5 engine powering Rage on the iPhone. Epic Games will license the Unreal Engine for iOS developers; you can get a taste of it by downloading Epic Citadel today from the App Store. The popular Unity engine supports iOS and Android, and is already used in a large number of games. You won't see any of this on Windows Phone 7 unless Microsoft either changes its rules or allows exceptions for specific developers or publishers on a case-by-case basis.
Next: It's Only the Beginning