Making Games for Windows Phone 7

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Getting Started with Windows Phone 7

There are two ways we can develop games for Windows Phone 7: Silverlight and XNA Game Studio. Although Silverlight does have basic graphics capabilities, those capabilities are provided to support applications and are not ideally suited for games. XNA, on the other hand, was developed specifically for game development!

Before learning all about XNA Game Studio 4.0, Visual C# 2010, projects, configurations, Xbox Live, App Hub, and other great things that will interest a game developer, we need to first understand this new platform. Windows Phone 7, which we might call WP7 for short, is an operating system for smartphone devices.

In “the old days,” if you knew how to turn on a computer, you were called a “computer geek.” It didn’t really matter if you knew how to do anything with a computer; it was just assumed by many (especially in the older generations) that turning it on required knowledge of the black arts in electronics wizardry. That seems to be the case with most new technology, which people will tend to resist and perhaps even fear to a certain degree. When cars were first invented at the dawn of the automobile industry, people who drove around in a “horseless carriage” were considered snobbish, among the wealthy class—that is, until Henry Ford built a car that just about anyone could afford to buy. Not only did most people not have a computer in the early days, but most people at the time did not even begin to know how to go about buying one.

I’m speaking in terms of the time period around the mid- to late-1970s, at the dawn of the personal computer (PC) age. At that time, PCs were few and far between, and a kid who owned a Commodore PET, a Tandy TRS-80, or an Apple was a rare and lucky kid indeed! Most big businesses used big mainframe computers to do the most time-consuming tasks of any business—accounting, payroll, and taxes. But even at this time period, most white-collar employees who worked in an office did not have a PC. Imagine that! It’s unheard-of today! Today, the first thing a new employee must have is a cubicle or an office with a PC. And, not just that, but a networked PC with Internet access.

Windows Phone 7 as a Game Platform?

There was a time not too many years ago when just having a PC was enough to do your work—programming, software engineering, computer-aided design (CAD), word processing, accounting. Even in the 1980s, it was rare for every employee to have a PC at his or her desk, and even more rare for families to have a PC in their homes. A lot of kids might have had a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or Sega Master System (SMS) or the older Atari 2600, all of which used cartridge-based games. A step up from these video game systems were the true PCs of the time, such as the Apple II, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari 400/800, and Atari ST. No computer enthusiasts at the time used an IBM PC at home! MS-DOS was a terrible operating system compared to the other, more user-friendly ones. If you wanted to do programming, you would naturally gravitate to the consumer PCs, not the business-oriented IBM PC. Now, at the time, the Apple Macintosh was pretty expensive and the ordinary kid would prefer an Apple II, but that was the start of the Mac, back in the 1980s (although it has been completely redesigned several times before reaching the modern OS X).

Well, today the world sure is a different place. If we just ignore how powerful computers are today, just look at all the hand-held systems—they’re everywhere! The Nintendo DS family and the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) family are the two leading competitors of hand-held video game systems, and they can do almost anything that their big brothers (Nintendo Wii and Sony PS3) can do, including online play. These things are everywhere! You can’t walk through a store or a mall without seeing kids carrying some sort of mobile video game system with them, not to mention phones. And it’s not just kids, but adults have their toys too, like Apple iPhone, iPod, and iPad, for which some really great games are available! One of my favorites is Plants vs Zombies by PopCap Games. You can also get the game for Xbox 360, Mac, Windows, and Nintendo DS. And you know what? Some popular games are starting to come out for Windows Phone 7 because it’s fairly easy to port an Xbox 360 game to Windows Phone 7.

So what is Windows Phone 7 all about? Obviously, since you’re reading this book, you are interested in programming games for the device. That goes without saying, but what is development for this platform really like? What’s it all about? We have to ask ourselves these questions because developing a game that you want to be taken seriously requires a pretty big investment of time, if not money. Most likely, anyone looking at Windows Phone 7 for game development is already experienced with XNA Game Studio. If you have never used this development tool, the next hour will be helpful because we’ll be creating projects and working with Visual C# quite a bit. I’ll assume that you might not have any experience with Visual Studio, but I do not want to annoy experienced developers, so bear with me a bit while we cover the basics such as these!

History of the Platform

Windows Phone 7 follows a long history of mobile devices from Microsoft, dating clear back to the Pocket PC in 2000. Pocket PC competed directly with the market leader of the time, Palm. The Palm Pilot was arguably the progenitor of all handsized mobile computers today, including cellphones.

Interestingly enough, I would not consider Apple’s iPhone as an evolutionary leap beyond Palm Pilot—ignoring the many devices that have entered the market in the intervening years of the past decade. The iPhone does not follow in the lineage of “mobile computer” dating back to the Palm Pilot and Pocket PC because it was derived from Apple’s wildly successful iPod. The iPod should have been invented by Sony, the company responsible for the “Walkman” generation of portable music players. Everyone in the 1980s and early 1990s owned a “Walkman,” regardless of the brand, in the same vein that everyone has played with a “Frisbee,” despite these being brand names with competing companies making similar products. We Americans, due to targeted advertising, come to associate whole industries with a single product name, merely out of habit.

At any rate, you might have heard the term “podcast.” The term is rather generalized today to mean audio streamed or recorded in digital form for playback on a digital media player. But the concept was invented by Apple for the iPod and iTunes (including iTunes University), which now work with video files as well as audio files. While everyone was caught up in the Napster lawsuits, Apple was busy developing iTunes and began selling music in a revolutionary new way: per track instead of per album. Have you ever heard a catchy new song on the radio and wanted to buy it for your iPod, Microsoft Zune, Creative Zen, or similar media player? Well, in the past decade, you would buy the whole CD and then rip the tracks into MP3 with software such as Windows Media Player or Winamp. This point is debatable, but I would argue that Apple iTunes proved that digital music sales can be a commercial success, highly profitable both for the recording artists and for the service provider (iTunes). Amazon is probably the second case example that proves this is now a commercially successful way to sell music.

The point is, iPod was so successful that it evolved into the iPhone and iPad, and competing companies have been trying to keep up with Apple in both of these markets now for years! The iPod and its relatives are insanely great, which is why everyone wants one. More than a fashion statement, Apple understood what the consumer wanted and made it for them. What did customers want? Not a do-everything badly device, but a do-the-most-important-thing great device. In contrast, many companies hire “experts” to conduct consumer studies, and then spend millions trying to convince customers that they really want and need that product. This might be one good way to break into a relatively unknown market or to adjust the feature set of a product according to consumer interest. But the situation Apple finds itself in today is enviable, and with that comes emulation.

The previous iteration of Windows Mobile was called Windows Phone 6.5, and over a dozen hardware manufacturers and networks supported it, from Acer to HP to Samsung. Prior to that, Windows Phone 5 revolutionized the platform with a GPU (graphics processing unit) for 3D rendering.

The current Windows Phone 7’s operating system traces its roots directly back to the original Pocket PC operating system released in 2000. Pocket PCs came with a stylus, much like the one used on a Nintendo DS. This allows for precise input coordinates, necessary for apps like a spreadsheet (a portable version of Excel called Pocket Excel was available). However, stylus input can be tedious in today’s hustle-and-bustle environment, where it is more convenient to use a thumb to do things on the device’s touchscreen. Who wants to fish out a stylus just to tap a silly pop-up button (which Microsoft developers are notoriously fond of) when a thumb or another finger will do the trick?

The online capabilities of the Sega Dreamcast video game console were made possible thanks to Windows CE. If you look at the front of the Dreamcast case, you will find a Windows CE logo.

To get technical, Windows Phone 7 is based on the Windows Mobile operating system, a new name for the classic Windows CE operating system. Windows CE goes back quite a few years. “Pocket PC” was a marketing name for Windows CE 3.1. Developers at the time used Microsoft eMbedded Visual Tools 3.0 (see Figure 1.1) to develop for Windows CE 3.1. This was a modified version of Visual Studio 6 for Windows CE that was actually a remarkable development environment! It was stable, fully featured, and free! This might be considered an early predecessor of the Express Editions now made available free by Microsoft. At the time, there were many Pocket PC models available, but the most notable ones were from Casio, HP, Dell, and Compaq.

FIGURE 1.1 Microsoft eMbedded Visual C++ 3.0.
FIGURE 1.1 Microsoft eMbedded Visual C++ 3.0.

Microsoft supported game development on the Pocket PC (Windows CE 3.1) by providing a low-level library called the Game API. It was nowhere near as powerful as DirectX for rendering; but neither was the Game API at the slower level of the Windows GDI (graphics device interface). No, the Game API did give access to the actual bits of the video memory, making it possible to write a low-level blitter (a term derived from the “bit-block transfer” form of memory copying). Many developers worked on sprite renderers and game libraries using the Game API, and a book was published on the subject—Pocket PC Game Programming: Using the Windows CE Game API, by Prima-Tech—in 2001. Some copies are still floating around if you’re curious about “the early days” and the predecessor of WP7. At the time, developers had their choice of eMbedded Visual Basic or eMbedded Visual C++, but today we’re developing games for WP7 using XNA and C#. In that 2001 book is a rudimentary game library surrounding WinMain() and the other Windows core code necessary when working in C++, as well as integrated Game API built into a series of classes.

I created one published game using the library from that early book, an indie game called Perfect Match, shown in Figure 1.2. It was sold on mobile sites such as www. Handango.com. Since I lost contact with the artist who did all the renderings, the game could not be updated or ported to any newer systems. By the way, the screen resolution was 240×320 in portrait orientation, and most games were designed to be played this way; but you’ll note that many WP7 games require the player to tilt the device sideways (landscape orientation). This is something that was not common back in the Pocket PC days, but it makes sense now.

FIGURE 1.2 Perfect Match, a Pocket PC 2000 game.

Another example from the time period is the final sample game in the book, a multiplayer game called Pocket Air Hockey, shown in Figure 1.3. This was a quick game, but even now, looking back on it, I think the chat keypad and networking code were quite good for a book example. I used the Windows Sockets (winsock) library with threading. To develop the game, I had two Pocket PCs (a Casio Cassiopeia and an HP Jornada) each equipped with a Hawking CF LAN card plugged into the top expansion port with blue CAT5 network cables going into each one. Can you imagine that? (There were also 802.11b Wi-Fi cards available for the Compact- Flash adapter port.) I just don’t think anyone was really into developing multiplayer games for this platform at the time.

FIGURE 1.3 Pocket Air Hockey, a networked multiplayer game.
FIGURE 1.3 Pocket Air Hockey, a networked multiplayer game.

There was no single processor standard for the original Pocket PC 2000 devices, but three came to be used: Hitachi SH-3, NEC VR MIPS, and StrongARM. The ARM processor would become the single standard for Pocket PC 2002. The reason there have been so many releases in recent years, compared to the past, without significant updates to the core operating system (Windows CE) is that there’s a need to keep up with the aggressive cellphone market’s demand for change, even when change is not entirely necessary. When a company releases some trivial new feature in one of its phones, all competitors must come up with a compelling reason for customers to choose their phone instead. The carrier networks (T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, primarily) also push hard for new devices and plans to maintain their customers and attract new customers. So, Windows Mobile 6 might not even be recognizable between 2007 and 2009, but the changes are primarily cosmetic, but also have to do with user input and application support. This market has been chaotic, to say the least! Table 1.1 is a historical list of releases for the platform.

History of Windows Mobile
TABLE 1.1 History of Windows Mobile
History of Windows Mobile
TABLE 1.1 History of Windows Mobile

Windows Phone 7 was planned for release in 2009 with a core based on Windows CE 5.0—a core dating back to 2005. The core was just too old, so development failed. At that point, a stopgap product was released (Windows Phone 6.5) while Windows Phone 7 went back to the drawing board. The Windows Mobile team ended up rebuilding the new platform from scratch around the new Windows CE 6.0 core for release the following year (2010).

Hardware Specifications

What we have today in the WP7, a completely new operating system built from the ground up around the Windows CE 6.0 core, is a modern touch-enabled architecture with no resemblance to the Windows desktop computer operating system. It took many years, but Microsoft finally perfected the platform! No longer must mobile users tap with a stylus. A sample phone built by Samsung and connected to the AT&T network is shown in Figure 1.4. WP7 competes directly with two other smartphones in the industry today: Apple iPhone and Google Android. Apple is a closed architecture, meaning only Apple builds iPhone devices. WP7 and Android, on the other hand, are not so much mobile devices as they are operating systems. That is why there are many devices available in the Android and WP7 format—but there is only one iPhone. From a developer’s point of view, this openness makes life more difficult. Android, for instance, may be too open, with many different screen sizes and hardware specs. Developing a game for iPhone? That’s a piece of cake, as far as specifications go, because there is only one (although, admittedly, adjustments to the settings are required for iPad due to its larger screen resolution).

Table 1.2 shows the common hardware specifications among most of the models available at the time of this writing. The most notable thing about the specifications is that they now follow a basic standard across all manufacturers. Apple has proven that extreme openness and flexibility are not always desirable traits in mobile hardware. One of the difficulties facing Android developers today is the need to support many different hardware devices in a single code base. Windows Mobile developers had to deal with a similar problem in Windows Phone 6.4 and earlier versions, but as you can see, WP7 has a much simpler subset of hardware specifications. This is a good thing for developers, greatly simplifying the code, allowing developers to focus on game design and gameplay rather than hardware idiosyncrasies among the different makes and models.

A Windows Phone 7 device built by Samsung.
FIGURE 1.4 A Windows Phone 7 device built by Samsung.
Windows Phone 7 Hardware Specifications
TABLE 1.2 Windows Phone 7 Hardware Specifications

WP7 is an awesome integration of many technologies that have evolved over the years, beginning with the early Windows CE and Pocket PC devices, to the modern, powerful smartphone of today with advanced 3D rendering capabilities that truly bring cutting-edge gaming into the palm of your hand.