Windows Phone 7 for Flash Developers, Part 1
As I write this I am in possession of a Windows Phone 7 developer handset, the problem is I don't know quite what to do with it yet. I think WP7 seems like a well thought-out platform, hence my interest in developing for it, but as a completely new technology, it's hard to know exactly what the best strategy for app and game development is. Here are some random facts and thoughts about the platform. (Since I first posted this, Mike Ormond from Microsoft has emailed me with some more definitive answers, so I have updated the post to reflect this).
- Let's get the bad news out of the way first: there is currently no support for 3rd party tools like Adobe AIR and Unity3D. Although Mike says "there will almost certainly be support for 3rd party tools" in the future, he couldn't give any specifics about what those might be, and as always with these things, it's impossible to know whose court the ball is in.
- The phone's browser works well, but doesn't support either Flash or HTML5 content at present. This may well change, but nothing is confirmed or has been officially announced by Microsoft for either HTML5 or Flash. The lack of HTML5 support really surprised me, considering how enthusiastically Microsoft are supporting it with IE9.
- Ok, now on to the good stuff. You can develop apps with Silverlight and games with XNA. You can only develop on Windows 7 or Vista (SP2), and in fact for the XNA emulator to work you need Windows 7 and a recently produced graphics card, so I can only test games on my device, not on the emulator. Installing the free developer tools takes about 2 hours - you get special versions of Visual Studio 2010 and Blend 4. Visual Studio is good, although 2010 uses WPF and doesn't feel as punchy as 2008 did on my machine. The auto-completion is great, although it doesn't have all the handy keyboard shortcuts I'm used to in Flashdevelop. Blend is a design tool similar to Flash Catalyst, but I haven't really played with it yet.
- To release apps to the app store, you need to pay an annual fee of about £70/$100. This fee also allows you to release games on Xbox 360 indie games. Xbox shares 95% of the same XNA apis with WP7, so it would be relatively easy to make a game on one platform and port to the other - you would just need to account for input and screen size. I have paid my fee, so I will definitely release something for one of the two platforms this year. I've always wanted to do a console game, so I will probably try to do something that I can release on both.
- Silverlight is a high-level, vector based scene-graph with standard components like buttons, menus etc, a bit like Flash + Flex. Silverlight could theoretically be used to make games as well as apps, although I don't know what the graphical performance would be like. If you make a game with Silverlight, you can still make it show up in the games section of the marketplace rather than with apps. The phone UI has nice, consistent styling and fonts, and by default your Silverlight apps match this styling automatically.
- XNA is a fairly low-level game/graphics library which exposes hardware accelerated 3D rendering and 2D blitting. I've not benchmarked it yet, but it's really fast. XNA has no scene-graph or concept of a sprite, so if you are used to working this way in Flash, some things are going to take you a lot longer. See this post for what I think are the benefits of a scene-graph, but the main difference for me is not being able to create hierarchies of objects, for example a player object containing arm and leg objects that can be manipulated relative to the position of the player. I'm going to investigate some way of recreating this functionality myself.
- The resolution is really high (800x480) on a pretty small screen, so if I want to use any of my pixel art characters from other games I will probably have to look at double-scaling everything. Otherwise, a 32x32 pixel character is only about 2mm on the screen. Mike tells me that a lower resolution device may be available in the future, but I'm not sure how existing apps would be scaled scaled down to fit a lower resolution, and I could potentially see that causing problems.
- There are paid apps and free apps, just like iOS, although apparently you can only submit 5 free apps per year before you have to pay an additional fee - presumably this is to stop shovelware, so may not be a bad thing.
- Like Apple with iAds, Microsoft are running there own advertising network. Currently this feature is only available in the US, although is set to come to other countries in early 2011. However, it ONLY supports Silverlight apps, not XNA, so isn't much use to me anyway. Mike confirms that it is unlikely XNA ads will ever be supported, although he points out that other networks are allowed, so if Admob want to add XNA/WP7 support, they can. Will they? Who knows.
- Games have a 2-tier system where the big studios are able to have Xbox Live branding and support, such as achievements, and indie game are not. I understand why they have done this, but as an indie it does put you at a disadvantage to the big boys.
- Paid apps support a trial mode, which I think is a really good thing for both users and developers. Users can try an app out before they buy it without the need for the developer to create a separate "lite" version. You just specify which features should work in trial mode or how long the trial should last. This does create a bit of a dilemma for a game developer though. Many Flash and iPhone games (e.g. Cannabalt) have a play time of just a few minutes. If you are able to get this full game experience from the trial mode, there is no incentive to buy the game. And with no ad network support at the moment, I don't see any way to monetize a short-form game. The way to make a profit would seem to be to make a long form game with a very engaging/adictive first few minutes as a trial mode.
- In terms of fee-for-service work, the Silverlight side is likely to be dominated by existing .NET/Silverlight developers, of which there are many. I think it is unlikely that day-rates for Windows Phone 7 development will reach the enviably lucrative heights of iOS. As the market leader, iOS apps are in very high demand from paying clients. At the same time, the superficial strangeness of Objective-C and requirement to use a Mac reduces the developer base and greatly limits supply. This creates a perfect storm of high developer costs that I doubt we'll see in the more abundant world of .NET developers, on a new platform with many fewer potential customers. Gamedev, of course, is really a quite a different set of skills, which many Flash developers have in abundance, so if a market did emerge for branded games, this could be a good area for Flash developers to look into.
In part 2 of the series I will be testing rendering performance by porting BunnyMark to Silverlight and XNA!