Following Microsoft's earlier announcement that its Zune portable media player was primed to open late this year for game development, we were eager to get our hands on games running on the device. In meeting with Microsoft's Dave Mitchell, director of XNA game platform marketing, we were able to do just that and learn a few additional tidbits about exactly how gaming will be hitting Zune later this year.

As reported earlier
, Zune development kits will start shipping to teams this spring, with titles rolling out before the year's end. Microsoft is aiming to make the development process as easy as possible, unifying the tools used for Zune game development with those already offered for Xbox 360 and the PC.

In short, the company hopes to bring in developers to create Zune titles with the promise of easy development. Additionally, the downloadable nature of Zune games creates an environment that is far less competitive than releasing traditional retail titles.

Mitchell, however, looks beyond the benefit to developers and highlighted the opportunity Zune will provide consumers. "As gamers, it means we're going to have a greater variety of games," he reasoned.

Amongst the first of these is Zauri, a top-down shooter controlled exclusively via the device's touchpad. Moving your spaceship to blast aliens with your laser is as easy as drawing your finger across the pad. Tap it and you drop a smart bomb. The huge screen made great sense for Zauri – not only did it look crisp and detailed, but it worked well for the top-down action. A simple game, sure, but nonetheless entertaining.

Mitchell assuaged concerns that only new Zune users will be able to play games when the service launches before the year's end. "It'll work on first- and second-generation devices when we roll out those beta development kits," he stated.

Embedded within those kits is networking software that will enable multiplayer for up to eight gamers. Obviously, support for multiplayer will be on a game-by-game basis, but the potential is there.

Finally, when questioned about the possibility for full retail titles, Mitchell downplayed its importance. "We're really focusing on community games and what those mean for Zune."

Undoubtedly, Microsoft is eager to see how the community of gamers will respond to this new push, especially in light of staunch competition from mobile and iPhone/iPod games. As are we, for that matter.