The Zune HD is out on the streets of the US now, but with a limited number of launch games and not much word from Microsoft as to whether it's going for the iPod touch's gaming jugular, or leaning more toward a multimedia device with a few games on the side.
Given the Zune HD's impressive spec sheet, the former seems more likely, so we decided to get in touch with Babaroga - developer of ZuneHD launch title Space Battle 2 - to find out a bit more about the device's gaming potential.Pocket Gamer: How did you wind up working on one of the Zune launch titles?
Andreja Djokovic: Babaroga has been around for a long time. We established ourselves as a dependable independent developer that delivers, and has been delivering, high quality work throughout our eight years.
With the emergence of powerful devices like Apple’s iDevices and Microsoft’s Zunes, we jumped at the opportunity to bring content to them.
Last year, we worked with Microsoft on their initial concept for Space Battle on the first generation of Zunes. That version of Space Battle was distributed with a firmware upgrade to millions of devices, and the reception was great.
When Zune HD was emerging, the opportunity presented itself to expand on the original concept, and we definitely loved the idea. The thought was that we would adapt the original content to exploit the new hardware features.
So, in addition to the original content we had, for the sequel we added a number of new features.Was Microsoft looking for something specific, or games within a certain genre to get Zune going as a games platform?
When we discussed our titles, the idea was to present casual games with mass appeal to a very wide audience.What sort of challenges did you face in developing for the Zune HD?
Microsoft has always been very developer friendly throughout the years, across many different platforms. The tools, developer platforms, and support have been geared toward ease of development. This enables the developer to create content quickly and efficiently.
Since Zune is another platform that allows the user to create content using XNA, the overall API ramp-up was minimal.
Some small development problems were present, but those should be expected when working on a new platform that's under development, when the hardware is being finalised and API is somewhat evolving. This is to be expected with any emerging platform where the development is done in parallel.What sort of a reaction have you had to Space Battle 2? Are people playing the Zune HD games yet?
I believe that the overall experience is very positive. It's a great looking game, stocked with many features - ship customisation, racing levels, multiplayer connectivity, and multiple difficulty levels.
The game was made with the casual user in mind. In other words, the lessons that we brought from the mobile world - casual, all-inclusive gameplay that would be approachable to everyone, and not just hard-core gamers.As a games platform, how does the Zune HD compare to the iPhone/iPod touch? Is it as capable with 3D graphics, multi-touch controls and accelerometer driven games, for instance?
We have experience with iPhone development, having a few games in the App Store, and a few others including some 3D iPhone titles emerging soon. So, speaking from the development perspective, I would say overall they are very comparable, and all of the feature sets exist on Zune HD that exist on iPhone.
There are some additional touch features on Zune HD that make the platform extra cool, such as touch pressure sensitivity. The screen colours are really, really great - very saturated, beautiful, brilliant colors.
Also, 3D gaming on Zune HD is going to have a great future. I think that it has a potential of reviling dedicated handheld gaming devices.From a technical standpoint, is the Zune HD equipped to make superior games to the iPhone/iPod touch?
I would say so. The XNA framework has matured nicely over the years and makes it very easy to roll out high quality content quickly.
In mobile game development, the biggest limiting factors to creativity are technical limitations of devices. With the emergence of iPhone and Zune HD, limitations have shifted to creativity and execution. With a great platform like XNA, even execution issues become minimised.
Microsoft does have the advantage that they have been in the game space for a very long time. Having a common development API among their platforms allows streamlining of content like never seen before.What does the Zune HD need to establish it as a gaming platform, as well as a media player? Do you think this is something Microsoft even wants for the device?
It is true that Zune HD is a multimedia device. Games are a huge part of the entertainment experience, and having such great hardware features, I can't see why Microsoft wouldn't want to see this platform grow. It would be great to see the convergence of content across all platforms – this is my wish as a developer.Do you think we'll be seeing a lot of ports of iPhone, DS or PSP games to the Zune HD, once developers get access to SDKs and such?
‘Ports’ is somewhat of a tainted word. Aren’t we all tired of rehashed branded ports already? But, it is an easy way to monetise the existing product, and it is the necessary evil of the industry. So I do expect to see it when the floodgates open.
However, I very much hope to see developers take this platform seriously and create content that exploits the features of the device and, further, develop strong, unique, and original content.
I believe that Microsoft has already released some Zune extensions that would allow developers to put their own content on the device.What sort of development tools does the Zune HD require?
If a developer has developed any content for XBLA, they will find themselves on very familiar grounds. All that is needed are Visual Studio or Visual C# Express and XNA Game Studio.You mentioned you have another 3D game in the works for the Zune HD. Can you tell us anything about it?
The game has not been announced yet, so I would not be able to get ahead of Microsoft in discussing it. But I can say that you will find that comparable games on iPhone do not have the same production value.
When we discussed the game initially, the idea was that the game would be very casual with mass appeal. We wanted to add to that, and tried to take a game genre and add some flavour to it, which I believe we did quite formidably. I'm not aware of the roadmap they charted out (other than what has been recently announced), but it's been tremendous fun developing it. I think that you could see a similar scope of games on handheld gaming devices.What's been the most difficult part about developing a full 3D game for the Zune HD?
Microsoft’s Zune team has been very easy and great to work with. Publisher/developer interactions have been great. The only part of development that we ran into problems with was the parallel development of hardware, parts of API, and a tight deadline. That said, we still went from nothing to a full 3D game with 4-player wi-fi multiplayer in three months.How will you be selling your new game? Has Microsoft got a sales outlet in place for Zune HD yet?
The 3D title on which we worked is one of the 3D launch titles that Microsoft wanted. I believe it will be available in Zune’s Marketplace shortly.
I can’t speak to the sales outlet at the moment; I would expect Microsoft to discuss that topic soon.Will you be able to supply updates to the game, after release?
I hope that the content we provide to the end-user is complete and full-featured. However, as a developer who stands behind the content created, I would absolutely like to make sure that the product is fully maintained and updated as needs arise and plans get developed.What are your expectations for the Zune HD? Will it become a strong competitor for the iPhone/iPod touch, and another sales outlet for both big studios and indie developers, like the App Store?
I think that Zune HD will appeal to many developers, and I hope that the platform does provide strong competition. I understand that through such strong competition, the end-user really benefits from the richness of the content.
Historically, whenever we find ourselves in a place of one company’s monopoly, we find the level of stagnation increases. Having a strong and viable platform would drive further innovations in application distribution and content richness.Are there any other aspects of Zune HD development that are particularly exciting?
Player customisation is something we, as a company, strongly believe in. All of our recent projects give the user the ability to extensively customise their characters. In Space Battle 2, we provided the user with many different ship options that have an effect on how the game is played. In the 3D game, we have 30 unlockable characters. Once unlocked, they become playable.
As far as Zune HD goes, it's a very neat and powerful device with a lot of potential. The development platform is very approachable, and will provide developers easy access to the powerful features of the Zune HD.Thanks very much to Andreja for taking the time to chat, and for helping us all get a tighter grip on the Zune HD's gaming potential. Check out www.babaroga.com for more info on the company's Zune, mobile and iPhone titles.