Apple's move to turn the smartphone into a big slab of glass with no physical buttons (a goal they've almost, but not quite, managed) handed game developers a new paradigm to work with. Plotting the successes will have Angry Birds and Flight Control as leading the new wave of game styles. Angry Birds captured the idea of pick up and play perfectly, and ushered in the "three stars to rate your progress" as being near universal in level based games; while Flight Control took the unique capability of a touch screen over button based games to create a whole new genre - the line drawing game.
As hardware evolves, so will game styles also change, but it's not just down to hardware though, part of the evolution is down to smart choices made by the developer when looking at the operating system and how it is going to be used by the players. I reviewed Blocked In last week, a level based game with a huge number of levels. When you open the game up, you are taken not to the menu, not to the level choice screen, but straight to the next level you need to beat. Straight to the action, with the deep linking that Windows Phone provides every developer. I can go in, play a level or two, and get out again, all while waiting in a queue.
If it's a good enough model for accessing my Google calendar, it's good enough for my gaming.
And this is smart thinking. I know that you can look at gaming catalogues over the last few years and see the rise of the casual game, so this is not a new idea, but the form and function that evolved in casual games could provide developers with some signposts to the differences that Windows Phone can provide.
It's clear that a 'modern' mobile game is one that occurs totally within a touch screen, with no external controls. People can fight all they want to get a 3D first person shooter on a capacitive screen, but it's not going to work (very well) without dual analogue sticks and multiple buttons to control a player's actions (and if that's what you really want, then the Sony PS Vita launches this week).
Games have moved on to use first the iOS platform, and then, because there was very little difference in terms of input and output, flourished on Android as well.
Now Windows Phone comes into view. Again, there's the 16:9 (ish) ratio touch screen, very few external controls, and the same games are making an appearance on Windows Phone. But the releases that are coming out now are showing signs of evolving to take account of Windows Phone's special skills. Deep linking into one of the game screens is one of them. Using the push messaging system in conjunction with the alert bar and an alert on the Live Tile is one that's already popular so you can see when you need to make a move (for example Words by Post). This is Glance and Go in use, not for personal information, but for personal joy.
So what's not been under-utilised by game developers, and could lead the next round of development on Windows Phone?
I want to start with the Live Tile concept, because so much could be done with that. News and media applications already make good use of the back side of the tile (the Baconit and, err, All About Windows Phone apps are good examples), so why are the pinned tiles for games so... static? A mini-screen that can always show alerts, information and graphics? A way to pull you back into the game, show you things happening, or challenge you through an online high score table being updated?
Take something as popular as Farmville. You can already manage your Facebook-based farm on iOS, but if you were to bring Farmville over to Windows Phone, the Live Tile is going to be there, pulling you back in, keeping you up to date, and letting you see your farm in real time.
Then there's social. More than any other smartphone platform, Windows Phone ties itself tightly to networks like Twitter and Facebook. That's already implied in something like Farmville, but you have a phone that knows your groups of friends (set up in the People hub). Getting a wide area network of friends together as a team in a collaborative game changes gaming from a solitary single player game to something you can share. Throw in online leaderboards and promotion on Facebook, and you not only have a game with unique possibilities that fits in with the Windows Phone ethos, but something new and fresh in an industry always looking for the next big thing.
Windows Phone as a platform may have a lot of familiar smartphone DNA, but it also has many unique attributes. Developers need to think about these and build games around those software and hardware capabilities, and to think about how people use their Windows Phone. With that framework in mind, they can work on the next 'killer' game for the platform.