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Tips for XNA WP7 Developers

There are several things any XNA developer should know/consider when coming to the Windows Phone 7 platform. This post assumes you are familiar with the XNA Framework and with the changes between XNA 3.1 and XNA 4.0. It’s not exhaustive; it’s simply a list of things I’ve gathered over time. I may come back and add to it over time, and I’m happy to add anything anyone else has experienced or learned as well.


· The screen is either 800×480 or 480×800.

· But you aren’t required to use only those resolutions.

· The hardware scaler on the phone will scale up from 240×240.

· One dimension will be capped at 800 and the other at 480; which depends on your code, but you cannot have, e.g., an 800×600 back buffer – that will be created as 800×480.

· The hardware scaler will not normally change aspect ratio, though, so no unintended stretching.

· Any dimension (width, height, or both) below 240 will be adjusted to 240 (without any aspect ratio adjustment such that, e.g. 200×240 will be treated as 240×240).

· Dimensions below 240 will be honored in terms of calculating whether to use portrait or landscape.

· If dimensions are exactly equal or if height is greater than width then game will be in portrait.

· If width is greater than height, the game will be in landscape.

· Landscape games will automatically flip if the user turns the phone 180°; no code required.

· Default landscape is top = left. In other words a user holding a phone who starts a landscape game will see the first image presented so that the “top” of the screen is along the right edge of his/her phone, such that the natural behavior would be to turn the phone 90° so that the top of the phone will be held in the user’s left hand and the bottom would be held in the user’s right hand.

· The status bar (where the clock, battery power, etc., are found) is hidden when the Game-derived class sets GraphicsDeviceManager.IsFullScreen = true. It is shown when IsFullScreen = false. The default value is false (i.e. the status bar is shown).

· You should have a good reason for hiding the status bar. Users find it helpful to know what time it is, how much charge their battery has left, and whether or not their phone is in service range. This is especially true for casual games that you expect someone to play for a few minutes at a time, e.g. while waiting for some event to start, for a phone call to come in, or for a train, bus, or subway to arrive.

· In portrait mode, the status bar occupies 32 pixels of space. This means that a game with a back buffer of 480×800 will be scaled down to occupy approximately 461×768 screen pixels. Setting the back buffer to 480×768 (or some resolution with the same 0.625 aspect ratio) will avoid this scaling.

· In landscape mode, the status bar occupies 72 pixels of space. This means that a game with a back buffer of 800×480 will be scaled down to occupy approximately 728×437 screen pixels. Setting the back buffer to 728×480 (or some resolution with the same 1.51666667 aspect ratio) will avoid this scaling.


· Touch input is scaled with screen size.

· So if your back buffer is 600×360, a tap in the bottom right corner will come in as (599,359). You don’t need to do anything special to get this automatic scaling of touch behavior.

· If you do not use full area of the screen, any touch input outside the area you use will still register as a touch input. For example, if you set a portrait resolution of 240×240, it would be scaled up to occupy a 480×480 area, centered in the screen. If you touch anywhere above this area, you will get a touch input of (X,0) where X is a number from 0 to 239 (in accordance with your 240 pixel wide back buffer). Any touch below this area will give a touch input of (X,239).

· If you keep the status bar visible, touches within its area will not be passed to your game.

· In general, a screen measurement is the diagonal. So a 3.5” screen is 3.5” long from the bottom right corner to the top left corner. With an aspect ratio of 0.6 (480/800 = 0.6), this means that a phone with a 3.5” screen is only approximately 1.8” wide by 3” tall. So there are approximately 267 pixels in an inch on a 3.5” screen.

· Again, this time in metric! 3.5 inches is approximately 8.89 cm. So an 8.89 cm screen is 8.89 cm long from the bottom right corner to the top left corner. With an aspect ratio of 0.6, this means that a phone with an 8.89 cm screen is only approximately 4.57 cm wide by 7.62 cm tall. So there are approximately 105 pixels in a centimeter on an 8.89 cm screen.

· Think about the size of your finger tip. If you do not have large hands, think about the size of the fingertip of someone with large hands. Consider that when you are sizing your touch input. Especially consider that when you are spacing two touch targets near one another. You need to judge it for yourself, but items that are next to each other and are each 100×100 should be fine when it comes to selecting items individually. Smaller targets than that are ok provided that you leave space between them.

· You want your users to have a pleasant experience. Making touch controls too small or too close to one another will make them nervous about whether they will touch the right target. Take this into account when you plan out your game initially. If possible, do some quick size mockups on an actual phone using colored rectangles that you position and size where you plan to have your game controls. Adjust as necessary.

· People do not have transparent hands! Nor are their hands the size of a mouse pointer icon. Consider leaving a dedicated space for input rather than forcing the user to cover up to one-third of the screen with a finger just to play the game.

· Another benefit of designing your controls to use a dedicated area is that you’re less likely to have players moving their finger(s) so frantically that they accidentally hit the back button, start button, or search button (many phones have one or more of these on the screen itself – it’s easy to hit one by accident and really annoying if you hit, e.g., the search button and then quickly tap back only to find out that the game didn’t save your progress such that you just wasted all the time you spent playing).

· People do not like doing somersaults in order to move something forward with accelerometer-based controls. Test your accelerometer-based controls extensively and get a lot of feedback. Very well-known games from noted publishers have created really bad accelerometer controls and been virtually unplayable as a result. Also be wary of exceptions and other possible failures that the documentation warns about.

· When done properly, the accelerometer can add a nice touch to your game (see, e.g. ilomilo where the accelerometer was used to move the background; it added a nice touch without frustrating the user; I also think CarniVale does direct accelerometer controls very well). However, if done poorly, it will make your game an abomination unto the Marketplace. Days, weeks, perhaps even months of development time that you will never get back. I won’t name names; you can search the marketplace for games with terrible reviews and you’ll find them.


· The maximum frame rate is 30 frames per second. This was set as a compromise between battery life and quality.

· At least one model of phone is known to have a screen refresh rate that is between 59 and 60 hertz. Because of this, using a fixed time step with a target frame rate of 30 will cause a slight internal delay to build up as the framework is forced to wait slightly for the next refresh. Eventually the delay will get to the point where a draw is skipped in order to recover from the delay. (See Nick’s comment below for clarification.)

· To deal with that delay, you can either stay with a fixed time step and set the frame rate slightly lower or else you can go to a variable time step and make sure to adjust all of your update data (e.g. player movement distance) to take into account the elapsed time from the last update. A variable time step makes your update logic slightly more complicated but will avoid frame skips entirely.

· Currently there are no custom shaders. This might change in the future (there is no hardware limitation preventing it; it simply wasn’t a feature that could be implemented in the time available before launch).

· There are five built-in shaders. You can create a lot of nice effects with the built-in shaders.

· There is more power on the CPU than there is on the GPU so things you might typically off-load to the GPU will instead make sense to do on the CPU side.

· This is a phone. It is not a PC. It is not an Xbox 360. The emulator runs on a PC and uses the full power of your PC. It is very good for testing your code for bugs and doing early prototyping and layout. You should not use it to measure performance. Use actual phone hardware instead.

· There are many phone models, each of which has slightly different performance levels for I/O, screen blitting, CPU performance, etc. Do not take your game right to the performance limit on your phone since for some other phones you might be crossing their limits and leaving players with a bad experience. Leave a cushion to account for hardware differences.

· Smaller screened phones will have slightly more dots per inch (dpi). Larger screened phones will have slightly less. Either way, the dpi will be much higher than the typical 96 found on most computer screens. Make sure that whoever is doing art for your game takes this into account.

· Screens are only required to have 16 bit color (65,536 colors). This is common among smart phones. Using gradients on a 16 bit display can produce an ugly artifact known as banding. Banding is when, rather than a smooth transition from one color to another, you instead see distinct lines. Be careful to avoid this when possible. Banding can be avoided through careful art creation. Its effects can be minimized and even unnoticeable when the texture in question is always moving. You should be careful not to rely on “looks good on my phone” since some phones do have 32-bit displays and thus you’ll find yourself wondering why you’re getting bad reviews that complain about the graphics. Avoid gradients; if you can’t, make sure they are 16-bit safe.


· Never rely on sounds as your sole signal to the player that something is happening in the game. They might have the sound off. They might be playing somewhere loud. Etc.

· You have to provide controls to disable sound & music. These should be separate.

· On at least one model of phone, the volume control API currently has no effect. Players can adjust sound with their hardware volume buttons, but in game selectors simply won’t work. As such, it may not be worth the effort of providing anything beyond on/off switches for sound and music.

· MediaPlayer.GameHasControl will return true when a game is hooked up to a PC running Zune. When Zune is running, any attempts to do anything (beyond check GameHasControl) with MediaPlayer will cause an exception to be thrown. If this exception is thrown, catch it and disable music. Exceptions take time to propagate; you don’t want one popping up in every single run of your game’s Update method.

· Remember that players can already be listening to music or using the FM radio. In this case GameHasControl will be false and you should handle this appropriately. You can, alternately, ask the player for permission to stop their current music and play your music instead, but the (current) requirement that you restore their music when done is very hard (if not impossible) to deal with.

· You can still play sound effects even when the game doesn’t have control of the music, but don’t think this is a backdoor to playing music. Your game will fail certification if your “sound effect” seems to be more like music in scope and length.

This article is part of the GWB Archives. Original Author: Michael B. McLaughlin

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