What video game developers think of Surface

iPad killer or Microsoft's secret weapon in the battle for the next generation?

It is, undoubtedly, the biggest tech story of the week: Microsoft's announcement of its iPad killer: Surface.

At least, that's what we had been led to believe. It turns out Surface is a hybrid of tablet and PC, performing the role of both with its ultra-thin keyboard built into its screen cover. And it comes in two flavours, the Windows RT model and the fancy pants Windows 8 Pro model, which, we all expect, will burn a rather large hole in our wallets.

While the RT model is most like a tablet, the Pro is an altogether different beast, and packs some serious horsepower. So, depending on which Surface you're talking about, the product it will "kill" changes.

"Everyone is talking about Surface being a challenger to iPad or Android tablets - but unless I'm mistaken, Surface Pro is actually taking the Macbook Air head on, and that's where I think it will have the most success," Nick Baynes, former game director at Pure and Split/Second developer Black Rock, and now chief of his own studio Big Bit, tells Eurogamer.

"With RT, I'm not entirely sure what it offers over existing tablets from a consumer perspective that existing Windows Mobile tablets don't already - sure it'll be faster and smoother, and it's got the keyboard built in with the case (do the mass market who buy tablets care about keyboards?), but I don't see a killer reason why people that choose Apple or Android over Windows now are going to change their buying selection to Surface.

"I don't think iPad has anything to worry about for now, but consumers who are considering an Android tablet may prefer to go with a Windows branded device for consistency with their PC set up."

So, perhaps not the iPad killer some had called for. But for Microsoft, that's not the point. The gargantuan tech company has for some time now pushed its multi-screen strategy above all others, the idea being that whatever screen you are using, whether it's a phone (a Windows Phone, Microsoft hopes), a tablet, a laptop or a desktop, your experience is consistent, and your profile, as much as possible, is shared across all devices, powered by the cloud.

Microsoft multi-screen had been brewing for some before it exploded at E3 earlier this month with the announcement of SmartGlass, a new set of features for streaming content between Xbox 360, Windows tablets and phones. All this will better come together later this year with the launch of Windows 8. And this, according to James Duncan, creative director at RedBreast Studio, is what Surface is really about.

"I think Microsoft surprised a few people with the announcement, specifically the design," he tells us. "There are some clever, considered touches there. It's clearly been designed to kick start Windows 8 as a viable tablet contender.

As a developer I'd like to know more about the app ecosystem which will really be the driving factor behind its success. It's this, coupled with the price that will decide whether Apple finally have a serious mass market tablet contender - James Duncan, creative director at RedBreast Studio.

"As a developer I'd like to know more about the app ecosystem which will really be the driving factor behind its success. It's this, coupled with the price that will decide whether Apple finally have a serious mass market tablet contender."

Watch Microsoft reveal new Surface tablet

Clearly Surface is designed to pick away at Apple's iPad and Mac lines, but what's less clear is its potential for gaming. Epic's Unreal evangelist Mark Rein summed up his thoughts on Twitter in his trademark enthusiastic style: "Microsoft NAILS IT! Way to go Microsoft! Surface looks AWESOME! Can't wait to get some Unreal Engine games on those babies!"

So, Unreal made games on Surface. But there's more. Given both devices have a USB port, and run Windows operating systems, it seems certain that plugging in an Xbox 360 controller will work with Surface. "If so: bravo!" was Rein's reaction.

Digital Foundry's Richard Leadbetter has already delivered his verdict on Surface's gaming credentials, and emerged impressed. But will developers embrace Surface as a game development platform with as much vigour as they have the iPad?

"As a games designer I don't see anything immediately obvious in the interface that jumps out at me enabling innovative new experiences that can't already be created on existing hardware," Baynes says. "The pressure sensitive keyboard is interesting from a gaming perspective… but isn't really usable when mobile."

Ben Murch, of Hunters: Episode One developer Rodeo Games, is just as cautious. "As a developer it has a long way to go before it's anything Rodeo would look at supporting," he tells us. "Apple have over 300 million devices all embracing the App Store environment that a small studio like us can compete in.

Surface will support the likes of StarCraft, Crysis, Diablo and other huge AAA games. Trying to compete for gamers' time against those would be madness - Ben Murch, of Hunters: Episode One developer Rodeo Games.

"Surface will support the likes of StarCraft, Crysis, Diablo and other huge AAA games. Trying to compete for gamers' time against those would be madness. We'll see how it gets on and if it grows a community that would fit our games."

This wait and see approach is unsurprising. Yes, there will be developers who embrace Surface from day one - encouraged, no doubt, by Microsoft's special brand of back slapping - but for those still struggling to find profit in the Wild West that is the App Store, Surface is a distraction easy to dismiss for the time being.

Looking further ahead, though, we can perhaps allow ourselves a tinge of excitement. Microsoft's next Xbox is expected to launch late next year, and may well be powered by Windows 8 to help unify the experience across multiple devices.

Yes, it will come with a traditional controller (and Kinect 2, we've heard), but we expect to be able to use Surface as an alternative touch-screen controller for multi-screen gaming, with the help of SmartGlass and, perhaps, Bluetooth, for reduced latency.

This is the most interesting thing about Surface for core gamers, those early adopters who will pick up the next Xbox at launch and enjoy the next big thing from the likes of 343 Industries, Rare, Lionhead, Turn 10 and Epic. On the face of it, Microsoft's new device seems squarely aimed at Apple. But dig beneath the surface and it looks increasingly like one of Microsoft's most secret weapons in the battle for the next generation.

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