Guathon - new .NET stuff and Windows Phone 7

15 August 2010

On Friday I went to Guathon, a free Microsoft conference all about the latest .NET stuff and Windows Phone 7, held at the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. I was lucky to get a place, as when registration opened last week, the website immediately buckled under the strain. It reminded me of trying to get tickets for Glastonbury - and you’d think Microsoft would be able to get this kind of thing right. But after a lot of refreshing, opening new tabs, and filling in the same registration form multiple times, I eventually got my confirmation email.

Arriving at the Odeon bleary-eyed yesterday morning, I knew I was in the right place when saw a long queue of poorly dressed men - I blended in seamlessly.

Presentations without boredom

[image by Jeff Sandquist]

Scott Guthrie is the man in charge of the .NET teams at Microsoft, and spent three quarters of the day doing presentations. It must have been pretty gruelling, but he didn’t show it - and he really knows his stuff, eschewing slides almost completely for a very hands-on style, mostly writing code in Visual Studio and answering questions as we went along. He’s a hugely effective presenter, and I just wish more people would learn that making a presentation isn’t all about knocking together slides in PowerPoint and then reading out each bullet point in a monotone.

The first session covered Visual Studio 2010 - a mix of new features, such as the improved IntelliSense, plus old features that surprisingly many people haven’t heard of, such as conditonal breakpoints. He also talked for a while about the new IntelliTrace debugging and automatic diagramming features which are sadly only available in the seriously expensive versions - a shame as it looks like these could be a real productivity boost for a lot of programmers. I’m still waiting to get my hands on VS2010 myself, as for some reason it’s taking Microsoft weeks and weeks to process my new Action Pack subscription.

By the end of the first session we were already overrunning massively, and everybody was in desperate need for some fresh air, a trip to the toilet and some coffee. If the Odeon had been prepared, they would have known that 250 developers logically entails a requirement for 250 lattes, but clearly this had been missed somehow as a huge queue quickly developed at the tiny coffee bar, with only one member of staff and the world’s slowest coffee machine.

ASP.NET MVC, 1, 2 and 3

Sessions two and four were all about ASP.NET MVC. This is a framework that sits on top of ASP.NET and provides a quite amazingly neat and elegant way of building web-based applications. I didn’t know anything about it before, but there was a good quick introduction before diving into the new stuff in versions 2 and 3, so I now feel like I’m up to speed and am quite keen to have a play with it - if only Microsoft would hurry up with letting me access the software I’ve ordered…

Instead of a load of slides, the presentation was entirely in Visual Studio, taking us from starting a new ASP.NET MVC project. “What kind of website shall we make?” asked Scott. “An event registration site” was the highly appropriate response, and Scott took us through creating the web application from scratch. He covered a huge amount of functionality in the way that makes the most sense to programmers - by actually writing code. Not only was it a great way of covering lots of material, the fact that he could cover so much during the sessions is testament to how well-designed the MVC framework is - it’s really very quick to start putting things together.

Windows Phone 7

To give Scott a bit of a break from presenting, between the two ASP.NET MVC sessions Mike Ormond stepped in to talk about developing applications for Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows Phone 7 platform. It was a mixture of slides and a more hands-on demonstration, as he demonstrated writing a simple game which he then showed working on both an emulator and an actual prototype phone.

The presentation was good but I was left feeling underwhelmed by the product itself. Despite the name, Microsoft has effectively thrown away its old phone platform to start again, so it’s very much a “1.0” product at the moment. Unfortunately they seem to have taken all the worst bits of the iPhone and then added in some extra limitations of their own. Like Apple, they will be controlling the “Marketplace” (equivalent of the App Store) so they won’t accept certain types of applications. Like Apple, you can’t do proper multi-tasking - the phone will quit applications when you switch to another one, and as a developer you have to manually write code for saving the application’s state. Even the process of using the camera within an application causes it to restart, which seems very cumbersome. And for the moment they’ve even locked down things such as access to the camera flash LED, meaning no flashlight applications are allowed. This just seems dumb.

One of the positive things to come from Apple’s control freakery is that at least mobile network operators can’t stuff the phone with crappy applications themselves, but there are no such limitations on Windows Phone 7. Network operators have more power than ordinary developers, as they will be able to create proper native applications instead of the Silverlight and XNA apps that other developers will be limited to.

They have also taken some decisions with the interface that they probably think of as “innovative”, but I would describe as “strange”. For example, instead of the iPhone’s single “home” button, there is a “back” button which will navigate back through your app, until you reach the first page when it will quit. But there’s also a “Start” button which takes you back to the app launcher. I can’t see the advantage of the additional hardware button here - the iPhone approach of having all app navigation in the touchscreen works perfectly well, so I wonder if Microsoft are forced to go this way to avoid stepping on one of Apple’s many patents.

I have doubts about the “panorama” interface, as shown in the picture above. It looks like this just makes a lot of the menus hard to find - it will be interesting to see how well this works on the devices when they appear later this year.

In summary, I find it hard to see Windows Phone 7 taking off. It would have been a great product five years ago, but Microsoft is clearly desperately chasing Apple and Android and is way behind. I like the idea of .NET on a mobile device - it would certainly make it easier for me to port my own existing applications to a mobile phone - but there’s nothing (yet) that makes it stand out in any area ahead of the competition, so any mobile app developer is going to have an extremely limited potential user base. It’s too little, too late.


My greatest weakness

1 July 2010

A classic job interview question is “what is your greatest weakness?”. I suppose mine is that once I get bored, that’s it. As soon as I’ve got comfortable in a job and think I’ve got it all figured out, as soon as I’ve stopped being stressed because I don’t know what’s going on, as soon as I’m part of the furniture, there’s only one place to go - the exit.

So, after three years for my current employer I’ve handed in my notice. I’ve certainly improved a lot as a software developer since I got there, but the pace of improvement has slowed a lot recently so it’s time to move on.

I’ve decided to seek out temporary contracts instead of permanent employment. That should keep the boredom levels down, give me a nice variety of different work - and let me spend time between contracts building up my software business Axe Software. Yes, you may not think that text adventure games are the future, but you’ll see. Eventually. Perhaps.

It will be a bit more hassle - regular job interviews, the administrative overhead of setting up a limited company, and reduced job security, but really, overall it’s a no-brainer. I wish I’d thought of it sooner!

So, I have two questions - anyone need an awesome C# developer starting in August for, say, six months? And does anybody know a good accountant?


Quest in other languages

1 March 2010

Quest 4.1 supports languages other than English by creating an LDF file.

I have now added a Quest Translations page to the website containing LDF files contributed by users. Currently we have translations of Quest into German and Spanish.

If you’ve created an LDF file for Quest, I’d love to hear about it! Please email me at [email protected] if you would like to submit an LDF file to the site.

Games in Spanish

I came across this page of Quest games in Spanish: http://wiki.caad.es/Categoría:Aventuras_Quest

If you know of any other pages of foreign language games (or indeed any other websites to do with Quest), please let me know and I’ll add a link from this site.


The HTML interface in Quest 5.0

19 February 2010

Previous versions of Quest used a "rich text" control to display text. This is quite an old Windows control, which is fine for basic formatting but ultimately lacks flexibility. Quest 5.0 replaces this with an embedded web browser, which opens up a lot of new capabilities.

At a basic level, it makes it very easy to add something I have wanted to add to Quest for a long time - hyperlinks:

By default, objects and exits in a room description are hyperlinked, so the player can look at objects and move around the game by clicking the game text. I may add the option to display a short menu of verbs instead, so that the hyperlinks could potentially be used as a complete replacement for the object panes.

Of course, some game authors may not like this, just as some authors don't like Quest's default panes - but you will be able to turn these off. The links are put there as part of the room description code in Core.aslx, so you can override it, and there will be an option to turn it off.

Two-way interaction with JavaScript

The most exciting thing about using HTML for the interface is that you can completely customise it to look exactly as you want. You can specify your own HTML file for the interface by including an interface tag in your ASLX file. Within that HTML file you can call JavaScript just as in any standard webpage, and that JavaScript can interact with your ASLX file.

To call JavaScript from your game code, we can use a particular call to the request command. The request command's first parameter is the request type, and a request type of "RunScript" lets you call any JavaScript function defined in your game interface.

You can see an example of this in the YouTube example included with the Quest 5.0 samples. In the example we use the following code:

request (RunScript, "AddYouTube; ZXZWepU7zC8")

This calls the AddYouTube function defined in YouTube.js, and passes in the parameter "ZXZWepU7zC8" which is just the YouTube id of a particular video.

The AddYouTube function simply creates the relevant HTML to embed the video and adds it to document.body.innerHTML. The video then appears in the Quest window.

You can also go the other way, making a JavaScript function call a function in your ASLX file. This way, we might get rid of the hard-coded panes altogether and have a purely HTML and JavaScript solution which can be customised however you want. It also opens up the possibility of support for "point and click" games in the style of Monkey Island, because you could trigger game behaviour when the user clicks on something in the HTML interface such as part of an image.

To trigger a Quest function from JavaScript, you can call the ASLEvent function defined in WebFunctions.js. This is included in the standard HTML interface (PlayerDefault.htm, which is the default interface used by Core.aslx), and takes two parameters - the name of the function, and one parameter. You can call any Quest function that takes one string parameter.


Types in Quest 5.0

18 February 2010

"Types" let you share sets of properties between objects. They work in the same way as Quest 4.x, except slightly more efficiently in that instead of copying the properties to the object, the object just references the underlying the type if it doesn't have its own override for a property.

You can view all the properties of an object using the Debugger, which is accessed via the Tools menu. Properties from an inherited type are shown in grey.

Types are defined using a <type> element, and properties are defined in the same way as for an object. Objects and types can both inherit from other types using an <inherit> tag.

  <type name="food">
    <health type="int">0</health>
    <eat>It looks tasty, but you're not hungry right now.</eat>
  </type>

  <type name="fruit">
    <inherit name="food"/>
    <health>10</health>
  </type>

Default behaviour

If the ASLX defines a type called "default", then it is applied to all objects - there is no need to specifically inherit from this type. Core.aslx uses this to define the default behaviour for objects:

  • The displayverbs and inventoryverbs properties are defaulted to give the standard buttons on the panes on the right-hand side of the Quest screen ("Look at", "Take" and "Speak to" for the objects list, and "Look at", "Use" and "Drop" for the inventory list)
  • All objects are droppable by default
  • The neutral gender and article ("it") are set
  • Default container properties are set - by default the object is not a container, cannot be opened or closed, etc. This is just for convenience really - if we didn't set these in the default type, then properties such as "isopen" would default to null instead of false, which would make the container logic messier. (An enhancement might be to add special logic so that in an expression "null=false" would be true, but I'm not sure how good an idea this would be - I'm open to feedback on this)

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