As Microsoft’s in-house casual game development studio Carbonated Games gets to dabble in a lot of interesting things, whether it’s rebuilding classic Windows games like Hearts, Spades, Chess and Checkers for the MSN Games portal, or creating original content like Solitaire in Motion, 7 Hand Poker and Hexic for MSN Games and Xbox Live Arcade.

The studio’s most recent project was creating UNO, which is currently the #1 download on Xbox Live Arcade and will also be the first casual cross-platform title to showcase Microsoft’s Live Anywhere service – an ambitious initiative that will let people play the same game across Xbox 360, PC, Windows Live Messenger, and mobile devices.

Joshua Howard, head of production at Carbonated Games, walked us through the development of UNO and shared his insights about what Live Anywhere means for casual gaming. (And, because we couldn’t resist, he also tells us what it was like to work with Tetris’s creator Alexey Pajitnov on Hexic.)

Let’s talk about UNO and some of the things you took into consideration when making it playable across multiple platforms.

Way back when we first started the idea of doing UNO as an Xbox title internally within the studio, we knew that we wanted to build a code base that we could easily take cross-platform, believing that such things would happen even if at that point nothing had been formally decided or announced by Microsoft. So we built the game from the very beginning to be a fairly portable code-base that we could pick up and bring to other platforms pretty quickly. After we did the Xbox version, we were able to turn around and very quickly release a version for Live Messenger as well as a version for MSN Games, and it’s fundamentally the same game.

Honestly speaking, we thought it would take more work. As an internal studio, we’re often asked to give things a try or prove out some piece of technology or concept, and we’ve gotten to the point where we set aside a reasonable amount of time to do that because often when we’re asked to see things, they’re a little raw. But the toolkit as it was provided to us was remarkably robust, and one of the real advantages of it was, as a studio that’s already done Xbox games and games for Xbox Live, it was very, very familiar. For the most part it was certainly an example of when you put this glove on, you realize it was very comfortable. Already being an Xbox developer allowed us to slip right into what it would take to developer a cross-platform Live-enabled version of UNO, and get really excited by it.

Was UNO a game that you suggested as being a good fit for cross-platform development?

Yes, it was something that internally in the studio we thought would be a great idea; in part because we had developed it as something that could go cross-platform fairly easily, so we had high confidence in our ability to do it. Also, because we thought that the kind of game it was really made a lot of sense for an experience that would go cross-platform.

I don’t think people say “I’m going to play UNO on my Xbox.” They think ”I’m going to play UNO.” And you play UNO where you happen to be. So the real power of connecting all of these platforms is that the experience, to a certain degree, becomes a lot more about the experience and not having to pick and choose and say “oh I want to do this, now I have to go and sit in front of my PC, even though I’m already sitting comfortably on my couch in front of my Xbox.” So by removing that as a layer of consideration for a whole category of gaming and a whole category of customer, I think it’s very exciting.

Up until that point, the two internal projects that had been done on this, as you may have heard, were Shadowrun and Halo 2 PC. And while that was very cool, from the casual studio side we felt that the connected platform thing was as, if not even more, impressive and more exciting for the casual audience, and that we thought it important that Microsoft have a strong casual demonstration of what cross-platform gaming can do.

And from my personally biased position, I loved being at various shows and seeing how people really sort of “got it” when they saw UNO being played cross-platform. You can talk about Halo 2 PC and for some gamers that does it, and you can talk about Shadowrun and for other gamers that does it, but for this really super-large customer base of people who don’t think of themselves as gamers, UNO was the thing that made them go “Wow. You’re right. Why can’t my PC and my Xbox play?”

Do you think this will set a precedent, and the line between “hardcore console” vs. “casual PC” are going to begin to blur and maybe even evaporate?

Well, I think they’ve been blurring for a long time. I think there are always going to be hardcore players who are, like in every individual hobby, the people who spend an inordinate amount of time and really invest a lot in it. For any given hobby, you can find these people. You find people who knit, and you find people who are crazy about knitting and go to knitting shows and spend a fortune on knitting. And there’ll always be that side of the gaming market, and that’s an exciting market, because I can do things for those customers that they’ll appreciate the way I couldn’t for mass market. But everybody can appreciate casual.

Casual’s sort of not a great word. Casual in some respects doesn’t capture what we do. So despite the fact that it’s the word the industry seems to have settled on, in many ways there’s nothing casual about what we do. The impact that casual games have is certainly not casual. So, the lessons from casual, of very approachable, of accessible, of easy in, of “I can play for just a few minutes or I can play for several hours,” and really the investment I’m making is rewarded very quickly – those sorts of lessons apply whether you’re a hardcore gamer or whether you’re a more casual gamer, and it’s exciting to see the industry understanding that those lessons aren’t really the way you get 35-year-old women to play games. Those are ways to get everybody who plays games have more fun playing them.

What changes do you anticipate seeing in the gaming landscape over the next couple of years as a result of this cross-platform initiative?

I think we’ll look back in a few years and we’ll realize how obvious it is, and we’ll talk about the days before there was one identity. We’ll talk about how you used to log into multiple places and have multiple things and keep track of this over there and that over there, and you had friends over here and a different group of friends over there, and we’re going to look back and go “Wow, that was so silly, and at the time we thought it was just fine.”

But we’re going to realize that having this one presence everywhere you go in your gaming life regardless of device is just going to feel so obvious and so natural that it’s going to be one of those wonderful things that I think a lot of the audience comes to expect and as a result downplay how difficult it really was. Yeah, we did exist before we had cell phones, and now most people couldn’t comprehend what it was like before they had a cell phone. I think it’ll be something like that.

Have you always part of an in-house studio, or do you have experience working independently as well, because I’d be interested to hear you compare and contrast between the two.

Well, I’m actually a Microsoft lifer. I’ve been at Microsoft at this point for over 14 years, so I can compare and contrast a couple of things. One is my personal experience: if Microsoft is my day job, then my evening job for a number of years – my hobby – has been doing card and board games (paper games) on the outside. As a hobbyist gamer on the outside, I think there are a lot of lessons that we see from the card and board industry and from the toy industry that I’ve always felt really could resonate with the computer game industry, but for the most part was getting resistance from the bulk of the hardcore audience.

There was actually an E3 that I attended many years ago; I sat on a panel. A gentleman from Mattel Interactive looked at the audience and says, “The difference between you and I is that you all think you’re in the computer games industry, and I know that I’m in the toy industry.” And the audience for the most part sort of booed him, because that’s not what they wanted to hear. These are guys who have made their living writing great code, exploiting new hardware, and to hear from a toy guy that we’re just another class of toy? That sort of shattered some of the belief about why you might be special because you happen to do software.

But I really felt like, “Wow, I see that.” The audience that at the time I was trying to reach was not the audience that the rest of E3 was talking about. It was the audience, in some respects, that this gentleman from Mattel was talking about. So, we are sort of the point of the spear in helping the games industry understand that games as a form of entertainment can go much broader that what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years.

And over the last few years as we’ve seen casual grow up, there’s a significantly renewed interest in valuing the lesson of understanding that you’re entertainment; you’re not just games, and of understanding that there is opportunity with a mass market product.

It’s very interesting that there’s this sort of hardcore vs. casual line in the sand, because for example if you look at a game like Tetris, which routinely tops lists as the Best Video Game of All-time, versus a game like Hexic, which seems to be in the causal game space, and yet the game mechanics are similar and they were even designed by the same person – it’s funny that the perception between them can be so different.

Yeah, and I think part of it, if I can use the word “fault” without sounding too harsh, is that we as an industry have done that to ourselves. We’ve put a label on these kinds of experiences and called them something different, and arguably I understand why that was important, but I think the big change in the next few years will be that that line will blur.

I’m already hearing from peers of mine who work in triple-A studios that they’re building 15 million dollar titles that are essentially collections of casual experiences. And not because they’re games of mini-games. They’re large games. They’re MMOs or they’re racing games or they’re other classically triple-A title-type things. But the lesson they learned is, every single one of my little experiences in the game itself can take on the role of a casual game.

I think in a few years you’ll just say “well, what is a good game? A good game is one that’s approachable. It’s one that’s accessible. It’s one that you can play for a few minutes or for several hours.” And people will say, “Wait a minute, we used to call that casual.” Yeah, but there’s no reason not to be that kind of game at a certain point, right?

I want to go back to Hexic. Obviously Alexey Pajitnov is a legend in the industry – what was it like to work with him?

I’ve enjoyed working with Alexey. For a number of years, remember, he was a Microsoft employee working in our game studios on a number of things, and he was doing Hexic while he was an employee. And even though he’s no longer an employee, he’s gone back to more freelance-type work, we still continue to work with him.

Once you get past the hero-worship, which is inevitable with a guy like Alexey, you begin to realize why he is that guy. He’s got a fantastic mind for understanding and distilling new and yet simple things. One of the things my team believes is, a lot of what casual games do is meet some basic human need to tidy up. To put things in order. To clean up. I think the whole reason why match-threes are what they are is it responds in some silly visceral way to the human need to order things. So, where did this appreciation come from? In part it comes from working with Alexey, and watching Alexey produce interesting ideas, and understand with more insight than most why Idea A turns out to be addictive but why Idea B turns out to be interesting but all things considered more of a passing fad.

Part of it comes from his many years of experience; part of it comes from the fact that he is a math guy, and he fundamentally sees things in a way that’s almost much more abstract than most of the rest of the world, even most game designers. Like any game designer, he’s got lots of ideas, some of which are amazing, and some of which you sort of scratch your head, but part of the genius of Alexey is that if Alexey really believes in an idea, whether you do or not you give pause and you scratch your head hard to understand why it is you’re missing it – because in my experience, Alexey has never been wrong when it came to a core play pattern that would turn out to be terribly addictive.

One of the key things with Alexey, and with a lot of designers at that level, is you’ve got to get past the “Alexey,” the guy who invented Tetris 25 years ago. You’ve got to be able to just deal with Alexey the game designer, who has strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us, and once you get to that point you really understand where Alexey can sing and what he’s really good at, and the value he can bring, and I think it’s pretty tremendous having Alexey as an asset that Carbonated Games can call upon.