Xbox Live on Windows Phone 7: looks cool, but is it enough?

Windows Phone 7 logoEver since it was first shown off, we've known that Windows Phone 7 would include a games hub that integrated with Microsoft's Xbox Live and offer a range of games using Microsoft's XNA game development framework. At the Gamescom 2010 conference this week, Microsoft announced the first wave of games that would ship for the platform at launch or soon after.

Fifty games were named, with titles aimed at both hardcore and casual gamers, and a mix of free and paid titles. All the paid games will have free demo modes, and purchases will use Windows Phone's billing options—credit card or carrier billing via Marketplace—rather than the Microsoft Points used for the Xbox Live Marketplace. Microsoft announced both first- and third-party games. Among them are ports of already popular games like UNO, and PopCap's Bejeweled, a range of new casual card and board games branded "Game Chest," and new takes on existing Xbox game franchises.

Chief among these were Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, based on the Crackdown series. It offers tower defense-like gameplay set within the Crackdown universe, with an added twist: the environment used is the real world, using images taken from Bing Maps.

As previously announced, the games will integrate with Xbox Live, and so will offer achievements and gamer score to reward players.

The Microsoft-developed titles should all be exclusive to the company's phone platform, and the tie-ins with established franchises like Halo are sure to appeal to hardcore gamers. For the time being, this is an advantage unique to Microsoft; there are rumors of a Sony Ericsson phone with a PlayStation tie-in, but at the moment Microsoft stands alone in being able to offer this kind of tie-in.

Redmond certainly believes that gaming on the phone is a big deal. Many games are played and purchased on Apple's iOS platform, after all. But the value of the Xbox Live tie-in is less clear-cut. For a start, Xbox Live users aren't all that numerous. Microsoft has sold around 42 million Xbox 360s in total, with 25 million Xbox Live members, and around half of them using Gold accounts. To put that into context, Apple has sold more than 8 million iPhones in each of the last two quarters; this year, the company should sell more iPhones than there are Xbox Live users in total, and in 18 months, it will sell more iPhones than there are Xbox 360s in total.

In other words, the smartphone market is substantially larger than the games console market. The Xbox tie-ins will certain appeal to at least part of the Xbox user base, but even if every Xbox Live Gold account member bought a Windows Phone 7 handset, that wouldn't be enough to make the phone platform a success.

The other issue is that if Microsoft wants to truly position Windows Phone 7 as a gaming platform, a touchscreen isn't enough. This is not to say that there are no games for which touchscreens are suitable—Plants vs Zombies was all but made for touch input—but the greater precision of hardware buttons and D-pads is undeniable. The virtual buttons used in, for example, Street Fighter IV prevent it from being a truly great game. With touch, it's still kind of OK—but real buttons would make it a whole lot better.

All games on Windows Phone 7 are required to support touch inputs. Optionally, they can support keyboard input—for use with those devices that include hardware keyboards—but touch is mandatory. For a phone that merely plays some games, that may be enough. But as an integral part of the Xbox gaming environment, as a mobile counterpart to the Xbox 360 console, as the power of Xbox Live in the palm of your hand, Microsoft needs more than touch.

Source: ars technica

Tags: computer games, Microsoft, mobile phones, Windows Phone 7

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