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Analysis: Xbox Live - The Killer App For Windows Phone 7?

Following Microsoft's new details on Windows Phone 7, Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris talks to the company and analysts to examine how Xbo
[Following Microsoft's new details on Windows Phone 7, Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris talks to the company and analysts to examine how Xbox Live may help the smartphone OS thrive.] Microsoft’s gamble with Windows Phone 7 is anything but a sure bet – but the inclusion of Xbox Live as a prominent part of the operating system could be the ace up the company’s sleeve. Mobile gaming has been evolving rapidly over the past three years – and tying it to a service that has been so phenomenally successful for Microsoft could position the company to regain market share. Execution will be critical, though. And judging by what Microsoft was saying and showing at its launch event in New York City Monday, it could go either way. To be clear, there is a lot that Microsoft is getting right with these phones from a gaming perspective. The inclusion of Halo Waypoint? A genius move that could nudge Halo fans who are on the fence about the phones to make a leap of faith. Nearly as encouraging is the Crackdown 2-themed tower defense game Project Sunburst. Both are creative ways to market big Xbox 360 titles on a mobile device – and the company, thankfully, plans to keep focusing on that cross-pollination. “We want to think about doing something for all of our big titles,” Kathy Richardson, product marketing manager for PC and mobile gaming, tells Gamasutra. “We’re the only phone with a game studio behind them – and we plan to take advantage of that.” Meanwhile, giving owners the chance to boost their GamerScore was a natural move, given how obsessive so many gamers are over the number. But at the same time, there are some unknowns and other factors that are worth keeping an eye on, as they could scuttle Microsoft’s best integration plans. First and foremost is price. Microsoft has given wide berth to any questions about the number of apps (game or otherwise) that will be available at the launch of Windows Phone 7 devices – as well as pricing for those apps. That could easily be a marketing move, meant to extend the news cycle and keep the phones in the headlines for the weeks leading up to their launch. But I keep thinking back to the last time Microsoft played coy on the subject of pricing – with Kinect. And ultimately, that device was priced $50 higher than most observers (including several major third-party publishers) were expecting and hoping for. Windows Phone 7 apps don’t have to be 99 cents. But they can’t be overpriced if Microsoft wants to make an impact in the market. “With several games for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, Microsoft and Sony are too high priced and focused on a certain type of player,” says Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst with M2 Research. “Microsoft is too high end and Apple is too cheap. There’s a middle ground they should be aiming for. ... Somebody’s going to get it right in the middle - and they’re going to crush the competition.” One solution could be to adopt a two-tiered pricing strategy – which Microsoft has hinted it might be considering. Last month, Microsoft exec Kevin Unangst told Gamasutra the company would offer an "open marketplace anybody can write games for and publish to" - but that those titles would not carry Xbox Live branding and wouldn’t tie in with Xbox Live features like GamerScore and leaderboards. That could be a winning solution – and one that lets Microsoft offer the “snacky” games that have been such a hit on the iPhone, as well as more immersive games, like The Harvest, a launch title that’s better suited for players who want to play for longer periods. Load times have got to get faster, too. Part of the appeal of Android and iOS titles is they launch with virtually no lag. The Harvest, while admittedly much more involved and graphically dense than an Angry Birds or Highborn, took the better part of a minute before it was playable at a demo on Monday. For a consumer base whose current attention span is on par with that of a hyperactive gnat, that could be trouble. Finally, Microsoft is assuming the Windows Phone 7 user will instantly ‘get’ the appeal of Xbox Live. “There is an element of people who will buy this phone because they have an Xbox,” says Richardson. “There’s also the new Windows Phone customer who has never heard of Xbox Live before – and the experience is just as awesome for them.” That could be, but I’m not yet convinced the fun aspects of the service will be obvious to the typical smart-phone owner. As gamers, we’re quite used to avatars and GamerScores at this point – but they’re kind of hard to explain to others without sounding a bit nerdy. Microsoft has had launches of good systems before that seemed to have many of the places in piece but still failed to catch on (look no further than the Zune HD). Given its many promising elements, it would be a shame to add Windows Phone 7 to that list.

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