Microsoft has long been gathering its resources for a major, coordinated push into the mobile space with an Xbox Live-enabled games lineup in the works for its XNA-compatible Windows Phone 7 devices.
Microsoft Game Studios has its own dedicated mobile group -- recently revealed
to be under the stewardship of former Midway chairman and CEO Matt Booty.
Midway collapsed amid a complex financial state of affairs triggered by the credit crunch, but Booty says he's excited to have a "unique, fun" new role to play as general manager of MGS' mobile gaming group. "As far as I know, we're the only company that's making a phone that has also got a first-party group dedicated to making games," he says.
Booty had been with Midway for nearly two decades, beginning as an engineer and ending up as the company's topmost executive just as the challenges facing the veteran publisher reached their point of no return.
"I had been in conversations with Microsoft even going as far back as late fall," he says of his fascinating journey. "Contrary to what a lot of the press reported, when Warner Bros. took over the Chicago studio
, the executives weren't really booted out on the street."
"I was still technically the CEO of what was left of the legal entity at Midway right before the week that I started here," he continues. Booty officially joined Microsoft in March 2010, he says: "Everybody at Microsoft was fantastic about helping that transition."
Back In The Game
The former exec says he's thrilled to be back in front-line games production, after a couple years during which his primary job objective was simply "trying to make sure everyone came out okay in that situation... it didn't have much to do with making games." And his experience at the once-mighty arcade giant comes to bear on his new mobile gaming position more than one might initially surmise, Booty adds.
Like Midway itself, Booty says he had his early roots in the arcade and pinball space, titles that lent themselves well to brief, few-minute gaming sessions; that required "curb appeal" and quick, six to 12-month production cycles.
"At one point I thought, 'all that experience was great, but I don't know that I'll ever bring it to bear again,'" says Booty. But that's precisely the kind of experience and awareness it now takes to be effective in the new casual, social and mobile sectors, he says. The accessibility and brevity of the arcade play experience is a major part of Microsoft's aim in the mobile space.
"It gets back to some of those core-gameplay, quick-turnaround games you can play in three and four minute chunks," he says. "It's actually super exciting for me to be here, because in a way, some of the stuff that I picked up hanging out with some of those guys
who were the masters of arcade design
, I can bring back to bear with the mobile stuff."
Booty says that while there's some "culture shock" going from Midway's executive environment to MGS' mobile game studio, there's plenty of the familiar too. "There are people here from earlier parts of my career that it's great to reconnect with," he enthuses. Booty became acquainted with Microsoft's Kudo Tsunoda while the latter was a fellow Chicagoan at Electronic Arts' studio there, for example, and he previously knew Killer Instinct
designer Ken Lobb, also an MGS employee.
"There are plenty of things that go back to my roots -- it's like those things have worked their way back around to what I'm focused on right now," he marvels.
Like Launching A New Console
The platform itself, Microsoft's Windows Mobile 7, is an important part of the equation. "It's unique in that it has had a gaming focus integrated into the operating system of the phone from the beginning," says Booty. "The charter for mobile is the same as MGS' charter for the Xbox 360, where we're the first-party group creating content for this platform."
The lead up to that big launch this holiday season feels to Booty much like a console launch, he says. "Microsoft is treating Games For Windows 7 mobile the same way they've treated games for the launch of the Xbox; in a lot of ways, what we're doing in terms of figuring out how to get games through certification and having this first wave of games
for the launch portfolio... really feels like the launch of a new console than it does for getting games out on the phone."
Especially with the "deep" Xbox Live integration the games will incorporate, he adds. The first Xbox Live-compatible games launching on Windows Phone 7 this holiday season including major franchises like Castlevania
, multiple Star Wars
titles, and Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst
And there are third-parties already on board too, like Gameloft, Glu, Digital Chocolate and Namco -- plus "a third or more" of the total coming from indies, carefully picked with the aim of getting talented smaller developers on board as well.
In total, Microsoft expects to have 30 games for the platform at launch. "As you do with any new platform launch, we want to make sure we launch in a smart way, so we've got a pretty planned-out release schedule over the last couple months of the year," he says. The aim is for five to 10 games per month to launch from the indie pipeline from there.
Xbox Live Integration
For all developers, Microsoft believes its experience managing the Xbox Live digital platform will help it compete on the marketplace side with other phones: "There will be that open marketplace for anybody who wants to submit a game... and in terms of what our charter is, it's really to provide that managed Xbox Live process."
As for how that Xbox Live integration itself will work, the first goal for the phone's launch is to carry over the basics to start with: avatars and friends lists, and "Xbox Live Extras", which will let users see some of their friends' gaming activity from their phones.
"As we get further into bringing Live to the platform, we expect to see situations that would involve asyncrhonous play, non-realtime matchmaking stuff and turn-based play," he says. "And then in the long-term, the future for Live on the phone would be some of that other stuff people would expect from the service in terms of a deeper connection to the console."
Speaking of console, Booty says it's exciting to be in a position to have access to a broad IP base, enabling things like a Windows Phone 7 version of Halo Waypoint
, an application that is intended to act as a tie-in for Halo
players that provides content, stats tracking and more.
"You can expect we'll be doing things like that, all the way to having projects that go for deeper integration... it's an undeniable strength to have access to all that console experience and think about what would happen if you could bring those two ecosystems together," says Booty.
So positioned on a major new initiative for Microsoft in a space where there's a lot of growth potential, it seems like a whole new start for the former Midway exec -- even with all those elements of the familiar.
"There's the convergence around mobile, the opportunity to get back into game production, to build a world-class group of people -- all of that is what really attracted me to come here to Microsoft," says Booty.