Xbox Windows Phone release drought

Things haven’t been looking too good for Xbox games on Windows Phone lately. As our readers probably know, there hasn’t been a new Xbox game released since KenKen on December 19th. Just before that there were two more weeks with no release: one before and one after AlphaJax arrived. Nokia users have a bit more to play thanks to iBomber Defense, but that does not help everyone else. Well, this week the disturbing trend continues: Microsoft has confirmed that there will be no new Xbox Windows Phone game or Deal of the Week this week. Yikes!

Dangerous drought

This officially marks the longest period of time Windows Phone has gone without an Xbox game release since Windows Phone 7 debuted. A year ago at this time we were getting new games like Zombies on the Phone and Bug Village. Not that the latter is an amazing game, but at least it's something! Usually a platform gains releases steadily as time goes on and its popularity grows, so what gives? I’m glad you asked. Here are the most likely explanations for the drought…

Possibility 1: Microsoft has decided not to allow Windows Phone 8-incompatible Xbox games to be released

Tentacles
Many popular games like Tentacles don't run on Windows Phone 8 yet.

As I speculated in yesterday’s article about Risk returning to Windows Phone 8, perhaps someone at Microsoft doesn’t want any more embarrassing Windows Phone 8 incompatible Xbox Live releases popping up. If that’s the case, then just maybe all of the scheduled releases for the past few weeks have suffered incompatibility issues and thus couldn’t be released.

As unlikely as this scenario might sound, it’s actually the best case scenario. Windows Phone 8 is on its way to replacing Windows Phone 7 (sorry, I’m not allowed to abbreviate today), so Microsoft needs to make sure the new OS looks good. Windows Phone 8 owners like myself really get annoyed when a new game comes along that we can’t play… Though you could say the same thing about owners of Windows Phone 7 devices.

Nailing down the various causes of incompatibility and ensuring that all future Xbox Windows Phone games (even those designed for Windows Phone 7) work on the new OS right from their launch is not the worst idea in the world. Most gamers would agree it’s not better than actually releasing games though.

Possibility 2: Microsoft is backing away from Xbox games on Windows Phone

Halo Wars
Halo Wars would easily adapt to touch screen controls. N.O.V.A. proves that mainline Halo games would too.

This less optimistic explanation actually seems more likely to your friendly neighborhood Games Editor. We’ve seen many little signs that point to a lack of faith in Windows Phone from the Xbox Live team over the last year. Initially Microsoft had announced batches of 4-8 news games at semi-regular intervals throughout the year, often accompanying events like CES an E3.

In 2012 they did tease a launch lineup of Windows Phone 8 Xbox games, first at Major Nelson’s blog in October and shortly thereafter at Xbox.com. The lineup included the popular Jetpack Joyride, Fairway Solitaire, Gravity Guy 2, and a handful of Gameloft games. That Xbox.com page has now been removed, though its spirit lives on in our story about it.

Furthermore, none of the games listed actually comes from Microsoft Studios (though they did finance Fairway Solitaire). We don’t know about a single first-party game that’s in development right now, and the only other upcoming second-party games I can name are Skulls of the Shogun and Ascend: New Gods – games announced in June 2012 or earlier.

Microsoft has yet to commit to a Halo or Forza game for Windows Phone – two of their top gaming franchises. Heck, at this point we’d be willing to settle for a sequel to Beards & Beaks! Meanwhile, previous Xbox Windows Phone exclusives like Tentacles, Fable Coin Golf, Kinectimals, and Wordament have jumped ship to iOS. Not everyone will connect the dots and see a lack of commitment from the platform holder here… But it’s hard to see anything else.

Possibility 3: Third-party development is drying up

MiniSquadron for Windows Phone
The makers of MiniSquadron actually pulled their game rather than dealing with the update certification process.

This ties in with the previous possibility. You see, where the first party goes, third parties usually follow. If Microsoft doesn’t show faith in their own platform, why would third-party mobile developers who already make their profits on iOS and Android?

It’s not just looks that matter, either. Like it or not, Windows Phone holds a distant third place in market share compared to its rival smartphone platforms. Yes, our OS is growing, but not fast enough to create a comparable userbase. As such, a major developer would actually be silly to make an Xbox Windows Phone game – exclusive or otherwise – without some kind of incentive from Microsoft. If Microsoft is no longer out there sweet-talking developers and funding new ports of popular titles, there just won’t be enough games released until the platform grows much larger.

Possibility 4: Microsoft has totally forgotten about several games they could release right now

Shao-Lin's Road and Time Pilot

This wouldn’t be a ‘no Xbox release’ post without us mentioning Shao-Lin’s Road, Time Pilot, and Loondon. All three games are complete, though the third title might require additional language translations before being released. Loondon is a simple 3D remake of a Flash adventure game. We uncovered the story behind its vaporware development cycle last year.

Shao-Lin’s Road and Time Pilot are both Game Room titles – classic arcade games from Konami that would run on Windows Phone via emulation. Shao-Lin’s Road plays a bit like the NES game Kung Fu, though with the levels and the characters’ range of movement greatly increased. Time Pilot is a 2D shoot-em-up in which the player’s ship can move and fire in 8 directions instead of just one. Both titles are more visually complex than the four Game Room titles that actually got released. The existing Game Room titles run on Windows Phone 8, by the way.

Microsoft funded these projects and chose not to release them. Every time we have a dry week with no release, you have to wonder whether anybody on the Xbox Windows Phone team remembers they exist.

Final call (of the week)

If you ask me, all four scenarios seem likely at this point. I wish I could interpret the data more optimistically, but there’s been too little good news to go on lately. Let’s just hope things turn around next week, much as we hoped this week and the week before.

What do you think, dedicated readers? Do our hypothetical explanations for the Xbox game release drought sound accurate, or can you propose another explanation?

Photo courtesy of the Science Education Resource Center at Carlton College.