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After four weeks with no new Xbox games for Windows Phone, we may have the actual cause

Last week, Windows Phone received no new Xbox game for the third week in a row. Our detailed editorial posited several theories to explain the prolonged release drought, and many readers chimed in with their own theories. This week marks the fourth consecutive dry week, and the sixth within the last two months. Microsoft has informed us there won’t be a new Xbox game or Deal of the Week once more.

Why another dry week, you ask? An Xbox game developer has come forward with information supporting one of our theories… And no, it isn’t the best news.

Recap

Shao-Lin's Road and Time Pilot MIA

First, a quick summary of the four possible reasons why new Xbox Windows Phone releases have been scarcer than a fully-clothed Rihanna sighting:

  1. Microsoft has decided not to allow Windows Phone 8-incompatible Xbox games to be released
  2. Microsoft is backing away from Xbox games on Windows Phone
  3. Third-party development is drying up
  4. Microsoft has totally forgotten about several games they could release right now (Time Pilot, Shao-Lin’s Road, and Loondon)

These causes are not mutually exclusive, and in fact it’s likely that at least three of them ring true.

The answer

Fable Coin Golf
Fable Coin Golf was the last major Microsoft franchise game released for Windows Phone, but doesn't work with WP8

Next, allow me to explain that our source (who must remain anonymous) has worked on several titles for a developer with a close relationship to Microsoft. This developer has successfully proposed Xbox-branded games for Windows Phone and then gone on to create them. Said dev’s experience might not represent the experience of other third-party developers, but given the facts we know, it seems very likely.

So, what does this developer feel is the root of the Xbox Windows Phone release drought? Possibility Number Two is the winner. Basically, the extent of Xbox-specific development is decided upon by Microsoft’s Business Development division. Unfortunately for gamers, that division is currently reevaluating its support of Xbox-branded games on Windows Phone. With their support in a limbo state, new Microsoft-published and/or funded games can’t be approved.

The above refers specifically to games that would have Microsoft’s name attached to them. It’s not likely that Business Development’s lack of support would cause all third-party developed and published games to be denied. However, like I explained last week: third party support will not continue to any great extent without specific will and funding from Microsoft.

Amazing Spider-Man
Gameloft's lineup of Windows Phone 8 games seems to have been planned before the hiatus.

Windows Phone remains a minority platform compared to iOS and Android. For relatively large developers who already make plenty of profits on competing smartphones, the profits from a Windows Phone game (combined with the cumbersome Xbox Live certification process) probably seem negligible. And even a small team might just decide that making a new iOS game will bring in more revenue than porting one of its existing titles. Much as I love Windows Phone (believe me, I do), these are the market realities for our up-and-coming mobile OS.

What attracts third-party devs then? Put simply, Microsoft must reach out and convince them to bring their games to Windows Phone. This often involves at least partially funding the game’s development, and possibly greenlighting projects for more established platforms like Xbox 360. That’s what has gotten us a great many of the Xbox Windows Phone games so far, and it’s necessary for the foreseeable future. But with Business Development apparently putting a hold on Xbox-specific Windows Phone spending, those development deals aren’t happening.

This news also means we’re that much farther away from getting games from major Microsoft-owned franchises created for Windows Phone. XBLA games that would be easy to port like A World of Keflings and especially the numerous Windows 8 tablet games that could be ported with very little effort: nobody is approving them and so they won’t happen.

Advantage: Nokia

The one silver lining we know of at present is Nokia's continued release of Xbox-branded games for their Lumia Phones. During the drought that many Windows Phone users have faced, Nokia released both Picnic Wars and iBomber Defense. Simultaneously, they've been steadily updating their existing exclusives, with the most recent update making eight out of the 10 existing exclusives fully Windows Phone 8 compatible. That means that the Xbox Windows Phone lineup looks 8-10 games better for Lumia owners. And these aren't just throwaway titles, either. All of Nokia's exclusives come from respected publishers Electronic Arts and Chillingo, and we've reviewed most of them favorably so far. Big-name franchises like Madden, FIFA, and Dead Space are still on the way - we'll have news straight from Nokia's mouth in the weeks ahead!

It's fair to say that while Microsoft might have dropped the ball with Xbox game support for its own mobile OS, Nokia doesn't mind picking up the slack. Nokia can't actually sustain the platform on their own; as far as we know, they only have 10 more exclusive Xbox games on the way this year. To thrive, Windows Phone needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 52 new releases: an average of one per week... And of course, many of those must be popular and/or completely exclusive titles that will appeal to avid gamers. Besides, Windows Phone doesn't consist solely of Nokia phones, so these exclusives haven't benefitted non-Lumia owners just yet.  That said, the Nokia Electronic Arts games are widely believed to be timed exclusives, so HTC and Samsung owners could just end up gaining new games to play before too long.

Other side of the story

Skulls of the Shogun
Skulls of the Shogun for Windows Phone

Naturally we asked Microsoft for comment on the release drought, but they haven’t come forward with an official explanation just yet. Although I have absolute faith in my source, I would be highly surprised to see an actual confirmation of this story from Microsoft themselves. The explanation carries such negative connotations that they wouldn’t gain much by openly stating it. They also love their secrecy. Still, we’ll continue to press for official word as long as we can.

Finally, while six weeks in the last two months without a new Xbox Windows Phone release looks about as good as modern day Val Kilmer and Laurence Fishburne wearing Speedos, Windows Phone isn’t the only Microsoft platform undergoing a release drought. Xbox Live Arcade actually hasn’t had a release for two weeks in a row – a fairly unprecedented span of time. That dry spell ends with next week’s XBLA release of The Cave, but Windows Phone probably won’t see a new Xbox game until Skulls of the Shogun arrives on January 30th.

In the meantime, let Microsoft know that you want more Xbox Windows Phone games, including major franchises! You can make your voice heard by voting for this suggestion at User Voice, commenting in this Xbox forums thread, and by tweeting @Xbox, @XboxSupport, @WindowsPhone, and any other public faces at Microsoft.

Header image courtesy of Wolfe's Lair.

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