A few days ago, we reported that Microsoft is looking to create an open-source framework for bringing Xbox Live features to games for all mobile platforms. An additional report from The Verge has since added additional fuel to the fire, giving us a slightly clearer picture of what that means for Xbox Live on Windows Phone and other mobile devices.
Xbox Windows Phone has long been in dire need of a change. Read on to find out what went wrong, and how likely it is that the upcoming open-source framework will set mobile Xbox Live games back on track.
A system in need of change
It’s difficult to remember nowadays, but Xbox games were actually a selling point of Windows Phone 7 back when the platform launched in late 2010. That year, Microsoft reached out to numerous mobile developers across the world and encouraged them to port their games to Windows Phone as Xbox Live titles. In some cases, the big MS actually paid the developers to do the porting, but not always.
Of the 63 Xbox games announced for the Windows Phone 7 launch window, only 52 made it to market. A few, like Real Soccer and Asphalt 5 showed up as late as 2012 – well past the launch window. Many others were quietly cancelled without notice, making them vaporware. Check out our look back at Loondon, one of those vaporware titles.
In the early days of Xbox Windows Phone, Microsoft allowed some developers and publishers to self-publish their games. Normally, a company must have self-published retail Xbox titles in order to get that privilege. Sadly, the days of allowing companies to publish their own Xbox games are over. Fairway Solitaire was planned as an Xbox game but ended up an indie title due to that woeful constraint.
These days, the only Xbox games that appear on Windows Phone are published by Microsoft, EA, or Ubisoft. Even if a smaller developer wanted to release an Xbox game for Windows Phone, they would have to negotiate a publishing agreement with Microsoft thus losing an extra cut of the game’s profits, as well as control over that title’s future. So nobody makes Xbox games any more.
A tortuous certification process
The other major malfunction in the mobile Xbox system has long been the rigorous certification process. In order to be Xbox-enabled, games must be submitted for certification. The actual testing is done by low-wage contractors outside of Microsoft, who we’ve been told often provided vague or unhelpful feedback in the past.
One game, MiniSquadron actually took longer to push through certification than it did to develop! And after the game released with a few bugs unsquashed, the developer actually chose to delist it rather than face another round of certification. Another indie title that launched with severe bugs is I Dig It from InMotion Software. The Xbox Live certification team refused to allow the I Dig It bug-fixing title update to pass for a whopping eight months!
Just today, a former developer of Xbox games for Windows Phone and Windows 8 told us:
“Doing anything with Microsoft and Xbox Live is such a drain on our resources, and the sales just still aren't there on Microsoft's mobile platforms. I believe it is best to launch without Xbox Live integration. Then you have the freedom and flexibility to make your game the best it can be, not be hamstrung by Xbox Live services.”
Even Gameloft, a publisher that can better afford to pay for the slow and costly certification process chose to stop producing Xbox titles for Windows Phone last year. They still make Windows Phone games, but without the Xbox features that many gamers crave.
We saw the writing on the wall long before Gameloft jumped ship. In early 2013 I wrote a series of seven lengthy editorials chronicling all the problems facing Xbox Live games on Windows Phone. Only one of my grievances has been addressed (the need for a mobile Halo game), though requests for independent volume control and support for installing games on SD cards will finally be met when Windows Phone 8.1 rolls out.
Something different this way comes
Halo: Spartan Assault
"We will create a modern framework that is open-source, lightweight, extensible and scalable across various platforms including Windows Store, Windows Phone, iOS, and Android."
The Verge goes on to add a bit of additional insight from its own source:
“Microsoft is aiming to "win back" game developers from its competitors by making Xbox Live a lot easier to integrate into apps and games. Xbox Live, in its current state, requires certification and permission from Microsoft, but in the future the company is planning to have fewer restrictions and better tools for game developers to integrate the functionality into titles.”
The obvious good news there is that certification for mobile Xbox Live games will at long last be eased. The current, Draconian certification process is basically copy-and-pasted form the Xbox 360, without any special concessions for mobile or indie developers.
Although large publishers like EA, Gameloft, etc. produce a lot of best-selling mobile titles, a significant portion of the most popular mobile games (including Flappy Bird) come from individual developers or very small teams. Remember, Microsoft made a few special publishing deals and/or threw some funding around in the early days of Xbox Windows Phone, but that pretty much stopped in 2012. Even those indie developers fortunate enough to self-publish during 2010-2011 still had to contend with a certification process that is overly rigorous and yet inefficient. No wonder they left.
Attracting developers back to Xbox Windows Phone is only part of Microsoft’s goal here. The job posting stated that the new framework will support Android and iOS as well. I’ve argued before that Xbox features should be exclusive to Microsoft platforms, so Xbox support on Android and iOS is bad for Windows Phone. But the sad reality is that there are important people within Microsoft who use iPhones and Android phones and just don’t care about the Windows Phone department’s success over their own departments.
Think back to Halo: Spartan Assault. If Microsoft couldn’t have also brought that game to Windows 8, Xbox One, and Xbox 360, the Windows Phone version never would have happened. Opening up Xbox Live to iOS and Android is a necessary evil in order to actually get the mobile Xbox Live certification process straightened up and revive Xbox Windows Phone. Let’s get developers making Xbox games again before we worry about whether our friends on iOS and Android unlock Achievements.
Will Microsoft really ease mobile Xbox Live certification to the point that lapsed developers who once supported Xbox Windows Phone will come back?
Maybe more Xbox Windows Phone games will come after FIFA 14 after all.
The way the Verge tells things, you’d think Microsoft might be trying to position mobile Xbox Live as an equivalent to iOS’s GameCenter and Android’s Google Play services. That’s what Windows Phone gamers have long been crying for: a way for developers to add Achievements to their games without signing away control of the game or slowing down the process of getting games and updates to market.
It’s certainly possible that the recent leadership changes within Microsoft (including those that took place last week) have finally paved the way for revamping the mobile Xbox Live certification process. Although I fear there are few gamers making decisions like these that affect Xbox Windows Phone, the need for adjustment has been plain to see since 2010.
Even without the framework that Microsoft plans to build, a recent development has opened up a new, easier way for games on Windows Phone and non-Microsoft platforms to incorporate Xbox Live features. All Xbox Live functionality is available as web calls now. In other words, features like having an Achievement list and unlocking those Achievements can be done by communicating with a web server without much extra work from the developer. Theoretically, any game for any platform with web access can have Xbox Live features. Microsoft just has to approve that game as an Xbox Live title.
Returning to the new cross-platform framework revealed by the job posting, our Xbox Live developer source tells us that Microsoft has not started discussing the framework with third-party developers yet. As such, the initiative could still be pretty far off. But GDC and Microsoft’s BUILD conference are just around the corner. Perhaps the big MS will open up about the framework it’s creating during one of those events.