Chickens Can't Fly returns to Windows Phone without Xbox features. Get the inside story here

Last month, Microsoft pulled 11 Xbox games from the Windows Phone Store, 10 of which had used Microsoft Points as the payment method for their In-App Purchases. At the time, we speculated that only a few games would return at all, and mostly stripped of their Xbox features.

Today the first of those delisted games has returned: Chickens Can’t Fly. Unfortunately, it has indeed returned as an indie game. But hey, at least Windows Phone gamers can play it again – if they repurchase. We can’t place the blame for this on developer Amused Sloth, though. They’ve just posted a lengthy explanation for change on their blog. As you might expect, stripping the game of its Xbox features came from a higher power...

The road to Xbox Live

Before we go on, be aware that I’m going to be critical of Microsoft in this story. Most of the hard stuff and any information that wasn’t part of Amused Sloth’s blog post comes from my research and separate sources – NOT Amused Sloth, who are taking a diplomatic approach to this situation.

Chickens Can’t Fly arrived on Windows Phone 7 back in February 2012. The month before that, Microsoft’s interest in creating, funding, and/or publishing Xbox games for Windows Phone had just dried up thanks to the executive Karl Stricker’s departure as the Xbox LIVE Senior Business Manager. But the programs and projects Stricker had created during his tenure would linger on for a while, including the Must Have Games promotion which ran for its second and final time that February.

Independent of Karl, Microsoft has long held a restrictive policy that requires Xbox games for any platform to have an established publisher who has shipped retail Xbox games. Ostensibly, the policy was created to… Okay, I can’t think of a way to whitewash it.

The policy was created to restrict indie developers from publishing their games. If an indie really wanted to release an Xbox game, they had to sign on with a publisher and share some of the profits from the game. That policy has apparently been lifted on the Xbox 360, but this story proves that it still exists on Windows Phone.

Xbox games have higher visibility and a more elite status perception than indie games. They also include Achievements that integrate with a user’s Xbox Live/Microsoft profile, which many Windows Phone gamers consider a major selling point. Amused Sloth wanted their sequel to indie game Chickens Can Dream to be Xbox branded, and so they signed up with Microsoft Studios as the publisher.

The Microsoft Points conundrum

Amused Sloth had greater aspirations for Chickens Can’t Fly than just Xbox Achievements. They also worked to include unlockable Xbox Avatar items and In-App Purchases in their game. They would have even offered extra Achievements along with the paid DLC Dojo level, had they not been prevented from doing so by inexplicable Xbox Windows Phone policies. Only one Windows Phone game was ever allowed that privilege: Babaroga’s Zombies!!!, another game that eventually got delisted due to its single In-App Purchase.

Adding In-App Purchases to the 15 or so Windows Phone 7 games that offered them would prove challenging for developers.  Windows Phone 7 did not (and still doesn’t) natively support IAPs when it launched in 2010, despite the fact that IAPs were already a standard offering in mobile games and apps, not to mention console games, at that time. Native IAPs would not come along until the launch of Windows Phone 8 in November 2012.

Rather than updating Windows Phone 7 to natively incorporate In-App Purchases, Microsoft’s solution in 2011 was to create a framework for developers to use that accepted Microsoft Points as currency. This despite the fact that Microsoft Points could never be used to purchase the Windows Phone games themselves. Here is where the train started to leave the tracks…

See, the framework for accepting Microsoft Points was made available ONLY to Xbox developers. Indie games and apps simply couldn’t use it. Even now, there is no built-in way for Windows Phone 7 developers to sell items and goods through their games or apps.

Some games like MonsterUp Adventures have offered purchases through a separate website that can then be redeemed within the game itself (The Windows Phone 8 version of the game has IAPS built in). Other games like the Windows Phone 7 version of Ragdoll Run have opted to use Fortumo’s carrier-based billing model for IAPs.

Death sentence

Beards & Beaks from Microsoft Studios

Shirking the non-Xbox developers wasn’t the real problem with incorporating Microsoft Points as the sole payment method for Xbox Windows Phone 7 IAPs though. The REAL reason it should never have been done is that Microsoft Points were already on their way out.

Windows Phone Central has learned from multiple sources that Microsoft knew that a transition from Points to regional currency was in the works at the same time the Windows Phone 7 IAP framework was developed in late 2011. In fact, we covered that exact rumor in January 2012 – just as Gravity Guy became the first third-party Windows Phone 7 game with IAPs (Microsoft’s Beards & Beaks was the first 1st-party title in August 2011).

Knowing that the IAP method was not future proof and that any Windows Phone game to accept Microsoft Points as payment would have its IAPs broken by the transition to regional currency, Microsoft still provided that payment framework to Xbox developers. They sent Chickens Can’t Fly, Zombies!!!, Tentacles, and several other games out to die.

In August 2013, Microsoft Points were finally decommissioned. The next month, 10 of the Windows Phone 7 games that accepted them for IAPs got pulled from the Store.

Publisher apathy

While the loss of a game’s IAPs will be damaging to its revenue structure, the majority of the delisted games were not free to play. They could have been updated to remove their IAPs without doing much harm. Makes sense, right?

Well, the decision to update a game doesn’t fall on the developer; it’s up to the publisher. “The option to do the update was out of our hands,” Catalin Zima-Zegreanu of Amused Sloth explains. And this is why you don’t want Microsoft to publish your Windows Phone game. Microsoft, the platform holder and company behind the Windows Phone 7 IAP debacle, has opted not to update any of the affected games it published. Chickens Can’t Fly, Tentacles, and Beards & Beaks will not be returning to Xbox Live.

It would be so easy to disable the IAPs in those games and return them to the Store with removing their Xbox features. It’s not like the source code was lost or anything. When publishing a simple title update is too much trouble, it looks like Microsoft just doesn’t care about supporting Xbox games on Windows Phone any more.

Many gamers had hoped that the restructuring of the organization instituted by Steve Ballmer before his departure would lead to better decision making towards Windows Phone games. But clearly decisions like pulling these games and not allowing them to be updated come from someone who is apathetic (if not hostile) towards games.

Chickens CAN still fly though

Thankfully, Chickens Can’t Fly is a high quality game that can live on without Xbox support. Amused Sloth released an iOS version a few weeks ago, followed by the Android version this week.

Now Chickens Can’t Fly has returned to Windows Phone 7 and 8 as an indie game as well. The game still costs 99 cents, but now includes the previous IAPs for free. It also runs at 60 frames per second, whereas the previous version only ran at 30. The former Xbox Achievements are still available as in-game Achievements, though not being able to share them with friends removes some of their luster.

Gamers who bought the Xbox Windows Phone version of Chickens Can’t Fly can seek a refund through Microsoft by heading to the Xbox support website and initiating a support chat. I personally scored refunds on two (!) of the 11 delisted games, although I own all 11. If you really like Chickens, make sure you grab the indie version. Amused Sloth created a great game and they deserve our continued support.

  • Chickens Can’t Fly – Windows Phone 7 and 8 – 46 MB – $.99 – Store Link

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!