How Microsoft can save Xbox games for Windows Phone: Part 1

Over the last couple of months, Windows Phone Central has been highly skeptical and/or critical of Microsoft’s dedication towards Xbox games for Windows Phone. As the weeks without a new Xbox release (excluding Nokia exclusives) have grown, so has our certainty in an underlying problem. This culminated with a game developer stepping forward to explain Microsoft’s reticence towards approving new Xbox projects, not to mention the conspicuous snubbing of Windows Phone in the announcement of the multiplatform WSOP: Full House Pro.

My refusal to shy away from all that bad news might’ve lead some to believe that your friendly neighborhood Games Editor has some kind of anti-Microsoft agenda. As longtime readers surely know, nothing could be farther from the truth! Xbox gaming on Windows Phone is the number one thing that attracted me to the platform, and I’m not the only one. Heck, that’s the whole reason I’m here. Nobody wants to see Xbox-branded games grow and succeed on Windows Phone more than me.

After two years though, ‘Xbox Windows Phone’ still has much room for improvement. If Xbox games are to continue on as a selling point for the platform, things need to change. Today we present the first of two articles highlighting the areas most in need of improvement. This installment focuses exclusively on the Xbox Live certification process for Windows Phone games.

Xbox games should be easier to make.

Armed!

Armed!

This is a two-part problem. First, it’s too difficult to get a game approved for Xbox branding. We’ve heard stories of perfectly impressive game designs being rejected. Their developers are then forced to publish as an indie game or simply move on to other smartphone platforms. Part of the problem seems to be that of finding an ‘in.’ Getting your first design noticed can be nearly impossible, but subsequent game approval comes much easier.

The best example of wrongful rejection is Armed! from Sickhead Games. When it debuted in December 2011, Armed! was already heads-and-tails more advanced than just about any Xbox Windows Phone game in terms of graphics, user interface, and especially online multiplayer. Whoever rejected Armed! probably had only the most casual appreciation of games and failed to understand how much the Xbox Windows Phone platform needs deeper, more serious titles in addition to casual fare. As a result of this and other factors, Sickhead Games has publicly expressed disinterest with rereleasing Armed! as an Xbox Live game in the future.

Make the certification nightmares stop.

Fusion: Sentient

Fusion: Sentient

Second, actually passing certification once a game gets approved can be time consuming, costly, and all but impossible for smaller developers. This developer of an Xbox Windows Phone game explains the problems better than I ever could:

“The first thing is that the process is far more detailed and difficult to pass than on other phones... What tripped us up was that the rules changed pretty often. We’d fix any issues that came up in a report then a few weeks later we’d get it back having failed on an issue that had been introduced in the meantime and we hadn’t been told about. This was understandable before WP7 was released since Microsoft were updating everything all the time, but once it had been released games had come out under rules that we would have passed, but we instead failed because of new issues that we had no idea about. Some of these issues required major updates to the code as well.

Our biggest headache overall was the LIVE testing. Firstly, we quite often got bugs back that weren’t actually bugs – they were problems with the way Microsoft had uploaded the LIVE files their side. The first few times, we spent a good few weeks searching for these – weeks that you can’t really afford as a small indie developer – only to be told at some point that they’ve re-uploaded the files and it’s all ok. After a while, we’d hold off on “fixing“ anything until we were sure they were actually bugs.

Secondly, as a developer you can’t actually test LIVE functionality properly – only within a debug environment. Only Microsoft can test in a “real” LIVE environment. This meant that there may well be problems that you can’t detect while making and testing the game. It also means if they are detected, you can’t debug them or even tell exactly what’s going on, so they’re very hard to fix. This was compounded by the fact that Microsoft don’t seem to test this side of the process until well into submission – in fact until you’ve pretty much finished submission and gone through several rounds of testing.

Microsoft's Studio C building

[Much of it comes] down to the size and complexity of Microsoft. Each person you talk to seems to be extremely friendly and helpful. The problem is there are so many departments that you can spend weeks locked in a loop trying to clear issues up. This doesn’t seem to be anyone’s fault – everyone wants to help you – it’s just that each person doesn’t have the info that you’ve given to everyone else and so you tend to get the same answers back which haven’t helped before and won’t help now!

Overall submission has taken longer than actually making the game. Obviously this is a very worrying situation to be in for an Indie developer who can’t really afford to take so long before getting any revenue. It’s been a very slow and drawn out process, and largely out of a developer’s control. We’d like clear rules to stick to, we’d like to be able to test all functionality during development, we’d like to get clear bug reports which describe reproducible bugs and we’d like to get clear and quick answers to any relevant questions.”

That’s no outlier experience; we’ve heard the same criticisms from multiple developers.

That goes for title updates too.

I Dig It

I Dig It

If getting a game certified sounds bad, just wait until the time comes to release an update for it! The history of Xbox Windows Phone games is filled with horror stories of long-delayed title updates. The most famous example is I Dig It from In Motion Software. The game released in February 2011 in a terribly buggy state with broken Achievements, save data losses, and errors galore. By June, the developer openly admitted its frustrations at getting a patch to fix the problems approved. The patch didn’t go live until October that year, eight months after the game’s release.

That’s far from the only example of long-delayed updates. Fusion: Sentient debuted in November 2011 with a nasty broken Achievement. The title update to fix that Achievement and add fast App Switching support was ready in early 2012 but did not appear until January 2013, more than a year after the game’s release!

Launch title Revolution has always suffered from a broken Achievement, which should be a simple fix. In mid-2011, the developer confessed:

“I have been working with Microsoft to fix the issue, but unfortunately the process has not been an expedient one… The process itself is making it difficult to get the update out there. The achievement issue has been fixed for months, but an update cannot be accepted by Microsoft until the additional issues are addressed.”

Unlike Fusion: Sentient, this update never materialized. The one bug that actually matters to gamers remains unfixed because the certification team cares more about bugs that regular users don't even notice. And let’s not forget MiniSquadron from Supermono and Microsoft Studios, which also launched with a broken Achievement and several other bugs in late 2011. Rather than enduring the certification process a second time, Supermono simply chose to pull the game from the Windows Phone Store.

Making updates easier to release will make for better games.

Angry Birds Star Wars

Still waiting on those Hoth levels...

Those frightful tales revolve around updates designed to fix games’ bugs and broken features. What about updates that add new content? Our version of Angry Birds received one update ever and lags considerably behind the iOS game. New levels were promised for both Doodle Jump and Pocket God that never became reality. Angry Birds Star Wars still lacks the Hoth update, two months after iOS and Android got it.

A major reason for the enduring popularity of Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and many other hit casual games on other platforms is that their developers continuously release new content for them, often as frequently as biweekly. These developers treat their games like a service, producing new content to support existing fans and attract new ones for months and sometimes years after the initial release. We only need to look at those games’ success to know that the treatment works.

By transplanting the Xbox 360’s already inefficient and developer unfriendly update certification process to Xbox games for Windows Phone, Microsoft has created a barrier towards feature parity in multiplatform games. Any game that receives continuous updates on other platforms will always lag behind on Windows Phone. We’re guaranteed an inferior product.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Sure, the update certification procedures were set up by someone without a deep knowledge of mobile games or developer friendliness. And Microsoft is such a big company, it’s probably tough to even find the person who could change the policy. But it needs to change, and fast. The update certification process must be designed with these goals:

  • Fixing broken Achievements and major bugs immediately
  • Maintaining feature parity with other versions of the same game
  • Pushing updates out in one month or less on average, and never more than two months.

Until those guidelines are established, multiplatform games for Windows Phone will suffer.

More to come!

Part Two of this series is now live, faithful readers!

Do you agree with these suggestions? And what other suggestions do you have for improving the success of Xbox Windows Phone games?

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!

124 Comments
  • So nothing about a game this Wednesdays?
    How about the Nokia exclusives this week ;-)
  • We'll post that stuff when we know it. Now read the darn article. :P
  • Already have =) Its just a sad state of affairs at the moment but I would change my 8X for anything else
  • Wow. Thats a lot of hurdles for developers. Maybe this will quiet down some of the rants on the forums aimed at the big developers. Looks like we all need to get on Microsoft's back
  • it seems counterproductive on ms' part to have one of the announcements for wp8 be native gaming when people were expecting it with xbox achievements. why emphasize gaming when your gonna pull the only thing that would make windows phone games worthwile or even an option to other smartphone platforms?
  • A lull in games doesn't mean that the platform is abandoned. Skulls of the shogun hits next weeks and ascend new gods is slated for windows phone as well. Also at a press briefing two weeks ago Phil Harrison said lift would be making games for all of Microsoft platforms including windows phone. Also you seem to ignore that Microsoft has a studio that does only mobile games development (Press Play), 
     
     
    I will say armed should be an Xbox Live game similar to how wordamomt was made into one. 
  • Maybe comment on the subject of the article itself instead of past articles? ;) Also, we know that Microsoft has Press Play, but until they announce a new Windows Phone project, that does us no good.
  • Speaking of press play, what happened exactly to twin blades?
  • That's Press Start Studio, a different company. We covered Twin Blades' delisting a while back. Press Start basicvally pulled it and refused to provide an explanation. They do still make iOS games, so they haven't gone out of business.
  • hmm, too bad, i liked that game, microsoft hasnt gave me back my money because of that!!
  • Interesting to note that Xbox 360 hasn't had a new XBLA release for 2 weeks.
  • Yeah, we did note that in last week's article about the lack of releases. The Cave is coming to XBLA tomorrow though.
  • 100% purchase from me =)
  • Someone send this to MS
  • This!!
  • Agreed
  • Third times a charm! Go for it!
  • I quadruple that
  • consider it sent
  • Yes!!!!!
  •  
    I just tweeted the article to Steve Ballmer. @stevebmicrosoft BTW I tweeted him once before and he responded (accidentally I think because it was just my twitter name) at least he read it or a secretary did.
  • Microsoft needs to be bombarded with this.
  • I agree with everything!!! Many things need to change, but the few developers who still support the platform will further decrease and new does not reach.
      One suggestion I would have is that all Windows Phone Xbox games were available in all markets. It would be a guarantee that at least all of those games would arrive in markets such as Brazil that have very few games.
  • Can someone tell me if the new Ea uno game will have real time multiplayer with leader broad because that's the only game that I've envied for the past two years.
  • If you guys could request one game from another platform what would it be!
  • Subway Surf
    Cover Orange
    Jetpack
  • The said one
  • Ups
     
  • Chrono Trigger!
  • Which works perfectly with Snes8x! Been going through the game again on my phone.
  • That is a nice option in the meantime. :)
  • Sounds just like xbla. When we get the new Xbox I'm sure things will change as we'll have three platforms with similar code. Hopefully it changes when the new Xbox is announced, not when it comes out. Right now it seems like there is too much bureaucracy involved.
  • Exactly like xbla.
  • Sadly this is all probably a result of the still lingering misconception that all MS products are buggy.  As we saw earlier, even fake bugs, like the bull shit "insert boot disc" WP8 screen, can go viral and embarrass MS.  So I can understand why they have an over cautious process.  Maybe a good solution would be to have an overall Games Czar who can fastrack obvious and important stuff like the Angry Birds Star Wars levels.
  • The czar idea is a fantastic suggestion - Part 2 of this article will say much the same thing.
  • Paul, you could send this link to Joe Belfioe and to windowsphone also
  • As I said in your other post, ever since Brandon Watson left for Amazon, developer support seems to have taken a nose dive.  And I STILL don't know why after 6+ years, XBL certification is the worst in the industry.  For all of the praise Microsoft gets for the dev tools, the certification process is so horrible.  It's like they took all of the good ideas WHCL brought to the table, and forced them upon games.
  • Indeed a Big Gamer Kahoona at Microsoft would certainly fix this issue if given the powers to simply fast track known developers work, as time goes on more Devs would become fast tracked and Gamer Devs would start to head to WP and W8 in bigger numbers. Capturing the Gamer Market is big bickies as thats most of the entertainment revenue worldwide besides Movies and TV shows. I do suspect though that when the next XBOX console releases everything will ramp up significantly as everyone will know how this new crucial piece of hardware effects the whole big picture, uniting the big 4# O/S's gaming together (W8,W8RT,WP8 and Xbox) If done right it will change the way we game.
  • Send this link to Joe Belfiore twitter account.
  • Yep, I just did that a few minutes ago.
  • I went to the top and sent it to Steve Ballmer.
  • I agree with your premise, Paul. Perhaps, the delay in releasing new games is being caused by MS streamlining the cert process now? I actually like the way Wordament did it. They realesed the game as an indie, were insanely successful, causing Microsoft, to go, "We NEED this, on XBL!" That way, the entire Game Store, is enriched, and great games, earn an "achievement," of a sort, by the carrot-dangling, of possible elevation, to XBL status. Just my 2¢.
  • Keep in mind that Wordament is developed and maintained by Microsoft employees in another division.
  • I might need to start a twitter account just for this...
  • Nice Article, I'm loosing faith a bit I must say.
     
    It's definitely making me think twice about going to Phone 8
  • I'm thinking the same thing. I have a WP7 and honestly don't think I'd get another Windows Phone. Apps are pretty important, and I currently have no reason to brag or like my WP right now. MS needs to get their sht together quickly.. all they have going for them right now is XBOX and I have a feeling that's going to end up a failure once the new consoles are out and the devs say no.
  • Microsoft are going to "Kin" WP simply by their incompetence. And let's be honest, it all comes from the top and lack of a clear vision for all of Microsoft, and not just the cash cows Windows and Office.
  • OMG!! are you freakin kidding me? How Microsoft can treat game developers like this an actually get away with it. What, the developers are going to flock to you just because your Microsoft. This is ridiculous! And Microsoft makes all these promises, clueless, just clueless. No wonder Microsofts' store is in the state it's in. As much as I hate to say it you think that they would take a peek at how Android handles there games. Its obviously better than this. This article is just very depressing because you just know Microsoft ain't going to change a thing. This os is awesome, if Microsoft would just quit doing retarded shit. This os would be unbelievably head and shoulders above anything out there.
  • I agree, sometimes i think ms works against us loyal users :(
  • I can respectfully disagree with some statements in this article.  I am pretty sure the reason why games havent been released recently is because the update for 7.8 may be pushed out to us end of this month and have games to go with them that have 7.8 support included.  Also about games not getting updates...the company for Revolution said they fixed the glitch but not the problems microsoft found...soo..why didnt they fix and resubmit it?  My main per peeve is the problem with everyone asking why isnt a game out why isnt a game out?...do you want a buggy game?  The recent submissions to microsoft might have decent bugs and ms doesnt want to release a buggy game...especially if it might be WP8 exclusive...that would be horrible stupid PR.  Just wait and be patient..we wait for updates forever...waiting for another decent game would be well worth the wait....plus it gives me time to finish off my iZombie endless and vasebreaker achievements on PVZ. Sorry for the rant...rough day at work...lol
  • Revolution's designer did resubmit the patch, repeatedly. We already have a buggy game with a broken Achievement. A buggy game with no broken Achievement is preferable any way you slice it.
  • Touche...lol.  Yea I guess your right.  It does suck with broke achievements but it is what it is.  We just have to see what we get next. Personally a game like Alan Wake would be awesome...especially since that was a microsoft exculsive...would look amazing on my Lumia 900 and being a black phone makes the darkness much more scary.
  • I would love an Alan Wake game too, though I don't expect it will ever happen. We'll touch on the issue of bringing console franchises to WP in the next article.
  • "Eggselent" (sorry too much Regular Show) article.  This certification process has been horrible for years and unfortunatly I don't see it changing soon, but as Paul mentioned it must be done now.  The old saying "if it aint broke don't fix it" adage applies.  It is broke and needs a fix'n.   What is clear is the employees must know it is broken but upper managment and perhaps Balmer are not exactly fixing these issues.  In fact a recent article today quotes an former exec that Ballmer pushes out colleagues that challenge his "authorty".  Being humble would mean they admit this process is broken and does not support the developer or MS and it must change. 
    We have watched development in this story stemming from XBLA developers expecially the past year.  These complaints started with XBLA and now the plague moved over to our beloved WP's.  I so want this to be fixed.  I LOVE WP and I simply enjoy everything about Xbox Live. 
    Anyway, I am going to pass this article around and forward it via tweet, messages, and to anyone that I can think of that has a sliver of interest in Xbox/MS/WP.  Thank you Paul. :)
  • They need a killer exclusive for windows phone 8. They need HALO!!!!
     
  • +1!
  • That’s far from the only example of long-delayed updates. Fusion: Sentient debuted in November 2011 with a nasty broken Achievement. The title update to fix that Achievement and add fast App Switching support was ready in early 2012 but did not appear until January 2013, more than a year after the game’s release!
     
    Source: http://ninjabee.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=48801#p48801
    Thanks for the heads up. I forgot i was waiting for this patch..
  • I don't think Xbox live integration is that big of a deal (I've never use achievements and don't have an Xbox live account on my Xbox 360), but the way non-Xbox games are all but hidden from the games hub and app list on windows phones is a huge disservice to any non Xbox game on windows phone, and that needs to stop.
  •  absolutely agree !!!!!!!
  • Curious as to how Taptitude manages to get regular, sizeable updates if it is such a hassle? Is it the developers or MS that are making it easier in this case?
  • Non-Xbox games go through a completely different and more efficient certification process.
  • I don't know why I should care about x box games on my phone.
    Someone explain it to me.  I've had the console for years.  I have a profile, etc.
    Just don't understand the point of it.
  • That should be obvious, but I think the introduction of this article explains it pretty well: The Best Xbox Windows Phone Games of 2012
  • Cool. Thanks for the nasty, pointless lead in and then giving me the information.
    EDIT:  As I thought, it's pretty pointless.  Too much emphasis on something that just doesn't mean that much
  • Just because a feature or features doesn't/don't appeal to you, that doesn't make them pointless at all. These features captivate a lot of people and act as a selling point for both games and the various Xbox platforms. It's okay to not buy into the system, but enough people do that it matters a great deal.
  • If you are someone who doesn't care about Xbox Achievments, then it might not be a big deal.  However, to a developer, getting Xbox Live branded is a huge thing.  Yes, it is a nightmare, but for those that can achieve it, it helps with promotion and awareness.  I really do hope Microsoft simplifies XBL certification across the board.
  • I don't care about achievements.
    I'm just talking about the emphasis on this.  It's too much on this site, that's all.
  • Well luckily your opinion is not shared by everyone.  The articles about games are pretty much the only ones I read on this site.  I couldn't care less about a lot of other aspects of Windows Phones (and the mobile market in general) so I actually think there aren't enough articles on this site about games.
  • I abandoned Android for WinPhone because Google wants Plus for app reviews. I already had a MS account for Xbox and Win8. From there... yeah.
    I do NOT own a 360, but had an account on my friend's console. I figured to give it good use: PC and mobile.
  • Good read.
  • Marc Whitten, VP & GM of Xbox Live @notwen, and Phil Spencer, VP Microsoft Studios @peeethree, have a lot to answer for the Windows Phone Xbox Live situation.
  • Paul, one thing I noticed today, it seems that the process, at least update, Xbox games in Windows 8 is much faster than that!
      Last week an update was released couple to Cut The Rope to enable Live on it. But no one could connect to Xbox Live by the game. It was a bug. Today another update has been released to correct this. Maybe Windows 8/RT process is another, much faster by the way. Windows Phone Games could use it.
  • Nice to see things operating a little more smoothly on Windows 8. Nokia also seems to have more freedom to push out updates than other devs/publishers on WP.
  • I agree what XB cert now doing, we don't need buggy game.
    Yes, you can release patch, but it is not a correct way, you should finish your software well before you release.
    I don't think because the update now is much easier than the past (now we have online update) then you can release buggy software and wait users to report bugs. User are not beta tester!
  • To be clear, you are happy that Revolution, Doodle Jump, Pocket God, and Angry Birds will likely never be updated? Policies that ensure that are a good thing?
  • Every time I see a comment like this, I question whether the poster has ever been involved in a non-trival software project. No-matter how much spit an polish, EVERY non-trivial application has bugs. With the way the XBL certification process currently works, I'm surprised XBL games are as bug free as they are. Debugging under circumstances like this is a nightmare. Don't get me wrong, I expect published software to be reasonably bug-free. They key word there being "reasonably."
  • Agreed. This opinion doesn't seem to come from someone who plays games - certainly not someone who cares about games.
  • Seems odd that Microsoft markets Xbox games as a feature of WP and then makes developers Juno through hoops to get Xbox branded games to the platform. Someone screwed up somewhere when setting all that up.
  • Makes me wonder if Xbox Live certification is on the way out.  Mobile gaming and casual gaming is always about "the next big thing" and seems to have a large turnover rate in regards to players moving from one game to another rather quickly.  The whole Xbox Live certification process pretty much acts in the exact opposite way and retards the process of quickly churning out games, and really doesn't have a place in the mobile environment.
     
    Don't get me wrong, Achievements are the reason I bought my Windows Phone, but I could understand how the best strategy for MS would be to just do away with them and open up their marketplace to make sure all the freshest and newest apps hit the same time as they do on iOS and Android.   I don't think they'll have a choice but to do away with it if they're unwilling to completely re-haul their certification and release processes.
  • Can we all tweet this article to Joe Belfiore and Ben Rudolph?
  • I won't stop ya! :)
  • Cool. :) Good Article BTW.
     
  • I would rather wait for games to be bug free than wait for something with no achievements or maps
  • They also need a mobile Halo with possibly Halo branded phones. That could really attract some gamers. Some major titles like that- exclusive too- could really help the platform.
  • Then Microsoft Studios would publish it on iPhone. Because that's what Microsoft Studios does now with their exclusives. That division is so dysfunctional and broken since Shane Kim left.
  • Nice article. I don't care about phone games (I think that consoles and PCs are for games) but my wife does and she wants to ditch her Lumia and get iphone for that same reason.
  • I felt the whole Xbox division is killing windows phone. Their Xbox music, their Xbox video.... None of the Xbox branded thing works correctly on windows phone.
  • How can MS be so STUPID!!! How can they expect to gain marketshare when they make it hard for their devs? MS needs to understand that they are behind and needs to HELP the devs! Im starting to hate MS and my WP8! MS is handling this all wrong and my Lumia 920 is squeaking and the retailer refuses to replace it and writting Stephen Elop did not work out as for others in this forum. He just forwarded me to the local Nokia center who didn't give a shit! This is all BULL!
     
  • MS should add Halo 4 Stats to their Halo Waypoint app!