How Microsoft can save Xbox games for Windows Phone: Part 5

Xbox for Windows Phone is a key selling point for gamers, but the implementation leaves much to be desired. This editorial series has covered a lot of ground so far, including the need for streamlining the Xbox Live certification process, Microsoft’s failure to appreciate the importance of Xbox to Windows Phone, the need for multiplatform game engine support, and the need for better PR and a download code system.

This week we tackle software and online features that Xbox Windows Phone badly needs.

Gamers must be able to back up and restore their save data.

Xbox 360 sava data management

Xbox 360 save data can be copied, retained, and restored. Why not Windows Phone too?

Remember how the inability to back up and redownload delisted games undermines users’ ownership of their games? Much like that, Windows Phone gives users absolutely no way to back up or restore their games’ save data. If you switch phones or even just delete a game for space, your save file will be completely inaccessible on the new device or after redownloading the game. It’s like that data never belonged to you.

The lack of save file exporting is problematic with all games, but especially Xbox Live ones. Some games are just really long – I’ve put 70 hours into Final Fantasy and still haven’t quite completed it. Other games require excessive grinding for their Achievements: Carcassonne, Angry Birds Space, and Flight Control Rocket are all fine games but immense time sinks for Achievement hunters. Some players just don’t want to make that time commitment when they can’t be assured of retaining their save files through thick and thin.

This can be easily fixed by creating a partition on the phone’s storage for game save data and then requiring all new games to store their saves in that partition. Deleting a game would not delete its data within the partition. Instead, users would be able to manually browse, delete, and copy this data at will -  just as they can on the Xbox 360 and many other platforms. Being able to copy save data could potentially lead to the unscrupulous unlocking of Achievements, but tying the data to the owner’s Gamertag (as with Xbox 360) would prevent such cheating.

Update: My Samsung Focus died, causing me to lose that 70+ hour Final Fantasy save forever. How frustrating.

Cloud saving should be mandatory in all Xbox games.

Skulls of the Shogun cloud saves

Skulls of the Shogun's cloud support is an exception rather than the rule.

You likely wouldn’t know it from looking at the Xbox Windows Phone game lineup, but the platform already has a good solution that allows users to access their data from any device: cloud saving. Storing a copy of the user’s local save data on the cloud and then restoring that copy when local data can’t be found easily solves the problem of save file volatility. A handful of games already use cloud saving: the Game Room titles, Full House Poker, Gun Bros (poorly), Wordament, AlphaJax, and Skulls of the Shogun. I might’ve missed a few, but that’s approximately nine games out of a lineup over 150 titles strong.

Cloud saving has actually been available to Windows Phone developers since 2011. The Build Conference in 2011 and 2012 had sessions called Title Managed Storage dedicated to teaching developers about Xbox Live’s cloud features. Every Xbox game, whether on Xbox 360, Windows Phone, PC, or even (argh) iOS has access to both a read-only storage area (good for quickly changing variables without going through a title update) and per-user area for saving players’ data.

Taking advantage of that per-user data is actually very little work for developers, so why don’t more Xbox Windows Phone games do just that? It can only be one of two things: developers either don’t know they have cloud access or they don’t realize that save data retention is a serious problem on Windows Phone. Either way, Microsoft can solve the problem by simply making cloud save support a requirement for developers instead of an option. Games already undergoing certification would need to be exempted, but over time a cloud save mandate would greatly benefit all mobile Xbox gamers.

Xbox games need global leaderboards.

Zuma's Revenge leaderboard

I've got Windows Phone friends, but people who don't would see a blank Leaderboard in games like Zuma's Revenge.

A leaderboard is a score chart, much like you’d see between play sessions in an actual arcade game. The appeal of Xbox Live’s online leaderboards is that gamers can compare their performance against other players on a worldwide scale. Every decent online leaderboard also allows results to be filtered to show only scores belonging to the user’s friends.

When a player first buys a Windows Phone device, starts up an Xbox Live game, and looks at the in-game leaderboard, he or she is likely to see a completely blank leaderboard. That doesn’t mean nobody else plays that game. Instead, it reveals a huge problem with leaderboards in Xbox Windows Phone games: they’re friends-only.

When developing the Xbox Live APIs (application programming interfaces) for Windows Phone, Microsoft apparently plum forgot to create an API for global leaderboards. There is literally no way for game developers to provide an all-encompassing leaderboard within the Xbox Windows Phone system. Okay, there are actually a handful of exceptions: the Game Room titles, Full House Poker, Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp, and Wordament all have global leaderboards because they connect to special servers that are accessible from all platforms.

But other games don’t get that special server access, and so their leaderboards are restricted to users’ friends lists. If you don’t have any Windows Phone Xbox Live friends or none of those friends own a particular game, you won’t have anyone to compare your scores and progress with. A global leaderboard API would be easy to create (they already exist on Xbox 360 after all). Microsoft needs to prepare one and make it mandatory, just like it is with Xbox 360 games. Only then will Xbox-enabled leaderboards actually become useful to all Windows Phone gamers.

Xbox Live messaging lags inexplicably behind the Xbox 360.

Without a doubt, the Xbox 360 offers the most advanced peer-to-peer messaging system of any home console. Its cross-game voice chat has yet to be rivaled by Sony, though that could change with the Playstation 4. Advanced as the 360’s party chat and messaging systems are, Windows Phone sadly doesn’t compare.

Outside of a game, the Games hub and Xbox Live Extras app both allow users to send and receive text messages to other Xbox Live users, whether they own a console or a phone. That’s good, but Windows Phone inexplicably can’t record or even listen to voice messages – many 360 owners’ preferred form of messaging. Considering the abilities of a smartphone include voice recording and downloading audio files, there really is no excuse for voice messages not to be supported.

A few more outside-of-game quibbles: Windows Phone users should be able to toggle push notifications for incoming Xbox Live messages. Sending and receiving Xbox Live text messages should be almost as fast as SMS text messaging; the current interface is slow and cumbersome. A live tile that displays the number of unread messages (and subsequent integration with the notification center we all hope for) also makes perfect sense.

Xbox Windows Phone needs universal in-game chat and messaging.

AlphaJax allows players to chat with each other. Carcassonne does not.

Considering the scarcity of RAM in some Windows Phones as well as data usage concerns, it’s probably too much to ask for cross-game voice chat like the 360 enjoys. But that doesn’t mean players shouldn’t be able to communicate with friends from within a game.

Consider the handful of Windows Phone games with some form of online multiplayer: Battleship, Pool Pro Online, Carcassonne, Wordament (sort of), AlphaJax, and Skulls of the Shogun. Of those titles, only Pool Pro Online and AlphaJax have an in-game messaging system. If you want to communicate with another player while engaged in one of the other games, you’ll have to use Fast App Switching to enter the Games Hub, send the message, and resume your game. Even then, the recipient won’t be notified in-game that he or she has a message. A setup so cumbersome simply kills the social aspect of online gaming.

There are two ways to tackle this problem. Microsoft could simply require developers of games with online multiplayer to incorporate a chat interface of some sort. That should be obvious to any game maker, but it also takes some effort on their part. To ease things, Microsoft could at least provide universal chat and messaging APIs – whatever it takes to maintain a standard without scaring off developers.

Requiring in-game chat support is a good start, but it doesn’t solve the problem of communicating with someone who is playing a different game. So let’s take the in-game chat API idea a little further and create a cross-game messenger that users can access from within any Xbox Windows Phone title. Basically, this messenger would act like a slimmed-down version of the Guide button on an Xbox 360 controller. Just let users send messages and check their messages from within any Xbox game, and all of a sudden you hardly even need a game-specific chat interface.

Admittedly, Windows Phone lacks an Xbox-specific button. But Microsoft could either make a long press of the Home button activate the messenger or simply require developers to add it as an option to their games’ pause menus. Either way, Windows Phone would be much closer to replicating the console’s sublime Xbox Live social features.

Nearing the finish line...

All those online features and we still haven’t covered the need for better online play. Come back next week, habitually cool readers, when we’ll tackle that subject and more.

If you enjoyed this article, please comment on it and tweet it to everyone who would benefit from it. These problems won’t change until the right decision-makers realize their importance. Let’s do our best to make a difference together!

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!

  • Great and badly needed ideas!
  • If only we could get MS to hire Paul in some powerful position... we would be much better off.
  • Lets start a petition. I'll be the first signature :D
  • Specially now PS4 has made a big headway in Social gaming aspect. Microsoft needs to get their act together.
  • With a new XBOX coming this year, I get the idea that Microsoft is hard at work in making this all work across all these devices and that we'll see something with the new XBOX that will make it all more cohesive.  A big task and I expect it to take time.
    Microsoft has shown commitment to the XBOX brand and I don't see that stopping.  It's too important to them.
  • Such a sad state of affairs, and with not even a whiff of a solution in sight.
  • I find it hard to believe that WP8 was released without live tile notifications for XBox Live messages. They should have had it integrated with the Messenging app on day one. Even better, they should have support for voice messages on WP8. I was talking about this with another developer / xbox gamer at lunch today. If they get this, then it's a no brainer for us to stay with the Xbox brand rather than look closely at the PS4. Microsoft, please get some people on this like 2 years ago. If you do have this in the hopper, light a fire under those guys/gals.
  • I agree wholeheartedly to these notions. I couldn't believe I was unable to retrieve saved games after moving from one wp7 device to another. I assumed it was guaranteed to be there. Incredibly frustrating when you have to find our the hard way
  • Yep! I need to factory reset my phone to fix IE (tabs are broken) but I just can't let go of all my saved data to do it :(
  • I want the ability on WP to say only show me phone games i have achievements for not all the xbox, win8, pc ones I also have...
    When im on the phone I only want to see the phone stuff..
  • These articles are great. Someone send all these ideas to MS quickly!
  • Can you do a list of all incompatible games from wp7 to wp8, will be upgrading soon, but don't want to buy something that won't work when I do upgrade
  • Way ahead of you: The Xbox WP8 incompatibility list
  • Thank you
  • Paul, you can add Need For Speed: Undercover to this list.
  • What happens when you try to play it on WP8?
  • Can't even download it. Actually, when I first got my 920 it was there, along with Tentacles and a few others. Once I had to hard reset the phone, it says it is not compatiable with my device. It was pulled for WP8. If you look at the game page, it is not compatiable.
    Need for Speed™ Undercover - Games - 8/3/2012 Purchase - Your version of the Windows Phone software is not supported by this app.
  • Ah, now I see. Weird - just launched it on my 920 an it seems to run fine. Thanks for notfying us!
  • Yep, it works just fine if you can get it. Don't uninstall it! :-)
  • I pay for Xbox Live Gold and get cloud saves for the 360. That should cover Windows Phone too.
  • Exactly. However cloud saves on Windows 8 seem to be free for everyone.
  • Yepp! I noticed that today when I bought "Reckless Racing Ultimate" after having the trial for quite some time. After the purchase I had the choice of retrieving my game save from "Local or Cloud". The games apparently syncs all your saves to the cloud automatically, aswell as to your computers that are registered to the store.
    Whoever runs the WP division needs to be demoted, they are just too damn slow.
  • Cloud Saving - or at least a proper backup-and-restore from one phone to another, like iOS lets you do! - is definitely needed (and that goes for not just XBL games, but all apps really).
    I'm not that "social", but I do like the idea of a proper integration of chat functionality, and agree with you about the lack of global leaderboards (I'm gunning to beat you on Zuma, btw. ;^)  ).  And SMS-like behavior for XBL messages should certainly be there.
  • I've agreed with most of your points, but I will say this.  At least Windows Phone has a systematic Xbox Live login.  You don't have to manually approve each new Windows Phone game to access your account, like you have to on Windows RT / Windows 8, and more importantly, you don't have to wait for up to a minute once getting to the title screen before the game actually connects to Live.
    That's the benefit of it being system integrated, rather than per app.
  • Yes, that is odd about RT/Windows 8 games. And the online features in those games often don't work for a few days after launch, which is just silly.
  • Agreed entirely.
  • Unfortunately, for every thing done right Microsoft does another thing bad. The leader board load times are way too long on WP.
  • "Xbox 360 save data can be copied, retained, and restored. Why not Windows Phone too?"
    Most Windows 8 Live enabled games are also saved in the cloud. :)
  • What an awesome series of articles Paul. I'm sure Joe Belifore has read every one and hopefully he reads them more than once.
    "Microsoft’s failure to appreciate the importance of Xbox to Windows Phone".
    I've came to that conclusion myself lately and it really surprises because I thought Xbox Live was going to be a big driving force for Windows Phone and that it would have gained a lot cool funcationality such as you have been writing about by now. But it is hardly been touched. I think the iPhone has received more Xbox Live attention than Windows Phone has during the last year.
  • Gotta get it together. There's no way an entire company isn't aware of these issues/improvements. They're dragging their feet badly.
  • Paul Acevedo for President!!
  • I laugh every time I see this on-going saga of a plead-a-thon for MS to at the very least do something about Xbox for WP.  The funniest part of it all, is the symphony of crickets heard in Redmond.
  • What exactly is it that you find amusing? There's no guarantee that Microsoft will act on any of this feedback, but we're quite sure that they read it. Are you suggesting that not pointing out flaws in the system is a better course of action?
  • I think the fact that Microsoft never seems to do what their consumers are yelling at them to do, is what he finds funny. I don't think he means funny like a knock knock joke, but funny like this is uncomfortably painful.
  • Microsoft actually listens to customers way more than they used to like 10 years ago. And their commitments to interoperability and standards are outstanding compared to their evil days from the Bill Gates era.
    They are getting better, but just really slow as usual. In the context of Windows Phone: dynamic Bing wallpaper and the recently added "WiFi always on" are examples of features that resulted directly from user feedback. And sticking to the Xbox topic: I'd love to able to publish achievements to Facebook from my phone.
  • Four words. Games. For. Windows. Live. Microsoft has no clue what they are doing when it comes to gaming, and when the inevitable garbage they produce is put out on the market, they abandon it. Microsoft doesn't have any of its departments talking to one another, and they haven't for like 10 years. It's a failure and nothing will change.
  • I disagree, the Winpho team are pretty on ball with consumer feedback so articles like Paul's provide the kind of criticism they need; but, is Xbox on WP under their purview?
  • Sorry to say...if Xbox Live needs a 5 part article with 5-6 steps in each, then it is doomed.
  • I haven't given up on it yet. Don't lose hope, man.
  • I'm not. But I've invested so much money in Xbox, Zune, Windows, Windows Phone, and Surface, and all I have for it is the feeling that they were all created by ten different departments that couldn't care if the other departments died. If these things all worked together, they would be a monster of a system. But it is as if Microsoft doesn't really care. To much half ass is making what should be great, starting to sour.
  • All these articles are some great effort Paul. Very well written from different perspectives. I am going to comment on all those past articles just to show my appreciation.
  • I agree with all of them except the messaging one. Not enough screen space and I've never felt the urge to talk to people in that fashion
  • What Windows Phone lacks when it comes to basic functionality in mobile platforms like true multitasking and such is made up with the innovation and integration of the OS as a whole. 
    IMO, that's the vibe that's seeping from Windows Phone. The problem is, even with WP8, Microsoft doesn't really add any features that would please the many smartphone powerusers out there. If WP is gonna stay in the smartphone business, Microsoft needs to step up their game for the OS.
  • Yes, Xbox Live saves should sync with yout account. For that matter, app data for all apps should be backed-up. 
  • I think that with all the services that MS has they should be working on unifying them harder. SkyDrive should be used as your cloud save for Xbox and all back up on WP too (including msgs) and game saves. Everything under one roof.
    And likewise for skype/messenger/Xbox messages. All integrated into the messaging app.
    We should surely be able to add our Xbox account to our WP in the settings and pull all friends down and link to live account contacts list. Then we can send Xbox msgs/game beacons directly form the contact list.
    This kind of integration is what MS should be working on along with everything else. If this is the social phone lets make it so.
  • I think Xbox needs a facelift in terms of hardware and software. Why are there no customizable tiles on the console? Even for color! They need to put the windows logo on the next Xbox and change the name to something like Livebox (incorporating the whole windows live idea) and change the default color scheme to that light green instead of using the dark green. Just my 2 cents...may be somewhat irrelevant but necessary.
  • I agree with your idea of customisation but MS is moving slowly away from Live Branding (or so I think) and more towards Xbox branding. Hence Xbox music/xbox movies. All thing media based will become Xbox.
  • Need better games, that's for sure. Not like crappy koozac or whatever. We need high quality games like on IOS, like minecraft, infinity blade, Gameloft games (ik WP will have them, but what, 20 months?), and more. It can handle it, but Microsoft is too lazy to put halo on it.
  • What I don't understand is the cloud saving feature doesn't use SkyDrive since isn't SkyDrive automatic when you get a ms account now? It should just upload automatically. TBH I am not really sure that WP8 is different enough from WP7 to be considered a new OS imo.
  • They changed the whole kernel, and while in not entirely sure what that means it is a massive deal and will allow the is yo be kept up to date for quite some time. And be able to run more hardware and software.
  • That original Xbox pic at the top made me think this would be about getting original Xbox games on the phone. Which would be awesome! :-D
  • Great article as usual Paul, tweeted to @Microsoft, @xbox, @windowsphone, @joebelfiore, and #windowsphone, let me know if I can follow anyone else that might be in a position of power
  • Phone had to be replaced.  Lost all of my Tentacles, Max & The Magic Marker and Feed Me Oil saves.  I was far.  Haven't played them since. Needs to be fixed.
    Paul, do you think that MS is waiting to reveal a more comprehensive gaming strategy with the reveal and launch of the new Xbox?  After the Sony announcement yesterday I started to think about it, as if they were waiting to let the Xbox division take the lead in a new comprehensive gaming strategy that will include W8 and WP8, just as the PS4 will breathe new life into the PSVita.
  • There's a chance they will promote Windows Phone a bit alongside the new console reveal/promotions going forward, but it's not especially likely. If you have a small platform like WP8, you don't put off everything you can do to help it grow until some future date. It's in their best interest to help it pick up steam now.
  • Love these articles. I purchased a Windows Phone mainly for Xbox Live games/achievements and MS just keeps letting me down with their lack of support. Keep em coming Paul!
  • We need to se a port for halo, gears!
  • Spot on this article, Microsoft have a great feature to set it streets ahead of the competition! Now if only they would utilise it properly.
    Lets hope they do in the next few weeks :)
    HTC 8X owner
  • I've been dreaming of an access of my saved games on Skydrive. The default folders of Skydrive is "Pictures" and "Document', why not "Xbox games" ???
    Or (maybe better), adding to the online dashboard a Xbox section (which could include a online version of Xbox Music !) 
  • Awesome ideas, I sooooooooo want MS to nail the gaming side of WP8.  I've waited years for the breaking news of an XBox hand held game system.  I'm hoping they will make WP8 that gaming system.
  • Good article, I think I'll give MS this year to sort out WP or I'll be going to something else, probably Android.
  • Love these articles, and so many good points (push notifications/live tile update for Xbox messages just seems so obvious). But reading them only reinforces the notion that MS' left hand not only doesn't wanna talk to the right hand, but the left hand doesn't seem to know the right hand exists! Its depressing and alarming. Imagine how great the OS as a whole could be if the different teams at MS just talked to each other and approached the "3 screens and a cloud" vision as an organized unit. Sometimes it seems like the other guys do this better. :(
  • Definitely agree with all of this.  The lack of global leaderboards seems like a really unusual oversight, I've always wondered why they set it up this way from the day I played my first WP game.  I'm not overly concerned with messaging and communication in game, but having that option there would nice.  Backing up saves and cloud saves are definite necessities.
  • I guess you haven't used the Vita's interface then. Hopefully the success of the PS4 will change some of the policies. I'd like to see Cloud storage free (its mind boggling that any schmuck can get 7gb of SkyDrive storage for free, but you can't get 512mb without Gold). Same for the apps like Netflix, Hulu, etc.
  • Good article!
    Also Nvidia is coming up with Shield! come on MS, get us some real games that we want to play & keep their prices good the more the games, the lower the prices will get.
  • The backing up of game saves portion really hit home with me. It's been a huge lifesaver for me on WP7 when completing SW: Hoth (you can backup saves on WP7 with the officially-endorsed Mac Connector, but the feature's not available for WP8 for some reason) and I can't imagine losing all of my progress on my new phone.
  • I'm indifferent about leaderboards (not against them, I just don't care about them) but I 100% agree with everything else in this article.  If Microsoft would address these issues, I would be perfectly content with my the platform as a whole and I would happily upgrade to a new phone.