Does Microsoft have the will to bring its Xbox gaming franchises to Windows Phone?

Although the year got off to a rocky start with an extended Xbox game release drought, the Xbox Windows Phone gaming situation has actually been looking up since February. Gameloft’s highly anticipated Windows Phone 8 titles finally started rolling out, and some weeks saw two Xbox games released instead of just one.

Don’t think we’re out of the thicket just yet. The Xbox Live certification process continues to cause games like Cut the Rope: Experiments to come out much later than on other platforms, and meaningful title updates come just as late or not at all – both Windows Phone Cut the Rope games are missing levels that iOS and Android already get to enjoy. Microsoft’s solution to this problem seems to be encouraging big games like Temple Run to release as indie titles in order to circumvent the Xbox Live certification process. Because why bother fixing a broken system?

The draconian certification process may be a major impediment to the quality and number of Xbox games on Windows Phone, but Microsoft’s unwillingness to release exclusive games and capitalize on their wealth of franchises is just as big a roadblock. Now enjoy the ultimate installment of our How to Save Xbox Games for Windows Phone series to find out which Microsoft games Windows Phone is missing and what Microsoft can do to turn it all around. And don't miss the video above in which Microsoft's Larry Lieberman, Senior Product Manager and Casey McGee, Senior Marketing Manager address many of our gaming concerns!

Windows 8 Xbox games with touch-screen support should also be released for Windows Phone 8.

WSOP: Full House Pro for XBLA

Full House Poker came to Windows Phone, but its sequel WSOP: Full House Pro will not.

You wouldn’t know it from the scant number of Windows 8 Xbox games that have made their way to Windows Phone, but it’s easier to port from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 than just about any other platform. One of our Xbox Live developer friends explains:

“The bulk of a C++ game can be mostly ported directly to Windows Phone 8 from Windows 8.  What takes the extra time are the platform and API differences, primarily in the shell around the core game, and there are enough of these for a C++ developer to make them dedicate a few resources to just tackling those issues…In Windows 8, everything is accessible via WinRT.  On Windows Phone 8, some phone features are only available via the .NET Framework, which is only accessible via C#.  How does a native C++ library call a managed code .NET API?  The developer has to code quite differently for this between both platforms.”

It’s not quite as simple as just flipping a switch, but when all you have to do to port a game is rework the UI and a few API calls, refusing to port from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 is leaving money on the table (while also discreetly pointing a middle finger at the dedicated Windows Phone user base).

Let’s look at the Xbox Windows 8 games that would port easily to Windows Phone 8 and yet have no mobile versions announced. Most of these are already available on Windows 8, while some are still in the works:

  • 4 Elements II
  • Adera
  • Crash Course Go
  • Disney Fairies
  • Dragon’s Lair
  • Field & Stream Fishing
  • Gunpowder
  • The Gunstringer: Dead Man Running
  • Microsoft Mahjong
  • Microsoft Solitaire Collection
  • Reckless Racing Ultimate
  • Royal Envoy 2
  • Taptiles
  • Team Crossword
  • Toy Soldiers: Cold War
  • Ty the Tasmanian Tiger
  • A World of Keflings
  • WSOP: Full House Pro

A few of these titles might actually be in the works for Windows Phone – as we complained in a previous column, Microsoft has completely stopped announcing Xbox Windows Phone games in advance. But it’s a safe bet that mobile versions aren’t planned for most of these. In fact, we know for sure that at least one of the listed games was actually pitched for both Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, but only the Windows 8 version got approved. Oh, Microsoft!

Considering that both platforms share touch screen interfaces and the majority of code is portable, there really is no excuse not to produce Windows Phone 8 ports of virtually every Xbox Windows 8 game.

Stop publishing Windows Phone-exclusive games on competing platforms.


Tentacles used to be a feather in Windows Phone's cap. Nowadays, not so much.

Part of showing solidarity is Microsoft releasing its own properties on its own platforms, such as the Windows 8 games I just mentioned. But another part is making sure those platforms actually have exclusive games that could attract new users. After all, Xbox Windows Phone isn’t exactly swimming in hot games, so why would Microsoft publish what few games it has on competing platforms?

Yet the Windows Phone maker has done just that, time and time again. Tentacles, Kinectimals, Fable Coin Golf, and Wordament all started life as Xbox Windows Phone exclusives. But someone within Microsoft – the company that owns Windows Phone and should want it to succeed at all costs – decided that making money from iOS users was more important than supporting their own platform. Did I mention that Tentacles and Fable Coin Golf don't even run on Windows Phone 8?

We covered this issue in greater detail back when Wordament launched on iOS with Xbox Live Achievements, so please refer to that article for a lengthier discussion. It all boils down to this: as a minority platform, Windows Phone requires exclusive games and apps in order to attract new users. Selling previously exclusive games on iOS brings in money short-term, but it hampers Windows Phone sales long-term.

Internal politics and competing divisions are probably the single greatest obstacle Microsoft faces going forward. Let’s hope they somehow pull it together and get everyone on the same page sooner rather than later.

Even more importantly, Microsoft needs to bring its major franchises to Windows Phone. Yesterday.

Forza Horizon for Xbox 360

Gameloft gave us Asphalt 7, so why can't Microsoft make a mobile Forza?

After two years, which of its existing console properties has Microsoft even published on Windows phone? Let’s see…

That boils down to exactly one top-tier franchise (Fable) still being sold, with the rest being either XBLA or Kinect adaptations. I’m not complaining that these games exist (other than Fusion: Sentient, Boot Camp, and the too buggy to live Project Sunburst). But shouldn’t there be more games on that list?

As a matter of fact, not long ago we listed more than 30 games that Microsoft owns the publishing rights to but has failed to adapt to Windows Phone. One of those – Minecraft, technically belongs to Mojang, but the two companies have an excellent relationship thanks to the bestselling Minecraft: Xbox 360 Edition. There is no reason that iOS should have an official Minecraft game while Windows Phone doesn’t.

Still, Microsoft owns several IPs that either sell or have sold gangbusters on Xbox 360 within the last few years: Halo, Gears of War, Fable, Forza, and Project Gotham Racing. (I list Fable because there’s much more life in the property than just Coin Golf.) Microsoft’s Zune media player had a Project Gotham Racing game, but Windows Phone doesn’t. Does the big MS not know how easily racing games port to smartphones? We should be playing PGR and Forza (either a sim or adaptation of Horizon) on our phones right now.

The real barometer of Microsoft’s Windows Phone support: Halo

N.O.V.A. 3: Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance

N.O.V.A. 3 (above) is close enough to Halo, but many users still want the real thing.

In the end, it all comes down to Halo: Microsoft’s system-selling first-person shooter series. There is a sort of Halo/Mountain Dew/7 Eleven adver-game in the works for Windows Phone, along with iOS and Android. Let’s hope that deplorable idea dies in the conceptual womb. But Xbox Windows Phone cries out for not one, but two real Halo games: a shooter and a strategy title.

First-person shooters are quite popular on smartphones, as Gameloft’s Modern Combat 4 and Halo clone N.O.V.A. 3 prove. And Windows Phone 8 has the hardware chops to run a faithful Halo port without skimping on too many graphical details. Microsoft doesn’t even need to assemble a large team to make this game happen. Just collaborate with Gameloft to adapt an existing Halo game or create a side story to the franchise. We know Gameloft has an excellent FPS engine for Windows Phone 8 and they’ve admitted they’d love to work with the Halo license. Heck, even just licensing Gameloft's engine would save a ton of effort.

Some people don’t take a shine to touch-screen controls in shooters though. That’s why a mobile adaptation of Halo Wars makes perfect sense. Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game developed by the now-closed Ensemble Studios, and the only non-FPS Halo game to date. It might not have sold as well as mainline Halo games on the Xbox 360, but smartphones are especially suited to strategy games – just look at Skulls of the Shogun and Galactic Reign. If Microsoft wanted to make a smaller-scale Halo game for Windows Phone rather than a graphically intensive shooter (or in addition to it), Halo Wars would be perfect. Downsize the graphics, adjust the control scheme, and you’re golden.

When I spoke on the telephone with a Windows Phone executive two years ago, he seemed to anticipate a mobile Halo game within the next year or so after our conversation. But that executive has since shifted off of the Windows Phone team. It’s no coincidence that PR efforts and new game announcements died off after that time.

Xbox Windows Phone doesn’t appear to have a leader who believes in gaming or the Xbox brand any more. We’ll know that has changed when Microsoft finally announces a true Halo game for Windows Phone. Until the company is willing to take that important step, we cannot believe they take gaming on this platform seriously.


Wow, Microsoft actually did release a Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8 Halo game this year - Halo: Spartan Assault. It's a decent title (albeit much smaller in scale than N.O.V.A. 3) and we could take it as a vote of confidence in Xbox Windows Phone. But as 2013 rolls on, we see more and more weeks without mobile Xbox releases. Unless Microsoft starts putting time and money into securing new Xbox games for Windows Phone, I fear the titles will eventually stop coming.

Series conclusion

Halo Wars for Xbox 360

Halo Wars and Windows Phone 8 are a match made in heaven.

So ends the final long article in our long editorial series! Don’t forget to check out the previous installments:

  • Part 1: Xbox Live certification
  • Part 2: The importance of Xbox to Windows Phone, game engines
  • Part 3: Volume control, redownloading games, advertising
  • Part 4: Announcing games and a download code system
  • Part 5: Backing up save data, cloud storage, leaderboards, and messaging
  • Part 6: Third-party developers and games
  • Part 7: Porting Windows 8 games, Microsoft franchises, and Halo

If you enjoyed these articles, please comment, retweet, and tweet them to the good folks at Microsoft. The problems Xbox games face on Windows Phone won’t change until the right decision-makers realize their importance. Let’s do our best to make a difference together!

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!