Xbox On WP7: Is Microsoft Finally Ready To Get Serious About Mobile Gaming?

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When Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7 this morning, they showed that they were finally ready to bring something stronger than NERF guns to the increasingly contentious smartphone street fight. They also indicated a level of commitment to a business that’s been even more neglected: mobile gaming. Games will be one of the six primary hubs on WP7 devices and, according to Microsoft, “delivers the first and only official Xbox LIVE experience on a phone, including Xbox LIVE games, Spotlight feed and the ability to see a gamer’s avatar, Achievements and gamer profile.”

Sounds awesome, but is Microsoft actually capable of pulling this off? I have no doubt you’ll be able to check your Gamerscore, know when friends sign onto Xbox Live, and fiddle around with your gamer avatar in some visually slick way on these new phones. For Microsoft, this is the easy part. Their Xbox Live service is far and away better than the online gaming backbones running on Wii and PS3 and even if only a fraction of its features makes it onto WP7 devices, it’ll give Microsoft an advantage.

But what about the actual games? Not much is known about what gaming is going to be like in WP7, but whatever Microsoft has planned, it better be infinitely more ambitious than what they’re currently doing with the Zune. Since the Zune 4.0 software launched in September, a grand total of 12 games have been released for the Zune HD; the most recent one was added in November. Killer apps they ain’t: Checkers, Chess, Sudoku, Texas Hold ‘Em aren’t making anyone abandon their DS’s, PSPs, and iPod Touches.

There’s also a bowling game, a music game, and the one thousandth iteration of Hexic, but the only title that’s remotely worth five minutes of your time is a scaled-down version of Project Gotham Racing. PGR is probably a good place to start when developing games for the WP7 platform. Microsoft can’t go wrong with pushing out portable versions of Halo, Gears of War, and other blue chip Xbox franchises too. But this won’t happen overnight, when the first WP7 phones go on sale in late 2010, or even at all. Seeing how much of a head start Apple has—thanks to a very favorable developer environment, a sizable chunk of the 140,000 apps available on iTunes are games—and Microsoft’s current lack of commitment to mobile gaming on the Zune, I find it hard to believe that Xbox Live games on the Windows Phone 7 platform will have much of an impact.