Back in the old days of smartphone infancy, your options for some ravenous digital gaming were somewhat limited; anything more than downloading a basic open-source port of Civilization or ‘some game from some site somewhere’ would require the ownership of one of Nintendo’s coveted Gameboy systems, lest you be relegated to the living room sofa. However most of the handheld consoles of the day were generally regarded as mere child’s play, certainly much too juvenile a pastime for the crisp-suit-toting, HP iPAQ-wielding business elite.
Of course, with the completely game-changing advent of the iPhone, iOS and Android, focus has turned to the viability of the modern-day smartphone as a viable gaming platform to rival dedicated solutions from Nintendo and Sony. So far we’ve seen some rather stellar results, with titles such as the casual hit Angry Birds and the more console-quality titles such as Infinity Blade demonstrating that the phone of the 21st century can entertain you in the gaming space, too. With the welcome introduction of the Unity 3D platform to Windows Phone, things could get a lot more interesting.
Hit and Miss
I won’t underplay it; when Windows Phone 7’s full arsenal of features and launch models were proudly unveiled by eccentric Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer back in 2012, I was excited, very excited in fact. To an almost superfluous degree, it was one particular offering that was catching my attention – the integration of Xbox Live support.
Of course you can easily say that this is by no means a Windows Phone exclusive feature: both iOS and Android sport solid and well-supported Xbox Live apps with functionality rivalling the Microsoft counterpart. However what particularly piqued my interest was the decision to include Xbox Live as an integral part of the Windows Phone 7 operating system as opposed to just being an after-though manifested in half-baked app form.
Why did this appeal to me? Well it essentially boils down to two main reasons. The first being the fact that by choosing to include (and indeed champion) the Xbox Live platform; Microsoft have not only chosen to recognise the smartphone as a viable alternative to conventional handheld gaming , but are also giving solid, dedicated functionality to the idea in the form of the software and Windows Phone’s relatively high minimum hardware requirements.
In addition, I felt that the inclusion of the above features and standards by Microsoft would in turn provided a lucrative porting platform for many developers to bring their titles to.
Indeed, whilst the size of the Windows Phone marketplace is still dwarfed by those of Android and iOS, we have seen some great lesser-known titles such as IloMilo and Rocket Riot, as well as some more recognisable franchise names including Assassin’s Creed arrive on the platform with style and (for the most part) quality.
United we Stand
Sadly, despite my initial high hopes for Windows Phone 7 becoming a champion smartphone gaming platform, things have turned out a little mediocre in the long run; since the OS’s inauguration into the smartphone world back in late 2010 we have seen a pitiable few titles that could be considered ‘very good’, let alone ‘excellent’. Not only that, but the games we have seen from big-name publishers (to name some examples, Assassin’s Creed and Civilization: Revolution) have suffered from the fundamental issue of being half-baked ports from earlier (and weaker) platforms.
To me it appears that we have a bit of a dilemma – whilst the smartphone is absolutely ripe to become a big player in the handheld gaming space, we are afflicted by an abundance of titles but weak manufacturer support on one side, and on the other a deficiency of quality titles coupled with very strong support from Microsoft. It’s certainly a strange situation, but one that I think may be resolved by an exciting new upcoming feature for Windows Phone 8 – support for the popular game engine, Unity3D.
Admittedly, the particulars of Unity3D aren’t so important, what does matter is that Windows Phone will, amongst all the other rather excellent features lined up for Windows Phone 8, be giving developers access to a powerful, popular and recognised game engine to base their titles on.
In turn, this, combined with support for multi-core CPUs, should give us a set of titles that really push the limits of mobile processing technology, and give us something worthy of the Xbox Live platform. Perhaps this could be the push the platform needs to truly become the ‘Handheld Xbox’ we’ve been waiting for…