Gaming is obviously a huge draw on consumer smartphones. Games are the largest category of apps on the iPhone and a major area of growth for Android handsets, and phone gaming in general is arguably the largest-growing segment in the game industry.
Naturally, if Microsoft wants to have a shot at reentry into the smartphone market with Windows Phone 7, it needs to offer great gaming. The company seems to have put in a lot of effort, adding full Xbox Live integration and exploiting its relationships with top-tier game publishers to bring hot titles to phones.
Now that Windows Phone 7 phones are launching, what is gaming really like on Windows Phone 7? Are there plenty of games, and are they good? Does the Xbox Live integration function well? Is gaming a slam-dunk for Microsoft's reborn platform, or just another in a long list of features that show promise but still need work?
Before I dive into gaming on Windows Phone 7, let's check our expectations. This is a nascent smartphone operating system. It's literally in the middle of its launch: Phones became available in Asia and Europe on October 22, and will launch in North America on November 8. Although Microsoft has been in the smartphone business for as long as smartphones have been around, Windows Phone 7 is a fresh start with a new interface, new development tools, and a totally new software library. Over 1000 applications are available now, with over 250 of them in the games category. That's a good start, but it's only a start.
The limited selection is probably the worst part about gaming on Windows Phone 7 right now. If Apple is the new king of mobile gaming with the iPhone, Microsoft clearly has a lot of catching up to do. Popular phone games such as Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Doodle Jump, Fruit Ninja, Plants vs. Zombies, and Words With Friends are nowhere to be found on Windows Phone 7. Even the Android Market, often criticized for its lack of high-quality games, has some of these titles. You can find some acceptable Windows Phone substitutes (AlphaJax is a decent replacement for Words With Friends), but Apple's App Store has an enormous head-start on providing a huge number of great games. That said, Windows Phone 7 does have wonderful renditions of popular phone titles such as Flight Control, The Sims 3, and Tetris.
Xbox Live-enabled games are prominently featured in the Windows Phone Marketplace--perhaps promoted too heavily, making it less obvious to users that lots of independent games without Xbox Live support may be worth checking out. The Live-enabled games currently range from $3 to $7, and while most are a good bargain, some prices leave me scratching my head (Bejeweled for $5? It's $3 in the iPhone App Store).
The majority of paid apps for Windows Phone 7, games or not, have free demo versions. Demos operate a bit differently here than on iPhone or Android (where a demo is a separate application, making you head back to the store to download the pay version if you like it). Rather, trial versions operate as they do on the Xbox 360: You download one complete app with a free "trial mode," and if you want to buy it, you simply unlock the software you already have. This model is definitely superior.
It will take two things to rectify the relative dearth of top-tier games on Windows Phone 7. First, developers need time to port their popular titles to the new platform. Apps are piling up rapidly for Windows Phone 7, and a lot more games will be on offer over the coming months; but high-quality development takes time, and this is a brand-new phone platform. The second, bigger issue boils down to raw hardware-sales numbers. Developers go where they're likely to make a good return on investment. If Windows Phone 7 devices fly off the shelves for months on end, developers will flock to the platform. If Apple and Google remain overwhelmingly dominant, Microsoft will find it hard to persuade developers to support the new platform.
Next: Xbox Live on Your Phone