There have been rumours of Microsoft entering the handheld gaming arena for some time – certainly since they entered the home console market with the original Xbox in 2001.
Understandably, these rumours have always suggested a portable that would compete directly with Nintendo DS or PSP. Microsoft’s plans for handheld gaming are now a whole lot clearer and it turns out they’re not even aiming for the same market as their console rivals, Nintendo and Sony.
Instead, they’ve set their sites on another old sparring partner: Apple. What’s more, they have the potential to rival and even surpass iPhone as a games platform in a way that Google’s Android seems incapable of.
Here comes a new challenger
Microsoft’s riposte to iPhone has been painfully slow in the making. After the false start that was Windows Mobile 6.5 (even the name seems half-baked), many had written off the company’s portable gaming ambitions altogether.
With a new team providing fresh impetus, Windows Phone 7 is shaping up to be the cool, user-friendly mobile platform that once looked like an impossibility for Microsoft. That remains to be proven, of course, but what isn't in doubt is that it looks different to iOS in an industry full of Apple-aping efforts.
Yet it won't be a slick user interface that will win the portable gaming war. It’s the way the company plans on riding on the back of the behemoth that is Xbox Live.
Microsoft has played on its online console gaming brand heavily in the run-up to the release of Windows Phone 7, claiming that the WP7 experience will be "like the Xbox and Xbox Live Arcade portfolio." From the comfort of your phone, you can check your Xbox Live achievements, Gamerscore, and even edit your avatar.
What’s more, you're able to play Xbox Live games on it too; however, that’s where the Xbox Live link gets just a teensy bit misleading.
Is it a Live?
Put bluntly, your Windows Phone 7 handset won’t play the same Xbox Live games designed for Xbox 360. It’ll let you play specially created or adapted mobile games, but not the games you can download and play right now on the console below your telly. Not Limbo or Braid.
Undoubtedly, some of the games will be faithful conversions of existing downloadable Xbox 360 titles. Microsoft runs the risk of angering avid Xbox Live gamers, though. How many gamers are willing to shell out additional money for games they've already purchased on their Xbox 360 just so they can play them on their Windows Phone 7 device?
It could put a dent in the appeal to the dedicated Xbox Live gamer considering a Windows Phone 7 handset. The prospect of having to essentially re-purchase games could be a sticky point.
I don’t have a problem with that divide, but Microsoft’s showing a tendency to paper over it, which is a little irritating.
It got game
Still, it’s hard to be upset when the games line-up is strong.
It’s got its fair share of iPhone conversions to be sure, but the highlights come from Microsoft's exclusives: Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst, Halo Waypoint and CarneyVale Showtime. All three of those point to different but equally exciting avenues for Windows Phone 7 to exploit.
First there’s Crackdown.
Rather than attempt a drastic downscaling of the console original's open world mayhem, Microsoft has opted to adapt the IP to a familiar portable genre - tower defence.
This sets a precedent for spin-off games linked to popular gaming franchises. As long as they’re handled sympathetically (see the iPhone's Mass Effect Galaxy for an example of how not to do it), we can see the appeal of playing a familiar mobile game genre but in an established, much-loved universe.
Halo Waypoint points to another possible path: non-gaming apps that complement and enhance your big-budget console experience. We’ve seen plenty of accompanying apps on iPhone (such as the Call of Duty: World at War Companion), yet Windows Phone 7 has the potential to integrate the experiences more ambitiously.
Finally there’s CarneyVale Showtime, which is possibly the most exciting prospect of the lot. It’s a conversion of a well-received indie title on Xbox 360, which could point to a new avenue for independent game developers.
The App Store was built on the ease with which small developers could get their work published, so Microsoft would be well advised to continue encouraging a similar environment – perhaps with a little more quality control (which they've already promised for their top-tier games).
Microsoft has entered the portable gaming arena in a way few would have predicted. Their path to the top won’t be any easier than if they’d confronted Nintendo in the traditional handheld market, but their opening moves offer plenty of reasons for optimism - and for Apple to worry.