The next version of Xbox Live won't be on your console, or even your PC — it'll be on your phone.
This November, Microsoft's popular online gaming service is set to make its mobile debut, thanks to the launch of Windows Phone 7. The company is betting that many of Live's defining features — including leader boards, achievements and multiplayer gaming — will transform the mobile market into a serious gaming platform.
Microsoft isn't alone when it comes to pushing the idea of games on phones. Apple's iPhone is becoming a mobile-gaming juggernaut, while Google's Android OS is rumoured to be preparing a similar gaming-centric push.
This stance is a complete reversal from just a few years ago, when mobile releases were considered the lowest form of video game development. Now, mobile has become a serious market with big money on the line. A recent report by market research firm eMarketer forecasts mobile gaming revenue will total $850 million in the United States alone by the end of this year.
'The 3G network right now, as far as our play testing went, isn't fast enough for a real-time game.'—Bill Kouretsos, Little Guy Games
"Xbox has a lock on the hardcore market," said Greg Milligan, Microsoft Canada's mobility solutions manager, at the company's annual X10 event in Toronto in August. "What's happening with mobile is we're broadening that audience."
With Windows Phone 7, that means connecting friends online — both on the phone and console — using the Xbox Live service. The increased saturation of high-speed 3G networks worldwide means that friends, achievements and other Live services will be available on-demand and at all times.
In theory, that is.
Mobile gaming, like other data-intensive services, must still deal with the reality of wireless connectivity, both in Canada and worldwide.
"The 3G network right now, as far as our play testing went, isn't fast enough for a real-time game," explains Bill Kouretsos, managing director of Little Guy Games.
'There's no money to be gained, no competitive advantage … from having your own social gaming network.'—Scott Forstall, Apple
The Toronto-based developer released an iPhone title called Battle Blasters earlier this year, which allowed for head-to-head gaming against friends, but only over Bluetooth wireless connections. During wireless tests on the cellphone network, the fast-paced action title suffered both lag and latency issues, rendering the game unplayable.
That's why multiplayer gaming in the mobile space has been limited mainly to turn-based titles that do not require a persistent 3G connection.
"I think there are a lot of games that can do it, just because of the nature of the game play," Kouretsos explained. "But I think certain genres of games just won't be able to do it. Not right now, anyway."
Microsoft realizes the online experience will have its limits, at least initially. Though more than 60 titles will be available on the platform at launch, the majority will rely on a WiFi connection for multiplayer gaming.
Apple, meanwhile, is set to launch its own mobile gaming service with the release of iOS 4.1. Game Centre, first unveiled at an iPhone event in April, will offer similar capabilities to Xbox Live in terms of achievements, leader boards and multiplayer capabilities.
However, Apple's challenge is much different than Microsoft's. The company must attract and unify an existing community of gamers and developers if its platform is to achieve any success.
"There's no money to be gained, no competitive advantage … from having your own social gaming network," Apple's senior vice-president of iPhone software Scott Forstall told reporters at the platform's unveiling.
Forstall was responding to concerns that Game Center may cannibalize or supplant existing services companies have built for the iPhone that function in a similar manner. OpenFeint is one such service that functions in a similar manner to Game Center, offering leaderboards and acheivement markers to iOS gamers. Its developers boast of having 19 million users across iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices, and they say development will continue despite Apple's entrance into the multiplayer market.
Like Microsoft, Apple's goal is to create a unified service that gathers all of a users' friends in one place. But ensuring that everyone can successfully interact takes more than just a unified network. The hardware must be unified as well. Trying to build software for wildly differing phones causes headaches for developers and can lead to glitches.
Microsoft has recognized the same problem.
"The idea is that [we're] locking down the hardware specification in order to stop fragmentation," Microsoft's Mulligan explained when discussing the Windows Phone roadmap.
"We've been down that road, and we'd say one of our competitors is going down that road too."
That competitor is Google's Android, currently thought to be the only mobile platform capable of challenging the iPhone's dominance. However, with a bevy of devices, each running different hardware and operating system revisions, fragmentation is indeed beginning to look like a serious concern.
Still, that could begin to change. Google has promised that with Android 3.0, software updates and hardware will be more strictly controlled. And perhaps more importantly, the operating system may finally get a unified gaming service of its own — thanks to Sony, of all people.
Technology blog Engadget reports that Android may be the operating system of choice for Sony's next generation Playstation handheld. The device would have cellular capabilities, but also a dedicated game market, combining the strengths of both the Android and Playstation brands.
It's a move that few would have predicted even five years ago, and just goes to show how much the mobile gaming landscape has changed.
Apple's Game Centre is expected to launch in the coming weeks, while the first Windows Phone 7 devices, with Xbox Live capabilities, will be released this November.