Gaming has greatly evolved since the introduction of the smartphone. Portable console makers have had to reevaluate pricing of the consoles themselves and the price of games have come into question a lot more recently. I am a firm believer in convergence and feel that all of these technologies will someday collide – tablets and smartphones will inevitably be able to handle better, more in-depth games with better graphics, thus replacing the need for a dedicated console. However, anything like that could be years, maybe even decades, away.
Nonetheless, OEMs and platform providers have to make due with what's is available now and make mobile gaming as integrated and addictive as possible. After all, tablet and smartphone gaming is shaping up to be a rather lucrative business. Apple's iOS platform has Game Center, which hosts a plethora of mobile gaming features like rankings and multiplayer access. Android is focusing more on the multiplayer aspect with pairing games over ad hoc through a seamless NFC "bump" called Android Beam. And Windows Phone? Although market share gain has been slow over the past year, Microsoft has been slaving away at making their platform the next big contender. They have focused a lot of attention on gaming; specifically, adding tons of Xbox LIVE integration and making sure LIVE users never have to miss a thing, even when they're not by their console.
But how well does this integration work? Is it even a selling point? Or is LIVE integration just a ploy to suck users in? A hit or miss feature with buyers? I'm still relatively new to Xbox Live (I made the switch during PlayStation Network's one-month downtime) and I do not use Windows Phone as my daily driver. However, I took some time over the past few days to dive into LIVE integration on Xbox. Here are some of my findings:
From the Games Hub found in your applications, you will be taken to well, the hub where all of your games can be found. From there, you can also purchase and download more games and Xbox Companion apps. You can also access and manage your Xbox LIVE profile, receive and make friend requests, send and receive messages, edit your Avatar and view your achievements, just as you can from your Xbox console.
The integration doesn't stop there, though. By playing Xbox LIVE Windows Phone games, you can earn achievements and rack up more Gold points. You can view friends' profiles and achievements, compare achievements and even see who's online or offline and what they're currently doing. And best of all, with the newly released Companion app, you can control your Xbox from your phone.
It is worth noting that I continually receive an error while using the Game Hub. When trying to send a message to friends, the app kept throwing a connection error message. I could receive messages just fine, but I never managed to send one out.
I've been toying around with Game Hub – editing my avatar, playing games, etc. – for several days now and have yet to really find a good use for it, aside from the usual bragging rights (achievements and Gold points). But that doesn't mean it isn't fun. It makes it slightly more interactive than just playing games. You're working to build reputation, just as you would from your Xbox playing Modern Warfare 3 or ... Skyrim (I'm so helplessly addicted to that game). Of course, you can do this on iOS and Android with Game Center (iOS-only) and Open Feint. But let's be honest, who likes logging into Open Feint every time you download a new game? And who doesn't love all of your achievements as a gamer being lumped into one sum instead of three or four? LIVE integration from your Windows Phone does all of this and saves your game progress in the cloud. Great, huh?
Aside from that, in typical Windows Phone fashion, the interface is easy to learn and navigate. And, surprisingly, Microsoft sacrificed little in terms of functionality of their mobile integration of LIVE. As I stated above, if you own a Windows Phone, you no longer have to boot up your Xbox to edit your LIVE account. From your Windows Phone, you can fully edit your profile, and even your Avatar. The functionality of the app is on par with the Xbox features.
The true usefulness of LIVE access via mobile, though, came just days ago when Microsoft released the Xbox Companion application. Effectively, this turns your Windows Phone into a controller for your Xbox console. After activating Companion in your system settings on the Xbox and downloading the Companion app to your handset, simply launch the application from Game Hub and let it connect to the console. From there, you will see all kinds of content – movies, games, trailers, etc. – for your Xbox from your phone. You can also Bing search, which also pulls content from other apps installed on your Xbox like Netflix or Hulu, if you want to speed up the process and know what you're looking for. If you click on, say, a game, it will open a preview on the console where you can either launch, install, get a trial or rate that game and view all associated content like trailers and extra downloadables. You can also rent movies from Zune Video Marketplace for viewing on Xbox from your phone.
Companion is certainly fun to play with, but there are some serious problems with it. Unlike a Bluetooth connection which would just sleep after a minute or so of inactivity and kick on as needed, if you don't use your phone for a while (let the display timeout) or you accidentally back out of Companion, your phone and console have to reconnect. This only takes a few seconds, but it's definitely an inconvenience, especially if you have your phone set to timeout after 15 or 30 seconds. Another problem I had with Companion was lag and inconsistency. Just about every time I pressed a directional button on the virtual remote, the console would react differently. Sometimes it would act immediately, other times it would take a full second to register; therefore, I would press again thinking it simply didn't register the first time and it would quickly overshoot the menu item I was aiming for. It's a great idea that definitely still needs a bit of work.
That said, being able to Bing search for Netflix or Zune Video Marketplace content on my Xbox from my phone is a huge advantage. And sending and receiving messages from my phone would be a lot easier – if I can get to the root of my sending error – than trying to type out messages on the poorly designed Xbox software keyboard with the controller (or buying a keyboard adapter for the controller).
To be honest, I'm not much of a gamer. Sure, I enjoy games in my free time, which I have very little of. But I never really get into games anymore, not when it comes to avatars, unlockables, stats, leader boards, profiles, reputation, etc. However, if you are a gamer and enjoy all of this, keeping in touch with your gamer friends and keeping a tally on your stats versus theirs while not being tied to a television, Xbox LIVE integration with Windows Phone (Microsoft also just released an Xbox LIVE app for iPhone) might be the ticket.
It is easily more in-depth and accessible than anything else out there, especially when it comes to smartphones. It blows other mobile gaming platforms out of the water, and it plays to Microsoft's advantage. They're banking a lot on mobile gaming, and I think it just might work. Now all Windows Phone needs is more big game developers and titles to jump on the bandwagon. If they can entice some larger titles to bring their efforts to mobile with a little cash incentive (which Microsoft has been known to do many times before), Windows Phone mind share and market share problems could work themselves out.
Is Xbox LIVE integration a major selling point for Windows Phone? Absolutely, for big time gamers. And even the not-so-hardcore gamers can enjoy it with achievements, avatar customizations and cloud game saves. While this integration may not be enough by itself, Xbox consoles continue to fly off the shelves and mobile gaming is ever-improving. These two together could give Windows Phone a huge advantage over other mobile platforms when it comes to gaming in months and years to come.