Windows Phone 7 game sales are disappointing; there's no upside, say developers
When does a slow start become a stop?
It's almost six months since Microsoft rebooted its smartphone business with the launch of Windows Phone 7.
Trying to get any official figures about hardware sales, let alone app sales, is hard work however.
The company prefers to talk up the quality of its developer support and the number of apps available on the Marketplace - after all that's publicly available information.
So we're reduced to unofficial routes to get an idea about how the nascent platform is developing; studios are happy to talk about their experiences, anonymously at least.
"I'd be amazed if any studio would set up with WP7 as their sole target market, as there isn't enough of one for that to be sustainable at the moment," one developer tells PocketGamer.biz.
"The number of sales is a bit disappointing so far," another comments.
"We had expected more of the platform, to be honest. Our feeling is that WP7 isn't selling that well, which would explain our lower than expected sales."
In all, we caught up with half a dozen developers who suggested that, for companies without the brand power of a Bejeweled, WP7 sales have a long way to go.
Even games that integrate with Xbox Live and hence get better deck placement aren't seeing impressive sales.
"We are seeing a conversion rate of 10 percent, and the sales are still far from the numbers we are seeing on iOS," a developer of one Xbox Live release reveals.
"Xbox Live games seem to be doing okay," adds another source. "I haven't heard anyone talk about non-Xbox Live releases, but my assumption is that those numbers are very low."
Reports from app store analysts Distimo back up this view, with WP7's entire top ten made up of various Xbox Live branded (and often Microsoft published) titles.
"Microsoft has a vested interest in pushing Xbox Live titles," says another studio.
"Whether that's healthy depends on what type of ecosystem Microsoft is trying to create and the developers it is trying to attract.
"I think the fear is that Windows Phone Marketplace is going to end up like the old carrier decks where only the top 10 publishers gain any visibility and, therefore, revenue."
Of course, this isn't a bad thing for bigger companies or the platform, but it does impact smaller developers.
"The Xbox Live-enabled games are a great way to promote the platform. From Microsoft's perspective, I can understand [the visibility they're afforded]. In the long run, of course, this isn't healthy. The odds should be even and depend on the quality of the game," one developer explains.
Indeed, some studios already seem to be retreating.
"Developers have options and small indie shops need to choose their platform support wisely," we're told.
"There are certainly big risks on iOS and Android, but at least there's an upside – or the perception of an upside. If there's an upside on WP7, no one's talking about it, which means it probably doesn't exist at this point."
"I know some developers, after hearing the initial sales numbers, who decided not to jump onto the platform yet, which makes sense," says another.
How Microsoft deals with this situation is up for debate. One solution is that this unofficial 'Xbox Live and others' partition is made official.
"I think maybe having a separate Live store versus an indie store would be a good first step," says a developer.
Others, however, put much of WP7's problems down to two more practical issues; weak handset sales, and the difficulty of getting games successfully through what can be a complicated approval process.
"More handsets in the hands of people who will buy apps is the place to start," one studio badly states.
"If Microsoft gets that fixed - which remains to be seen - it will at least have a baseline to start attracting developers. It should also simplify the process for developers to launch and get promoted. Right now, it's way too difficult compared to iOS and Android."
Too much, too slow?
There's not agreement about everything though.
"The approval and update process is easy, but it takes longer than on rival platforms in our experience," counters another studio. "I have a feeling that the games go through more thorough testing than on other OSes, where the approval process seems a bit random from time to time."
"The certification process for Xbox Live games is a problem with WP7 – it's pretty crazy difficult," adds a final developer.
"It's essentially the process used for certification of Xbox games, and that's way too much friction for the mobile space."
Of course, with Microsoft's strategic partnership with Nokia not expected to result in high handset volumes at least until the end of 2011, this means Windows Phone 7 is in something of a holding pattern for the next six months.
Meanwhile, the competition is expanding fast.
"It doesn't bode well in terms of its ability to take on Android and iOS," one developer warns.
"Then [early 2012] there'll be significantly more Android devices on the market, and we'll be half way through iPhone 5's life cycle and already be talking about iPhone 6."
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