You might not have noticed, but Microsoft and its subsidiaries have been getting very cosy with the iPhone in recent weeks. First there was that HTML5 website designed to make your iPhone look like it was running Windows Phone. Then there was the My Xbox Live app, which let you tit about with your avatar on your iPhone.
But the most interesting app isn’t out until December 10: called ATLAS, it’s a set of maps cum tactical display on your smartphone which will give you a genuine advantage in Halo: Reach multiplayer games. And it’s headed to Windows Phone, Android, and iPhone. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this will change the face of gaming, and Xbox Live, beloved by millions, in particular. It might even ruin it.
Developed by 343 Studios, the Microsoft games division behind the Halo Combat Evolved remake, ATLAS (Assisted Tactical Assault System) will let your smartphone operate as a HUD of sorts, with near real time information. Weapon locations, health, team member locations, it’s all there. The data is delivered by Microsoft’s cloud platform Azure in near real-time: it works on any iOS device running iOS 4.3 or up, any Android phone running Froyo and up for $4.99, and all Windows Phone Mango devices will get it free.
I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, it’s the sort of integration that’s so headsmackingly obvious you wonder why no-one bothered before. The truth is, while we’ve been porting save files and in-game goodies between Gameboys, DSs and Nintendo consoles for years, consoles and mobiles have never played nice.
Until Microsoft’s Xbox remote app for Windows Phone 7 last week, the closest we got to it was the two and half year old Sony Ericsson Aino, the PlayStation Phone that never was. Even this year’s PlayStation Certified Xperia Play didn’t actually hook up to your PlayStation sitting at home.
ATLAS, and in a sense, what is otherwise Xbox Live for iPhone and Android makes the “Innovation FTW” side of me light up with a big grin. But let’s take a step back here. What happens when you want to play Halo: Reach and you don’t fancy using your phone to stay on top of all the information? I mean, where the hell would you put it anyway? Doubtless someone’s already moulding a clip on holder for your iPhone already.
But I digress. Halo: Reach will actually restrict some information in ranked matchmaking games, so it won’t offer much of an advantage when it counts. For now. In the meantime, a new generation of Xbox Live addicts will be training themselves up in custom games, getting used to absorbing all this extra data on a second screen, waiting for the floodgates to open, or another game to remove this barrier.
By another game, I of course mean Call of Duty, be it Modern Warfare 4, Black And White Ops or some other sequel in Activision’s annual cashcow of a franchise. It’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room. I’ve never understood the appeal myself, but people pay every month for Xbox Live Gold subscriptions just to play Call of Duty. And have you seen how mad they get when Microsoft kicks them off? It’s quite frightening.
What happens when Activision realises it could totally sell its own tactical display app for a fiver, and make an extra thirty or forty million in the process? What happens when a impressive tech demo becomes a vital accessory that only those who can afford a pricey mobile phone have? It’s not just the cost barrier either: having to learn how to cope with the extra info on a second screen is another barrier of its own for many gamers.
If Microsoft has acknowledged that problem, it isn’t doing so in public right now. One of the developers says there’s plenty more in the pipeline for the ATLAS app, but upsetting the entire balance of Xbox Live as we know it doesn’t seem to be on his radar.
“I’m also interested in taking the technology and pushing it further, perhaps, if possible, allowing people to review the game and see how it played after the fact, or creating a God view that shows everything for tournament spectators,” he said in a blog post announcing the move.
That’s all perfectly good and well and benevolent, but regardless Microsoft’s move to plant Xbox Live in your iPhone is Pandora’s box being opened. Thought Call of Duty Elite was about to tilt the balance from those with skill to those who aren’t skint? ATLAS is about to change it from those with skill to those with a smartphone.
Above: Halo Waypoint ATLAS is announced for Windows Phone
Think Xbox Live is doomed by getting too smart? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments below.