At E3 2006 Microsoft announced what they called “a new PC gaming initiative” under the moniker “Games for Windows”. Among the ambitious plans outlined at the press conference were a unified brand for PC games, Games for Windows LIVE, the release of Windows Vista and the DirectX 10 API.

This two-part series will take a look at the plans laid out at E3 2006, how they’ve been implemented so far and how they’ve generally been received by the gaming community. Part one examines the LIVE service and part two will focus on the GFW brand, Vista and DirectX 10.

Games for Windows LIVE: Initial Reception and Lingering Negativity

Since its introduction into the PC market in May of 2007 with the release of Shadowrun and Halo 2 it has suffered from a rather slow adoption rate by developers. Not having the necessary industry contacts to ask any developers exactly why they’ve opted not to use it I’ll just have to rely on my amazing deductive reasoning skills.

When the LIVE service was first introduced to keyboard commandos it used the same two-tier Silver/Gold account model as its Xbox 360 counterpart. Naturally, PC gamers reacted unfavorably to the idea of paying for features such as voice communication and friends lists that they’ve been enjoying for free in various forms since before Microsoft even entered the console arena with the first Xbox. Luckily, they eventually realized that they can’t apply the same restrictions as their console service to an entirely different user base and eventually eliminated the need to pay for extra features, effectively giving everybody Gold accounts for free.

Unfortunately, the change was too little too late. The damage had already been done and the negative perception caused by the launch lingered long after they converted it to a free service. Many people continued to believe that you had to pay to get features for quite a while after they made the change. To my knowledge none of the earlier LIVE-supporting titles were patched to remove or merge options that split functions between Silver and Gold accounts, an oversight that likely contributed to the confusion. Granted, this misconception has almost entirely been eliminated as of writing this but it stands to say that there should have been a much larger effort to get the message across to avoid leftover nerd rage.

Functionality and Integration

When it first arrived it had an unattractive and unintuitive interface with its overall design based around the 360’s older bladed dashboard. Microsoft eventually released a redesigned interface that’s a little friendlier to the mouse and keyboard and far more aesthetically pleasing. It’s still not an ideal PC-centric design and it still draws criticism from gamers but when compared to the initial design it’s a step in the right direction and I suppose that’s better than nothing.

GFW - Interface Side-by-Side

Left: Original interface (shot from http://www.winsupersite.com/), Right: Redesigned interface

That being said, the design of the interface is small beans compared to the current severe lack of integration with the Windows operating system. When you turn on your Xbox 360 you are immediately logged into the LIVE service and can access all of its features. This is not the case on the PC because as of writing this there exists only a woefully inadequate desktop client which serves as a portal to the LIVE Marketplace for purchasing and downloading DLC as well as providing access to a handful of game demos, a smattering of media and some news links. It lacks all of the basic functionality one would expect it to have such as ability to modify your account details, view and compare achievements, send messages or send and receive invites.

If you want to modify your LIVE account details you either have to launch a game or go to the Xbox LIVE website—either option being incontinent if you just want to make a quick change. There is a Games for Windows website, but it currently has no account management functionality. Both the 360 and PC LIVE services run off the same network and your Gamertag is unified across the two platforms, but having to go to an Xbox branded site when you’re primarily or exclusively a PC gamer feels alienating.

The current desktop client

The current desktop client

Oddly enough, if you watch the E3 2006 press conference it included a segment demonstrating a fully integrated Dashboard prototype for Windows that allowed for all of the core features the 360 Dashboard allows. Whether or not this was a real, functional program or just some pre-rendered pipe dream is not known to me. However, it shows that they had intentions to do exactly what the service clearly needs right now. Considering the time past since this prototype was shown one would think that there should have been something similar to it released by now, but nothing of the sort has happened.

Microsoft is allegedly working on a proper desktop client/Dashboard, but outside of a few mentions of it on various websites I have yet to see any solid details coming from an official source. Until I see some real info it’s just vaporware and not worth paying much mind to.

Untapped Potential

The one unique feature that GFWL aimed to bring to gamers has also been the one most ignored by developers. The ability for 360 and PC gamers to play together online is an interesting and potentially great feature. However, despite the potential for greatness very few developers have adopted it in their projects. To date, out of the ~19 LIVE-supporting titles currently on the market only 3 support cross-platform play.

The lack of support could be contributed to the difficulty of balancing some games to be fair between people playing on controllers and people playing with a keyboard and mouse. And while that is a likely factor, it doesn’t explain why a game seemingly perfect for it such as Street Fighter IV does not support the feature and games like Lost Planet: Extreme Condition and Shadowrun do. Whereas the latter two games require generous auto-aim and other considerations to level the playing field, SFIV would require little to no control compensation to maintain balance from a technical standpoint.

Looking into the future, I don’t believe any LIVE-supporting titles currently in production are planning to have cross-platform play, which leaves me wondering about its future.

Ultimately, Microsoft will need to devote a lot more development resources to LIVE on PC in order for the situation to improve. As it stands, I find myself imagining the GFWL development team as two guys in a Basement being paid minimum wage and being fed a steady diet of military rations. Until I see some serious effort on Microsoft’s part to fix the problems I’ve discussed in this article I can only see the service being attractive to publishers looking to make a quick ‘n dirty console port and can’t be bothered to maintain network functionality for their own title, so they just slap LIVE on it and call it a day. Hardly an impressive or encouraging use of something that Microsoft was at one point trying to hype up.

With Steam already so well established and other, lesser known players such as Stardock’s Impulse starting to make a presence in the market what really makes Games for Windows LIVE stand out? What makes it worth bothering with? Microsoft may be faced with the very real possibility of losing to competitors who are in many ways beating them at their own game. It’ll be interesting to see how LIVE on PC turns out and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on it—whatever the final outcome may be.

Continued in: Microsoft: Overpromising and Underdelivering – Part Deux

Advertisements