Continuing from the previous article where I discussed Games for Windows LIVE, the focus now shifts to the Games for Windows branding scheme, Windows Vista and DirectX 10 as well as brief mention of the upcoming release of Windows 7 and DirectX 11 and how it could impact the future of the platform.
Branding and Platform Standards
The Games for Windows brand has probably been the biggest success of the plans laid out at E3 2006 and it’s not hard to understand why. Discouraging stores from lumping PC games together with software like Quicken and TurboTax and providing a unified brand identity is naturally an attractive prospect, making it easier for people not familiar with the PC as a gaming platform to easily identify products on the shelf. However, results of the program vary from store-to-store as I discovered myself after a recent visit to the Best Buy nearest to me, and while the PC games weren’t lumped directly together with the non-gaming software they were still in the general PC section along with hardware and software rather than the gaming isles.
Microsoft has a set of standards in place that a game must meet in order to be eligible to carry the GFW logo (the design of which is similar to Xbox 360 packaging), but none are particularly “hard” to integrate into a title and requirements such as native widescreen support and functioning properly on 64-Bit Windows (but not necessarily being a 64-Bit program) should be in any recent game whether it carries the logo or not.
As a publisher you adhere to some niggling standards and in exchange people will easily recognize your game as something they can run on their Windows-based PC (system requirements notwithstanding, of course). Considering all of this it’s not hard to see why this would be the most successful part of the entire program.
Vista itself was the subject of much bile spewing upon release due to various issues, some of which Microsoft was not directly responsible for but were blamed for anyways because, well, they’re Microsoft. One of the biggest issues, if not the biggest being shoddy driver support—video drivers in particular—which is almost entirely up to individual hardware manufacturers and should not have had responsibility pinned solely on the OS maker. It also didn’t help that people wanted their 7-year old scanners and printers to automatically install on Vista and that they couldn’t find drivers anywhere. Other sources of rage were the shenanigans surrounding “Vista Capable” stickers placed on lower-end computers utilizing aging Intel chipsets with inadequate integrated graphics and system requirements for the operating system that were generally perceived as being too high.
When it comes to system reqs, it’s more realistic to say that the problem was more about the general public expecting their single-core Pentium 4 systems to last them forever than it was anything else. And while Vista’s system requirements were naturally higher than that of its predecessor they weren’t as outrageously high as people had made them out to be. Hell, I even ran Vista on an Athlon XP 2500+ with 768MB of memory for a while just to see how it would do and it was generally useable for day-to-day tasks after turning off a few unnecessary features such as the Windows Sidebar to reduce memory load. Gaming wasn’t really possible on that system, but that’s a given when you run on such aging hardware.
Around the time Vista was released dual-core processors were already easily attainable and 64-Bit support was becoming common in the consumer marketplace. That combined with memory dipping to very affordable prices made the hardware needed to run Vista optimally readily available.
Now, that’s not to say Vista is perfect. It has its fair share of quirks, but nothing terribly worse than when WinXP first launched, which is something people seem to often forget. Every version of Windows has similar growing pains when released, but with the generally long period between each version there is a tendency to forget what had happened at launch time the further you get from it. When the next version comes out the same complaints are repeated without realizing it and all focus is put on abusing the new whipping boy. You could write an entire article on this subject alone, so I’ll avoid going into any further detail here.
As it stands today most knowledgeable PC users have learned to accept the OS, while most mainstream users still carry a misinformed negative perception of the product and stubborn minimalists insist the world would be better off if we still used DOS.
The release of Windows Vista also marked the introduction of DirectX 10. Microsoft tried to hype it up as being able to provide better performance and graphics so amazing your eyes would implode but in reality it generally amounted to nothing more than a few extra effects and often a much lower frame rate. In some cases such as Crysis you could actually edit the games configuration files to get the supposed “DX10-Only” effects in DX9 mode and have a better frame rate to boot.
The causes of this was probably a combination of first-generation DX10 hardware and drivers not being able to cope with the load or not being optimized enough for it and due to developers being unfamiliar with an new API and how to effectively implement it into their games. More recent releases have been much better with their performance/graphics quality ratio, particularly when they use features found in the newer DX10.1 which only ATi supports at the moment. However, even if frame rates have improved to the point of acceptability, visual quality has not seen much of a leap, if any, over DX9.
Aside from performance problems and a lack of “wow” factor, it also suffered from being exclusive to Vista. The main reason for this most likely being that Vista uses a different display driver model than WinXP and Microsoft wasn’t willing to put in the money or manpower to develop a version for both platforms. With people already angered by Vista’s shaky launch, being refused access to DX10 because they didn’t want a new operating system just gave them more of a reason to be irritated with Vista as a whole.
What I’ve observed over the last 3 years is that Microsoft laid down some big goals and has under-delivered on all of them thus far. Their biggest success out of all of this has been the GFW brand, something that hardly makes up for the mediocre representation of the LIVE network on the PC and the unfulfilled promise of better graphics brought by Vista and DirectX 10.
Windows 7 is set to release later this year and is poised to render Vista irrelevant. Will this new combo be a bigger success than what came before? One would hope, as so far things seem to be pointing in that direction. Public opinion of Win7 is already higher than Vista by leaps and bounds (even if it is a bit of a placebo effect) and because so many people skipped over Vista to stick with XP there will likely be a wave of hardware and/or OS upgrades when it hits retail.
On the graphics front DirectX 11 (being introduced with Win7) is set to push DX10 aside with its improved feature set, the most notable probably being the requirement that cards support hardware tessellation. A feature that will allow for much more complex Level of Detail transitions and could potentially reduce or maybe even eliminate modern games reliance on visual trickery such as parallax mapping. Luckily, it won’t have the disadvantage of being limited to one OS as it will be compatible with both Win7 and Vista, eliminating the exclusivity issue that DX10 suffered from.
Unfortunately, among the platforms that Microsoft’s entertainment division handles the PC is obviously playing second fiddle to the Xbox 360 and they seem content to let the platform decline while they pretend they have big plans for sustaining it. With new versions of Windows and DirectX on the horizon one would hope that things will get better, but considering the track record so far I’m going to be cautiously optimistic about it.