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Microsoft: The Blight of PC Gaming

For as long as most gamers can remember, Microsoft has ruled over the dominion of PC gaming. This wasn’t always the case, but the era of competition from vendors such as Atari, Amiga and Tandy is long gone. What remains is a company whose history is speckled with controversy, triumph and defeat. Microsoft began life as a software developer, with little indication that a video game console was in their future. Unfortunately, as they venture deeper and deeper into the consumer electronics industry, they are forsaking their roots.

Microsoft may not seem so averse to PC gaming to the casual observer. When they first announced the Games For Windows (GFW) initiative back in 2006, many believed it was an indication that the software giant was stepping up their PC operations. The debut of their new operating system, Windows Vista, along with a brand new version of Direct X seemed to support such assumptions. Many things have changed since 2006 however, and the failure of Windows Vista to launch helped insure that titles such as Halo 2, Gears of War, and Shadow Run would suffer the same fate.

The success or failure of Windows Vista ultimately played a big hand in how Games for Windows landed. Gamers continued to support the more familiar Windows XP, as many still do today. Since Games For Windows was married to Windows Vista, it was flawed from its conception. The initial roll-out of the service pushed gamers into upgrading to the new OS by locking down features, such as cross platform (PC-to-360) multiplayer. This marked a fatal flaw in the GFW program: gamers were slow to adopt Windows Vista, and that made other publishers wary of the service.

The online component of the initiative, Games For Windows Live, has continued to evolve since its inception. Microsoft has opened up the Xbox Live marketplace to Windows developers, allowing for the sale of premium DLC; they’ve loosened restrictions on their peer-to-peer matching service; and they’ve tightened security to protect against piracy on the marketplace. Sadly, these features come at a cost to PC developers and gamers alike. Microsoft exacts control over items on the marketplace, including free content and game updates. Not only do they have a strong influence on the cost of these virtual items, but they force free patches and content through their lengthy certification process.

Stardock’s CEO, Brad Wardell, recently attempted to put the cost of these services into perspective. On the subject of Games For Windows Live, Wardell lashed out against Microsoft’s service.

I started out as a big Games for Windows Live advocate. I intended for Elemental to be on Games for Windows Live, but then as we got closer, the Xbox group took it over more and more. And they have things where, oh, if you want to use Games for Windows Live to update your game, you have to go through [their] certification. And if you do it more than X number of times, you have to pay money. It’s like, ‘My friends, you can’t do that on the PC.’”


On the console, I don’t have to update my game because an anti-virus program got an update and is now identifying my VB scripts as viruses and I have to apply an emergency patch. That would just add insult to injury. We’ve had to upgrade our games plenty of times over the years, not because we found some bug, but because some third-party program, or driver, or whatever screwed it up. If Games for Windows Live maintains that strategy and they take over, I’m done. I’m not making PC games. I would be done.

The control that Microsoft tries to demand over their territory is a big part of the problem. It may benefit Redmond to pay more attention to the still successful icons of this industry. Companies like Valve and Stardock have made more progress in the realm of digital distribution than Microsoft could possibly hope to make on their own, yet as we move towards the retail release of Windows 7, there are few signs that Microsoft is here to play nice with others. If Microsoft tries to re-enter the PC arena, expect them to do so playing by their own rules. Instead of partnering with services like Steam, Microsoft will launch their own content through their marketplace, in an ill-advised grab for a greater market share—just don’t expect to see much (if any) Microsoft Game Studios content there.

The impact of Microsoft’s shrinking interest in PC games can be measured directly by their recent participation. It’s difficult not to notice a sharp decline in their output. In 2007, Microsoft launched several PC titles – Halo 2, Gears of War, Shadow Run – this lineup should sound familiar. When Vista crashed and burned, it took these titles along with it, and seemingly all of Microsoft’s interests in this market. Since 2007, Microsoft has only released a single title on the PC, Zoo Tycoon 2: Ultimate Collection.

This gloomy picture of Microsoft’s future in PC games is not confined to their first party operations either. They may have closed down long time PC vets internally, such as Ensemble and FASA, despite efforts by both to evolve; they also have also insured that developers like Lionhead keep their content in the living room; however, the damage extends beyond the walls of Redmond. Second party titles, such as Gears of War 2 will never see the light of day on the PC, and Mass Effect only made its way to Windows users after Bioware was acquired by Electronic Arts. While these franchises may have been born on the console, others have been brutally repossessed. Don’t expect Alan Wake to see daylight on the PC unless gamers (and its developer, Remedy) raise some hell.

Microsoft’s attempt to blend their gaming platforms into a single brand was not completely misguided. It’s in the interest of all of their platforms to unify certain services. The Xbox 360 has become the cornerstone of Microsoft’s entertainment ventures, but Windows, Zune, and even Windows Mobile all continue to play an important roll in Redmond. It is unfortunate that unification of these brands comes at such a cost to the legacy of Windows gaming.

As consumers we’re tied to Windows as a platform through its dominance over the OS market share; likewise, developers are tied to the tools that marry both platforms. As Microsoft continues to secure exclusive content for their set top box, they will continue to be the blight of PC gaming. Despite efforts on Microsoft’s behalf, it may be too late to completely turn this sinking ship around. In many ways, Games For Windows, along with Vista’s failure to make an impression, marked the beginning of the end for Microsoft’s participation in the already shrinking PC games market.

Thankfully, publishers like Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft and even Capcom are picking up the slack.

9 comments
Robin
Robin

The close tying with Vista was only part of GFW's problems. It's a project with no clear purpose, being driven on one side to try to compete with Steam et al (in the same way IE competed with Netscape) by locking in publishers, while at the same time being constantly stymied by the fear of cannibalising the hugely more lucrative Xbox 360 business. Most of the support that it has been afforded by third party publishers thus far has been motivated by kickbacks from Microsoft. It's simply another piggy bank for publishers to raid along with NVIDIA's "the way it's meant to be played" program and similar schemes from AMD, Alienware, etc. At least, that's how it was seen until the cracks started to show. (Fallout 3, anyone?) As Mr. Wardell points out, the system is a burden and an obstacle unless you're trying to make a completely airtight, unchanging console-style game, which is a business model that hasn't been viable on the PC for at least two years now. (I was most amused by the way that Batman: Arkham Asylum lets you cut GFWL's stubby fat fingers off the first time you boot it up. You just *know* that MS had originally intended them to disable saving the SINGLE PLAYER game unless you signed up to Live.) On the Xbox 360 developers contractually have no choice but to use Live. On the PC, there's no demand for it and many better alternatives. It needs to be euthanised before it stinks up any more games. You're right to remark on the decision by MGS to completely retreat from the PC market. A huge, huge mistake. Every other major publisher is able to see the value in nurturing evolving markets instead of follow doomed strategies for the sake of saving face. Activision, Blizzard, Bethesda, EA and Ubisoft probably can't believe their luck, watching whole studios and decades-old multi-million-selling franchises being wiped because MS entertainment division management genuinely believes that the 360 business will keep growing forever. Awesome guys, maybe by 2027 you'll have sold as many units as the PS2, PSP or Wii - who knows, before the heat death of the universe you might even get an MMO on the machine! Windows 7 is probably going to be embraced by gamers and publishers, while GFW will continue to be shunned. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for MS to do something about the rampant management hubris that is resulting in such wasteful spectacles as Ensemble and FASA shutting down, Rare working on Mii-too avatars and Lionhead squandering their talents on confused attempts to mimic console RPGs, instead of the PC strategy games they were born to make.

dreamhunk
dreamhunk

let the whole pc industry go into a mess. It would teach big companies not mess with the food chain agin, namely microsoft. You think hardware companies have bad now just wait wen onlive comes.

Esher
Esher

...so deep that Microsoft can't even get the handlebars out! Boycotting AMD is just going to hurt PC Gamers even more. As if the consoles won't goto Intel anyway if AMD goes under. All that is going to do is create more market problems for PC Gamers. A lack of competition will drive prices way up all over again. And consoles will become even more viable for the gamer-on-a-budget. It blows my mind that people are even still buying the bloody Xbox 360 after all the issues it has had since release. PCs are always a generation or two ahead in technology and capability. They allow for far more interactivity and richness of content. And don't ship with a red ring of death. Are my fellow gamers really that dumb? :( To hell with consoles.

dreamhunk
dreamhunk

yea after crysis invida's stocks went crashing too. Pc gamers made invida what they are today too, eough said.

dreamhunk
dreamhunk

It's like this game devs don't make games on consoles. pc gamers and pc gaming is at the top of the food chain. You don't beleave me take a nice look at the ps3. Pc gamers suffer the pc Industry suffers! I mean we have to put up with microsoft,drm, big publisher garbage then they are going to have to pay the price. It called bigger or higher puduction costs. AMD goes bankuprt them console production costs get bigger.

deftangel
deftangel

Yes, because removing the only current viable competitors to Intel & Nvidia would do the PC market the world of good wouldn't it?

dreamhunk
dreamhunk

yea too bad them consoles can't keep a big company like AMD alive and well. AMD was so close to going bankuprt that they needed to steal money from Intel! The way microsoft have treating pc gamers lately should give pc gamer more reason to boycott AMD from the picture. The sooner AMD goes bankuprt the faster them consoles are going to go by by.

dreamhunk
dreamhunk

what pc gamers need to do is boycott AMD. Them consoles can't support a big company like AMD. In fact AMd who 80% of it's hardware in consoles almost went bankuprt. They had to steal money from to stay alive. what pc gamers are doing and even more so is boycott AMD. the whole pc Industry will feel our boycott.

deftangel
deftangel

Funny thing is if you read their publisher newsletters, they talk like it's a big deal and are still working on it. Yet, nothing manifests. Quite bizarre.