We recently sat down with Games for Windows (GFW) Marketing Director Kevin Unangst and PR Manager Michael Wolf for a brief pre-launch tour of gaming on Vista. Admittedly, the implementation hasn't changed much since we first previewed Vista nearly a year ago. Even so, from a GUI-perspective, Vista features a user-friendly central location for cataloging, accessing, and tweaking (settings, parental controls, updating, etc.) GFW-branded games -- non-GFW games won't necessarily be excluded, but they won't feature many of the required functionalities built into the branded titles.
Games for Windows is still very much a vision. The first priority, a retail initiative, is currently underway. By employing marketing strategies used by console makers, namely platform-branding, Microsoft hopes that PC gaming (under the 'Games for Windows' banner) will become less intimidating to mainstream consumers -- no longer will the PC games isle be a cluttered mess of disparate titles. Computer Gaming World was also renamed as Games For Windows to help drive Microsoft's new brand. Aside from retail consolidation, this branding will ensure certain requirements are met by games' publishers. To earn the GFW brand, a title must comply with certain Microsoft-tested specifications, including widescreen support, compatibility with the Xbox 360 controller, parental control features, and simple installation. GFW games will also begin to carry a system rating, based on a 5-point scale. Vista will assess the value of your PC's gaming abilities and assign a rating (or "WinSAT"), say 4.5. You can then weigh that rating against a game's recommended rating (example: 5.0) and its required rating (example: 3.5) before purchasing. Update: The scale will begin at five points, but is designed to grow as newer technologies enter the market.
For console gamers, especially Xbox 360 owners, the most intriguing aspect of gaming on Vista is 'Live Anywhere.' Unfortunately, Xbox Live awareness won't be built into the initial release of Vista. Instead, it will gradually be tested on the Windows platform via launch titles like Shadowrun and Halo 2. Both these games will be fully integrated into Xbox Live -- Shadowrun will feature cross-platform multiplayer, while Halo 2 will be limited to cross-platform communication (messaging, invites, voice-chat, etc.) -- and will include achievement points (added to your pre-existing Gamerscore); we should note that achievements points can't be doubled for cross-platform titles. If you own Shadowrun for Xbox 360 and PC, you can only unlock any given achievement once (per Gamertag) between the two versions. To enhance cross-platform mingling, certain elements of 360's GUI will be included in Live-enabled PC games, like a version of the 'Guide-button' interface, but the hope is that eventually the core elements of 360's GUI will be offered as a free Windows application, capable of running without a game (à la the 360 Dashboard).
By making gaming a priority in the Vista experience, Microsoft is molding a powerful pairing of the Games for Windows and Xbox 360 brands. To some extent, this is based on a hope that Live Anywhere will be embraced by GFW developers and publishers, pulling Xbox Live (and your Gamertag) outside of the 'Box, in turn encouraging an unrivaled virtual community. But there are simpler touches that also spark our interest. For example, start up Vista's Minesweeper, connect your 360 controller, and enjoy a subtle rumble each time you slip up. It's the melding with the familiar that will drive new and lost consumers to the Games for Windows brand.
But how will the Games for Windows invasion affect the comfort level of core PC gamers who appreciate the intricacies of the machines Microsoft is trying to simplify (at least, from a consumer perspective)? Some will certainly shun its arrival, but as the GFW brand grows to encompass Live Anywhere, others will happily embrace the competition; that is, the opportunity to take on their controller wielding counterparts. Are the keyboard n' mouse mightier than the gamepad? This argument may finally be settled, but Microsoft will have to overcome the Xbox Live subscription dilemma first.
While it's been confirmed that pre-existing Xbox Live Gold members can extend their memberships to PC usage, it's unclear how Microsoft will woo PC gamers who aren't tied into Live through Xbox 360. As standards go, PC gamers have longed enjoyed online multiplayer for free -- though certain titles, like World of Warcraft, demand monthly subscription rates that well-exceed Live's asking price. "We're not crazy enough to think that people will suddenly start paying $50 a year to get something they already get for free on Windows ... all I can say now is that we're working to make a Gold membership worthwhile even if you're only connecting to Live from Windows Vista," Wolf hinted slyly.
It's a risk. The Games for Windows strategy is on the verge of being schizophrenic. Can the cumbersome PC gaming experience really be simplified down to a console scheme? There are just too many freedoms and variations that exist in the PC universe to accurately interpret the PC as "the console that everybody already owns." It's not that simple. So is GFW a trick? Is Microsoft trying to lure back some of the consumers that were lost when Xbox was launched (an initiative that cannibalized PC gaming sales by design)?
The answer, like the Games For Windows vision, is not so clear. But there is most certainly the opportunity for Microsoft to create something very special. A cross-platform community where you and I can jump from Xbox to PC to our cell phones seamlessly. Anywhere.