Is Microsoft Trying to Kill PC Gaming? When Microsoft started talking up Vista’s gaming functionality, PC gamers got all hot and bothered. There it was, laid out in front of us, the holy land of DX10 graphics, and an entire “Games for Windows” marketing program. It couldn’t possibly get any better, as our PC gaming world was obviously not dying, and Microsoft was apparently not going to give up on us, expecting us all to move over to consoles, right? If Microsoft’s current PC gaming efforts are any indication, we’re all very wrong in that assumption. Judging by the lackluster game releases and the attempt to suck the blood from PC gamers with “Games for Windows Live,” it starts feeling like Microsoft is doing all it can to actually kill PC gaming.
Case in point – the games. For some unknown reason that only the kool-aid inebriated marketing team in Redmond can understand, games like Halo 2 are Vista-only releases. What’s that? A two-year-old game with graphics that would barely push any two-year-old hardware somehow magically requires Vista? Not only that, but for many users (this writer included), it barely runs even on Vista. Slow, clunky and designed to show PC gamers that “Your life would be a lot better if you just bought a 360,” Halo 2 for Vista won’t impress anyone. Sure the diehard Halo fans will rave about it, but the rest of us, those who have brand new screaming PC gaming rigs that become 386′s the minute we load Vista and Halo 2 on them, well, the game’s a piece of potty floater.
Play the game for fifteen minutes, and you can revel in the fact that your dual core processor and sweet new graphics card can’t get Master Chief to look any better than his appearance was in the original Halo on Xbox. Jack those graphics settings up, and enjoy an adventure in walking through syrup. Think we’re whining? Then listen to the recent podcasts from Games for Windows’ magazine review team, where they have one machine in the entire office that can run Halo 2 for Vista at a decent rate. There’s a vote of no-confidence from the people who are supposed to be the standard bearers of the Games for Windows marketing push.
Then there’s Shadowrun, Microsoft’s first attempt at cross-platform gaming. Here’s the promise: you, as a PC gamer, can take your baddest game it to all those console pansies by jumping onto Xbox Live (for PC) and dealing the pain to them. Sounds interesting in theory, but in practice – a miserable exercise in gaming futility. At first we thought we might be alone in having problems getting the game to load at all, but then we stumbled upon the five-page forum thread at www.shadowrun.com, which had plenty of similar complaints, but no solutions. There’s apparently no support coming from FASA Studio either, since, according to reports in their own forums, many of them are on a “mandatory break” and some team members are off to other projects. So there it sits, a sad, unanswered thread, and no hope of a patch in sight. And it’s not just us and the folks in the forums – IGN, arguably the largest gaming site on the ‘net can’t get the thing to run. What does that tell you? (Note – they did finally get it working, and gave it a 6.8 overall)
Top this all off with Microsoft’s new Xbox Live for Windows (Games for Windows Live), which is nothing more than a glorified (and pay-to-use) version of the free and quite excellent Xfire application, and you can see where Microsoft’s priorities lie. Seriously, what PC gamer is going to fork over $50/year just to play against console gamers? Especially when the console gamers get the incredibly unbalanced advantage of auto-aiming when they play online? Microsoft promises demos, patches and voice chat, all in one easy interface, but apparently they forget there are several apps that provide this already, and for free. Plus, in the case of Xfire, you have access to a wealth of stats about who’s playing what, who’s on top, and what your friends are into these days. Games for Windows Live also hooks you up with “Achievements,” those little accolades for spending time plying every corner of the game for hidden goodies. But PC gamers don’t need that, they crave unlockable content and maps, and paying for new maps? Now that’s pretty funny.
In the beginning of this feature, I presupposed that Microsoft is actually trying to kill PC gaming. Well, don’t believe that, as I don’t either. Really, they’re basically just making themselves look more inept than ever before – to consumers and gamers alike. Here’s a company that brought us the dominant OS, browser, media tools, etc, and yet for some reason, in the past year, they’ve fallen in with a bad crowd – the marketers. Rather than give us rich gaming experiences – we get half-baked ports of old console games, or multiplayer-only (yet full priced) games that are broken coming out of the gate. Top that off with the almost direct porting of the Xbox Live service (couldn’t anyone come up with a new design for it, along with some cool features?), and it’s obvious Microsoft has lost any and all consumer focus. However, unlike most gripe-fests, I’m going to throw them a few free ideas (honest, no cost for this DLC!) on how to fix things. No, I’m not going to expect them to give up on Vista-only games, because Microsoft is too entrenched in Vista to ever say “Well, we’re also offering it on XP.” I’m not stupid. But here are a few other ideas.
1. Be humble and own up to the fact that so far, your PC initiative isn’t quite on track. Don’t blame anyone but yourself, don’t “defer to someone else” or otherwise be glib with us (hear that Mr. Moore?) and set about fixing it. We gamers can be a forgiving lot, after all we hated NVIDIA for cheating on graphics card benchmarks, then they gave us the 6800 GPU, and all was forgiven. Just show us you’re serious and apologetic for not giving us what you said you would. Stop promising vapor and give us reality. Or, to quote those marketers you can’t get enough of – “surprise and delight” us, or “underpromise and overdeliver” the goods. Every interview from now on should have Peter Moore bending over backwards to admit the failings of this platform and that they will be fixed. Your arrogance on the PC platform is comparable to Sony’s arrogance on the console. Get it?
2. Fix the damned games. Halo 2 for Vista is obviously a direct port, just look at the user interface – it’s designed for controllers. So there’s really no fixing that game, maybe you can speed it up, but that’s about it. But with Shadowrun, here’s what you can do – take those big-brained engineers you brag about at Microsoft (or did they all leave for Google?), and task them to MAKE SHADOWRUN WORK. Get a patch out there by June 15th. Go read the forums, you know, those communities you brag you know so well, and look for some common threads. Get to work, this game is flagship for your new initiative, don’t screw it up. Also, put together a config app that lets us tune Shadowrun before we launch the game, that way, maybe we can throttle down the settings and get it to run. How hard would that be, after all, hundreds of games in the history of PC gaming have had a separate config.exe. Oh, and either drop the price to $29.99, or get some free maps out there ASAP. Don’t you dare keep the game at full price in this state, and then ship pay-to-play maps, that’s just arrogant, and you can’t afford to be arrogant right now. Sure you are doing great in the console space, but for the most part, you’re starting from scratch in the PC space.
3. Admit that Games for Windows Live is weak sauce. Give the gold away for 90 days to all comers. Why? Because that’s how long it’s going to take you to a)fix Shadowrun so we can and will want to play it against consolers and b)come up with some real compelling need for us to use Live on a PC. Go forth and borrow freely from Xfire, All Seeing Eye and the other products and find out why we love them (it’s not just because they are free), then build upon that. Don’t funk around; this isn’t XSN Sports you’re doing this time. This is a major initiative, and right now, Valve’s about to chew you up and spit you out with their STEAM enhancements. Oh, you didn’t know? STEAM now has friends lists – guess they learned from you. Maybe you could return the favor. Play ball with everyone – integrate Xfire’s features (their SDK is wide open) so that when I’m on Live, my Xfire buddies can see that and say “Oh, maybe we should go get Shadowrun.” Why do you think I buy so many PC games? I see my friends on something I don’t own, and I head on over to Amazon for a copy.
Take a cue from the IM clients out there – they are all interoperable, so quit being so Microsoft-centric and work with Xfire at least. If you can find a way to work with STEAM, all the better! Right now, I can be playing a game I bought through STEAM and my Xfire buddies will know it, so why don’t you just wedge your happy self in there, too? Oh, I know you want to claim your features are so much better, but right now, you’re at the bottom of a steep hill, and instead of trying to hoof it to the top, maybe you could ride on the backs of other successful folks to get a few feet up there. It’s what you did with Internet Explorer after all- you bought code from Spyglass Mosaic and went from there. So why can’t you do it now?
While you’re at it, give it a shorter name. Surely one of your marketoids can do better than “Games for Windows Live.” For pity’s sake, you couldn’t have called it “Win Live” – think of the connotations something that simple would have carried!
4. Give us a compelling game. Honestly, we know you all think Halo 2 was gaming greatness, and there’s 6 million Xbox gamers who do, too, but we PC gamers need a lot more than “Powerswords, Pistols and Pump Shotguns” to buy into Vista or Games for Windows Live. We’re used to Far Cry, and we’re drooling over Crysis and other titles – so don’t think some sucky port is dragging us over to your pseudo-new-platform. Talk to the Crysis guys; work with them on some magical Vista uber-features.
5. Step away from the marketing Powerpoints for five minutes, put down your Vodka-Red Bulls, and go sit with some PC gamers. No, not the uber-geeks you bring into your focus groups, I mean the guys hanging out at the LAN center playing Counter Strike, or the moms at home playing Bejeweled and Peggle for the 10,000th time. You know what Nintendo did with the Wii? They had moms all over America throw Tupperware-styled Wii parties that Nintendo funded. Now, I’m not expecting any mom to throw a PC gaming party, but get creative people. Throw down with LAN party groups, hit up school computing centers and libraries and anywhere else consumers visit – because frankly, hardcore gamers may NEVER buy into your vision, but done right, you might bring in a few hundred thousand average home users. Make some of the more popular games Games for Windows Live-friendly, even the stuff you consider crappy little Flash games. For example, check out the Runescape community. What, your market-bots have never heard of it? It’s one of the largest PC communities, it’s all ages, and it’s a Flash-based RPG. Find clever ways to integrate your initiative into it, without trying to dominate it.
In the end, it’s not that Microsoft is trying to kill PC gaming, but their current efforts sure aren’t helping things. Maybe my ideas will make no sense to them, or they’re just plain stupid ideas, but at some point, Microsoft needs to “cowboy up” and get serious about this. Because frankly, if it wasn’t for gaming, a whole lot of us would already have Macs, or be running Ubuntu Linux and never looking back.
– DG Staff