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Re-Inventing the Square Wheel

November 15th, 2010 No comments

Lately, I’ve been seeing noise on the gaming newswires about Microsoft launching a “rebooted” Games for Windows LIVE this month. The centrepiece of this revamp is the new Games for Windows Marketplace. In the press release (very generally linked at http://www.microsoft.com/games/en-us/press.aspx — is this the first and only one?) big promises are made by Kevin Unangst, senior global director of PC and Mobile Gaming:

“With Games for Windows Marketplace, we set out to create a digital store built for PC gamers end-to-end… And by integrating with our existing Xbox LIVE and Windows Live services, we’ve made it easier than ever for millions of gamers to see for themselves how easy buying PC games can be.”

Here’s a succinct translation: We want to be like Steam.

"SteAM haves black & is RLY c00l... mEbbY I SteAL?"

Once again, Microsoft is being reactive instead of proactive, trumpeting another incremental step to wherever its betters happen to be. For most of Microsoft’s endeavours, this is par for the course. In this case however, what really irks me is they’ve reduced themselves to tagalong status as a gaming distribution and community portal on their own platform, while actively damaging PC gaming. The extra kick to the teeth is, while boosting their console ventures at the expense of PC gamers over the years, Microsoft has endlessly paid shallow lip service to those who prefer the mouse and keyboard.

Making a Mess of It

The first sign of Microsoft’s imminent abandonment of the PC (not to mention the deprivation of Mac gamers of one of their greatest game studios) was what happened after the acquisition of Bungie back in 2000. Once acquired, one work-in-progress, Oni, was rushed out the door; the other project, Halo, was nurtured and eventually became a flagship title not for the PC and Mac as originally planned, but for the upstart Xbox console. Microsoft knew Halo and its sequel were the exclusive franchise the Xbox needed to avoid becoming the next 3DO. But had Halo and (later) Halo 2 been released on the PC with primary, or at least equal, focus (instead of as late ports), this franchise could have been the “killer app” that would have made a PC-based GfWL-type service successful back in 2004; this would have been a strong counter to Valve’s “killer app” — the über-amazing and mega-popular Counter-Strike — that itself was used to kickstart Valve’s Steam service around the same time. Instead, Microsoft was more intent on establishing the Xbox through exclusiveness, instead of sharing a surefire hit across platforms, and dangling it as a carrot to boost a LIVE-type service on PC.

This Xbox-first stance was made clear with the release schedule for subsequent AAA titles. The practice of releasing games on console first — many made by traditional PC development shops, no less — was insultingly transparent. Well-promoted and acclaimed titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Full Spectrum Warrior, or Fable were available only on Xbox during the first few crucial months — the window most beneficial from the marketing investment — before eventually appearing on PC.

Late releases eventually became non-releases, for what seems like dubious marketplace leverage. Oddworld Inhabitants were an early example of Microsoft’s bag-o-cash manoeuvering, as its Oddworld games, Munch’s Oddysee, and Stranger’s Wrath, were made exclusive to Xbox when previous installments were also available on PC. After the release of Fable II on 360, PC gamers waited anxiously for their later “Lost Chapters” release, only to have Lionhead quash any rumours of it happening at all. Indie titles, such as the incredibly intriguing Limbo — the kind of game that is traditionally born on PC — won’t be leaving the confines of Xbox LIVE. Probably the most painful example is Alan Wake. Its oak-barrel aging process created a lot of anticipation leading up to its release, which only amplified the anxiousness for its enhanced PC version. It was cancelled. First came disappointment due to the fact that its developers, Remedy, got their start with PC games. Then came the searing pain from the pointy-shoe groin-kick when some Microsoft exec offered everyone a little nugget of… wisdom:

“Some games are more suited for the intimacy of the PC, and others are best played from the couch in front of a larger TV screen. We ultimately realised that the most compelling way to experience Alan Wake was on the Xbox 360 platform, so we focused on making it an Xbox 360 exclusive.”

Remedy had to do a bit of damage control at the suit’s comments, saying “we’re not going out there to say that PC gamers can’t enjoy it from their own PC set-up. We’re certainly not saying that. We have a strong heritage in PC gaming as well.”

Bitch Got Served

It shouldn’t be a surprise that all this PC neglect has netted Microsoft lost positioning on the PC front; time will tell whether sacrificing it for better positioning in the console market was worth it. Because somewhere between when Microsoft was using Halo to sell Xboxes and Halo 2 to push Xbox LIVE, another company named Valve launched a service called Steam, which went through its share of growing pains — the kind that required time and continued wholehearted investment to alleviate. It has paid off:

  • presently, Microsoft claims (based on their press release) “25 million users of Xbox LIVE, Zune Marketplace and Games for Windows”
  • some time in 2009, Steam hit the 25-million active account mark
  • as of tuh-day, the number of active Steam user accounts (i.e., based on recent logins, not account registrations) has passed the 30-million mark, with daily user peaks of 6 million simultaneous users

For those who know Steam, it has grown to rather adequately represent the gamut of gaming choices, from casual to hardcore, indie to AAA, strategy to action, and from classics to current releases. What is headlining Microsoft’s revamped Games for Windows Marketplace?

“The launch roster includes blockbuster games such as Fable: The Lost Chapters (Microsoft Game Studios) and Grand Theft Auto III.”

Well please pass the fuckin’ potatoes. In the year 2010, Microsoft is headlining the launch of their revamped Marketplace with a pair of games released on PC in 2005 (originally on Xbox in 2004), and 2002 (originally on PS2 in 2001). You know when you realize you’re going to run out of peanut butter before you’ve spread enough on the toast, and start dragging the knife under the lid and along the sides of the container? Yeah…

I’m no marketing wizard, but I think it’s unfortunate that Microsoft didn’t have a current game release to pair with that Marketplace launch/reboot, something exclusively for Windows. How about that next Warhammer 40K standalone expansion, Dawn of War II: Retribution? Oh, wait. Its developers, Relic, who had released previous Dawn of War installments on Games for Windows LIVE, have recently ditched it for Steam.



“I’ll call you…”

The way it’s been summed up so far, this could just be yet another tale of woe for PC gamers, or even the poor guys and gals that work in the Windows gaming divisions at Microsoft. But it’s not. It’s a painful example of executive-level “incentivize synergistic paradigms” dung-fling that pumps a disproportionate amount of “business” into the mix of “art” and “science” that, at the purest level, make up gaming. I’ll be frank: since the release of the 360 and the Xbox LIVE service in 2005, Microsoft as a whole ceased to care about Windows gaming. Of course, they can’t just come out and say this. Instead, they’ve forced PC gamers to endure a lot of fawning:

When: Summer 2006
Who: Rich Wickham, director, Games for Windows
What: Microsoft announces two more family-friendly titles to the soon-to-be-released Vista games roster.

"We promised [PC] gamers they would experience a renaissance of gaming goodness on the most popular Microsoft game platform."
"Windows has always provided a fantastic experience for gamers, but Windows Vista and these new games really take advantage of the enhancements in Windows Vista and are just the start of our renewed commitment to Windows gamers."
When: January 2007
Who: Peter Moore, VP of Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business
What: Microsoft launches Vista; Peter Moore makes big promises about gaming on Windows.

"For the first time in history, we’re marketing Games for Windows as a true gaming platform, starting with redefining the brand."
"At retail, we’re taking PC games out of the shadows and giving them the spotlight they deserve."
"We'll see revenues from the PC gaming market grow more than ever before, as more people find it easier to get into casual and cutting-edge games alike."
When: Summer 2007
Who: Kevin Unangst, global director, Games for Windows
What: At E3, MS launches the Games for Windows brand, and Games for Windows LIVE.

"It's about treating Windows as a first-class gaming platform in every possible way."
"As a part of our Games for Windows initiative, we've been working with retailers worldwide to improve the experience consumers have when shopping for PC games -– meaning first-class branding, better visibility for PC games in the stores, and even interactive demo stations at hundreds of storefronts."
When: Summer 2008
Who: Chris Satchell, CTO, Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business
What: Microsoft announces a revamped, less console-like Games for Windows LIVE interface, introduces Marketplace, and says GfW LIVE will no longer be a subscription service (!!)

"The first UI was good but it was too console-centric. It wasn't really what Windows gamers wanted. We have a new UI that's consistent with the way Windows gamers want to interact."
"I believe, from hereon, Games for Windows Live is going to take off"
When: Fall 2008
What: Microsoft launches the Games for Windows LIVE Marketplace, as though the Internet has existed on PC for only a year. There are three, perhaps four games for sale.
When: January 2009
What: Microsoft does some PR/damage control after closing Ensemble Studios and ACES Games Studio.

"Moving ahead, Microsoft will continue to invest in Windows as a first–class gaming platform through great Windows out of box experiences, our online gaming services including Games for Windows – LIVE, MSN Games, and Messenger games, and through new games for Windows developed by Microsoft Games Studios."

Reaping What You Sow

As each year passes, these promises come off sounding more and more disingenuous. In fact, if you just read them all at once, you wouldn’t think they were spewed over such a long span. The fact that this song-and-dance has last this long is amazing — but it can’t hold up indefinitely. Whatever the future of Windows and PC gaming may be, any success will be in spite of Microsoft’s comparatively half-hearted efforts; in failure, Microsoft will have to shoulder its fair share of the responsibility.

Not that they’d care at that point: they’ll just mash out a press release.