Microsoft's Games For Windows initiative, which attempts to introduce a more straightforward level of consistency and accessibility to the open PC platform, has plenty of advocates and detractors in the gaming community, and though developer reaction has been generally positive the program has yet to take the PC world by storm.
Gamasutra got the GFW pitch straight from the horse's mouth in an interview with senior director Kevin Unangst
, but recently we also got some thoughts on Games For Windows from an independent source: Mario Kroll, marketing director for publisher cdv Software Entertainment USA.
Kroll delivers a refreshingly candid, third-party perspective on Games For Windows. His company recently entered the program with its upcoming Sacred 2: Fallen Angel
, developed by German studio Ascaron. Kroll delves into his thoughts on the initiative's relevance to gamers, its parallels to console platforms, and how he interprets what exactly it is - and what it isn't.
How does it work, when you join the Games For Windows, apart from getting that stripe on the top of the box?
Mario Kroll: It's a special tattoo they give you. (laughs)
It's a little different from the console certification process, and there are a number of guidelines that you have to follow. As an example, if you're going to support a controller, you have to support the Xbox 360 controller.
Obviously, they want as many Microsoft-friendly buzzwords to support, but it's mostly a marketing, licensing kind of arrangement. It's an interesting relationship, because there's always that struggle of supporting the Xbox 360 as a gaming platform and still promoting the PC as a gaming platform. But it's the Microsoft version of backing Windows as a solid candidate for playing games on.
As a publisher, do you think that the Games For Windows initiative is relevant to consumers?
MK: I have two answers for that. I mean, I don't want to talk out of both sides of my mouth. Look at it from an unsophisticated consumer or casual gamer perspective, where you just want to know that this game is going to run on the platform you own. If you go to the store and you see the Wii logo, you know that's going to run on your Wii. If you see the Xbox 360 logo, you know it's going to run on your Xbox 360. The goal, obviously, behind it is to provide it as a consumer education tool, to say, "This is a Games For Windows-branded title."
Despite all the advertisement of system requirements on it, there's still always challenges of getting games to run on a Windows-based PC, so it's certainly a consumer-focused tool in regards of trying to make that problem less complicated. But the problem is, a PC is a PC, and there are so many variants, and even if you buy a Games For Windows game now, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to run on your Windows machine, because of all the drivers, or hardware that isn't supported, or misconfigurations and whatever else.
So the intent is there, but I don't know how truly effective it is at the end. I think one of the parts that is interesting and potentially useful is the kiosk system that Microsoft is behind, to put Games For Windows-approved demos into GameStops and so forth, where consumers can at least sample some of those games. Normally, that sort of stuff was all very console or handheld-focused, and now it's one of the few places they can get a hands-on approach to it. I'm not sure it really bridges that gap of, "Will this actually run on my system?"
So you think it's more a marketing opportunity than anything?
MK: In execution, it is. It's communicated as more than that, but I think the reality now is that it is more of a marketing and simplification strategy, if you want to validate Windows as a continuing gaming platform in the U.S.
It's difficult when you look at the NPD sales data that's come out over the past year to know where the PC market is headed, especially when digital services like Steam don't release their numbers either.
MK: Unless they communicate that as a selling point or whatever else. There's certainly stories about titles that have not done well at retail but at Steam and other digital distribution channels - Steam is obviously at the forefront of that - have been able to turn into a profitable title. You don't want to underestimate any channel.
I've gotten a couple of e-mails in the last few weeks, which I'd never gotten before. Usually the story was, "I'll buy digital," or "I'll buy mail-order or online and have it shipped to my house, if I can't find the game locally." That was the old paradigm. Now I've actually gotten e-mails from consumers saying, "I will not buy a game unless I can digitally download it," which is a new experience for me.
"I don't want to wait," or "I don't want to go to the store," is definitely becoming a more important channel.
There still seems to be a question of confidence in digital services. If you look at Steam or Xbox Live Arcade and recent stories, the potential is still there to lose your purchase.
MK: I think those stories are true across platforms, and it's an evolution of customer service. If you look at early Steam - my first purchase with Steam was a year or two ago. I bought a title - I don't remember what it was - I bought it on Steam, I got on a plane, I wanted to play it, and I couldn't get connected to the internet to activate it because I was on a plane. They've resolved that since then, but they also had their growing pains when they rolled out.
If you look at Apple and iTunes, I've lost whole libraries of songs I've purchased that I had some level of DRM rights where my thinking was, "Hey, I'll buy this for almost the same price as a retail product, but I own it and can consume it right now." But the reality is that if I plug my iPod into a new hard drive or something, it wipes out my iPod and all my music is gone.
So every major platform like that has some issues with the argument for or against the terms of the consumer. It's totally a customer service and business model decision-making process.