Microsoft recently moved its Games for Windows Live online framework to a free service, and has stressed enhancing its similarities, both for developers and consumers, to the Xbox 360's Live environment.
But now there's one major difference: the PC service is now free
; Xbox 360 multiplayer gaming and some (but not all) elements of Xbox Live are not.
An Unavoidable Necessity
Microsoft's Games for Windows head Kevin Unangst tells Gamasutra that the GFW Live shift was due to the necessity of making multiplayer functionality available for PC gamers -- who, he says, now essentially expect it in any title they play on PC.
"The fact that we had all this great multiplayer technology, with the TrueSkill matchmaking... we just wanted to make it as universally available as possible to PC gamers," Unangst explains.
For developers, Microsoft makes available a kit to integrate those features into Games For Windows-specific titles for free, while continuing to support the ability to add either paid of free content incrementally, with a testing process to validate connectivity as the only requirement.
"There's no cost for them to actually integrate it into the game," he says. "For any developers who have done any Xbox work, the APIs are the same, and almost identical in most cases, so it's very easy to implement."
Unangst also says the feature set has garnered interest from console developers and publishers making games on the Xbox 360. "The free multiplayer is already effective," he says. "The introduction of a PC Marketplace will come in our Fall release."
But despite the similarity, Xbox 360 users still pay subscription fees for the Xbox Live Gold multiplayer matching service, while PC gamers will not. Does Microsoft see a dichotomy here?
The Content Divide
Unangst seems to suggest that the content is different enough to warrant one multiplayer framework being free while the other is appropriately valued at cost.
"What we've got is two different groups who are trying to do what's best and offering value for their customers," Unangst said. "The Games for Windows team and the Games for Windows Live team looked at this and said, 'What do we need to do to make sure this adopted broadly and has value?'"
"And that's all those changes -- the UI, the Marketplace, the fact that we're not going to have the same content. On Xbox Live, I think they've done everything to continue to add value to the Gold subscription."
With same friends lists, Gamertag and a shared currency in Microsoft Points, Unangst points to what he calls a "common underpinning." On the Xbox 360, however, Unangst says the focus is more largely on "things that make sense for the console."
"So those services will evolve in different directions. You'll have different types of content that we offer."
A Matter Of Focus
The PC, Unangst says, has a focus primarily on game content, whereas Xbox Live Marketplace also aims to offer other media content. "There's plenty of places to get that on the PC," he says. "You don't need to get that through our client."
And the client itself, Unangst says, is specifically tailored for the PC audience. Xbox 360's "blades" interface, which will soon undergo a redesign itself, was not mouse-and-keyboard friendly, he says.
"So it's a redesign of that UI to be something that's really optimized for the PC. It drops down from the top, it's very simple to use with the keyboard and mouse, accelerator keys, close buttons, forward and back," he describes.
"It's very different from what you saw in early iterations, and you'll see that when we roll out the Fall update," he added.
[Just following Microsoft's announcement at 2008's Gamefest, Unangst told Gamasutra that Games For Windows Live also has full game downloads "on the roadmap" for the service.]