Will new features in Windows Vista have a chilling effect on indie PC game development? In this exclusive Gamasutra opinion piece, WildTangent
founder and CEO Alex St. John highlights obstructive security controls embedded in Vista that threaten to do just that.
"I run a business called WildTangent, publishing online games from all the top casual game developers including Atari, Nickelodeon, PlayFirst, iWin, Popcap and many others with all the leading PC OEM's including Dell, HP, Gateway and Toshiba. Collectively, we had to get a catalog of over 300 downloadable games compatible with dozens of Vista PC configurations shipping to 25 million consumers this year.
Our Vista saga began almost two years ago when Microsoft communicated to OEM's that Vista would be shipping "imminently," and that Windows XP would no longer be available as an OS option once Vista was released. So while the rest of the Internet and game development community went about their business safe in the knowledge that Vista was far away and many years from achieving sufficient consumer market share to merit special attention, my business was plunged into the heart of Vista migration in order to be ready to ship our game service and hundreds of games with all new Vista PC's.
We have found many of the security changes planned for Vista alarming and likely to present sweeping challenges for PC gaming, especially for online distributed games. The central change that impacts all downloadable applications in Vista is the introduction of Limited User Accounts. LUA's can already be found in Windows XP, but nobody uses them because of the onerous restrictions they place on usability. In Vista, LUA's are mandatory
and inescapable. Although Microsoft made some effort to soften the obstructions LUA's place in the path of installing software in Vista, they still present a tremendous obstacle to downloadable game distribution and game compatibility with Vista in general.
The principal user experience problem with LUA's is that when a consumer wants to download and install a game demo off the Internet, they must first click past the IE warning dialogs, and then respond to the security elevation dialog Vista pops up requiring an admin account name and password to enable the software installation.
For boxed games, this may not be super intrusive because consumers purchase relatively few boxed titles annually, and have already paid for the game at the point that they experience the elevation dialog. For downloadable games that come with a free trial, this presents a major obstacle to sales and distribution because it means that consumers surfing to find a game they like will be faced with an elevation dialog per game demo they want to download and try. The same will be true for core gamers surfing free downloadable demos. The frustration value of this experience is akin to what it would be like if you had to enter a username and password per song you wanted to try in Apple iTunes.
The intrusive dialogs are also oddly pointless, because Vista's frequent warning dialogs do nothing to differentiate legitimate commercial software from known hazardous products, so consumers will still mistakenly install malware. Kids will either have to ask their parents to respond to elevation dialogs per download they want to try, or have their own elevation account and password and continue to download whatever they want.
Vista's obstructive security architecture extends into the new Vista Game Explorer and parental control system. The Vista Game Explorer is a top level Start Menu link to a new specialized folder in Vista specifically designed for managing games. It is intended to be the analog to the My Pictures and My Music folders found in Windows XP. Instead of being a link to a standard folder that happens to contain games, Microsoft "added some value" to the Game Explorer by binding it to a new parental control system in Vista.
The problem starts with installing your game and Vista and registering it with the Game Explorer. Unlike the parental control system, the Game Explorer is extremely prominent to consumers who are likely to expect to find the games they install in Vista listed there after installation. Microsoft has supplied compatibility listings for legacy games which will automatically recognize and register them with the Game Explorer when they are installed.
One of the pieces of information a game has to supply to register with Game Explorer is a ESRB rating. Games that do not supply a rating will be subject to the "Not Rated" parental control setting. Since games are "trusted" to supply accurate ratings information, one might expect that they are also trusted to handle parental messaging themselves. Not so, any game that registers with Game Explorer becomes "subject" to Vista parental controls which will proceed to block the game from running and offer to delete the link to the game if you try to run it from anywhere on the system other than within the Game Explorer.
The heavy handed implementation of parental controls presents several problems for PC game developers. First, most free family and casual games are "unrated" because the ESRB rating service, designed for multimillion dollar boxed titles, is too expensive for most small casual game developers. Any parent concerned enough about the games their kids are downloading online to use Vista's parental control system are likely to block "unrated" content and break most family appropriate content that can be found online. Note that Vista's parental control system does not apply to web games and is not accessible from the browser so parents who expect them to protect their kids from "all" online game content may be in for a shock.
Interestingly, the obscure warning dialog that Vista presents offering to delete your game icon when you try to launch it is not the same warning Microsoft makes for the games they supply to the Game Explorer. So although we filed this problem as a bug during the Vista Beta, the only games Microsoft "fixed" it for were their own.
One can only speculate as to what Microsoft was thinking when they made the Game Explorer, because the only useful context where parental controls work is when a consumer installs a game from a CD where presumably, in the case of young children, the parents checked the ESRB rating before buying it. The need for a highly specialized search folder for games is strange, since most consumers only own a few games. The greatest need for managing a long list of games and parental controls is for online content search and discovery, which the Game Explorer doesn't support.
Since the Game Explorer is also inexplicably hard coded into Vista and "secured" from any modification, nobody can presumably fix its problems or otherwise augment it other than Microsoft. Considering the effort Microsoft must have invested in making the Game Explorer this onerous and immutable, it seems plausible that it was intended as a place holder for a subsequent game service offering from Microsoft.
In the interest of full disclosure I should make it clear that in a previous life time I was responsible for all of Microsoft's OS strategy for games and media, from writing the original DirectX development plan, to managing Microsoft's relationships with the industries leading game developers. 10 years after launching DirectX 1.0, I still have strong opinions and feelings about how to make Windows a great game platform, and probably feel a stronger sense of pique than most when I see Microsoft making careless or callous mistakes that impact game developers.
It's perhaps ironic that I run my own online game publishing company now and have become a dependent customer of the platform and technologies I once worked to create. Some of you might call it "justice" -- if it is, I wish it for my successors working on Vista."