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Microsoft's Unangst: 'PC Will Always Be At The Center Of Innovation'

Microsoft's Unangst: 'PC Will Always Be At The Center Of Innovation' Exclusive

May 7, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff

May 7, 2008 | By Brandon Sheffield, Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

For several years, Microsoft has been building its Games For Windows initiative in an attempt to breathe new life into the PC gaming market - which, depending on who you ask, is either dead and buried, thriving like never before, or anywhere in between.

In 2006, then-Microsoft VP Peter Moore declared that the company had "neglected the PC business" in the wake of its Xbox focus.

Since then, the firm has launched a new series of voluntary, no-royalty standards to help give more consistency as well as various shared online features to the oldest current major gaming platform. Microsoft is backing the effort with marketing investment at retail and elsewhere.

Games For Windows senior director Kevin Unangst unsurprisingly falls on the bullish end of the PC gaming judgment spectrum. He spoke with Gamasutra about the reception to the program, the recently announced PC Gaming Alliance, Games For Windows Live's main competition in Valve's Steam Community, and why PCs aren't (or shouldn't) end up too much like consoles.

Developer Reaction

How have the Games For Windows guidelines been received by developers? Have you taken any input from them, in terms of things to modify or anything like that?

KU: Absolutely. First question, how has it been received? I think initially, there was some questions from publishers like, "Why is Microsoft telling me what requirements I have to put in my game?"

I think our principle has been that on console, consumers had a consistent set of expectations. They know when that disc goes in, it's going to do a certain set of things. Mostly, they don't have to worry about it.

There was nothing like that on the PC, so we said, "Let's pick out the things that we believe affect the baseline user experience, like areas of installation, in supporting the hardware you have, being able to put the game on and take the game we've definitely done that. Now, every publisher we've talked to says, "You know, hey, the requirements? I get it."

And we do take proactive feedback, to answer your second question. I think a couple of examples...we've not only clarified technical requirements, but we've actually removed some technical requirements.

One example would be initially in the Games for Windows certification, our brand program, we had a requirement for that the game had to support Windows Media Center. We believed that there would be a significant install base that would want to launch those games and work with in Media Center.

Feedback from developers was their customers simply weren't asking for that, and it was additional work. So in the latest revision of the media requirements, we pulled that out. So it is a two-way street, and we do take feedback on what I addressed. It's really, for us, centered on the customer experience, and we've gotten great feedback from the industry about that.

Are you seeing more and more, or fewer developers signing up with the platform? How do you see that going long-term?

KU: And by the platform, do you mean...?

I mean Games for Windows, specifically.

KU: Overall, I think the platform itself is incredibly healthy, and there's more developers on Windows than on any other platform, especially when you look across casual, subscription, MMO, Korea, China...there's an explosion there. There's a huge opportunity, and by far, it is the biggest platform on the planet for gaming.

For Games for Windows, we see nothing but growth over the last year. I said there are over 60 titles, we went from zero to twenty-plus publishers who are in the program, and we see more and more titles.

We've got a fantastic lineup for 2008, as you look at some of the games that are going to be coming out. Whether it's things like LEGO Indiana Jones, or Lost Planet: Colonies which is just shipping, Alone in the Dark is coming from Atari, there's a new Tomb Raider coming from Eidos.

There's a bunch of titles, and there are many, many more that aren't announced yet that we're super excited about. I think 2008 is going to be as good, if not better, than 2007 was for PC gamers.

Standards For A Standard-Free Platform

It's interesting. Obviously, the PC platform in general is known as a no man's land, or maybe an every man for himself sort of thing, in terms of releasing games that don't have to adhere to a set of standards. It's interesting to have that consistency, because it is a part of what keeps console games having a certain set of things they do, as you say.

KU: Well yeah. The user doesn't have to think about it. As a gamer, you should just be able to plug this thing in and know that it's going to work with the monitor I have, or if I've got a feature like parental controls that I actually use, I shouldn't have to worry about which games work with it and which games don't. Why should a game not install the same way, and why should I answer thirteen questions when with a console, I stick a disc in?

So for us, it's about how we do that in a way that the publishers see the value. it's really about us helping them and making that consistent guideline. It's a royalty-free program, so they don't pay us for it. We publish the requirements and the documentation on the Microsoft Developer Network, so it's public. Anybody can look at it. And we always take feedback on it.

It's difficult, that barrier you're talking about of just putting the disc in and having it work. It's half on the software side, but...well, maybe more than half is on the hardware side. It's really difficult to, I think, educate consumers about what kind of setup they need, and, "Can my PC play games already or not?" Has that been at all a part of the initiative, really?

KU: There's been a couple of things relative to that. One I think is a Microsoft effort, and the other would be an industry effort.

On the Microsoft side, a big part of what we did with Windows Vista was we tried to introduce this concept called the Windows Experience Index, which I'm sure you're familiar with, which gives your PC's capabilities numeric ratings in an attempt to mix and match and say, "This game runs on this system. I need a 5 graphics to do this, or I need a 3 graphics." That was an attempt to simplify that.

I think while every Games for Windows-branded title supports that, it's been a bit harder to get the traction industry-wide to get them to communicate that on their games and on their hardware.

On the flip side of that, it's still a work in progress for us and it's still an effort we want to do to simplify that. I think the other, industry-wide effort that we're also working as part of is part of the PC Gaming Alliance, which was announced back at GDC. Microsoft is the co-founder, along with nVidia and Intel and others.

One of the topics that we're trying to address as the PC Gaming Alliance is giving developers guidance. Rather than making the user make that decision, it's giving developers guidance ahead of time that says, "This is going to be the sweet spot to give an acceptable level of performance for a game when the game is developed, to the broadest number of consumers."

One of the questions we get quite a bit from developers is, "Hey, I'm making a PC game and I'm going to have that game ship for Holiday 2010. What do you guys think will be the mainstream system? If I design a good experience on this kind of capability, what should I target?" And that's really something that both Microsoft...Microsoft, as part of the PC Gaming Alliance, is really working on.

How do we take that collective intelligence of Epic and nVidia and Intel and Microsoft and AMD and Activision and say, "Let's communicate those guidelines to the industry"? Just to say, "Here's what you as a game developer should be looking at," and then logically, it follows on that consumers will get a better experience because of that.

One thing we have to be very cognizant of and one thing we actually don't want to do is that there are advantages to the PC that you don't get on a console. With a PC, you can put in a better video card and get better performance. You can put in a bigger hard drive or a faster processor. So we know that there's a segment of the consumer base that really loves being able to upgrade that system and the fact that it can constantly get better and better.

We give that guidance in a way that says, "It's a recommendation," but we don't foresee the PC moving to a console-like model where there's a fixed set of pieces of hardware that you're going to guarantee and you're going to be limited by, because it's not something consumers are asking us for.

We think we can make it simpler and easier and give developers that good guidance so that they can don't have to go all over the spectrum. But there's always going to be people who want to make the game that pushes the bleeding edge, and that's great. That's one of the reasons that people love PC gaming.

Digital Distribution

How will you, or do you feel you need to, compete with The Steam Community? It seems like that is becoming a real hub for the hardcore PC gamers.

KU: I think Valve has done a great job with Steam. They've been at this now for five years, and they've been ahead of the trend, in terms of enabling digital distribution and making it simple for people to get games without having to buy a box. That's back to the trend I talked about earlier. They're part of that. In addition to the work we've done on Games for Windows Live, I think those are spaces you're going to see us in.

It's always great to have competition, and again, what's great on the PC, unlike the consoles, is that there's always going to be choice. Consumers and developers are going to have choices, and that's what drives innovation. That's what drives people to move quickly. I'm excited about the work we've done over the last year on Games for Windows Live to put us in a position to continue to have that kind of value.

Yeah. Are you going to be getting around to releasing more things digitally with the Games for Windows brand?

KU: There's a bunch of Games for Windows-branded titles that are already on Steam, for example, so clearly...the brand doesn't have any relationship today to how the game is distributed. I think you're going to see us in the future - although we don't have any plans that I'm ready to announce at this point - on digital distribution, and enabling things like adding content onto existing games, et cetera.

All of that is part of that vision for where we want to take Games for Windows Live. We just have to do that plumbing work this year to get that in. I think you're definitely going to see that as part of our roadmap.

Vista Adoption

Okay. How much Vista adoption are you seeing? I'm mostly curious if releasing Vista-only Games for Windows games has been pushing that forward or not.

KU: You know, in terms of Vista, we haven't released the latest numbers, but there's tens of millions of gamers running Vista today. I think we're very happy with where that adoption is. If you look at releasing Vista-only games, I think there's only been a couple of those -- Halo 2 and Shadowrun -- from Microsoft initially.

I think they were released very early in the Vista lifecycle. We didn't have the benefit of Windows Vista going through that first holiday of sales, so I don't think we saw the early adoption -- by that, I mean the first three to six months -- as quickly as we would have liked.

But now that we have gone through a full holiday and we're a year-plus into it - like I said earlier, the first service pack is out - I think we're seeing Vista on nothing but an upward trajectory. We're super happy with that adoption. Really, what we're seeing is developers who are making games for XP and Vista, and adding functionality on Vista when they detect users running it, whether that's DirectX 10, or the Games Explorer.

If you look at all those big hits...if you look at BioShock, if you were on Vista and were on DirectX 10, you'd have better graphics. Same thing with Crysis and Lord of the Rings Online. I think that's more of a trend you're going to see. At some point, it will switch when that install base is so high, and people may decide to make games only for Vista, but that's the focus right now.

So you think for the meantime, there won't be a lot more Vista-only games? Do you think XP and Vista is going to be the trend going forward, or will Microsoft push a couple more Vista-only types out there?

KU: I think just like when you saw the XP adoption and the transition from '98 to XP five-plus years ago, you saw people developing...they put their toe in the water and made it compatible with XP, and they still ran on '98. I think that's going to be likely for the near-term future for sure. I can't predict when that switch may happen, but you are going to see continued investment, both from Microsoft and other developers.

And how do we take advantage of it? The new technology that existed...that was also a lot like DirectX 10, but there's a fundamental difference when you can really enhance the gameplay, whether that's games like Flight Sim... we've also announced a new Train Simulator, and we're going to use new DirectX 10 technology for that, being able to really enhance that experience.

There's other games. Assassin's Creed just shipped. It takes advantage of DirectX 10 and well. I think the tools are out there, and developers have now had enough time on the hardware. 60 million-plus DirectX 10 parts sold, so the hardware and the tools now really make those games even better. So that's really going to be the trend that you're going to see.

Strengths Of The PC

Okay. I was talking to Nolan Bushnell a little while ago. I was asking him if he ever thought that there could only be a single format for games, and he said he's pretty sure it would be the PC that would be the de facto single format on which games are released in the distant future. What do you think about that?

KU: That's interesting. I have a lot of respect for Nolan. I hadn't heard that he'd said that, so that's an interesting view of the future. I think that we're uniquely in both the console business and the PC business, and I think there are certain instances where consumers like playing in their living room for some types of games. I like playing on the biggest screen in the house.

But I think we share the view that the PC will always be at the center of the innovation that is happening for gameplay -- new game types, new business models, new distribution models.

It's lead in the Internet, it's lead in the acceleration of graphics, and I don't see any reason to believe that the PC will change, and that trend will go away any time soon. It is at the forefront, and I believe it will continue to be at the forefront.

And who knows, in that vision of the future, everything may be called a PC, right? Everything's going to get more intelligent and more Internet-connected, and the investments that Microsoft's making in both of those worlds I think will allow us to bring better experiences to consumers, no matter where they come in. They start on the consoles? We're going to make sure that when they add a PC to the mix that that experience gets better, and vice versa.

Yeah. I wonder if the lines between PC and console will blur semantically, as well as they have practically. I remember that Kutaragi was trying to call the PS3 a PC, and they got some pushback on that, but I think in the distant future, that may not be the case.

KU: Yeah. It'll be interesting to see how all that shakes out, but in the meantime, we're going to keep focused on pushing the PC as the is the largest, and it is going to be the biggest for the foreseeable future, with nothing but growth ahead.

So it'll be interesting to see how those lines blur, but I'm excited to be at the company that actually has our hands in both of those worlds. If we can make them both better as a result, that's the vision we've got.

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