Microsoft points to its just-released Games for Windows Live interface update
as the first step in an initiative to bolster its PC gaming support -- but companies like Valve and Stardock are going down similar paths with their Steam and Impulse services.
Steam started out as digital distribution and has been progressively adding in more community and multiplayer features, and Impulse is following a similar trajectory.
Meanwhile, Games for Windows Live is just the opposite -- it's starting out by integrating into Xbox Live's successful community and friends features, and taking steps into digital distribution with downloadable content, with full game downloads planned further down the road.
And because this is the PC, everybody's doing all of this at the same time, with more targeted multiplayer services like Xfire and GameSpy thrown in the mix for good measure.
"As Microsoft, we're glad you're playing a PC game on Windows," said Games for Windows general manager Chris Early in an interview at Gamasutra's offices.
"Whether it's GameSpy or Games for Windows Live or Steam, it's a far cry from 'PC gaming is dead,'" he added with a laugh.
The company knows that, unlike on the Xbox 360 where Microsoft is the only game in town, no Windows developer is obligated to use Microsoft's own community services for its games, leading to inadvertent crossovers.
For example, a number of games, such as Bethesda Game Studios' recent Fallout 3
, can be purchased and launched through Steam, after which players can log into Live and communicate with the Xbox Live and GFW Live friends.
"We actually worked with those guys at [Stardock] as well to enable Live-enabled games to work through Impulse," Early pointed out.
He downplayed the potential confusion that might arise among gamers faced with numerous competing services on the market. "Look at how many instant messenger programs you keep and use on a regular basis," he said.
"At some level, it's the nature of the PC that there is competition, and people are going to have a multitude of systems available out there. It's up to the players to decide what they want, and to the publishers to say, 'What helps us? How are we going to take advantage of this?'"
Microsoft's answer to that last question seems heavily informed by Xbox Live -- a massive success among gamers by any measure -- which explains why Games for Windows Live integrated with Xbox Live on a community level before any digital distribution was addressed.
And now that digital distribution options are being added into Games for Windows Live, when the service's standalone client goes live in the next few weeks, it will be in the form of additional downloadable content rather than full games. Bethesda announced its Fallout 3
DLC will be exclusive to Xbox 360 and PC, and on the PC side it will be distributed through GFW Live.
The developer offered paid downloadable content on PC for its last major title, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
, but Early strongly implied that it saw much higher conversion rates on the Xbox 360 version, where DLC is tied into the system's interface rather than on a separate website.
"They see the [DLC] conversion rates on the PC versus the conversion rates on the Xbox 360 with Live, relatively speaking," Early explained. "They look at that and say, 'Wow, the one-button buy-in is essential for this to make money, and now that it's supported on both PC and Xbox, it makes sense to do it.'"
Microsoft faces significant challenges to its GFW initiatives -- the PC audience tends to be understandably skeptical of overseeing entities that attempt to centralize the platform, especially when they have fees attached. Microsoft later backed down from its initial GFW Live subscription structure, making it free to both developers and players.
But Steam, which has had a client available for years, is fairly well-entrenched; and Microsoft has yet to offer a broad and compelling slate of partner titles that prove the usefulness of its multiplayer features in the way it has on Xbox 360.
Relic's upcoming Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
might be a key title in that respect. Rockstar North's PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV
is GFW Live-outfitted as well, but the game has been out for months on consoles, and is generally perceived as a single-player game at heart.
However, real-time strategy games like Dawn of War
have been among the few genres on PC that have embraced Xbox Live-style matchmaking -- perhaps one reason Relic went with GFW Live. And the game is a PC exclusive -- a trait that will be invaluable if Microsoft hopes to demonstrate its system's value.
Early promises more big names are on the way -- but Microsoft has promised that before, and there hasn't exactly been a flood of signups. Still, it only takes a few successes for gamers to see worth.
"I think we've made it easier to play inside the game for the consumer, easier for the publisher to create engaging and ongoing experiences, and then easier for the consumer at the desktop level and in the marketplace level," said Early.
"And all that's been based off the Live service, which is where you get your one identity across both services, and one set of friends and one reputation. And I think what we're working on has resonated not only with players, but particularly with publishers. We've seen a number of publishers commit their triple-A titles to Games for Windows Live this fall."