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GDC: Microsoft's Luehmann And Johnston On Future Of Games For Windows Live

GDC: Microsoft's Luehmann And Johnston On Future Of Games For Windows Live Exclusive

March 24, 2009 | By Chris Remo

March 24, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: GDC, Exclusive

Microsoft today revealed a slate of upcoming features for its Games for Windows Live platform, and Gamasutra spoke to Games for Windows execs Dave Luehmann and Drew Johnston following the announcement.

Among the features set to be added to the service are a zero-day piracy solution, a cloud feature and game save system that allows users to access their personal game data from any PC, and developer APIs that will allow in-game content marketplaces rather than needing to purchase game content through a separate Games for Windows Live marketplace.

Today, Valve also announced support for in-game DLC purchasing and increased piracy prevention measures, as well as a matchmaking lobby, which GFW Live already allows.

Responding to Gamasutra's inquiries about the seemingly convergent nature of the services, Johnston acknowledged that the companies are indeed pursuing similar paths, but also pointed to Microsoft's own earlier initiatives with Xbox Live as having shown the way.

"Valve has a very good service. They do a lot of great things for Windows gaming," he said. "We certainly enjoy what they've done for the platform, and we do have some similar features. We had DLC as early as last fall for the Windows side, and they're now adding it. And iPhone is now adding DLC, so I think really what we're seeing is that the industry is catching up with something that the Live services have had for a couple of years, and it's proven to be a very valuable thing for the ecosystem."

Johnston framed Microsoft's underlying mentality as trying to expand the overall Live service as much as possible, rather than trying to compete on a feature-level basis with companies like Valve or Stardock, even if that ends up happening as a result. "We're focusing on the Live service and the Live community. We're not trying to be head-to-head competitive with Impulse or Steam. Clearly we are in some areas, with things like DLC and matchmaking, but you'll see us spending more of our time and efforts building on that Live community across multiple platforms. That's our differentiator, Live, not a specific one-line feature."

Added Luehmann, "And I think that's good healthy competition, too. Windows is an open platform. I don't see a downside there. If we can field a service that's competitive, and our customers can vote with their dollars, I'm very comfortable in that environment."

Still, in recent months, some have pointed to what has appeared to be a declining investment in actual PC game development, particularly with the closure of multiple studios that developed either multiplatform or exclusive PC games.

"Microsoft has been building Windows games in a very old-school manner, not as an online service in the cloud you can connect to a retail service business," Luehmann explained. "We have products in development that will better align with that, with how the retail business is changing, with how online distribution will work, and making sure everything we do is very integrated into the Live service."

But what of game development investment, not just the attitude towards game development? "We've got several titles in development right now, both internally developed and with external partners," Luehmann revealed. "We're here at GDC negotiating another deals, and we're here at GDC looking for other content partners. I'd say our position in Windows over the last six months has gone from a steady state, to a dip from a point of view of the press, but realistically we're putting more money into Windows games than we have in quite a while."

The executive added that there is still plenty of room to expand the PC gaming market, given the number of capable machines in consumers' homes. "Microsoft sells 300 million copies of Windows every years," he noted. "The top three uses are using the internet, sending email, and playing games. What we need to do is grab that audience and start to present them with more than just their inbox and a couple of built-in games -- give them an experience that allows them to engage with the overall social community."

Games for Windows Live itself has also taken criticism from gamers for its interface elements, some of which were resolved in last year's major update, as well as lingering issues that spring from the original Xbox era, such as a 100-friend limit that does not exist in competing community services -- but Johnston says the company is constantly listening to feedback from publishers and developers as well as customers.

"While the APIs will be the same, or as close to the same, as possible for developers [between Xbox Live and GFW Live], since they use a common engine, the actual presentation to the user may change dramatically," he said. As far as the GFW standalone client, he continued, "we were primarily focused on making sure we had a marketplace and the ability to get DLC, but it's a fair criticism that there needs to be more there as far as the community's concerned, and that's something we're working on, although we can't announce anything right now."

One reason for the slow rampup in features has simply been because Microsoft's higher priority has been working to get more games onto the system. "That's what people want, probably even more than community features," he said, pointing to games like Fallout 3, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, and Grand Theft Auto IV as particularly driving the system's userbase, with about a dozen more titles coming this year. "A lot of the major publishers are now getting on board, whereas in the past they were more reluctant," he said. "With some of the additions of zero-day anti-piracy, roaming saved games, and the ability to sell DLC within the game, it'll help continue with that acceleration."

Asked specifically about the 100-friend limit, the pair indicated that the GFW Live team is working on it. "That's something we're looking at resolving," Johnston answered. "There are several -- well, I don't want to highlight several limitations of our system, but we're aware there are several limitations in our system which we are also working to correct," he laughed. "We definitely have a backlog of features that we update quite frequently. Unfortunately, even Microsoft doesn't have unlimited resources, so we have to stack them."

Johnston also commented on the increasingly notable garage development success stories, and how they might eventually tie into Games for Windows, indicating that XNA Community Games, which currently only exists as a full marketplace on Xbox 360 even though the games themselves can be compiled for PC, is likely to come to Windows as well. "We have discussions about how to extend that to Windows, similar to Xbox 360," he said.

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