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Gaming In The Age Of Vista: An Interview With Microsoft's Rich Wickham

Following the release of the multiplatform Shadowrun, Gamasutra talks in-depth with Microsoft's Rich Wickham, Director of Games for Windows, quizzing him on what Vista, DirectX 10, and Games For Windows - Live bring to the table for PC developers and gamers alike, as Microsoft tries to change up PC gaming once and for all - is it working?

In February 2006, Peter Moore gave a speech at the DICE Summit where he demonstrated Windows Vista, apologized for Microsoft letting the PC slip into oblivion, and discussed how the company wanted to change PC gaming. Moore proclaimed the company's revamped plans, which include DirectX 10, Windows Vista, and Games For Windows - Live a bona fide platform - but is it?

Rich Wickham, Director of Games for Windows was there that day - in fact, he worked the demo. Recently, Gamasutra sat down with Wickham to discuss the progress that’s been made towards this future.

It’s been Wickham’s job bring the vision to life – when Gamasutra spoke with him, he was in between budget meetings, and joked that he was fighting for the Games for Windows marketing budget. Originally a lawyer in the Air Force and private practice, Wickham is also a lifelong gamer (Half-Life 2 is still his favorite game ever) - at one point during the lively interview, he used the phrase “my honest as-a-gamer-not-Microsoft-mouthpiece opinion.”

Windows Vista has certainly had much discussion as a gaming platform. “And you might criticize some of the choices we’ve made, but my point is: at least we’re making choices, man,” Wickham says. “At least we’re out there doing stuff. And that’s a good thing for PC gamers.” “The thing I don’t like is people making judgments without trying it out,” he confides. There will be some hiccups, and some things the company hasn’t done right yet, he admits.

 

Rich Wickham, Microsoft’s Director of the Games For Windows group, speaking at the recent Online Game Development Conference in Seattle, Washington.

And Microsoft could have gone down a very different path, and not built the Live service, not invested in the brand, not invested in first and third-party titles, and “let the world continue down the path it was going before that speech in 2006,” says Wickham. “I think we were at a point where you could go either way, and we’ve gone the right way.”

So is Vista really truly a platform? “Yes. I believe that that is true,” Wickham told Gamasutra. “I’ll tell you the things that I believe are important for any games platform.”

Building a Platform

In order to make a truly great games platform, Wickham says, you have to do five things really well - these factors in his own words, of course:

1. You have to have a great operating system. (“I think we’ve delivered that with Vista.”)

2. You have to have great games. (“From your first party provider, as well as third-parties.”)

3. You do have to have a great online service. (“We’re going to be launching our online service on Windows: Games for Windows – Live.”)

4. You have to have terrific accessories and hardware that allow you to have a full game experience. (“We’ve delivered that with the Xbox 360 controller, which now works wirelessly with Windows.” Also, DirectX 10 graphics cards and dual and quad-core CPUs.)

5. You have to support the platform you’ve built. (“You have to market it, educate consumers about it.”)

Wickham believes that the right games are on the way, both from Microsoft Game Studios – particularly showing off Live – and from third-parties with such titles as Crysis, Hellgate: London, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Company of Heroes, some of the higher-profile PC titles due out this year.

That Games for Windows – Live service, still somewhat controversial thanks to its pay-for-features Gold option on the PC, is something important for Microsoft, which has plans to continually grow it. “As the service evolves, and we get content – you’re going to see that’s a really robust, really strong offering online,” says Wickham.


One place to start is in how you control your games. “We had a lot of good controller solutions,” says Wickham, “But we didn’t have one good controller solution.” The 360 controller now works wirelessly with Windows, as well as other accessories from the Xbox: the racing wheel, the headset, which will certainly helps some, and moves the platform a little closer towards having a common way to play games.

But the most important part, what Wickham stresses as the fifth pillar, “Once you’ve built this platform, you have to support it. Right?” he asks. The platform holder must educate consumers and work with partners to make sure they understand what you’re doing.

Vis-à-vis Games For Windows, there’s been a major push at retailers. “We’re in more than 10,000 US retail locations with Games for Windows branding,” Wickham reports. A thousand of those have interactive kiosks. That’s in addition to the general marketing campaign about the “Games for Windows” brand. The brand has also launched at retailers in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Wickham thinks if you don’t do all five of those things – if you don’t have great games, if you don’t have an online service, if you don’t have hardware and accessories, if you don’t have marketing and retail support – that you’re not really bringing a platform approach.

Flagship Studios' upcoming multiplayer action game Hellgate: London

Vista as Successor

Microsoft laid out the promise of a platform, and has been working towards it. “That’s what we talked about that day, back in February of ’06,” says Wickham, who sees the Bill Gates’ Live Anywhere speech at E3 as an iteration on the idea. Microsoft, he adds, is going to keep iterating and doing more work, which is necessary. And indeed, Vista is still in its proving stage for many, with driver issues still being worked through, and UI and system spec questions still making their way through the media.

In addition, the time between Microsoft’s XP operating system and the launch of Vista resulted in some pent-up demand. MS also worked with partners to generate excitement during the holiday season, before the OS launched in January. It’s a long product cycle, and will only be judged one way or the other in perhaps five years, notes Wickham.

But does the man on the street differentiate well between, say, DirectX 9 and DirectX 10 titles? Wickham thinks so: “I think gamers are excited about DirectX 10. Those games are coming really soon.”

When Peter Moore wanted to sell Xbox 360s, he went out and sold them. When Reggie Fils-Aime wanted to sell Wiis, he went out and sold them. But with the PC-as-a-platform, isn’t it simply inevitable that consumers will get new computers with Vista, and then play games on it?

“If we really thought it was inevitable,” responds Wickham. “We probably wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”

But also, there’s an ecosystem formed by Microsoft’s partners. Intel, AMD, ATI, nVIDIA, Electronic Arts, Logitech… “Anyone and everyone that is involved in this big Windows business,” Wickham says of companies that have been investing in Vista for as long as Microsoft has. “It’s important that we do the right thing by the product and by the partners. I wouldn’t just throw my hands up and say that anything is inevitable.”

Viewing Vista as inevitable is a “poor business approach,” claims Wickham. “We haven’t taken it for granted, or taken it as inevitable by any stretch.” In fact, he believes that it’s taken effort and leadership to make sure that PC titles are treated the same at retail, and in the mind’s of customers.


Launching the Library

There are twenty-five or so currently branded Games for Windows titles - which aren't necessarily only for Vista or DirectX 10. That number will reach an estimated fifty to seventy-five by the end of the year. Because it’s a new program, as titles are shipped, they’re either branded or not depending on how developers choose to participate. “You’re going to see more and more branded,” says Wickham.

That branding bar across the box top comes with meeting a technical standard, something that’s not been formally done for PC games before. As far as DirectX 10 titles go, those come later. But the first two games to showcase Live arrived in late May – Shadowrun, which launched on May 29th, and Halo 2 Vista, which launched on May 31st.

“As we go into the summer, you’re going to see more,” Wickham says, adding that autumn will see a library of DirectX 10 titles including Crysis, Hellgate: London, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, Flight Simulator X and the revamped Company of Heroes.

 

German independent developer Crytek's visually stunning Crysis


When Vista shipped in January, it may well have been the first games platform to do so without any upgrade-exclusive launch titles, something that, in video games, has been around since Mario first appeared with the NES.

“I think it’s a rolling thunder sort of approach,” explains Wickham. “The day and date that you ship Windows Vista, you don’t necessarily have to have…it isn’t like a console.” Windows Vista is a multi-purpose piece of software. “You can use it for all the things you use your PC for. Games is one of those core scenarios.”

It’s easy to instantly criticize every incremental advance as not enough, but there is work going on in Redmond. Wickham further notes that Microsoft has a history of making platforms similar – the X in Xbox is from DirectX – and significant effort has been made to make sure the development environment is as common as possible. Most developers are developing on Windows, so making their game work on a 360 is not a big stretch, and vice versa.

It might be popular, but will companies such as, say, Valve build DirectX 10 games? “I’m certain that they will. They’ve always been on the cutting edge of technology.” However, not all developers have expressed enthusiasm for DX10. John Carmack, the architect behind the original 3D engines for Doom and Quake, has expressed some skepticism. And now Wickham meets the question head on.

“What I believe Mr. Carmack said was that he did not currently see a compelling reason to develop on DX10,” Wickham says, adding: "We obviously work with id, and a lot of id’s progeny.”

“Stay tuned.” Wickham thinks we’ll see great DirectX 10 titles from all of the developers that one would expect to see on the cutting edge. “I will be shocked and amazed if id doesn’t build a DirectX 10 title some day,” he says, adding, “And I will suspect that it will be sooner rather than later.”

Wickham compares DX10 to DX9, citing programmability, things like geometry, shaders, and some of the other improvements they’ve made to HLSL. Once developers “get their heads around the technology… they’re going to want to only work on that platform.”

And the real challenge for developers, says Wickham, is “do I build a DirectX 10 only game?” Developers will examine install bases and other factors. Wickham concludes, “Go back and ask Carmack what he thinks about DirectX 10 in a year, or eighteen months, or twenty-four months. Let’s see.”


Defining Online

The question then, is how will Games for Windows – Live work in the future? “What you need to do is keep an eye on this space,” says Wickham. He stresses that they’ve gone “from zero to launch in 14 months for what we call Games for Windows – Live.”

It’s not going to be the same as Xbox Live from day one, Wickham warns. “We’ve spent years and years and years making Xbox Live what it is. But we’re playing catch-up, and we’re putting a lot of resources against that.”

“You’re going to see us continue to make that service better and get closer and closer to what we have on 360,” and ultimately, he hopes, offer the same service. And when the question of subscription fees comes up: “Let’s be crystal clear about what the subscription fees for Live on Xbox and Live on Windows really are. Because I think there’s a lot of confusion out there, and I want to make sure we’re clear on what’s in and what’s out.”

The differences between Gold and Silver on the 360 when it comes to Live? Those are not the same differences on Windows. On Games for Windows – Live, there is multiplayer, there is voice, there is text chat. All of those are in the Silver tier, which is a non-subscription, completely free tier. If you buy Halo 2 when it comes out, or if you buy Shadowrun, you will be able to have a multiplayer experience with voice and text chat integrated into the game for free. However, you do not get matchmaking of any kind, achievements, or cross-platform gameplay - you need to pay for those with Gold.

 

Microsoft's Games for Windows - Live showpiece, Shadowrun

Consumers expect a certain level of sophistication, of course, because you've been able to do that on PC games for many years now. But Wickham believes that consumers will be “really surprised by the quality and integration that we bring for free.” Many PC games have multiple pieces of online middleware powering them, with, say, a GameSpy client, with Ventrilo voice client, and an Xfire matchmaking and chat client.

“[Games are] not going to have to do those things when it comes to Games for Windows – Live,” Wickham states - because those features will be integrated into the infrastructure. “I think it’s a lot more seamless,” says Wickham. He personally uses Xfire, and finds it hard to frag and chat at the same time. “An integrated experience is going to be better.”

If you’re already an Xbox Live Gold subscriber, you’ll automatically be a Games for Windows – Live Gold Subscriber. “That fifty bucks that you paid on Xbox Live covers [your PC, too.]” says Wickham.

Microsoft has announced over six million Xbox Live subscribers, and Wickham reports that “our internal research shows that somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy percent of our Xbox gamers also play some form of games on the PC.” The first ten million 360 buyers tend to be core gamers, so it’s not surprising there’s an overlap. So there's a start to an installed base there, at least. As Wickham says, “Let’s just put it out there. We just gave Xbox 360 gamers something by launching Games for Windows – Live and allowing them to use that Gold subscription that they have, for free, on Windows.”

And this is fair enough for existing subscribers. But how about those PC-only gamers? How can it be justified to them right now, with very few games available for Games For Windows - Live. Wickham admits that only a small userbase will be interested in Gold, at first. “I think the service will bear itself out over time. I think the value will be there.”

When Epic’s Mark Rein had commented on the subscription of around $50 per year, news spread across the internet. Wickham addresses this issue, as well. “If you go back and look at what Mark has said on the 1UP podcast, and when he has spoken in the press, you’ll see that his real comments are not about Games For Windows – Live, and particularly the Gold subscription service, are not nearly as close to complaints as you might think they were based on what you read in the headlines on Joystiq and Kotaku or anyplace.”

Wickham continues: “In this case, he’s been misquoted as saying ‘subscriptions are crazy,’ or something like that. Again, there’s a lot for free, even more for pay, and basically, I think the key message here is we’re giving you the choice. When you buy Halo 2, you can go play multiplayer. For free.”

However, it's still a difficult sell for Microsoft to persuade developers to integrate Games for Windows - Live into their games, given that they then have to gate a number of the multiplayer features, particularly matchmaking, that they would otherwise be able to include for free. There are also unaddressed ramifications for clan servers, so it will be interesting to see how third-party support for Games For Windows - Live grows.


Cross-platform Developer

There are some significant issues and challenges to developing a game for release on multiple platforms. Part of what Microsoft Game Studios is trying to do with Shadowrun is address those issues, and prove the strength of both the Xbox 360 and Vista.

Wickham says the company will share what it’s learned in development with the community, through white papers and talks at various conferences. Some of the issues the Shadowrun team worked on were the difference between ten-foot-gaming and two-foot-gaming. They also balanced the controls. “I’m looking forward to all the smack that’s going to be talked, between the PC gamers and the Xbox gamers, about which version is better,” Wickham says.

He says that the Dreamcast, which allowed Console-vs-PC matches of Quake, was probably a little before it’s time. Now, we’re living in a time when “you’ve got great broadband penetration, you’ve got a great service with Live.” In Wickham’s opinion, consoles are now graphically close enough to the PC that it’s more relevant for cross-platform games.

When you think about the ability to connect two platforms, Wickham believes the concept itself is going to capture people’s imaginations. “It already has. When we’ve talked about it, people get excited.” Once you create the ability to have cross-platform experiences, you also open up the world of developer creativity to go out and do things we haven’t even thought about, Wickham says. He uses some examples “and they’re very basic. But they prove a point.”

A game that’s an RTS on the PC could be an FPS on the 360, where “I’m the RTS commander, and I’m moving units around and you’re the foot soldier going out and fighting the battles. And how you do effects how I do, and vice versa.”

“Certainly we’ve open up that possibility in that world.” Does this mean Microsoft is working on such a title? Wickham laughs, saying he won’t confirm it. Adding seriously, “I do know that there are developers thinking about the interesting concepts cross-platform play opens.”

Again, we’re at a place in time where, with the power of the PC, and the power of next-gen consoles, and broadband connectivity, that we can actually start to realize those things in a good way. “Now it’s just up to the developers,” Wickham says.

Conclusion

If it returns to questions about the portfolio, Wickham says what they wanted was make sure that, in the year that Vista shipped, there were high quality DirectX 10 games available. He mentions Crytek, Funcom, and Flagship Studios. “We went out and spent time and money and development resources with those guys so that, in 2007, there would be this really strong line-up of DirectX 10 titles.”

But Microsoft certainly has a greater challenge than it's faced in recent years - communicating the advantages of Vista and DirectX 10 for gaming while simultaneously catering to the mass of gamers who are still running pre-Vista systems with less access to those. Then, of course, there's the subscription proposition of Games For Windows - Live, something that's been under some fire even in the semi-official Games For Windows Magazine from Ziff Davis in recent months.

So how does a gamer, or even Microsoft itself, really measure success? Here’s Wickham's test: on the day after Christmas 2007, when you look up on that shelf, and look at the titles, as a gamer are you happier or sadder? His claim? “I think you will be happier than you’ve ever been.”

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