Since 2006, Microsoft has been making a financially-backed effort to highlight and streamline PC gaming, under the Games for Windows banner.
The program has arms both in development and marketing; outwardly, it raises Windows gaming's profile in retail and through advertising, and behind the scenes it offers developers a free set of standards to make their games more user-friendly and support various features.
It has seen a growing library, which now exceeds 85 games, but Games for Windows has also seen its fair share of skepticism and wariness.
Gamasutra recently sat down with Microsoft's senior global Windows gaming director, Kevin Unangst, to discuss Games for Windows' progress and its future.
He discusses why Microsoft welcomes Valve and Steam (and that Microsoft may enter the PC digital distribution arena itself); how Microsoft Game Studios has learned lessons from Mass Effect
, Gears of War
, and Shadowrun
; and why it's "way too early to judge or put a report card out" on the company's PC efforts.
Appraising Games For Windows
What's going on with Games for Windows right now? We haven't heard as much from it lately.
Kevin Unangst: We have over 85 [titles] today. We also launched Games for Windows Live in the last year and a half - did a lot of the plumbing, brought that over with nine games shipping for Windows Live. For a multiplayer technology platform, in a year, we feel pretty good about that.
You're going to see us continue to invest pretty heavily in the online space. We're not going to back away from the things we've been doing in the channel. We've done a couple of already-significant advertising campaigns. We've invested millions of dollars in retail.
Really, for us, both today and overall, it's about being the platform stewards, the ones telling the truth about what's happening on the platform and guiding developers in the industry, saying, “Hey, the move to online is happening. Take advantage of it, and we're going to give you tools to do that.”
We are more successful when we make platforms that help, that are profitable, and valuable for other people to invest in and build on top of. We don't have to own every piece. That's not our business model. And I think Windows gaming overall is a fantastic example of how that model works.
We don't charge a royalty for the brand. It helps the ecosystem, and it helps Windows, by having great games that people want to play. It helps working with the hardware partners. The more we push the graphics technology forward, the more AMD and Nvidia will sell graphics chips, and allow developers, then, to make better games, with more complexity and more graphics.
Valve held an event recently at their offices, and they said something similar to what you have said, which is that a big part of the problem is perception. One other thing they said, however, is that Microsoft has not lived up to its duty as a steward of the platform, which Peter Moore admitted in 2006.
KU: That's when we announced that we were going to get back in, right?
Right. Do you think you've done enough in those two years?
KU: Well, you know, there's always more that we wish we could do. Are there bets we made that we might make differently if we could go back in time? Sure. I think that when you look at the amount of dollars we've spent, the amount of investments we've made with the retail investment - nobody else was going to step up and do that.
No one else is going to spend double-digit million dollars in the US retail market, that didn't directly provide revenue back to them. We said we're going to do that.
We were the ones that brought the Live service over. That was a big investment. We did the first Vista-only games. We did DX10 with Flight Simulator
. There's a lot of investments we made, and I'm proud of that, and I think it's just the beginning.
I think it's way too early to judge or put a report card out for us as to where we've been. And I think Microsoft cannot and will not do it all on our own. It is our role to help accelerate the investment and the innovation that's happening in that space, whether it's on the hardware, whether it's on the services.
Learning First-Party Lessons
As someone who plays all platforms including PC, it gets frustrating when Microsoft's own first-party core-oriented games come out on Xbox 360 first, far in advance. I bought Mass Effect on Xbox 360 when it was a Microsoft-published game, then on PC when it came out. I enjoyed more on PC, and completed it, but I suspect a lot of people may not even notice that version because it's old news by that point.
KU: Right. With the example you've set, there are two things. There's a meta-point, and then there's Mass Effect
particularly. I wanted that to be a Microsoft Game Studios title. It was going to be a Game Studios title until EA bought BioWare.
But even when it was Microsoft Game Studios, you guys didn't release it on PC.
KU: It was a matter of timing. The other thing, the meta-point, is that there are two sides. One, the console is in a very heated battle right now. We know content drives differentiation. Those games are coming to Windows, and so I respect the first-party team's decision, that they have invested significantly to go at PlayStation, and go at Wii, by having differentiated content.
I think you also have to look at the cycle that says, “When we launch Games for Windows, we put some wood behind it, right?” We had Flight Sim
come out, we had the Age [of Empires
series] expansions, we had Zoo [Tycoon]
, we did decide to do Gears of War
Gears of War
was just a console, console, console game. It was born a console game. And we said, “Oh, well what happens, even though we're going to be late? Let's just add a whole new piece of content you can't get on the 360.” And that [content] has still not been released on the console. You can only get that extra level on PC.
But we found out that that [content] really wasn't the huge driver for people. We've learned a lesson, which first parties should. That's why we have a first party team.
If you're going to do Vista only, make sure it exploits the platform. We learned that lesson. If you're going to do cross-platform [multiplayer], you have to learn some lessons first. That's why we did Shadowrun
That's been valuable, as we give that data to other developers. Would I like to see more first party content? Yeah. Do I know that they have a strategy, and that you're going to see that cycle come back again and focus on the PC? Absolutely.
So it just comes in cycles. You can't have huge hits every year. We don't have the stable of studios anymore.
It does, though, feel like a chicken and egg scenario sometimes - if that stuff were there on time, people would probably be more likely to get into it, and then there'd be more reason to have it there.
KU: Yeah, potentially, but again, I think that's starting from the assumption that PC gaming has something wrong with it that needs to be fixed, whereas we look at it and say, “PC gaming is doing great.” The fact that third parties are the ones leading the way right now, in terms of sales and content, is not a problem.
We'll come back, and we'll be a contender there. But it doesn't mean that the platform is not healthy, and it doesn't mean that we're not going to stand behind the partners that are doing it.
So it's all cyclical. I feel good about that. And there will be more content from MGS moving forward, you bet.
The Stewards Of PC Gaming
There are now Games for Windows, Steam and Steamworks, the PC Gaming Alliance - all these different groups that are sort of putting their two cents in to provide some kind of consistency to PC gaming as a brand. Do you think one is going to take precedence over the other at some point?
KU: We're founding members of the PC Gaming Alliance, so I think it's not so much that there's a push to centralize, because that to me sounds like you're trying to un-democratize or focus the PC in some way. And I think the power of the PC is that it's not focused, and that it's so flexible.
There are millions and millions of people who play casual games, and don't play the core, and there are people who download, and there are people who buy $4,000 rigs, and liquid-cool their systems. The variety of that is what makes the PC great.
I think there has been a need, both for Microsoft stepping up from a leadership role as well as getting the industry to focus around what are the common issues.
That's part of the reason for the PCGA. You had Intel and AMD and Nvidia all kind of pushing their own agendas, which in theory should benefit the PC. You had Microsoft who, just recently I think, over the last couple of years, with our initiative, has stepped up and become that voice.
The biggest problem, frankly, has been this perception problem. It's not reality. It is the perception that people are judging success or failure based on one limited view of the data, and they're missing the whole big picture.
That's what's been, I think, frustrating. Really, we have to look at ourselves and say, “We're the stewards of the platform. We own it. If anybody's going to be the voice, it should be us.”
Now, there are areas that other partners have done a better job, I think, in capitalizing on some of those trends than we have at this point in time. Things like Steam started five years ago as a distribution mechanism for their own first-party content, and I think they've done a great job. They weren't very lauded five years ago. But they took some beatings.
And frankly, we made our own first foray this year, and we had a mixed reception as well on our own effort. But we don't give up. If anything, Microsoft will continue to iterate. I remember Internet Explorer 1.0 and 2.0. People were like, “Eh, why bother?” With IE 3.0, people went, “Hmm, okay, maybe this is something serious.”
And again, look what happens. We kind of said, “You know what? IE6 was good enough,” and let it sit for a couple of years, and look what happened, right? It forces innovation in that market. That's why we love competition.
I love the fact that Steam is doing what they're doing. Because it's going to force people both to look and say, “Maybe I should digitally distribute my games. Someone has built a storefront that is doing well.” And that opens up the idea of commerce.
That doesn't mean we're not going to go build a store someday. We might. We certainly do it on Xbox. And will there be differences? You bet. Do I love that they're doing it on Windows, and they're doing a great job? Hallelujah.
So as far as the PCGA...
KU: The PCGA is trying to come up with some ideas to simplify the message to a consumer, saying, “For the types of games you want to play, here's the baseline.”
Frankly, for developers, it's, “What's the swath of hardware that we feel, is going to deliver the best experience for a wide range of customers?” A lot of times they come to Microsoft, and developers will say, “Hey, I'm making a game that's going to ship in holiday 2010. What should I target as the sweet spot?”
We have our own data, but again, an organization like the PCGA can have a multi-company view, where you have the OEMs, and hardware companies, and the software guys all say, “This is what we think the sweet spot is.”
I would never want to do something that said, “You shouldn't be at either end,” because the innovation happens at the edges. But right now, people are using World of Warcraft
as the barometer. They're like, “You know what? If World of Warcraft
runs well, then that's pretty much the safe spot for me to be in."
I love the fact that people like Crytek are still pushing the edge. Initially, people were like, “Hmm, how's that going to work out?” It sold a million units. That's great. They're already doing the next one, Crysis Warhead
. So I'm excited about that. There's a role for all of us.
The Innovation Platform
It's historically true that PC drives technical innovation because it's not a fixed platform. The flip side is if you're going multiplatform, how do you reconcile that? If you still end up having to target a console platform, there's going to be some baseline there that you can't exceed too much, even on the PC.
KU: Well, there's nothing that says being multiplatform means you have to be lowest common denominator. Just because you're going to make a game on three or four platforms doesn't mean that on the PC, if you have a better graphics card, that game can't look better. We have games on the PC that look better than they do on the 360, because we have more horsepower to play with.
Now does it mean that it runs at a lower res if you've got kind of an average PC? Sure it does. Same thing. And I think the differentiation may not be hardware for the long term. It may be that services experience, right?
You may have a DS version of a game, a PC version, an Xbox, and a PS3. The connectivity, the way the game experience gets better, will differentiate the experience on that platform. It may simply be that I only get achievements if I play it on Xbox or Windows. The gameplay, the mechanics, are going to all be the same, but I want achievements.
It may be the fact that I can store my save games up in the cloud somewhere. Games for Windows Live supports that today. Steamworks is going to do that as well with their games.
Those kinds of things, again, you're not seeing that on the [other platforms]. The connection to the internet, and the cloud connectivity, is going to be the differentiator, and what gets exciting to me is when you see the intersection of having that kind of differentiation, plus the ability to take advantage of improvements in hardware.
Then you're talking about something that really differentiates the platform, and you have a story that we have to collectively go tell with the industry that gets people excited.
Retail And Digital Distribution
I have a pet theory about retail. As far as the core PC gaming market, I almost feel that retail becoming more marginalized might be beneficial in some way to PC gaming, spurring the audience more towards online distribution and centralizing it to an extent. How do you feel about things like Steam, which seems to be becoming the de facto gathering ground for core PC gamers?
KU: I think for retail, it would be inaccurate to say we want to see retail go away, because retail does play a key role in at least the discovery phase of, “There's something new out there. I want to see it, I want to taste it, I want to touch it.”
That's something that I think we, both as Microsoft and Windows overall, are working harder to do. And gaming will be a huge part of that.
As to the digital distribution side, I think whether or not we want that to happen, which I think we do, it's happening. It's already happened. That's the big talking point for us. The facts are that people are moving away from retail, and digital distribution is maturing.
It's not just full game distribution, although I think Steam's done a great job with that. If you look at the overall numbers of how many billions of dollars that's going to represent, I'm sure Steam is a small portion of that, but certainly a growing portion.
They're not the only ones that are doing it. Certainly we've done this on the console. You can fully expect us to invest in this area on the PC at some point. But it's also how you use the connectivity to the service to make existing games better - things like adding additional content.
Uncovering A Hidden Audience
Earlier today, you mentioned some encouraging sales numbers from AMD and Nvidia. I suspect there are a lot of people out there who have hardware that is capable of running PC games, but it may not even occur to them to say, “I could use this hardware to play games.” How do you get to those people?
KU: We know gameplay is what drives people for usage, and so, by us following our strategy of supporting and promoting the third-party titles that are on the platform, and getting people excited about that questoin, “Why would I want to play games on the PC?”
I think a big part of that, really, is not just us with Games for Windows - it's with Windows itself going out to a message to consumers that says, “One of the reasons you bought a PC, and you like your PC, is because you can play games.”
Now, there are a couple different ways you can do that, right? There are the people that play Solitaire
, that play Bejeweled
. Those folks are growing. And that's great. But there does need to be this message of, “You've got these capabilities you don't even know you have.”
That's an interesting challenge, and one that we're working through with our hardware partners, to go out on message, and say, “Look, you've got this incredible console - you could call it a console - that you've got to unlock. You've already bought it. It's there.”
People are spending thousands on a laptop, and just surfing the web and doing their documents on it, right? College students are doing this.
Some of the things that are happening are the trends that I've talked about, with Facebook, and Scrabulous
, and some of the others. I think the types of gaming that people are exposed to may be different, and we just got to jump on that and say, “You're already in. There are other types of games.”
Even with PopCap, for example, you can say, “Why don't you see if adding better graphics to a casual game makes a difference? Do people prefer that on that platform or not?”
It makes business sense for them to consider that. Same thing with Lord of the Rings Online
and Age of Conan
. With Age of Conan
, they took a hit because, oops, they didn't ship DX10 support right out of the gate. But for them, it was, “We've got to focus on gameplay, and make the game compelling, and then we're going to use the hardware as a differentiator, to scale the experience over time.”
So when they do their DX10 version, the people who care about that are going to be excited. For the people who didn't already care, their game might just get better as they're playing it anyway: “My God, what happened? Did I get a new update? What happened?”
We have to message with Funcom to say, “Guess what? We detected your PC was better, and so we turned on new capabilities, and the world looks more lush, and the animations are more fluid.” And how do we attribute credit back to the hardware, and back to Windows?
Those are the kinds of things that get us jazzed, and what we have to do, now that we've got that foundation.