Wednesday, January 14, 2009

windows 7 and the state of pc gaming

In my day job, I administer computers. That’s why when Microsoft announced the public beta for Windows 7, the company’s answer to the oft-maligned Vista, I enthusiastically hopped on the train. If I don’t keep up with this stuff, I don’t have a job. I’m really finding a lot of things to like about Windows 7, even though it’s most notable new feature is that it’s not Vista. That’s the Desktop Support Specialist in me talking, though – when I go home in the evenings and become a game blogger, what do I think of Windows 7? To summarize, it’s not going to do much if anything to change the current state of PC gaming, which isn’t and will never be dead, but is having a bit of identity crisis. Oh, PC, what are we going to do with you?

The game-specific additions made to the new Windows are slight, gentle alterations of things that were put there in Vista, and frankly this is probably a good thing. Vista had much bigger problems than those which concerned gamers, including sub-par productivity performance on older hardware and, most damagingly of all, an awful reputation. Games aren’t its focus, nor should they be. Of the most note are additions to the Games Explorer, which will now automatically patch supported titles, and DirectX 11, which will also be backported to Vista upon release. If you’ll remember, the much-anticipated DirectX 10 didn’t set the gaming world on fire, and its unlikely that its successor will either.

As to speed, there’s been much made of Vista’s perceived slowness while gaming, but honestly if you’ve got a computer that’s got any business playing games the few frames per second you might lose while playing under Vista (as opposed to the rapidly aging XP) aren’t going to break your gaming experience. I hate to break it to you, but your Intel integrated graphics chip isn’t going to play Crysis, no matter what operating system you install. Might I suggest an alternative?

Gaming in Windows 7 is going to be a lot like gaming in Windows Vista, and for all the complaining about Vista’s gaming performance that goes on, none of them get to the true root of the problem.

The biggest challenge facing the PC as a serious gaming platform these days is that nobody owns it, at least not in the sense that Nintendo owns the Wii or Sony owns the Playstation family. Microsoft makes the software everything runs on, but they’ve sort of got their own thing going on, and to make the Windows gaming environment as seamless and feature-rich as Xbox Live might cannibalize their dedicated gaming platform’s sales. This is why after three years console games which are later released to the PC continue to lack even something as simple as Achievements. The support for it is there, but Microsoft can’t enforce compliance with their Games for Windows initiative as they can enforce policies on the Xbox. See here for the anemic list of games which support Games for Windows, and note that only the titles with green checkmarks utilize all of the service’s functionality. This should clue you in as to how well the program has been accepted within the industry.

Every now and again, a loose coalition of hardware manufacturers will put their hands in and cheer, committing themselves to rejuvenating the platform. Most of the time, though, these companies are at each others’ throats in an extremely competitive market, and as such there’s been little meaningful work done toward making PC gaming any less fractious and confusing than it has ever been. Do better, guys.

The closest anyone has come to establishing a true “platform” on the PC is Valve, with their well-accepted Steam service. Steam effectively and unobtrusively enforces DRM policies, is widely dispersed, patches games automatically and even supports its own friend lists and Achievement-like reward system. It actually provides a lot of what Xbox Live provides for Xbox owners, which is no coincidence – many of these features were added after the 360’s release. To truly make a platform out of the PC, though, Steam would have to integrated more fully into Windows, which isn’t happening – Microsoft has its the above mentioned Games for Windows program already going, and no matter how poor the implementation or market acceptance Microsoft is not in the habit of ceding any ground to its competitors. And let’s not forget that, nice as Steam is, even it doesn’t support all of the major games available for the PC.

Obviously consoles have come a long way in the last decade, and with Games for Windows not being that great and Steam not being as widespread as it could be, the PC is no longer the premiere platform for online gaming. Consoles have also managed to close the graphics gap, and even two- and three-year old consoles are pushing high resolution graphics comparable to those once possible only on the PC. With these advantages gone or diminished, there is little to convince developers to develop exclusively for the PC – while the PC still sees most of the same major games that consoles do they’re normally released as an afterthought, a few months after the console versions. Things like Spore-level DRM fiascos and game-breaking compatibility issues make gamers wary of the platform. It’s obviously still a moneymaker or no one would even bother to port games to the thing, but the PC has less influence on the direction of the industry than ever before.

Or does it? These many caveats, true though they may be, only apply to the PC as a platform for major games from major developers, which doesn’t really give you the full picture. Craig and I are working together on this one – soon, he is going to talk about where the PC platform succeeds, specifically in the realms of independent and browser-based games. Stay tuned!