Microsoft has today announced that they plan to improve Games For Windows Live. In fact, speaking to CVG, senior-producer-of-Microsoft's-interactive-entertainment-business, Kevin Unangst admitted that "we had a rocky start." This apparent act of humility is being widely reported as Microsoft's admitting GFWL's faults, and planning to address them. But is it? I've had a look at the rest of the quotes, plus those that came before them. I've also spent a bit of time with Games For Windows Live Marketplace to see if it's living up to its promises at launch.
I want to begin by saying I had no intention of launching into some GFWL bashing. I think it's a bit too easy, with people often failing to state exactly what the issues are, and how they're not issues with other services. But then I used GFWL. In my opinion it does do some things better than its rivals, but other things worse. Sadly they're the sort of worse that really get in your face.
That "rocky start" quote needs to be put in context. In full he says,
"The service started with the right intent, which was to bring Achievements, friends, multiplayer gaming and matchmaking in a really great way to PC. I think because it was designed originally as a partner to the console service more than the PC service, we had a rocky start."
But how? What was rocky? He does not say. But he continues,
"We also didn't back it up with the most important thing, which is doing fantastic games to take advantage of the service. A network by itself isn't valuable - there needs to be great games to take advantage."
(Which is perhaps not the ideal remark for all those who have previously clamped the software onto their products.)
The implication seems to be that the faults were that it was too similar to the 360 version (would that it were) and that it didn't have enough good games using it. Which doesn't really address the key issues.
What GFWL needs to do is talk to the disgruntled, and read the forums. It needs to know that requiring signing in to an account to be able to save single-player games is an utterly terrible idea. And encrypting saves is beyond the boundaries of all sanity. It needs to recognise that launching itself after you've started a game is so astonishingly irritating that it makes people want to hate it, even when it's doing a good job. If it would only launch outside of the game, letting you sign in without having to task-switch out to a browser as you inevitably try to reset your password because it's so long since you used it, people would think much more kindly on it. Because what they really seem to have misunderstood is that people's acceptance, even fondness, for 360's Live is that it is the software that launches the games.
As a rival to Steam it faces two huge issues. People have mostly accepted Steam's existence, even when its intrusions to your gaming are much more egregious than GFWL's. (For instance, if you get banned from Steam for one of their odd reasons (like Paypal screwing up) then you lose all your games, forever. Potentially thousands of pounds worth, taken from you, and there's little you can do. A GFWL ban will still give you access to games in their offline modes. Which is a pretty big deal, really.) And second, it doesn't offer the same user-friendly home base. It's stuck inside the games, like a weird growth, and seems to offer little benefit between playing. If the game has a patch released, Steam will have already installed it when I wasn't looking. GFWL will want me to remember my bloody password or something, and then force the game I'm playing to go back to the opening menu because I changed a setting. Oh lordy.
The Games For Windows Live Marketplace website, with its Steamish colouring, is clearly an attempt to appeal to PC gamers more. The website design is a hefty coincidence:
But it's still pretty woeful months since it started. Choose the "New Releases" tab on the GFWLM's GAME CATALOG and you're presented with Lego Universe (October 2010) and Champ Man 2010 (September 2009 - and rather more seriously, it's accompanied by the words, "Two years in the making, Championship Manager 2010 is the latest edition of the most established name in football management." Champ Man 2011 came out in October last year.).
Use the Games For Windows Live Marketplace application instead of the website and it doesn't let you sort through its paltry catalogue in any useful way - not even by genre. Astonishingly there's no search option. Which makes it a bit of a shame that their press release a month before it came out in 2010 boasted, "Gamers can search by titles or genres to quickly find the games they want; they can even find new games from their favorite publishers with dedicated publisher pages." And indeed, "Gamers can check out screaming deals on select games every time they visit the Marketplace, as well as the Deal of The Week and other recurring and seasonal offers," which leads me to...
In my attempt to buy Deus Ex: GOTY Edition - because I can never buy that game too many times - I then discover that it's £2.99 on the website, but £5.99 from inside the application. Huh. Then when I try to buy it from the website, as I submit my credit card, it says, "The price of one or more items in your cart has changed since it was added." Huh. So I go back to the game's main page, and no - still £2.99. Try again, and the same. Which is fairly spectacularly against the law. Huh.
Instead I test it with something free. Tinker. Which still - brilliantly - forces me to enter my credit card information to "buy" from the site. Once downloaded, it has a very clean in-application install - albeit a painfully long one for a game of just a few megabytes. I run it, from within GFWL Marketplace, and - guess what! It wants me to sign in to Games For Windows Live, with the usual ugly, intrusive, drop-down menu. I watch the disc spinning for about a minute, and then it finally tells me:
"An update is available for this game from LIVE. If you decline this update, you will be signed out of LIVE.
Do you want to apply the update now?"
Which really doesn't make any sense to me. I've just downloaded the game from Windows Live Marketplace, and launched it from inside Windows Live Marketplace, and it's telling me that now the game is running I have to update it, and if I don't I'm signed out of the damned thing that's purchased and launched the game. I am left with a thousand whys. I can still play the game, but I'm officially offline. Relaunching and allowing the update, a progress bar appears without even a percentage on it, and certainly no indication of how much time remains before I'll be allowed to play the game. I'm currently stuck staring at a blue bar, unable to play, while it updates from within. And then it then terrifies me by saying,
"Your computer may restart when the update is complete."
Argh! It better hadn't! This certainly is "rocky". The update, that took an age to download for such a tiny game, doesn't install seemlessly. It throws up a standard Windows installer window for me to click through. Then it closes the game down completely, and restarts it without asking (thankfully leaving my computer alone), once again giving me the joy of watching the signing in wheel spin. And now - only now - may I finally play the puzzle game.
The issue with Unangst's latest statements, suggesting that it's been "rocky" until now and that with developer involvement it will "continue to get better over time," is the context. Because here's some previous statements given by Unangst about GFWL, which don't seem to suggest he was previously conscious of any rockiness.
10th July 2007 - Back in 2007, nearly four years ago, Unangst himself was boasting of a "consistent experience and simplicity of use" from the new GFWL service.
"Games for Windows – LIVE is the Windows counterpart to our Xbox LIVE online gaming and entertainment network for Windows XP and Windows Vista. PC gamers can now easily find, connect and communicate with other gamers on Windows or Xbox 360, have great multiplayer experiences, and enjoy a consistent experience and simplicity of use that Xbox gamers also enjoy – and since LIVE is a unified service, gamers can use the same gamertag, profile and friends list across both our gaming platforms." - Kevin Unangst
22nd October 2010 - And most awkwardly, just four and a half months ago Unangst said the precise opposite of today's quote:
"With Games for Windows Marketplace, we set out to create a digital store built for PC gamers end-to-end," said Kevin Unangst, senior global director, PC and Mobile Gaming, at Microsoft. "And by integrating with our existing Xbox LIVE and Windows Live services, we’ve made it easier than ever for millions of gamers to see for themselves how easy buying PC games can be."
I really want to see GFWL improving, because it seems developers will persist in using it. And to be fair to it, it did little harm with Bulletstorm other than providing a proper annoyance every time I started the game by insisting on signing me in, then ditching me back at the first menu if I'd dared click on anything before it had. I want to see a rival to Steam. Mostly because I want someone to challenge Steam on their slightly draconian banning ways, by providing a service that doesn't. But at the moment Microsoft are putting up a poor fight. (I recognise that there are many rivals to Steam in terms of digital distribution, but not in terms of a platform in which to store and from which to launch games.)
Perhaps Unangst means it this time. Perhaps they'll really go back to basics and rethink their system, not approaching it as DRM with a GUI, but as a service to gamers who have, after all, already bought their very expensive operating system. That's the goal, Microsoft: provide a service that gamers are asking for, that's designed to make playing games easier, with less fussing.