Games for Windows Interview: Breaking Down Microsoft's Entry into PC Digital Distribution

Earlier today Microsoft announced that all Games for Windows Live features will now be made totally free, in addition to revealing an online marketplace that will launch this fall that will feature digitally distributed PC gaming content.

Later on, we had the chance to speak with Games for Windows senior global director Kevin Unangst on the announcement, who gave us more information on just what Microsoft is up to on the PC.

Shack: Can you give us an overview of what these announcements mean for the average PC gamer?

Kevin Unangst: There are three key things that we announced today.

First, that Games for Windows Live, the multiplayer service we offer on Windows, has been moved to be completely free, effective immediately. And by those strong terms, this is the full matchmaking, cross-platform play, voice chat, all that stuff. Available to not only new games like some of the new ones that were announced at E3--Fallout 3, Dawn of War 2, and Battlestations Pacific--but also all the existing titles. So that's already done, it works today if anyone goes and tries it.

Moving ahead, we announced plans for a fall release of a Games for Windows Live service that will add a Marketplace, for game content, for trailers, for demos, add-ons, you name it. And that can be free, can be paid--assume it will be a mix of both.

As well as--although it's a feature, it is reflective of the larger approach we're taking here--we're also making the interface of the service much more designed from the PC perspective. So even things like the in-game guide, when it drops down from the top it's much more usable with a keyboard and mouse. It's really designed first and foremost as something born and bred for the PC, that also happens to connect to the Xbox Live service--for someone who either wants to play a cross-platform game, or use the Gamertag and account they already have on Xbox.

I think what Steam and Valve are doing is great for the PC... but overall that's what's great about Windows--publishers and consumers get to choose. So there's plenty of room for more than one system on the platform.

Shack: Will there be full games for sale on the new Marketplace?

Kevin Unangst: So we're focusing our initial release of the Marketplace on add-on game content, as well as demos and trailers. There's no reason that at some point in the future we will not offer full game downloads on Marketplace. From a technology perspective, no reason that that wouldn't be part of the road map anytime soon.

Shack: So you guys aren't going to say anything about the digital distribution side of things for now?

Kevin Unangst: Well, I should be clear: Games for Windows Live is a digital distribution network. I think the only thing we are not detailing is when you will be able to purchase a full game end to end on our Live service. However, you can download trailers, you can download demos, you can buy add-on content for an existing game, and all of that is digitally distributed. So I think this is the first wave of the type of content distribution, commerce, and really extending those game experiences, that you're going to see from us.

Again, the whole content portfolio we will talk about at a later time. I think it is important to note that we are focusing essentially on how we can make games better by the addition of the service. And I think when you look at Achievements in that context, when you look at multiplayer in that context, clearly that's a priority for us. And then when you look at Marketplace, the same holds true that, it's about, "I am a Windows developer, and I want to either provide free or monetized content that extends my game. Now they have a consistent way to do that that we're going to allow. And they'll be able to do that through the webpage, and they'll be able to do that through the out-of-game client.

Even things like automatic updates that are typically a painful thing for PC users, where you log into a game, if you're lucky it'll tell you that there's a patch available, and then you've got to go out, and usually you end up on a mirror site on Fileplanet or something. Games for Windows Live, we host all those updates, you can get notified as soon as you log in there's an update available, and we'll just do that for you. So it's about adding those and taking the burden off the developer as well.

Shack: Do you see Steam as a director competitor to Games for Windows?

Kevin Unangst: I think what Steam and Valve are doing is great for the PC, and I think they've been successful so far. I think there are areas in which we believe we will offer more value, not only to gamers but to publishers. So in some areas we will compete. But overall that's what's great about Windows--publishers and consumers get to choose. So there's plenty of room for more than one system on the platform.

Shack: How optimistic are you on the future of digital distribution?

Kevin Unangst: Yeah, I mean if you look at any of the analyst estimates, you talk to IDC, you talk to DFC, NPD, all of those folks are looking at digital distribution as clearly the forerunner and where the growth is on the Windows side of the house. I don't have the numbers handy, but it might have been DFC that said 75% growth over the next five years. And retail sales, particularly in North America, have been holding steady or even slightly declining, but it's not people are buying less PC games, it's just that they're buying them online, and the growth is exponentially larger on the online space.

But that's a big part of our strategy. We knew the transition to online was happening, and that's why we've been investing over the last couple of years, in first bringing the online service to Windows, and now really optimizing the version of the service we deliver to Windows users, to meet the needs of both the Windows developers and what PC gamers tell us they want.

Turn the page for more details on the upcoming changes to Games for Windows Live. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: In the future, will Games for Windows titles be locked into using the Games for Windows service, or could you buy a GFW title and use Steam to play it?

Kevin Unangst: There are no restrictions on either Games for Windows titles or Games for Windows Live titles being distributed on other services. So you'll still be able to have a Games for Windows Live title, that if you want to distribute that on Steam and buy it digitally that way, that's fine. Publishers can put it in any store they want.

Shack: What kind of technology is behind the new Marketplace? Have you adapted Windows Update for use here, or has it been built from the ground up?

..although we're not talking about the library of content that's going to come out, you're going to see a big focus from us there on making sure we have a fantastic selection of things that really extend that game experience.

Kevin Unangst: This is in-house technology. It is not identical to the Windows Update technology. This is something we built for the service.

Shack: Are you hoping that the Marketplace will serve as an easier way to distribute PC downloadable content, and thus fuel more DLC development on the PC?

Kevin Unangst: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think we see that fueling not just paid content. I mean certainly some developers may see this as an easier opportunity, if they're going to deliver content that they know users will see value in paying for, certainly we'll have a Marketplace and a very easy way for them to do that.

Shack: Can you elaborate on how the interfaces are being changed to be more PC-friendly?

Kevin Unangst: Let me give you a couple examples on the in-game experience: things like control key shortcuts, and accelerators, those kinds of things. Having the windows drop down from the top rather than pop out of the middle as they did on the console, that's one example. We aren't showing the Marketplace design yet, but it will be different than the 360 for good reason, because we're designing it for different audiences. Users should expect to see a Marketplace that is optimized specifically for the PC or the Xbox.

Shack: How is Games for Windows better than any of the other online gaming platforms?

Kevin Unangst: Well there's a couple things. First of all, from a player perspective, we've got the best multiplayer matchmaking system on the planet. Developers, one of the things we heard that they didn't like about the original Games for Windows Live service is that they had to present a list of servers in the game for people to go pick, and you hope you get into a game with somebody that you like, or you have to call your buddy on the phone or instant message him, and alt-tab, and hope that works, right?

For us it's really about building and taking that best-in-class matchmaking system and making it available to everybody. So by removing the need for a Gold subscription on Windows, developers are super excited about building that in. And so that's a big part. I think the fact that we've got a proven Achievement system, not only on Windows, but clearly from what we've learned on the console. I play games that I know will give me Achievements, and we've made it even easier to add Games for Windows Live to their titles so they can award Achievements in the game. They can use the same APIs that they're comfortable with on the console, or if they're not, like Relic with Dawn of War 2, they don't want to have to build an identity system, they don't want to have to build all that matchmaking, we'll just do that for them.

And then having a Marketplace that's going to focus specifically on how to extend the game experience will definitely be a differentiator. And although we're not talking about the library of content that's going to come out, you're going to see a big focus from us there on making sure we have a fantastic selection of things that really extend that game experience.

Shack: Thanks for talking with us, Kevin.