Games for Windows Live Interview: Microsoft on PC Marketplace Plans, Windows 7, and Regret

By Nick Breckon, Nov 13, 2008 5:36pm PST Yesterday marked the first push in a new PC gaming strategy for Microsoft.

With the release of a new Games for Windows Live interface, the announcement of a DLC-focused Marketplace, and the mention of plans to bring full PC digital distribution to the service, Microsoft has finally given us a reason to take a hard look at their PC philosophy.

Conveniently, I recently had the chance to sit down and throw a number of questions at Games for Windows general manager Chris Early and marketing manager Michael Wolf.

How is this new Marketplace going to work? What kind of cut is Microsoft getting on sales? What does it mean when a game is a Games for Windows Live exclusive? What does this mean for Windows 7? Find out the answers to these questions and more below.

Shack: So the Marketplace consists of this desktop application, and you can grab demos, videos and downloadable content. I assume you can keep it running in the background, in your tray?

Chris Early: Right, you could keep it running all the time, or you could not keep it running. When the game goes to convert you to purchasing some additional content it will fire this up, and this is where you do your transaction.

So you will buy a piece of add-on content, this will manage the download of it--because you know, on Windows, we don't really know how big that piece of DLC is. I've talked to some publishers who are already thinking hundreds of megabytes for a piece of DLC. So it's not just the kind of thing where you want to say, "I'll buy now," and just instantly download without any kind of management process. So not knowing that in advance, we kind of have to manage whatever that situation might be.

Shack: And the application itself--is it fairly lightweight? What kind of system resources does it consume?

Chris Early: This? Not very much at all. It's not a real-time, live connection, so it's not taking up a lot of bandwidth. Now if you're downloading it's going to obviously consume some bandwidth, but that's why it's a smart manager--it doesn't do that while you're playing a game.

Shack: How long have you guys been working on the interface revision and Marketplace?

Chris Early: This is a major effort for Live overall. As you probably know from the Xbox side, Marketplace is evolving not only from the standpoint of DLC, but videos and all kinds of other things.

When I first started working for Microsoft about three years ago, I helped bring about Xbox Live Arcade, which is an extension of Marketplace. So Marketplace as the underlying service continues to evolve, and what we're doing on the GFW Live side of it is now exposing more of that to Windows publishers so they can start to take advantage of that.

And we focused on the areas first that were practically non-existent on the PC. The whole concept of being able to buy extensions to your game easily doesn't exist on the PC today. It's back to that--set up a relationship with a credit card vendor, then look at fraud prevention, etc. And it's just a pain. What publisher wants to go into that business? Very few of them.

Shack: The PC gaming crowd can be a tough nut to crack. They can be a demanding bunch, myself included. How have you dealt with that? Do you feel like you're in a place where you understand what we want?

Chris Early: A couple things. One, it's good to be one. I've been a PC gamer for years, and maybe one of the more vocal ones. [laughs] Maybe not as much now. But it's good to have that understanding from that side. It's good to have a little bit of a thick skin too. But part of it is that it's good to listen.

I know that when we launched Games for Windows Live, you could play PC to PC free, but if you wanted to play with Xbox [users] you had to pay $50 to do that. Now was that smart in retrospect, when we listen? No. So we corrected it. Now would it have been better if we had been smart enough to think of that in advance? Yes. But fortunately we had plenty of helpful players who helped "guide" us there. [laughs]

Michael Wolf: [laughs] That was a very political way of putting that. We received some "gentle prodding" from the community.

Chris Early: [laughs] So the key thing I think is, and you probably know this, is to pay attention, right? When you don't pay attention, that's when it really smacks you upside the head.

Now, I'm an impatient guy, and so are most PC gamers, so I'd prefer that we were a lot further along in some of the things that are on our backlog of what to do than we are. But we're not. But after a year and a half of launch, I think we're in really great shape.

When I compare where we are a year and a half, from where Gamespy was a year and a half after launch, or where Mplayer was, the services that I was intimately familiar with--we're in really great shape. And part of that is because we get to build on what Live has as a service infrastructure. We have kind of a hidden advantage there.

Shack: So you'll be serving all of this content up through Live? Every 100 megabyte patch comes through Microsoft's servers?

Chris Early: Right, so just like on Xbox Live, this is part of the Live service. The updates are all handled by Live, so that you are on the most current version of the game as long as you're connected online. Which again comes back to helping the publisher, because they reduce their support costs, because now you're not having to deal with all the different versions.

This helped us get to that place where we went to the publishers and they said yes, in a big way. They said yes with their AAA titles, with those franchises that--and I have to say I'm kind of pleased, because that means they're willing to risk their franchises on these services, and we're delivering for them.

Shack: A number of weeks ago, the Grand Theft Auto IV PC port was announced as a Games for Windows Live exclusive, and I could never get anyone to tell me what exactly that meant. Does it preclude it from being sold on Steam? What are the terms of a GFW exclusivity deal?

Chris Early: No. Okay, so, from the standpoint of showing up on digital download services, that's nothing that we want to restrict at all.

If you want to buy the game, I don't really care where you want to buy it, as long as you buy it. Don't pirate it. Please. [laughs] Buy that game at Wal-mart, Best-Buy, buy it from Steam, Direct 2 Drive, wherever--Games for Windows Live supports that.

Now what it means by exclusive is that the only game services that are built into it, the only way you play it multiplayer, the only community functions that are supported there are the Games for Windows Live community.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: So it's really the multiplayer component that is covered under the exclusivity.

Chris Early: Right. It's that integration of the community. So while you're playing GTA 4, even if you aren't playing multiplayer, you're still connected to your Live network of friends. You can do a game invite for something, you can communicate, do voice chat, messages, and so on. And you're still part of that gaming community.

Whereas if you were to go off and play Spore or something like that, you're totally not available. And even though I want to play with Wolfe, and he's playing Spore, I have no way to get to him. I'd have to call him up and say, "Hey are you busy," and go back to that old-fashioned way. [laughs] And who wants to do that?

Shack: So we're only talking about game functionality here?

Chris Early: You may see that from the standpoint of DLC. I know for Fallout they talked about adding content for a couple of the versions, but not all of the versions.

Shack: In the case of Fallout 3, that DLC will only be available through the GFW Marketplace?

Chris Early: Right.

Shack: So if you bought the game on Steam, you would have to have this program in order to get the DLC.

Chris Early: Well, you'd have this program even if you bought it on Steam. No matter where you get it, whether you get it from Steam or from Best Buy, Games for Windows Live is the community function that is built into the game.

Shack: Piracy is obviously the big issue with PC gaming these days. Valve has started to provide free anti-piracy software in its Steamworks suite. Do you have any interest in providing a piracy solution to publishers?

Chris Early: Well so, a couple things. First off, piracy is a concern. It is something that we're concerned about as Microsoft as a whole, in addition to just from the game service [side], and it's something that we actively work toward minimizing on a regular basis.

We don't distribute full games through this. Our job at the moment is to support whatever anti-piracy mechanism that the publisher wants to use, whether that's SecuROM, ActiveMARK, or Steam system, or anybody's system. And on top of that, I think there are things that we even do today that help along those lines.

The more we build the social structure around Live, the more it makes you want to be a member of this community, the better off we do for piracy, because it's difficult to play a pirated game on Live. You need that five-by-five token to connect to Live. And if you want to maintain a Gamerscore and a set of friends, you kind of have to have a legitimate copy of the game to do that. So that's where I think a lot of the power is going to come from in the long run, because if you really are that member of a gaming community, this is going to help reduce piracy.

When we get to the place where we do distribute games digitally, will we have a digital rights management system? Maybe. Or maybe we'll just continue to support the industry leaders in that. Because it is a hard thing to do. You talk to any of those companies, and that is their whole company, is doing digital rights management. So I think even if we do come out on our own, we're still going to support the industry standards as well.

Shack: You were saying, "When we get to the place where we sell games eventually"?

Chris Early: Did I say that? [huge laughter]

Shack: Because I ask you guys every time we do one of these interviews..

Chris Early: Clearly it's on our road map.

Shack: It's on your road map. So that's what you're looking at as a next step?

Chris Early: Right.

Shack: So this is your DLC effort, and rolling out the infrastructure, and then that will come next.

Chris Early: Right. And if I were to make that choice again today, would I go the same way? I absolutely would. Because this is something that you can't do today on a PC, right? You can buy digitally through a bunch of places. Would it eventually be good that you can buy digitally through here too? Sure. But I would be more concerned right now with providing something that doesn't exist somewhere else.

Turn the page for more. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: I'm going to play Devil's Advocate. One of the things some people are going to say is that despite your enthusiasm, this is all really just a ploy to grab some quick cash on the DLC side of things. How would you respond to that?

Chris Early: If it was really all about the money, why would I do a 100 point piece of DLC instead of a 59 or 60 dollar game as a direct digital download? We will make far more revenue when we enable direct digital download than we do by enabling premium downloadable content, from a sheer dollars perspective.

First off, to get DLC to work, that means you've got to buy the game somewhere first, so we've already restricted the market. And then we're only selling to that piece of the market, and then not all of them are going to buy. So if it really was all about the money, I made the wrong choice.

So it's not all about the money. I think it's all about engaging a player and extending that gaming experience in a way that you couldn't do before. I know when I read a good book, I want that book to be longer. I want to read a few more chapters. I want that sequel to be there as soon as I finish a book because I like that book, I want to be engaged.

Michael Wolf: I think part of it too goes back to what Microsoft has been doing, and continues to invest in Windows gaming with the Games for Windows brand, which we don't get any licensing or any sort of monetary pay for games that carry that brand. We don't see any of that revenue.

We are trying to grow the Windows gaming ecosystem. We are trying to provide more ways for publishers to be more successful, and for consumers to have an easier way of consuming that content. And so doing things like this are going to make the publishers more likely to invest more in their PC gaming areas because they're going to be able to have better experiences of selling to their customers, which will let them do more content for the consumers, they get more games, and it sort of just continues to go from there.

Shack: So it's a circular thing.

Chris Early: It's a beneficial cycle, as opposed to us really trying to make the most out of it. And when we look at it, the revenue splits are mostly the publisher anyway. They're the ones who are making the big money when it comes to any of the DLC that gets sold here.

Shack: Can you share what your royalty take is on DLC sales?

Chris Early: Yeah, it's the same as Xbox Live Arcade. [laughs] See how I managed to answer that without answering it?

Shack: [laughs] Well done. Down the line, do you have any plans to integrate the Marketplace into Windows 7?

Chris Early: You know, that's a great question. I would love to do that at some level, but we have to kind of be really careful. Because as the operating system platform owners as Microsoft, we have to be careful with what we put in there in terms of an overall distribution.

If we were going to create this as an open game service, that we weren't going to manage, that anybody could get to, kind of like Games Explorer is, then we could include it. But if it's a Microsoft-managed service that we're going to look at from a profitable standpoint, and try to manage this games service, and make money doing it, and enhance the PC ecosystem, we can't use the Windows operating system as a vehicle for distributing it. That's the line we have to be careful with.

Shack: Any plans to carry over elements of the New Xbox Experience update, such as the party system?

Michael Wolf: That would be a good idea. [laughs]

Chris Early: And it's a good thing that we already have the technology built into the Live service. [laughs]

I mean, from an evolution standpoint, we consistently look at the features that we're developing on the Live service infrastructure and how can we bring them to light on both platforms. Now, in all fairness, avatars would be great to bring out. But as we're bringing them out on the Xbox--and we're working on that right now to bring them out in just a couple weeks--I don't know that we'd necessarily be doing it in parallel.

We're going to bring it onto one place, and take those best features and bring em out in the next place, and so on. So we'll look to continue to do that right kind of development. And also, I don't think you always see every feature on each platform. So like, in a couple weeks you'll be able to watch Netflix on your Xbox. And you can already do that on your PC--so do we need to add that feature? Probably not. So you will see feature differentiations between the platforms. You will see us cater to a mouse and keyboard. You'll see Xbox Live cater to the controller.

Shack: The Valve guys are also looking into providing automatic driver updates, as well as suggesting optimal hardware upgrades on a per-game basis. Are you considering adding similar functionality to GFW Live down the road?

Chris Early: Well there's a couple things already that Microsoft offers that does that. First off is the Windows Experience, the numeric rating. And also on, there's a system adviser which lets you look at a game and it will analyze your system and talk about what pieces that will give you the biggest bang for upgrading.

Shack: So would you ever incorporate that directly into Games for Windows? What about driver updates?

Chris Early: So I've thought, over the last dozen years or so, about how far do you go in keeping people up to date, automatically or notifying them and things like that. So what you'll see in Windows 7 is a number of notification-type features that come out from the platform level. We made the decision not to solve that from our proprietary service, but to solve it for all Windows gamers from the operating system level. So you'll be able to see a number of ways that things can get updated that don't involve GFW Live at all.

If I put my little hat on that says Games for Windows Live Guy, would I rather that have been just for us? Sure. But I made the choice, and since both teams work for me, I was like, "No, this is a better Windows gaming thing rather than just Games for Windows Live."

Shack: I assume you guys are pretty optimistic about the digital download market in general.

Chris Early: Well, first off, we're not analysts, but looking at the analysts, I am very heartened by the numbers I see. When IDC says this year, $3.5 billion in online revenue from the PC, and in 2012 it's $15 billion, that's great growth. And I would happily stand by that style of dying industry any day. [laughs] I'll ride that sucker right down.

And that's the point: I don't think it is dying. And looking at things that we're doing, like enabling the DLC, and enabling publishers to take advantage of that, I think we're helping that segment of the market grow as well.

Shack: Thanks guys.

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  • Microsoft Douche says: "But after a year and a half of launch, I think we're in really great shape."

    Who does this guy think he's kidding? GFWL is the most generic, buggy, half assed port\effort Microsoft has put out in a long time. Actually it makes sense that it was released side-by-side with Vista. They share a lot of common traits.

    Think about this. Microsoft isn't known for being good with security and is generally known more for NOT patching bugs and critical security flaws until the last minute. A month after this new version of (whatever the hell they're calling it now) is released there will probably be a few dozen worms ready made to steal your credit card number and account info from this program.

    I predict another buggy piece of junk that fails not so much because it sucks but because it mirrors the XBox360's dumbed down experience and UI, something no genuine PC gamer wants.

    Duh I'm a stupid twenty-something overweight frat boy, I like Madden! Madden and COD4! Where's my XBOX thingy with the control pad I want to play Madden?

  • I don't know why everyone's predicting doom and gloom here. Yes it's Microsoft. Yes GFW and GFWL has been a failure up to this point. However, if it sucks then no one will use it. It's that simple. No one is forced to use it, and I don't think any dev would want to if it doesn't fit into their game.

    I for one like how it works in Fallout 3. It's great to be playing a PC game and still have the ability to interact with people on their 360s. I'm not too wild about matchmaking, but to me it's not a big deal. 360 games don't have to use matchmaking, and there's certainly games that don't. Autopatching and stuff over live is easy and quick too.

    The only thing that worries me is DLC. It's my biggest issue with Live, and it scares me that people will actually pay for some of the stupidest shit. What will fall into a grey area is stuff that we usually get for free - maps, models, and maybe a gametype or two. It could be argued that this will end up costing some cash when it would be free. However, it could also be argued that the development costs are rising, and if they couldn't charge for it then it would never be made. Like they said PC gamers are the most vocal, and if things don't sit well then they'll hear about it.

    My one major suggestion would be to have a separate application for GFWL. Something like xfire where you always have buddy list on hand, and can join games at a single mouse click. That would rock.

  • First let me say that Microsoft is going to win. It's painful to say but it's true. It may take them a few more years but they will win. They own the OS. That being said...

    Until MS realizes that they have to be honest with us about what they are doing then it's going to be a painful, uphill, drawn-out battle for them. As Geedeck said above, the first generation of gamers has some gray hairs (god knows I've got plenty). In other words, PC gamers are "grown ups" for the most part. We are business people or professionals of some kind, people that read, watch, and/or listen to the news occasionally, people that know what the fuck is going on. People that can see through your bullshit, Microsoft. Stop spinning us and start being honest.

    There's no reason you can't give us the real Xbox Live experience on the PC today and do it for free. Give me Netflix, and free DLC, and friends and voice chat and fucking retarded ass gamer scores and all of that stuff. Find some way to subsidize it you fucking idiots. You're the biggest software company in the world for God's sake - use that money and position for SOMETHING.

    At this point (even with the marketplace FINALLY added) it's hard not to see this as weak. I still see it as a way to give people a taste of what the Xbox has to offer without it being really good. I guess really I still see it as some attempt by Microsoft to make an inferior offering on the PC in order to push people to the Xbox platform. But that's just me being cynical.

    And speaking of gray hairs - go look at the GFW Live webpage. The oldest person on there looks 17. Unless I'm missing something, that's not their market on the PC. Shackers should be there market and unless I'm missing something, that market is in it's 20s, 30, and 40s. They seem to not understand the demographic they should be aiming at.

    I don't know. This is all so weird. It's like a loud obnoxious rich guy busting into a quite party of friends and trying to become the life of the party. Nobody really wants him there but he's got money and fancy clothes and you heard that he had a really great party down the street last week. I'm just so confused.

  • lots of good information. the path they're taking is this: integrate GFWL well into windows 7, but do not include it due to antitrust concerns. Include it instead in every windows game, regardless of how it is sold. Once everyone is used to buying their windows games like this, they'll flip the switch and let you buy games on the GFWL marketplace.

    At that point all your games are already GFWL and you've already got an account and you're used to it, so why would I keep the hole in my doughnut by using steam or direct2drive when I can just buy the game from GFWL too. At this point I don't see anyone seriously competing with microsoft in this space, and the only people who try will be the developers and publishers of their own games.

    Steam and Impulse and friends will not beat Microsoft at the internet service and platform integration game. It just won't happen. They can beat Microsoft to it, but once the big company gets momentum...

    the questions of what the server browser will look like, etc,.. these are small issues. they'll do a job at least similar to gamespy and valve or people will get angry. we'll fight that battle when we get there. the more pressing question is: do I want my game console to be microsoft, game console multiplayer service to be microsoft, game console online store by microsoft, games published by microsoft, game console friends list to be microsoft, home computer operating system by microsoft, home computer games published by microsoft, home computer friends list by microsoft, home computer multiplayer service by microsoft, home computer online game store by microsoft, smartphone by microsoft, ...

    We'll be there before the next console in 2011!