Games for Windows LIVE
Rather than rehash history, let's just say that Microsoft, of all companies, was the one that was best positioned to replicate Xbox Live on the PC and that Microsoft, sadly, did nothing of the kind. Through the years, Games for Windows LIVE has been nothing more than the sad stepchild of Xbox Live and in its late 2009 guise, it's much improved compared to previous versions but still very much lacking.
The key to this failure, of course, is the lack of "true" LIVE games, that is, games that support Xbox 360-like Achievements and other online niceties. Currently, there are several hundred retail Xbox 360 games and many hundreds of Xbox Live Arcade games, all of which offer rich single- and multiplayer achievements to gamers. On the PC side, there are a paltry 27 retail games and only recently has Microsoft and its partners begun offering the equivalent of Xbox Live Arcade on the PC.
The Games for Windows LIVE client.
The whole thing is wrapped in a mess of a UI that offers some but not all of the functionality of the Xbox 360's user interface and its online marketplace. But it's not an issue of replicating what's available to 360 users so much as it is the utter lack of content. Through the Games for Windows LIVE UI, you can browse a grand total of 15 games, ranging from one free item ("Tinker") to some surprisingly expensive digital downloads like Resident Evil 5 ($50) and Batman: Arkham Asylum (also $50).
There are also game demos (9 of 'em), game videos, and a small smattering of game add-ons. This last category ranges from a free map-pack for Batman: AA to some paid add-ons for Fallout 3. Nothing inspiring.
And that's the issue, really. Games for Windows LIVE is just a big nothing. It's not interesting, it's not well done, and it just doesn't seem like a place that is bursting with engaged users. It is, in other words, the exact opposite of Xbox Live, the very thing it's trying (and failing) to emulate.
Of course, Microsoft's lackluster entry isn't necessarily representative of what's available to PC gamers out there. In fact, there are far more successful gaming services. The most obvious, perhaps, is Valve's free Steam service. When it debuted around the time of Half-Life 2, it was widely panned as an attempt by Valve to control its user base, and it didn't help that when Half-Life 2 finally did arrive, many users couldn't connect to the service in order to play the game for which they'd been waiting.
But Steam works well, and I've been a customer since the Half-Life 2 pre-sale. Unlike Xbox Live or Games for Windows LIVE, Steam isn't a pervasive, insular community, though it does offer some community features, like in-game chat with friends and access to multiplayer game servers. What Steam is really about is electronic access to a games library. Just sign onto the service via any PC and you can download the games you've already purchased at any time.
The Steam client.
Over the years, I've purchased a wide range of games on Steam, including every game in the Half-Life series, Quake and Quake III Arena, Sin, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and many more. It offers a nice mix of brand new games--you can get Left 4 Dead 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, for example--and classic titles, often for cheap. (Right now, The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition and Half-Life are both less than $10.)
Steam in provides many of the compelling parts of Xbox Live that are missing from Games for Windows LIVE, but it falls short in some areas. It doesn't provide in-game Achievements for all games, for example. But that's the nature of Steam--it's made by a competitor of many of the game companies--and is understandable. But with Games for Windows LIVE being so horrible, it'd be nice if something could pick up the slack. Steam comes closest.
Digital game downloads
Beyond the few decent attempts at an Xbox Live-type service, there are a number of digital game download services that bear mention as well. As an old-timer, my favorite is quite possibly Good Old Games (GOG), which, as its name implies, sells mostly older games. But GOG rises above the other services in several ways. The games are cheap, often very cheap. They've been made to work well with modern Windows versions, so there are no compatibility worries. GOG often packages games with a number of extras, including digital versions of the manual, soundtracks, wallpaper, and other goodies.
Best of all, there's no DRM (digital rights management) at all: The games even come sans a product key. They just work. It's an incredible service, and I've loaded up on some PC shooter classics like Unreal and Unreal Tournament 2004. But if you need a fix for Duke Nuke 'Em, Fallout, Painkiller, or hundreds of others of great classic games, this is the place to look.
There are other digital game download services, of course, like Direct2Drive and even Amazon.com. And of course, even some decent looking web-based games, like Quake Live, which is based on Quake III Arena.
If none of this seems all that compelling, I guess that's just where my heads at right now with PC gaming. But since I've only been following this market from the outside for the past several years, I could be missing some important points. I'm not all that interested in the advantages of upgradable hardware, for example, but if you've found a nice online service or other source for PC-based games, or have some advice around getting the most out of PC gaming, please do let me know. I may be a lost cause, but I know there are others out there who could benefit from this information as well.