For the past year, I have set down my PC's keyboard and mouse and entered into an exclusive world of console-based gaming with the Xbox 360. Over 25 Xbox 360 titles have come and gone through the Thurrott household during this time, and though there were only a few rare and admittedly brief exceptions--Valve's "Half-Life 2: Episode One" and Ritual's "Sin Episodes: Emergence," both of which were made available only on the PC--I've spent the past 12 months gaming solely on the Xbox 360.
But here's the thing. I've been gaming on personal computers since my first Commodore 64, and I've had an amazing run on IBM-compatible PCs since "DOOM" first appeared in 1993. I moved from pure keyboard-based gaming to keyboard and mouse during the "Quake" wave, and I still contend that there isn't a game controller wielding teenager on earth who could stand up to a decent player using those admittedly antiquated PC input devices. More to the point, the size of the PC gaming market still dwarfs that of console-based gaming. And recent moves by PC leviathans Dell and HP in the PC gaming space suggest that it's only going to get more lucrative.
So what's Microsoft doing slumming around with its Xbox 360, you ask? Actually, video game consoles like the 360 are still going to be hugely important going forward, and Microsoft's decision to diversify that device into HD and digital media streaming only means that its connections with the PC are stronger than was ever before possible. But the real question isn't why Microsoft has spent so much time and so many resources on the Xbox 360. Why hasn't the company done more to promote PC gaming? And why has it steadily abandoned what was once a well-respected line of PC gaming peripherals?
I can't answer those questions exactly. But I can tell you that Microsoft intends to make up for it is past mistakes and establish Windows Vista as both the pinnacle of PC gaming and an equal partner to video game consoles from a features and functionality perspective. In true Microsoft fashion, this plan involves working closely with its partners and integrating with the hardware, software, and services it's already created for the Xbox 360. And you know what? It's just crazy enough to work.
Windows Vista: A gaming platform?
While Windows Vista is often touted as a more secure, reliable, and better looking operating system than its predecessors, few have found reason to cheer its game-playing prowess. The reason for this is simple: Until very recently, Windows Vista prerelease builds were performance challenged, and game playing was hardly a positive experience. But there's a lot more going on in Windows Vista with regards to gaming than you might think. Indeed, I have little doubt that Windows Vista will quite quickly become the PC gaming platform of choice. You may recall that this wasn't immediately the case with Windows XP, as many gamers stuck with the older Windows 98 for compatibility and performance reasons.
Vista's claims for gaming greatness are many-fold. First, the system will include a new version of the DirectX gaming libraries that will allow for an impressive new generation of PC-based game titles. Vista includes a surprisingly capable Games Explorer that the game industry is embracing, allowing for new features and integration possibilities. Vista will work with all Xbox 360 gaming peripherals, thanks to an upcoming Xbox 360 wireless adapter. And Vista will let Xbox 360 and PC gamers play together in unprecedented ways, thanks to a melding of Xbox Live and Windows Live through the new Live Anywhere scheme. Finally, Microsoft is also working with its game maker and retailer partners to brand and sell PC games in a manner that's nearly identical to console games. This should result in a better game experience, whether you're a beginner or seasoned veteran of the gaming world.
Let's examine each of these developments.
Oddly enough, all the Windows Aero and Media Center graphical goodness that we've come to expect in Windows Vista is built on Microsoft's previous-generation DirectX 9 graphics technologies, and not DirectX 10, which will also ship as part of Windows Vista. DirectX 10, which briefly went by the horrible moniker "Windows Graphics Foundation (WGF)," won't do much out of the box, however, unless you have a DirectX 10-capable graphics card, and the first of those isn't due until late this year. But even then you won't see any improvement until you purchase a DirectX 10-compatible game. We'll get to that in a bit, but suffice to say that there are games coming out in the next 30 to 60 days that will include DirectX 10 compatibility in the box or will be upgradeable to support DirectX 10 features sometime in early 2007.
DirectX 10 will require Windows Vista. This is an important consideration, because it means that DirectX 10-compatible games will look better in Vista than they will in XP, giving gamers an incentive to upgrade. The benefits of DirectX 10 over DirectX 9 are many and technical in nature, but I think I can summarize it thusly: With a DirectX 10-compatible video card, your PC will be able to offload all of the rendering and much of the pure computing processing from the system's microprocessor to the video card's GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). This will result in better performance, while the additional graphical capabilities of DirectX will result in better looking graphics, with more realism and depth. The major GPU vendors, ATI and NVIDIA, have obviously been working with Microsoft to make sure their next generation devices meet the needs of DirectX 10.
Of course, we'll need to take this all on faith right now. Microsoft has shown me a number of DirectX 10 demos, including the infamous E3 "Crysis" (Figure) and "Flight Simulator X" (Figure) demos. What I've seen so far is hugely impressive, though it's also demoware right now. I'm eager to see some finished DirectX 10 titles. Incidentally, Flight Simulator X is shipping next month for Windows XP and will include DirectX 9 capabilities. Microsoft plans to ship a free DirectX 10 patch for Windows Vista users in early 2007.
As I've noted in previous Windows Vista reviews and screenshot galleries, Vista includes a Games Explorer, linked directly from the Start Menu, that provides a front-end to install games and various related functionality (Figure). At first glance, the hard core gamers out there might kind of chuckle at the Games Explorer, but there's a bit more going on there, and this will become even more obvious as times goes by.
The Games Explorer integrates with Windows Vista's performance rating, or Windows Experience Index (WEI) (Figure). This rating, which operates on a scale of 1 to 5.9 (yes, seriously, 5.9), measures the overall performance of your PC. (My single-core Athlon 64-based system merits a 4.1, if you're curious, which is barely above average.) This rating is also broken down into separating ratings for individual components like processor, memory, graphics, gaming graphics, and hard disk transfer rate (Figure). If you update a component, you can re-run the test and see where your system lies on the scale.
In any event, each game that comes free with Windows Vista reports a variety of information when selected in the Games Explorer, including its ESRB rating (they're all rated "E" for "Everyone"), the recommended WEI rating, and the required WEI rating (Figure). Big deal, right? Like you needed to know that a game like Solitaire requires a WEI of 1.0.
What's nice about this functionality is that it applies to games you install yourself as well. For example, I recently installed "Lego STAR WARS II: The Original Trilogy," and that game reports its WEI information in Games Explorer (Figure). So does the recently released "Company of Heroes." So will a host of upcoming games, such as "Flight Simulator X" and about 100 more by the end of 2007.
But what about legacy games (by which I mean every single game title released before September 2006)? It will depend on how they're installed. For most games, Games Explorer will typically display a shortcut automatically and grab the game's box art and ESRB rating, using an online service similar to that used by Windows Media Player to find album art for ripped CDs (Figure). This is important because you can then use Windows Vista's parental controls feature to determine which types of games your kids can play: One of the criteria you can configure is ESRB rating (Figure). However, these games won't provide WEI information unless they're updated by the manufacturer to support that feature.
For a few oddball games, however, this feature doesn't appear to work. One prominent example is Half-Life 2, which is installed via the proprietary Steam online service. Because of the way this and other similar games are installed, you'll have to manually drag a shortcut into Games Explorer. But when you do so, you don't even get an ESRB rating (Figure). So there are essentially three levels of games in Windows Vista: Those that are fully compatible with Games Explorer, those that are partially compatible, and those that are incompatible. (I guess one could make an argument for a fourth category as well: Those that will not install at all.)
Games Explorer also provides a handy front-end to various OS features that are related to gaming. From the Tools, menu, for example, you can access such useful things as the Hardware Control Panel, Display Devices, Input Devices, Audio Devices, Firewall, and Programs and Features (Figure). There's also a link to Parental Controls from the Games Explorer toolbar.
Xbox 360 peripheral compatibility
While the wired Xbox 360 Controller is indeed compatible with Windows Vista as expected (Figure), Microsoft will be adding compatibility for all Xbox 360 wireless controllers and peripherals via an upcoming USB-based Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows (Figure). That means that such Xbox 360 peripherals as the Xbox 360 Wireless Controller, the Xbox 360 Wireless Headset (Figure), and the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel (Figure) will all work, suddenly, in Windows games. That's just good stuff.
I don't have an Xbox 360 Wireless Gaming Receiver for Windows yet, but I'll review it as soon as possible. I did get a demo of this wonderful little device earlier this week at a Microsoft press event, however, and it's quite impressive. I'm looking forward to using one with my own PC. In short, this $20 adapter will completely level the playing field, from a peripherals standpoint at least, between Windows and the 360. (Actually, purists could make the case that Windows will retain an advantage since you can't use a keyboard and mouse to game with the 360.)
More important, perhaps, the Wireless Gaming Receiver will cause game makers to begin supporting gaming controllers again, thanks to the consistent interface. This feature will contribute mightily to improved PC game experiences in the future that more closely mimic what's possible on Xbox 360.
With the Xbox 360's Microsoft's Xbox Live online service suddenly matured into a wonderful online destination for gaming and other entertainment options. Indeed, Xbox Live was so successful, that Microsoft decided to copy its own strategy for the Windows Live and Office Live services. Then, in May 2006, the software company announced its plans for Live Anywhere, an uber online service that will combine the best of both Xbox Live and Windows Live. The idea between Live Anywhere is that console gamers playing online via Xbox Live and Windows gamers playing online should be able to connect. Think of it as a PC-based link to the Xbox Live service.
Aimed solely at Windows Vista gamers, Live Anywhere will provide a number of useful services. First, it will let Windows game makers open up their game titles to online play via Xbox Live. So, for example, the version of Halo 2 that Microsoft will ship alongside Windows Vista in early 2007 will support online play via Xbox Live through the new Live Anywhere bridge. Live Anywhere will also Windows game players create and use Xbox Live Gamertags, just as Xbox 360 users do. This means that game players will be able to interact online, using tools like Windows Messenger on the PC and the Messages component of the Xbox 360 Dashboard on that console. (And yes, existing Xbox Live customers will be able to associate their Xbox Live Gamertag and presence information with a Windows Live account.)
The most exciting feature of Live Anywhere, perhaps, is that Windows gamers will be able to compete against Xbox 360 gamers in certain specially-created game titles. The first of these, called Shadowrun (Figure), is due in early 2007. It will come in versions for Windows Vista and Xbox 360, and Microsoft says gamers won't be able to tell which system their opponents are using when playing online. I guess we'll see.
PC game branding and experience improvements
If you've made it this far, you're hopefully getting the feeling that Windows gaming is really coming together with the release of Windows Vista. Well, hold on to your hats, because there's one more crucial area in which Microsoft is really going to usher in a new generation of equality between PC and console-based gaming: Branding and marketing.
OK, I know that sounds lame, but hold on a second. It gets better.
Today, when you buy games for a PC at a Best Buy or other retailer, you'll notice that they're lumped in the PC software aisle alongside Quicken and various landscape designer applications. Microsoft is working with retailers to move PC games over to the video game section, which tends to be more visually exciting, with various hands-on kiosks. Additionally, stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy are redesigning their video game aisles to have PC-specific kiosks showing off the latest PC games and peripherals right next to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and handheld video game items.
From a buying experience, PC game packaging is all over the place. So Microsoft has instituted a new "Games for Windows" logo and branding program that PC game makers can optionally follow. Games that get the logo--"Lego STAR WARS II: The Original Trilogy" and "Company of Heroes" are the first two titles--will sport consistent packaging (Figure), despite coming from different manufacturers. In fact, these Games for Windows titles will be packaged just like Xbox 360 games: Instead of a white bar at the top with a green Xbox 360 logo, you'll see a white bar at the top with a blue Windows Vista logo. Bravo.
Getting the logo isn't a walk in the park, but the end result is that consumers can expect a much simpler and more console-like experience when installing these titles. While Microsoft has yet to release the full list of requirements, I was told about a few of them this week: The game must support an "Easy Install" option that installs the title on your PC in the fewest possible steps and mouse clicks. It must install an icon and associated information into the Windows Vista Games Explorer. It must be compatible with the Xbox 360 common controller. And it must install and run properly on x64 versions of Windows Vista (though the game itself can be 32-bit).
I mentioned "Lego STAR WARS II: The Original Trilogy" and "Company of Heroes" as the first two titles. These games will soon be joined by many others, including Flight Simulator X, and new Zoo Tycoon and Age of Empires titles in October. Microsoft expects there to be over 100 games with the Games for Windows logo by the end of 2007.
Finally, Microsoft is putting its marketing muscle where its mouth is. In addition to creating the logo program, the company will actually spend money promoting game titles that adopt the logo. These include third party game titles, and not just the games Microsoft sells.
I'm not going to stop playing Xbox 360 games any time soon, but I'm excited to see Microsoft take Windows gaming to the next level. By this time next year, I hope, gaming on Windows Vista will be as seamless as is Xbox 360 gaming, with much of the same functionality. I'd like to see an even more transparent synergy between the two--for example, Windows games could include Achievements points as do Xbox 360 games--but I'm sure that will be coming in the near future. For now, Windows Vista does indeed look like the ultimate Windows version for gamers. And that's something I wouldn't have imagined possible as recently as just a few months ago.