Microsoft Brings Windows Games to the Web This November
By Matt Peckham
Taking aim (well, kind of) at online game distributors like Direct2Drive, Impulse, and Steam, Microsoft says it’ll sell downloadable PC games online starting November 15. The company already allows players to purchase and download full PC games, but required they do so using a locally installed software client.
The announcement amounts to a bifurcation of the Games For Windows transactional architecture. Until now, if you wanted to buy a copy of Fallout 3 or BioShock 2, you had to download the Games for Windows client and click through its proprietary store to complete your transaction and initiate the download.
But can’t we already download PC games client-free from online vendors? Of course. Gamestop, Good Old Games, and Direct2Drive have supported the practice for years.
So what gives? Does adding an online store really deserve a blizzard of stories that amount to “Microsoft raises online transaction profile to par”?
I put the question to Microsoft PC and mobile games product manager Peter Orullian, who told me Games for Windows Marketplace is just the next step in a series of changes that actually began about 18 months ago, when the company “doubled down” and announced games like Age of Empires Online, Microsoft Flight, and Fable III (the Windows version).
Orullian started as managing editor for Xbox.com, helped launch digital distribution on the Xbox console, and eventually “moved over to launch the entertainment portion of [Microsoft’s] digital distribution business when [the company] started doing film and TV and music videos.”
“Concurrent with that we created an entire engineering crew, a pretty sizable group called the Windows Gaming Experience group,” said Orullian. “They approached me to come over to the new team, and then the last piece has been the marketing angle, which includes spinning up digital distribution. I came over to the team, and one of the first things we got into flow was the development of a new marketplace.”
This summer, the company quietly began selling games without the Games for Windows branding, including Assassin’s Creed II, Borderlands, Deux Ex, and Silent Hunter 5.
“The store grew quite a bit at that point, and it became a direction we’ve continued since and will continue forward as we launch the new site,” said Orullian. “When the new site goes live, we’ll have 100 games.”
100 games sounds impressive. Almost. Until you consider many have been available through the service for years. Or that Microsoft’s only released around 30 Games for Windows Live titles that support matchmaking, achievements, and gamertag tracking since GFW Live launched in May 2007. Or that their ‘Games on Demand’ downloads tallied just 13 titles when the service launched, belatedly, in December 2009. Contrast with Steam’s “over 1,200” games and those 100 look like a drop in the bucket.
Orullian’s response? Quality, not quantity.
“Our approach is to take a close eye to what we think are the best games, that it’s a very managed or curated approach to the titles,” said Orullian. “We use a lot of different factors in that selection process. We’ll look sometimes at the Metacritic rating, we’ll look obviously at big franchises, we talk to publishers about what’s really important and impacting for them, and we’ve done a lot of work just listening to people who’ve been on our marketplace before, and of course the gamers and the kinds of things they’d like to see.”
Something Borrowed, Something New
After Games for Windows Marketplace launches mid-November, Orullian says the company’s committed to releasing a new game every week, coupled with promotional deals and other ideas borrowed from its Xbox 360 platform.
“In August we launched ‘Deal of the Week’, which is very much like ‘Deal of the Week’ on the console,” said Orullian. “That name means something to our customers, because they expect it to be a really good, quality title at a pretty good discount. We’ll also be looking at things that are topical and curating instead of just picking games around holidays or genres or big releases with the emphasis being to make them more easily discoverable.”
When chatting up the new online purchase model, Orullian compared it to Amazon and noted that anyone with an Xbox Live ID can log in and access Microsoft Points already associated with their account to make purchases. Zune IDs or plain old Live (Hotmail) IDs work as well, and credit or debit cards can be used in lieu of Microsoft Points if you prefer.
“This release really is about us doing a lot of work to make the discoverability and finding of content very straightforward and intuitive,” said Orullian. “And then once you’ve decided you want to move forward with a purchase, removing the barriers, so there’s no need for a client anymore.”
Microsoft’s isn’t abandoning the client, and admits it may still be the preferred interface for excessively large files that “are optimally downloaded through a download manager.” It’ll also be where you want to go to check your purchase history, or re-download games.
“It’s really just the transaction component that’s on the web, and that’s based on direct feedback,” said Orullian. “A lot of our gamers didn’t want to have to launch a separate interface to make some sort of purchase.”