Microsoft is clashing with the PC gaming community again, with everyone from PC gamers to the CEO of Epic criticizing Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform. Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of goodwill left in the PC gaming community, thanks especially to the disastrous “Games for Windows Live” service from a few years back.
This isn’t just ancient history, though. Games for Windows LIVE still taints some PC games sold on Steam today, and helps explain why so many people are so skeptical of Microsoft’s PC gaming plans. Microsoft even had its own PC gaming store, just like the Windows Store today.
The Beginning: Bringing Xbox LIVE to Windows, Including the Subscription Fee
Games for Windows LIVE debuted with Windows Vista. The first game to use Microsoft’s GFWL service was Shadowrun in 2007, followed by Halo 2 two days later. Both games only officially supported Windows Vista, but were later cracked to work on Windows XP–they didn’t actually need the latest version of Windows. Microsoft wanted to encourage gamers to upgrade to Vista, just as Quantum Break and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition are designed to encourage upgrades to Windows 10 today.
Shadowrun featured cross-platform gameplay between Windows Vista and Xbox 360 players. This was one of Microsoft’s big promised features a decade ago, just as cross-platform gameplay between Windows 10 and Xbox One is today. However, cross-platform play was left by the wayside. Universe at War: Earth Assault and Lost Planet: Extreme Condition Colonies Edition supported cross-platform multiplayer around that time, but developers–even Microsoft’s own developers–avoided using it again. Even Microsoft’s own Halo 2, which GFWL practically launched with, didn’t support cross-platform play.
Microsoft also announced that a “Tray and Play” feature would be part of GFWL before its release. This would allow you to insert a game on a disc into your PC and immediately start playing while it installs in the background, like you could on a console. Tray and Play never actually appeared in any games, and became vaporware.
Games for Windows LIVE was tied to Xbox LIVE. Everyone started with a Silver account. You could pay to upgrade to a Gold account, which cost $ 50 a year. A gold account was required for playing GFWL-enabled games online, just like Xbox LIVE Gold is required for playing Xbox games online. Luckily, if you were already an Xbox user, you already had Gold–paying for either GFWL Gold or Xbox LIVE Gold got you both. But many PC gamers weren’t Xbox gamers, and this meant GFWL games has a subscription fee for the same multiplayer features other PC games offered for free. In 2008, Microsoft realized it wasn’t getting anywhere with this strategy and gave up on the subscription fees, making online multiplayer free for everyone in GFWL games.
As it was tied to Xbox LIVE, GFWL games only fully work in the 42 countries where Xbox LIVE is available. Try to play a GFWL-enabled game in another country and it won’t work.
Games for Windows LIVE Never Really Improves as Microsoft Neglects It
Worse yet, Games for Windows LIVE didn’t work that well. It was annoying, and it still is annoying today if you play any games that contain GFWL. But the annoying interface is the least of many people’s concerns. GFWL is famous for corrupting save files. Those save files are encrypted to help prevent gamers from copying them and easily getting worthless achievements, so you can’t copy them to a new computer as easily. I’ve personally had these problems with various games.
Even if you were an Xbox user, GFWL’s Xbox integration could be annoying. If you were playing a GFWL-enabled game on your PC and someone powered on your Xbox 360 in the other room to watch Netflix, you’d be in trouble. You couldn’t be logged into the same Xbox profile on both your Xbox 360 and PC, so something as simple as watching Netflix while you play a GFWL game was forbidden.
GFWL did have some unique features, of course–GFWL games could have achievements that give you points towards your Xbox “gamerscore” so you could increase a completely arbitrary number only Xbox gamers really cared about.
In 2010, Microsoft updated Xbox Live’s voice codec, breaking cross-platform voice chat in Shadowrun and other games that used it. That’s a pretty clear example of Microsoft giving up on its cross-platform promises.
Bugs, Bugs, Bugs
GFWL also introduced a variety of other issues and bugs. It was far from the easy PC gaming experience Microsoft wanted to promote–in fact, GFWL games are still more work to play than other games. I haven’t had any issues with games on Windows 8 or 10, except GFWL games.
In fact, to get the screenshots for this very article, I launched Steam and installed Grand Theft Auto IV on Windows 10. When I launched it, Windows 10 informed me that Games for Windows LIVE was no longer supported on Windows 10 and may not work properly–a message I haven’t seen when trying to launch any other game.
I pressed on and the Rockstar Social Club window appeared. I clicked “Play” and nothing happened. I tried several more times–nope, nothing, not even a process in the Task Manager. I searched the web and discovered I needed to manually download the latest version of Games for Windows LIVE from Microsoft, as it doesn’t automatically update itself. After I launched the game and reached the GFWL overlay that wanted me to sign in with a Microsoft account, I found I couldn’t click the buttons in the overlay or the game window would minimize itself. I tried several more times before realizing that I could use the Tab key to navigate the interface and Enter to activate buttons.
There are probably more problems here, but I quit after that–I’ve suffered enough at the hands of GFWL and had enough screenshots.
This is what using GFWL is like: problem after problem. I’ve played games released in the 90’s and early 2000’s on Windows 10, but Grand Theft Auto IV–released in 2008–is apparently too old and no longer supported. Microsoft’s own gaming platform seems to be the least compatible solution.
Games for Windows LIVE Included a Failed Steam Competitor, Too
In December 2009, Microsoft released Games on Demand. This was a desktop application that provided a way to purchase GFWL-enabled games and DLC. It was Microsoft’s answer to Steam.
It wasn’t very successful. In October 2010, Microsoft rebranded it as the Games for Windows Marketplace. In July 2011, about a year and a half after it was originally released, Microsoft announced it would close the new Games for Windows Marketplace and merge it with the Xbox website. The Games for Windows Marketplace application just opened the Windows section on the Xbox website. In August 2013, just over two years later, Microsoft announced the “Xbox.com PC marketplace” would close, and closed it just seven days later. This was just a footnote in a larger update about the Xbox 360 marketplace.
Unlike Steam–but like Xbox at the time–Microsoft’s store didn’t use real currency. It used “Microsoft Points,” which you had to purchase in packs and only served to obscure prices. It sometimes forced you to purchase more points than you actually needed to spend on an individual purchase, too. That doesn’t seem very gamer-friendly.
Microsoft’s store also supported cross-platform purchases of Xbox and PC games, a feature Microsoft is now beginning to promise once again.
Game Developers Finally Flee GFWL
Over the years, Microsoft kept encouraging developers to use GFWL, regularly promising it was dedicated to PC gaming, and sometimes telling game studios to implement GFWL in their games if it had a say. But, aside from that, it didn’t really do much to actually improve GFWL or deliver on the many promises that were made before its release.
In August 2013, a support article appeared on Microsoft’s official website stating that GFWL would be shut down on July 1, 2014. Microsoft deleted this article and then refused to comment on its plans.
This triggered a wave of gamers asking developers to drop GFWL and developers issuing updates to remove GFWL from their games. In June 2014–days before the previously announced shutdown date–Microsoft announced it had no plans to actually shut down the GFWL servers, so games would continue to function normally. Microsoft failed even here, leaving PC gamers wondering if GFWL’s online features would stop working for nearly a year before it announced this.
Such a server shutdown could cause serious problems, even for single player games. Bulletstorm, for example, must be activated online with GFWL before it can be played. A server shutdown would make that particular game–and probably others–unplayable. Bulletstorm actually vanished from Steam after Microsoft’s planned date to shut down GFWL become public. It silently reappeared later. This suggests even the developer expected Microsoft would shut down the servers and wanted to avoid dealing with angry purchasers.
Once again, Microsoft is promising it’s completely dedicated to Windows PC gaming–something spokespeople continued reiterating as GFWL fell into shambles. It’s also saying it believes in cross-platform play and Xbox and Windows becoming closer–something GFWL tried and failed to do. It’s pushing its own marketplace with the Windows Store after failing with a PC game store a few years earlier.
Microsoft may or may not be serious this time. We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s no surprise that PC gamers are skeptical and the limitations of Ultimate Windows Platform apps are drawing so much ire. Heck, even DirectX 12–the only really big news for PC gamers in Windows 10–seems to have only come about in response to the announcement of AMD’s Mantle, which laid the groundwork for the cross-platform Vulkan. We hope Microsoft will do it right this time. But so far, we aren’t holding our breath.