Microsoft's PC plan

Ben Parfitt
Microsoft's PC plan

Last month Microsoft admitted it needed to “step up” on PC.

The company said it was guilty of neglecting the platform that made it famous – but it’s okay, it is going to fix it. There’s going to be some new games, an improved service and added investment.

But hang on, haven’t we heard this all before?

Back in 2007 Microsoft also responded to criticism that it had been neglecting the PC. The firm insisted it was making a “long term investment” on the platform and was fully committed to it.

But less than two years later the platform holder closed two of its most successful PC developers – Age of Empires studio Ensemble and Flight Simulator team ACES.

If Microsoft is serious about PC gaming, it has a funny way of showing it.

Microsoft agrees – but it’s fighting back. “There’s been a fair bit of criticism of Microsoft that we were spending a lot of our focus on console, and we need to be putting resources behind PC as well,” says Microsoft Game Studios general manager Dave Luehmann.

“We understand the Windows platform is an important platform for gaming as well as everything else. We are putting some real investment and big IPs behind it.

“We are not going to stop there. There are a number of other projects that are in development that we will talk about when the time comes.”

Indeed, Microsoft actually has some games to back up its claims this time. And these aren’t any old titles, but sequels to some of the most successful PC releases of all time.

But perhaps what’s most promising about Age of Empires Online and Microsoft Flight is that these aren’t the same games Microsoft was producing ten years ago. These titles are more mass market, more forward thinking – even free.

Luehmann adds: “What I really like about what we are doing now, is that we are turning from a software business to a service business. In the old days you build a game that would take two to three years, you release it, you touch the customer once, and then two or three years later you do it again. We’ve been doing that with Age of Empires for 13 years. That’s not a high customer touch rate.

“PC games never died. Retail became a smaller proportion of the PC market than it had been historically and it all just moved to a different business model. Online there is a lot less piracy, there’s a better security model there, and your customers can have a direct relationship with the publisher.

“I think it is still the responsibility of the first parties to push the business models in new directions. Test some ideas out – some will work and some won’t.”

XBOX ON PC

Along with Microsoft Flight and Age of Empires Online, Microsoft is also creating a PC version of the upcoming Xbox 360 RPG, Fable III.

But this begs the question: why doesn’t Microsoft release more of its big budget Xbox games on PC? Why did they cancel Alan Wake? And why isn’t the likes of Halo: Reach and Halo Wars – two games well suited to the PC platform – headed to the format?

“There are a lot of differences between PC and a console in terms of the audience and what the audience expects,” explains Luehmann.

“The capabilities of a PC and a console are relatively the same, but the type of gamer isn’t. And you need to graft the experience to that. So it doesn’t always make sense to put Xbox 360 games on PC and vice versa. Could Kinect work on PC? Yes it could, but should it? I don’t know.”

It’s not all about the games, either. Another major part of Microsoft’s new push into PC is its Xbox Live/Games For Windows Live service.

Now gamers can use their avatar and Gamertag across multiple platforms. The achievement points players get in Age of Empires on PC, Halo: Reach on Xbox 360 or Crackdown 2: Project Sunburst on Windows Phone 7 are all added together into one unified Gamerscore. And this level of connectivity is only going to get bigger.

Says Luhemann: “Imagine what the leaderboard for Solitaire would look like? Imagine getting achievement points for Solitaire? That would be awesome.

“I will play a game on my laptop on the plane, at work I’ll play on my PC, at home on my console, and on the train I’ll play on my phone. It’s all across the same service.”

CHANGE OF PACE

Microsoft’s renewed commitment to PC perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Whereas in 2007 PC was seen as the history of the video games industry, today it looks more like its future.
But the question remains, is there still a need for a company like Microsoft in PC gaming?

Today PC’s future is being made by Valve with Steam, OnLive, Gaikai – even Zynga. So where does Microsoft fit in to all this?

Luehmann concludes: “Other companies should look to Microsoft for leadership, but I’m not sure that they do. It is our job to lead the way on PC. And in some ways we are doing that and in other ways we are not.

“So we need to step up. And you are starting to see the proof now.”

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