Windows 7 is finally upon us, leaping off retail shelves in little blue- and green- and black-lined plastic containers in a matter of hours. With the critical plaudits, expect enthusiastic midnight sales, curious micro-throngs of buyers and swollen message boards deluged by "impressions" confessionals from first-timers who somehow missed the endless betas and previews and release candidates foisted on us like fistfuls of Halloween candy.
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No Rolling Stones or Jerry Seinfeld this time, true, but that's all part of Windows 7's unassuming shtick — less whiz, more bang.
But what about gaming?
You've heard how Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been — sleeker, nimbler and less in your way. I've been using the public preview of Windows 7 since last spring, and speaking as a guy who's cheated on Vista with an old copy of XP Home, I won't be retreating into the arms of that antediluvian paramour anytime soon.
As for gaming, however, Windows 7's release feels almost funereal. Read the reviews and you'll learn all about the streamlined taskbar, the smarter security system that leaves you alone, the slick new touch-based input features, and the friendlier approach to media-hub device management.
What about gaming? Notwithstanding the handful of enthusiast sites no one in the mainstream follows trotting out reams of technical benchmarks spread across dozens of pages, the critics either aren't talking, or aren't bothering.
Neither, it seems, is Microsoft.
The company launched its Games for Windows certification and branding initiative in late 2006. The push was Microsoft's "contract with gamers," designed to validate PC gaming — with its broader international install base than all of console gaming combined — as the definitive platform for the medium. What it meant then — as now — was that GFW-branded games would "undergo extensive testing" to stamp out bugs, would be compatible with 32- and 64-bit versions of XP and Vista (and now, Windows 7), would support family-friendly parental controls, and finally — the most vague "guarantee" — the games would be "easy to play," meaning they'd show up in Vista and Windows 7's one-stop "Games Explorer." The initiative culminated in just seven games by the end of 2006, though it included majors like "Company of Heroes" and "Microsoft Flight Simulator X." Embryonic, in other words, but promising.
In 2007, the initiative gained momentum, culminating in a record 38 GFW-branded titles, seven of which incorporated the new "LIVE" feature set. LIVE support — where Games for Window's rubber meets the road — meant a game could access Microsoft's Xbox-like online gaming service, share things like Gamertags and achievements and friend lists, access voice chat, download game demos, trailers, or add-ons through a "Marketplace," even engage in cross-platform play. Seven games didn't add up to much — delayed versions of "Halo 2" and "Gears of War" headlined a list of clunkers like "Juiced 2," "Kane & Lynch," "Shadowrun" and "Universe at War" — but the hypotheticals were tantalizing.
In 2008, however, the number of GFW-branded titles dropped to 34, and the number of "LIVE" tagged games inched up a notch from seven to eight — a veritable vote of "no confidence" in light of the prior year's totals. Worse, a full 19 of those 34 had full Xbox LIVE support in their Xbox 360 manifestations, making the inexplicable absence of Games for Windows LIVE support in the Windows versions vexing.
Longstanding MMOs like "World of Warcraft" and franchise regulars like "The Sims" aside, the number of distinctive Windows conceived and oriented games plummeted. Of the 20 most acclaimed mainstream Windows games released in 2008, half were multiplatform, and of those, majors like "Mass Effect," "Grand Theft Auto IV" and "Dead Space" arrived in console form first.
Where things stand in 2009: 34 GFW-branded titles have been released to date, only 10 of those with LIVE support. Fifteen of those 34 have full Xbox LIVE support but lack corresponding Games for Windows LIVE functionality.
Major PC releases like "Borderlands," "Dragon Age: Origins," "Left 4 Dead 2" and "Modern Warfare 2" — the holiday headliners — are shipping without GFW branding entirely. It's hard to say who's more to blame — Microsoft, or an obstinately independent development community — but the sense one has is of an international accord devoid of signees.
What to do about it? I'm not privy to the certification hoops developers have to hop through to get Microsoft's seal of approval. I don't know why one multiplatform game gets Games for Windows LIVE support while another dozen don't. I can only guess — just like you — that the dearth of original, mainstream PC games has to do with broader sales and better economic scaling in other (read: console, handheld, mobile) markets.
What I can speak to are the naked actualities. Take NPD's September PC gaming top 20 sellers: 6 MMOs, 3 Sims-franchise games, a handful of casual arcade-style games and titles like "Spore," "Civilization IV" and "Grand Theft Auto IV," all of which came out last year (or in "Civilization IV's" case, back in 2005). Lovely if you're into MMOs and casual blip-ware and golden-oldies, but the kiss of "Hey, that XboxPlayStationWii game sounds cool!" if you're not.
Then you have Games for Windows itself, a program whose static growth and mercurial LIVE support speaks volumes, though you wouldn't know it, listening to Microsoft in recent interviews. The company's response to questions about Windows 7's role in gaming? "Windows 7 is going to be the dominant PC gaming platform." Because OS X and Linux are such serious contenders for the title.
What we need at this point isn't the same tossed off rhetoric laced with signifiers that win points in a game of you-know-what-bingo, but honest consumer leveling. Tell us what the issues are and why. How do you go about solving a problem? By admitting you have one, first.
I use Windows for one thing: Gaming. When I'm not gaming, my bleeding-tech-laden desktop rests quietly beneath a wooden table, powered off as opposed to hibernating or sleeping. Without Windows games, no reason for me to use Windows at all.
The tragedy? I actually like the Games for Windows interface. I like that it's linked to what I'm up to on my Xbox 360, and vice versa. It makes finding and following friends who use both platforms effortless. It mitigates the spontaneous unpleasantness of fussy do-it-yourself Windows gaming without domineering the experience the way services like Steam tend to.
So here we are, witness to the inaugural moments of the version of Windows Microsoft meant to ship in 2006. The simultaneous Games for Windows 7 marketing push? Vendors leaping to showcase their GFW-branding? Parades of LIVE-enabled titles? Partnering with the strangely subdued PC Gaming Alliance to shout from the rooftops with the same promotional enthusiasm that greets the arrival of a new console like Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3?
Still missing in action, after all these years.