12) I google around a bit. I find a thread where a Microsoft rep suggests using Windows Update and download some .NET framework stuff. Two hours of updates later (I won't drag all the shortcomings of Windows Update into this discussion) and my computer finally has the required updates. I start downloading my game, and five minutes later GFWL crashes.
13) One Microsoft rep suggests closing GFWL, and letting the game download "in the background." Wait, so when I close GFWL it's still running? It's not visible in the system tray, or on the taskbar, but it's there in the background eating CPU and bandwidth? Do I need to explain why this is a horrible setup and disrespectful of the end user?
14) I let it download overnight in the background. In the morning, I hit install. Halfway through the install it asks me for the product key. The installer explains, "You'll find this number on your Certificate of Authenticity on the back of the CD packaging." I kid you not.
15) There's a little drop-down here where I can look up my product key. It's blank. And hang on a second ... why am I typing in a product key for a digital purchase, anyway?
16) More Google. I finally find an announcement that says, "Due to the overwhelming success of the Age of Empires III sale, we have temporarily run out of keys to unlock the game. You can still buy the game at this amazing price and you will get/see a key in the next week. When new keys are added to the system you will be auto-assigned a key, there is no need to call support or take any other action from your end."
Really Microsoft? This is Games for Windows LIVE? This is your solution to Steam? The experience I outlined above wasn't just a little rough, or a bit buggy. This was a comprehensive failure of an entire system from start to finish. I'm aware that it probably doesn't work quite this bad for everyone, but even if we give them a pass for all the crashes, this thing is a mess. Keep in mind, this is not my first disastrous encounter with GFWL.
GFWL is three and a half years old. Steam wasn't this abominable three and a half years after launch. GFWL has the home-field advantage of coming from the same company that wrote the operating system. It has better financial backing. It's had time to mature. It's got the Microsoft name behind it and the clout to secure deals with the big publishers. GFWL has every possible advantage in the world, and yet the folks at Microsoft can't even get the system to perform the most rudimentary task of letting me buy a game and play it.
I ran both Steam and GFWL on my machine at the same time, to compare. GFWL used more memory than Steam. It ate more CPU. It has less features. It's somehow actually slower to start, which is quite an accomplishment in the face of Steam's usual dawdling. Its interface is obtuse and its policy of running invisibly in the background is a great way to create hard-to-diagnose problems for end users. And on top of all of this, it's a buggy mess that crashes more often than a drunken Stevie Wonder playing Grand Theft Auto with a Wii Remote.
I'm of the opinion that spirited competition between digital delivery platforms would be a good thing. We want these companies to fight over our business and our loyalty. But this isn't competition at all. This is just Microsoft griefing people for no reason. If this is Dancing with the Stars then Steam just came out and danced like Fred Astaire on moon gravity. Then Games for Windows LIVE came out on crutches, knocked over the scenery, and threw up on the judges.