Lots of people are asking me what I think about the fact that Games for Windows LIVE is shutting down. I’ve been a reliable critic of the platform since the beginning, so maybe people are hoping I’ll dance on the grave of GFWL, or reveal that this closure is just yet another stroke of incompetence or treachery on the part of Microsoft.
But the thing is, this news isn’t nearly as exciting as it might sound. GFWL isn’t shutting down. The marketplace is. I know it’s confusing to people, because with Steam the store and the platform are the same thing. But with GFWL the store is basically a horrible broken webpage (at least, last time I tried to use it) and the platform is a difficult and obtuse little hanger-on that runs on top of your game.
The closing of the marketplace is not a big deal. It barely worked and I doubt it did all that much business. Most people didn’t buy games through the marketplace. Instead, they bought the game in the store or on Steam and GFWL came along for the ride.
But! If they’re closing the market, maybe this is just a precursor to shutting down the service itself? Is Microsoft going to shut down the whole show, thus killing off every game that uses it? The list of games is indeed huge, and if GFWL really did vanish then every single one of those games would stop working properly. Both of the Batman Arkham games. Grand Theft Auto IV. All the Fable games. Fallout 3. Dark Souls. The list goes on. Imagine a world where all of the non-pirated versions of those PC games stopped working. Forever.
These are major titles and it would rock the industry if they really vanished. I’d almost love to see them do it, just to see the fallout. (Not that I’d actually want to see the games vanish for legitimate users.) If Microsoft actually pulled the plug like this, it would vindicate every paranoid thing people said about the Xbox One. It would vindicate every objection to DRM. It would generate an unending torrent of bad press and ill will. It would generate a deluge of support hassles for Microsoft. It would make people feel like they were fully justified in pirating games. (And I’d agree.) And some of those people might just keep on pirating in the future, either because of convenience, savings, or out of a sense of spite against a publisher that tried to rip them off.
It would be a losing scenario across the board. If GFWL really did go belly up and orphaned the titles that depend on it, everyone would lose. The only way this could possibly seem acceptable to Microsoft – even in the short term – was if they were pulling out of the PC games market and putting all their chips on the XBox One. Given the wonky start that the XBox One has, this seems really unlikely.
But I don’t expect anything that dramatic. Microsoft just recently hired Jason Holtman, former director of business development at Valve software. This is a pretty big signal that Microsoft isn’t abandoning the PC, but investing in it. You don’t trade for star players if you’re planning to shutter a team, after all.
My take on it is that Microsoft is finally getting serious about fixing this dysfunctional platform and trying to clean up the toxic ill-will that GFWL has accrued over the last few years. The service might get an overhaul, or they might bulldoze the whole thing and start over with fresh branding. In either case, nuking access to big titles would be the opposite of what they want to do. Closing down the marketplace makes sense. Closing down the service doesn’t. It would be insane for them to make all your old games vanish and then turn around ask ask you to buy new games, saying, “$60 please, and no seriously we won’t make them vanish again we swear.” Microsoft can be a little tone-deaf sometimes, but they’re not that tone-deaf. Their recent backtracking on the Xbox One shows that they are thinking and worrying about what the public thinks.
From a technology perspective, I’d love to know how they plan to fix GFWL. (Assuming I’m right and that’s what they’re doing.) The GFWL “client” is a strange little parasite. In Steam, you log in to the service and THEN launch the game. In GFWL, you launch the game and THEN the service pops up. At this point you’re already “in” the game, and suddenly you have to leave the game to download OS updates, game updates, or GFWL updates. (And maybe you’ll need to leave and exit the game multiple times to move through all these update layers.) It’s not until the game is running and you’re holding your controller in your hands that GFWL asks you to dig up your login credentials, agree to the new Terms of Service, or EULA, whatever other demands the system wants to put on you now that you’re least inclined and equipped to deal with them.
This design where the game runs the client (instead of the other way around) creates a ton of headaches for the user and might make it problematic for Microsoft to fix what’s wrong with the system. You can’t just patch out GFWL, because it has the keys to the save files. Maybe the software is modular enough that a new client can be introduced that will work properly. It would be a nightmare if a major redesign of GFWL required the developers go back and re-compile all those old 2008 games. If Microsoft is lucky, then the sadists who designed the original GFWL at least made the system flexible enough that they won’t need to do anything drastic like this.
Then again, they can’t fix the most glaring problem with GFWL, which is that it doesn’t have anything to offer the end user. It’s a useless and unwelcome guest to an otherwise functioning game. Everything that GFWL does, Steam does better. Achievements? Friend lists? Social networking stuff like sharing screenshots? Cloud saves? Steam has been doing it all for years.
So that’s my take on this: I think that Microsoft is finally trying to clean up their mess. I think your GFWL games will continue to work. (As much as they ever did, anyway.) And I think the GFWL team has a huge challenge in front of them.
For what it’s worth, I wish them luck. I’d love to see GFWL at least work according to spec, and if they could turn it into a real rival to Steam it would be even better.