games for windows, unplugged

One of the defining elements of the success of the Xbox and Xbox 360 has been its online service, Xbox Live. From the start it was barebones and hardly more than functional, even by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, it launched what is now the modern era of online console gaming, and is widely reputed for its ease of use, robustness, and large user base. Naturally, Microsoft wanted to capitalize on this by carrying it over to Windows, and thus was born Games for Windows Live.

Naturally, the people in charge of GFWL apparently took the long list of XBL’s successes and felt motivated to completely contradict, if not entirely invalidate them. The GFWL software was clunky, difficult to use, and often redundant. The only thing worse than the standalone executable was the in-game overlay. Often it would fail to appear, or require an update that essentially locked-up the computer it was running on. To make things worse, the overlay and standalone program ran on separate codebases; often both required individual updates, or games could not be played online (or sometimes at all). But GFWL’s greatest magic trick is making save files disappear into thin air. I had this happen myself, in Grand Theft Auto IV, when it lost a save with 36 hours’ progress.

At any rate, by the beginning of this year, the writing was on the wall, and publishers and developers were beginning to read it. Arkham Asylum and Arkham City have already dropped GFWL entirely, as has BioShock 2; Arkham Origins ditched it in mid-development. Capcom has just hopped on the trolley, announcing that it will begin removing the software from its games as well.

Now, it looks like the great experiment is over. With the decision to integrate Xbox Live into Windows 8, things already looked ominous. Two months ago Microsoft announced that the point system will be discontinued. Information was leaked on an update page for Age of Empires Online stating that the GFWL service itself will be discontinued by July 2014 (this page was quickly updated to omit this information). The next stage was to close the GFWL Marketplace, ending purchase of existing titles on the service, and effectively putting it on life support until the coup de grace can be administered sometime next year. Now it’s just a matter of time.

This is all something of a modern Shakespearean tragedy–or a comedy, I can’t decide. It’s both saddening and hilarious, the way Microsoft turned what could have been the next revolution of online gaming and took it to Boondoggle Level Market Garden, and now they’re beating a tactical withdrawal to the fortress of Xbox Live, hoping to reform and organize for another charge. But with Valve’s offensive rolling across the terrain like a Soviet tank division, and competing armies gathering on the fringes of the battlefield, I don’t foresee another major assault by Microsoft anytime soon.

But things change. With a new general, the tide may yet turn.