NEW YORK — Next week you won’t be able to escape it. And if you’re a gamer, Microsoft would like you to consider that a good thing.
A new version of Windows, dubbed Vista, will launch Tuesday. Bill Gates will preside over a Times Square celebration the day before, to kick off the wide release of the first major new Windows system since 2001. Earlier this week the company hosted an event on Manhattan’s West Side, nine stories up from a former nightclub called the Tunnel, to explain why gamers should be excited.
Executives also addressed some concerns voiced by smaller game makers that Vista might be hostile to their work, and acknowledged the buzz about big-name console game developers considering development for computers.
The big change from old Windows forms to the new one is that “gaming is a first-class citizen in Windows Vista,” according to Kevin Unangst, director of marketing for Games for Windows at Microsoft. Unangst proclaimed this while kicking off a 20-minute demo of Vista’s gaming capabilities to an audience of reporters seated on minimalist white-leather recliners. He demoed Vista on a big flat-screen TV, with a gold Technical Excellence Emmy statue that was awarded to Microsoft placed next to the screen for effect. He ran graphically impressive displays of upcoming games like EA’s first-person shooter “Crysis” and even an upgraded 3-D version of Vista’s version of chess.
For over a year, Microsoft executives have tried preaching the message that gaming on a computer that runs Windows should seem as viable a choice as playing games on an Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo. They blamed any stumbles in PC gaming sales on the mistakes of old and promised solutions: standardized Games for Windows logos for PC game boxes, standardized shelf space to make computer games stand out in stores that would otherwise sloppily stack PC games in the back; universal standards that would make installing and playing games on a computer a less hostile experience.
Unangst demonstrated and discussed some of the Vista solutions. He said games labeled as Games for Windows would install on a computer with one click of the mouse instead of through a series of menus. Games marked with the label will automatically appear as icons in a Vista Games Explorer, instead of scattering across a computer desktop or into a bunch of folders.
Unangst showed how the Xbox 360 controller will be able to plug right into a Windows Vista machine and run games programmed for the platform. He introduced a new numbering system that will rate a person’s computer, as well as games and other computer programs, with simple numbers — 3.8 or 5.0, for example. That represents, with one simple figure, the overall power available or required to make something run well on a given machine.
Back at E3 in May, Bill Gates announced a plan to cross the Xbox 360′s Xbox Live service onto other platforms, demonstrating how a racing game could be played on a 360 against another player on a PC while other games customized cars for the game on a cell phone (see ” ‘Halo 3,’ ‘GTA IV,’ Xbox Live Anywhere: Microsoft Busts Out Big Guns For E3″ ). The Windows team wants to blur the line, so Unangst made sure to show Xbox Live Arcade favorite “Geometry Wars” running on Vista. He also explained that three upcoming Vista-supported games — “Uno,” the first-person-shooter “Shadowrun” and “Halo 2″ — will all be compatible with Xbox Live and playable between gamers using PC or 360.
For emphasis, Unangst pulled up an Xbox Live interface through Vista that appeared to match the look of the setup on the 360. The interface allows gamers using either device to send text or voice messages and check on each other’s gaming habits as they would were they all using 360s. That Xbox Live interface will initially only be available to those who buy the three games Unangst highlighted.
While the overall picture seems clear, some in the games industry claim to have spotted cracks. Earlier this month, Alex St. John, a former Microsoft gaming executive who now runs the casual gaming service Wild Tangent, wrote an editorial for the Web site Gamasutra titled “Vista Casts a Pall on PC Gaming?”
St. John focused his complaint on Vista’s use of the industry-standard Entertainment Software Ratings Board game ratings. ESRB ratings are good, he said, but many small developers working on family-friendly games can’t afford to get them and could find their games blocked by Vista as a result. “Any parent concerned enough about the games their kids are downloading online to use Vista’s parental-control system are likely to block ‘unrated’ content and break most family appropriate content that can be found online,” he wrote.
At the New York event, Chris Donohue, the director of business development for Games for Windows, downplayed St. John’s concerns. “I don’t think we’re artificially restricting anyone, he said. “But on the other side of it there’s a yin and a yang to allowing anybody to publish anything on your platform. You’re going to get a lot of good stuff and some not-so-good stuff.”
Donohue acknowledged that parents using content controls would have to OK each game on a case-by-case basis but felt that extra step wasn’t too much to ask. As for the cost of getting a game rated, he admitted that “a couple of thousand bucks doesn’t necessarily work for the casual guys.”
A representative for ESRB did not comment by press time but referred MTV News to a statement the group’s president, Patricia Vance, made to The Hollywood Reporter about the issue on Thursday. “In the past, we have accommodated companies with different fees for different types of games and different platforms,” she told the publication. “Going forward, we may make additional adjustments to our fees to accommodate companies with particular financial hardships.”
Donohue expressed a personal concern for the little game developers, recalling that he met the core team behind the ballyhooed “Crysis” six years ago when it was still up and coming. On that note, he was game to discuss the occasional comments from big-name console gaming developers to dabble in the less restricted world of PC game development and his hopes to woo those folks.
Earlier this week, for example, legendary “Metal Gear” designer Hideo Kojima was quoted on GamePro magazine’s Web site saying he would like to make PC games. Donohue had been intrigued. “We basically talk to anybody and everybody,” he said. “If somebody’s interested in doing PC games — and trust me, he’s on the list — when someone says that in public we’re like, ‘Yeah!’ ” he said. “One of the interesting things to me is getting guys like Kojima and — this is not announcing anything — but like Peter Molyneux or somebody like that thinking about games a different way. Maybe you look at something that spans platforms.” He started that talk about games that play on cell phones, computers and Xboxes.
Kojima might not be switching anytime soon. The pitch to big-time game developers is still tricky. But for gamers, the Microsoft message is pretty simple as Vista looms at the horizon: Don’t forget about playing in Windows. It’s an option.
The standard version of Vista suited for gamers is called Windows Vista Home Premium. It will cost current Windows users $160 dollars to upgrade to it. To check if your computer can run it, go here.