Interview - Last week, Microsoft held its annual XNA Gamefest developers conference. During the conference, Microsoft announced major changes for its Games for Windows Live service. Also, the company announced DirectX 11, which is considered to be key API for next generation of PC and console games. We got the opportunity to chat with Microsoft’s Windows gaming guy about these changes and how they will affect the platform and gamers. And we learned that DX11 is perhaps the DX that should have been released with Windows Vista.
Microsoft had a big week and if you followed the announcements and are interested in how your PC will evolve as a gaming platform, there was big news. To get the details, we decided it was time to talk to Kevin Unangst, senior global director of Windows Gaming at Microsoft, which makes him the Windows gaming guy.
Here is what he had to say about Games for Windows Live, Marketplace and how DX11 will take advantage of your multi-core CPU and tap into the power of your graphics chip.
TG Daily: Just as a brief recap, what were the key Microsoft announcements at Gamefest from your point of view?
Unangst: During first day of XNA Gamefest, we have made several large announcements. These announcements touch both our Games for Windows Live service and updates to our DirectX graphics technology.
I'll start with Games for Windows Live, as I spend most of my time there. First of all, as of XNA Gamefest we made Games for Windows Live completely free. This includes the multiplayer, TruSkill matchmaking, cross-platform play and others. For Windows users, there is no charge now for either developers or the consumers. This will affect not only new titles, but rather all of the titles that exist in the Games for Windows Live catalog. At E3, you may have seen Dawn of War II, Fallout 3 and Battlestation: Pacific. All of these titles will support the new Games for Windows Live service. They will offer a free multiplayer feature and other very important online functionality.
The other piece of big news for the Games for Windows Live program is the fact that we are introducing Marketplace. During Gamefest, we have introduced this feature to the developers for the very first time. Marketplace is scheduled to arrive with our fall update for Games for Windows Live. The service will be available on the web, through a stand-alone client and it is really focused on delivering additional game content to enhance the gaming experience. This could range from levels and maps to demos and game trailers. Those kinds of things will all be available through the Games for Windows Live service.
TG Daily: Why are you introducing these features now? What was the motivation, the movement inside Microsoft to bring all of these changes now - one year and several small changes after Games for Windows Live service was actually introduced?
Unangst: When we introduced Games for Windows Live about a year ago, we introduced the service with Vista, followed by the version for Windows XP. It was a cross-platform service. After that, we spent time listening to developers, PC gamers and reviewers. We evaluated what that service needs to offer in order to be successful. So, we went down the list.
Even though we had free PC-to-PC multiplayer, [developers] said: "look, if you're going to have another service on the PC platform, we want to have full matchmaking capabilities. We know that gamers love [our game] on Xbox 360, they love it on the PC. We want to have that and we don't want to have to pay $50 a year for that. We want to make sure it is easy to integrate and we want it to be as simple as possible."
Developers wanted an interface that was more designed for the PC, not something that had the look and feel of a console. All of those things tied together, we took their feedback and made certain changes. Gamefest just made a lot of sense for us to announce them. We wanted to tell people what they can expect to come next year, so that the developers can work on our platform and make it better.
TG Daily: How many people work inside the Games for Windows Live team?
Unangst: We don't break out our headcount of our resources based on a project that people are working on inside Microsoft. But I can tell you that since Microsoft announced [the Games for Windows Live service] two years ago, we went through a significant investment in Windows as a gaming platform. We have also exponentially increased the number of people that are dedicated to our Windows gaming effort. I can't give out specific numbers, but I can say that there is exponential growth in the number of people that wake up and go to sleep every night thinking about nothing else but how to make Windows gaming better. That includes our investment in our Live service and I think that you can see the way how we are shaping the future of Windows gaming.
TG Daily: To clear the confusion about the announcement: As far as we know, Xbox Live! Will remain unchanged with Silver and Gold subscription levels?
Unangst: Yes, there is no change on the Xbox side and I think if you saw the E3 announcements, there is obviously great value that we're going to continue deliver the Xbox Live service to customers through new features that are coming with the benefit of the [fee-based] Gold subscription. But, I think what this [announcement] illustrates is that our focus now is to bring connected gaming services. You still have the same friends list and the same gamer tag. There is just a different value proposition. You'll see exclusive things that come on the Windows side that may not come to the console side and vice versa, because they have different customers.
Read on the next page: DX11 will be fully backwards compatible
TG Daily: Let’s talk about the business model of the Live series of services. Do you see it developing further, perhaps to handhelds?
Unangst: Our original vision for Live was "Live Anywhere". We said that we have the vision for how this is going to evolve and how this [service] will be accessible. We don't have any specific announcements for handheld devices, although I will say that you a have a great indicator of where we can go with this. This is the fact that we already have three services, including one that runs on the handhelds. It's called Zune, which uses the same gamer tag, the same network and the same friends list. The network and the investment that we're making into network is that it can be available anywhere all the time. Outside that, we don't have any announcements beyond anything that we will do beyond these three platforms. But clearly, we are in a great position.
TG Daily: According to your announcement, Marketplace will feature levels, maps, demos and trailers. Do you plan on evolving Marketplace into a fully-fledged Digital Distribution platform, such as Valve’s Steam or Direct2Drive?
Unangst: Marketplace will certainly, even in its first iteration, support the ability to download all kinds of game content. If somebody wants to put a free game up there, he is completely free to do so. We can certainly support that. We are not detailing specific technologies or specific plans in terms of what our full game distribution model will be. But, yes, the infrastructure is there.
TG Daily: Could these developments benefit Vista's Game Explorer?
Unangst: So far, the feedback we got on the Game Explorer from game developers and consumers is very positive. To have one place to launch all of the games and replacing all the mess with the start menu is certainly a win and I think that you're going to continue to see us invest not only in an enhanced user interface in future versions, but also in integrating it even more deeply with the rest of the file system. The good things we've heard so far only encourages us and it is going to get even better as we look in next-generation versions.
TG Daily: Obviously, we can’t avoid talking about your DirectX 11 announcement. With DirectX 11, you have reintroduced the cross-OS compatibility, since DX11 will support Vista and future versions of Windows such as Windows 7, 7.5 and so on.
Unangst: When you really look at what we needed to do with Vista, we re-wrote the entire graphics pipeline, which required a new driver, among others. We made that big leap and I think DX11 is an acknowledgement of that. We had to make that platform shift, and now we got the underlining technology that allows us to be backwards compatible and support not only Vista, but also implement full support for DX10 and DX10.1 hardware in addition to new DX11 hardware.
TG Daily: That backwards compatibility suggests that it is the same as DX10 API had for DX9 GPUs?
Unangst: What you are going to see is functionality in DirectX 11. For example, things like being able to support better multi-core, multi-thread machines, using multi-core in a more optimal way. We can now put multi-thread optimization into the API itself. Those benefits will be available whether you're running DirectX 10.0, 10.1 or 11 hardware. Ideally, once we can see all the driver optimizations, all the things that need to happen over time, we do believe that because of addition of things like multi-threading and better multi-core support, you are actually going to see some performance improvements even on existing hardware. That is the goal and that is what we are hoping to achieve.
The other thing is, even though this is a good overview, there are other key technologies that we are adding to DX11 - things like a compute shader. The compute shader allows you to use the GPU directly for non-rendering purposes, using a GPU in a GP-GPU way. Tessellation is also a big add-on. Tessellation is a super-set of something that was debuted with the Xbox 360’s ATI R500 Xenos GPU. Trust us, there is plenty more to come. Tessellation will work on compatible DX10, 10.0, DX11 hardware.
TG Daily: There is a big difference in PC gaming between desktop and laptop segments. Did you look at ways to enhance the platforms like Games for Windows Live, Marketplace, DX11 - to offer tools to enhance control for owners running on notebooks?
Unangst: When we design a service for the PC and it looks and feels like the one on a PC, one of the key features that I forgot to mention earlier is that our original Games for Windows Live experience was very much console like. Menus and the complete user interface were more optimized to be accessed with a controller than with a keyboard or touchpad.
In the fall release of Games for Windows Live, we will deliver a completely revamped interface, in-game as well as the out-of-game interface. We will make it much more accessible for someone with a mouse and a keyboard, touchpad and a keyboard. With accelerator keys and tabs, it will be a much more enjoyable experience.
From a technology perspective, DX11 will be able to give developers a whole lot more scalability so that they can adjust their code when running on an integrated chip compared to a discrete model. Of course, it happens that those integrated chips have to support appropriate APIs.
There is some rendering work that has to be done. It will make that much easier for a game developer to not have to know every bit about the hardware. The gamer will have a variable game experience depending on what hardware is available. Without going into a lot of details, we can say that these are scenarios that we looked at. Since most of the PCs that are being shipped are now laptops, clearly, it is a design factor that we are carefully developing and fine-tuning for. [Editor’s note: What Unangst is saying here is that there is no magic bullet that can make integrated graphics a gaming platform. DX11 will scale as much as possible, but for the current crop of hardware, it has to support API features of the DX11 API. Sadly, if you own a system with Intel Extreme Graphics from today and yesterday, your only choice is to go discrete, but that doesn’t work too well on most laptops.]
TG Daily: Thank you for the interview.