Redmond (WA) - In a conversation with TG Daily, Microsoft defended itself against claims that Windows Vista does not run 90% of the games on the market today. However, while largely dismissing on one of big negative headlines flanking the launch of the new operating system, Microsoft conceded that the game rating process isn't perfect and there's at least one fix in the works.
The flashy launch parties aside, the Vista launch was mostly a mixed bag of media reports and user reactions. Some hiccups are to be expected, but Microsoft obviously was caught on the wrong foot with claims that Vista "breaks" the majority of games, mainly due to new installer requirements, DRM technologies and parental controls.
Rich Wickham, director of Games for Windows at Microsoft, spent some time with us and provided the Microsoft side of the story. In a phone interview he mentioned that he did not quite expect this kind of reaction: "Security is really critical with Vista. Having a secure system is a priority for core gamers, casual gamers and the hundreds of millions of people who will use the operating system. And we put security right into the middle of it. To see someone attacking the security improvements was a surprise for us."
Other than Alex St. John, chief executive officer of WildTangent, Wickham said that casual games are actually running "great" on Vista. He told us that his team has been testing "more than 1000 games over the past 18 months," including casual titles from the Pogos and Yahoos, which apparently are working fine in Microsoft's labs.
But, Wickham explained, new security features in Vista are changing the way games are loaded onto a PC and that some titles may be blocked from downloading to a user PC: "It is absolutely right that Vista's security features make it more difficult for certain programs to be downloaded to a PC," he said and added: "Vista does not allow things to be downloaded in the background as it has happened in the past. We are giving users the choice to decide what goes on the machine and what does not." As a result, users may choose to block downloads that previously would have been downloaded to a Windows XP-based PC.
However, WildTangent's St John especially targeted Microsoft's new parental control features, which can deny access to game titles and sounded a bit half baked in his descriptions. We weren't able to confirm this claim, but according to St John, Vista prompts a user (with a limited user account) to delete a link to a blocked game without providing information that this specific game was blocked. In such a case, that game would disappear in the file jungle of the hard drive.
Wickham responded to the claim and actually confirmed that "in order to effectively block content which parents have deemed inappropriate, Windows Vista will prompt a user to delete a shortcut on the desktop if the game or program is blocked by parental controls in a limited user account."
"However," he added, "if the game was installed by an administrator for all users, which is the recommendation and the predominant situation, the game itself will not be deleted from the hard drive and the shortcut will remain."
Wickham admitted that losing a link in a limited user scenario is a "known issue" and Microsoft is working on a fix. He stressed that that a deletion of a link will not happen, if a game is loaded into the Game Explorer of Vista. "Developers can easily utilize the game definition file, which has been available through the SDKs for years free of charge, to ensure their games will appear in the Games Explorer," he said.
Read on the next page: ESRB can be an expensive hurdle for casual games
ESRB ratings can be a hurdle for casual games
Microsoft also agreed, at least in part, with another issue WildTangent believes could become a substantial hurdle for casual game developers. Wickham agreed with St John that a $2500 expense to obtain an ESRB rating could be too high for small game developers. ESRB ratings is a newly supported feature in Vista that allows parents to determine which games their children can play, based on ESRB ratings. St John sees a problem with parents who deny general access to games without ratings, which could block many casual games that are developed by individual developers who can't spend $2500 on a ESRB rating. Wickham made a step towards St John and said that "there is something to be looked at if there isn't a way to make sure that more games are rated." He believes that the "the industry should figure out a way to solve this problem" but mentioned that "everyone who is serious about their game and wants the game to be successful should be thinking about getting an ESRB rating."
But the ESRB rating implementation itself isn't going anywhere and will remain a feature of Vista that is not likely to be modified. St John, for example, suggested that only games with extreme content should require ratings and harmless games should be exempt from the ESRB requirement in Vista. Wickham responded to this idea saying that "this is fine, except we do not know which games qualify and which don't. Just because the first two levels look ok, that does mean that levels three and four are also ok. I don't think anybody should be against having an independent board looking at games and make some judgment calls."
What should not be left out of consideration is the fact that Vista's parental controls are not mandatory. "They are completely optional", Wickham said. "First, the system administrator has to choose if they are enabled or not. The parents have the choice to decide whether they use them or not. Then they have to determine what games go on a PC and which ones do not. They can use ESRB ratings as a guide and either block unrated or allow unrated games." He stressed: "There is a choice that parents are making. We put that choice right into the hands of the person who bought the machine and paid the money for it. I believe that is the way to do it."
On the other side, we had the chance to talk to several industry sources about Vista over the past week and parental controls appears to be one of the more emotional features that is always popping up in our conversations. What we have been hearing so far is that, as part of the parental controls, the adjustment of what content is accessible and what not - based on ESRB ratings - is often considered as too complex. Microsoft considers its parental controls as "super easy." But, no matter how you look at it, parents need to take a close look at the functionality of parental controls, before they decide what features they consider appropriate and if parental controls are a useful addition to their family PC.
Wickham completely dismissed WildTangent's claims that Microsoft has not been providing enough support to developers to help with the transition to developing Vista games. "Our team has been out for four years to make sure that developers know what we are doing with Vista. We talked about the improvements we were making, about the Games Explorer and the parental controls. We have been handing out whitepapers and software development kits. I think the complaint that we have not been providing enough information is misplaced."
He stressed that Microsoft does not believe that developing games for Vista is more difficult than it was for Windows XP and that the company offers to engage with developers and "provide all the info we have." He recommended that small development firms that need support with their Vista game development should take advantage of the tools posted on Microsoft.com, take advantage of the firm's developer relations, take part in conferences and contact the company through "contact connections on microsoft.com."
We leave it up to you to make up your mind on the statements provided by WildTangent and Microsoft, but it is interesting to note that both firm's aren't really that far apart from eachother, at least as we can judge from our conversations with St. John and Wickham. A phrase that came up in both conversations was "empowerment of the user." WildTangent and Microsoft have different views on how this empowerment should look like in its details, but both apparently believe that the users should have more choice and knowledge about the things that are happening on their PCs. Vista is a step in the right direction, but - obviously - it isn't perfect. However, Wickham indicated that Microsoft is taking WildTangent's comments about Vista seriously to think about improvements of the software: "Alex has a lot of history in this business. I am happy to take his feedback and we will see if there are things that we can do better."