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Games and Windows 7 : Games for Windows - LIVE (part 1) - Using the Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace

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11/15/2014 3:07:36 AM

Separate from its PC gaming initiatives, Microsoft has been promoting its line of Xbox video game consoles since 2001. In late 2005, the company significantly raised the bar with the release of its second-generation Xbox 360 console, featuring unparalleled graphics power and connectivity, and ushering in a new era of high-definition (HD) video gaming. In some ways, the biggest leap forward that Microsoft made with the Xbox 360, however, was the massive set of improvements it made to the system's online service, Xbox Live. This service provides a way for Xbox 360-based gamers to face off in multiplayer matches, of course, but it also offers movie and TV show downloads, instant messaging functionality, and other features. It's the most full-featured online service for any video game console, by far.

Xbox Live has been so successful that is has colored how the company approaches other similar online endeavors. In the years since the launch of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has used its successes with Xbox Live as a model for such things as the Zune Marketplace, an online service that supports Microsoft's digital media players  and, more recently, a new initiative called Games for Windows - LIVE.

Games for Windows - LIVE is an attempt to replicate the success of Xbox Live on the PC and, to a much lesser extent, to provide interconnectivity between Windows-based gamers and Xbox 360-based gamers. Since it is both modeled on and tied directly to Xbox Live, it should come as no surprise that Games for Windows - LIVE is very much like Xbox Live from a user experience perspective. That said, Games for Windows - LIVE is still lacking some key Xbox live features. It also has some troubling problems that suggest it will never really take off in the same way that Xbox Live has on Microsoft's consoles.

Here's what's happening.

1. Xbox Live on Windows?

Xbox Live customers each have a Gamertag, which is associated with a Windows Live ID. This Gamertag includes a reputation (or Rep, scored from one to five stars), a Gamerscore (the total number of Achievement points collected in all the Xbox 360 games the gamer has played), and other data. You can see this information on the Xbox.com Web site, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Xbox gamers—and, as it turns out, Games for Windows - LIVE users—can view and modify their Gamertag online

Gamers also can access the list of games they've played, with Achievements broken down by game. (You can of course access other players' Gamertags as well, to compare and contrast experiences or to find potential foes online.) Each Gamertag has associated lists of messages (similar to e-mails), friends (like contacts), and players (other gamers they've faced off against online). Also included are various settings, related to game types, the Dashboard, and other aspects of the Xbox 360 experience.

NOTE

It sounds like Microsoft has created a full-fledged e-mail and instant messaging system here, doesn't it? Sure enough, that's exactly what the communications-oriented parts of Xbox Live—and, by extension, Games for Windows - LIVE—provide. You can even do voice and video chat over the service. There's just one thing: all of this communication has to occur over Microsoft's network or, in the case of the e-mail-type messages, on the Web. You can't, for example, access Xbox Live messages via a Windows e-mail application such as Windows Live Mail or an IM solution such as Windows Live Messenger. And that's odd, when you think about it, since the underlying services used by these applications can access e-mail and instant messages sent to the same associated Windows Live ID you may use for gaming. Maybe someday.

The reason the Xbox Live Gamertag system works so well on the Xbox 360 is that Microsoft has made the underlying Xbox Live service so thoroughly integrated across the system. If you're in a game of Call of Duty World at War or watching a live or recorded TV show via the Xbox 360's Media Center Extender functionality , your friends can see what you're up to, even if they're playing Gears of War 2 or just browsing the downloadable content on Xbox Live Marketplace, Microsoft's online store.

The trick is bringing this experience to Windows users. Here, Microsoft has been fairly successful. After an initial tepid release, newer versions of Games for Windows - LIVE feature a decent in-game experience and the start of an online marketplace of sorts that may someday be pretty useful.

2. The Games for Windows - LIVE Experience

Games for Windows - LIVE is available in two places in Windows. The first is a stand-alone Windows application, Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace, which is shown in Figure 2. From this simple but almost useless Dashboard-like UI, you can log on to your Windows Live ID—and thus your Gamertag—but you can't view or update any useful gamer information about that account, as you can from the Xbox 360 Dashboard. Instead, this UI is designed solely to provide access to a fledgling online marketplace.

Figure 2. The Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace client is a curious beast, with no obviously useful functionality.

From what we can see, only two useful bits of information are available in this interface: your Gamertag, Rep, and Achievement points totals are viewable in the upper-right corner; and on the Marketplace tab, you can see how many Microsoft Points—for making micropayments—are available in your account. That's about it.


The second place is an in-game Dashboard that appears only in Games for Windows - LIVE game titles and works much like the pop-up interface that Xbox 360 gamers see. From this interface, you can view and edit your Gamertag and associated Windows Live ID account, view information about the games you've played, access your Friends list, read and send messages, and engage in private chats. This interface is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Inside of a Games for Windows - LIVE title is a useful Dashboard that works very much like its Xbox 360 relation.

What you can't do from the Dashboard is access the marketplace: that interaction has to occur via the standalone client application.

2.1. Using the Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace

The standalone Games for Windows - LIVE client is single-handedly devoted to the new Games for Windows – LIVE Marketplace, which is an online service and store that provides free and paid game-related content. This content spans the range from game videos and demos to add-on content that you can install into your existing Games for Windows - LIVE games. It's all pretty sparse at this point, and certainly nothing like the similar Xbox Marketplace experience on the Xbox 360. In fact, before you can even access this service, you have to create a Gamertag, and that has to happen on the Web: you can't do it from within the Games for Windows - LIVE standalone client.

That said, it's not a complete loss: in addition to downloading game demos from Games for Windows - LIVE, you can also install these demos from directly in the client. That's handy; though once those game demos are installed, you can't actually run them from Games for Windows - LIVE. Instead, you have to navigate into the Games Explorer or the Start menu to find them.

To browse the marketplace, open the Games for Windows - LIVE client (here, Start Menu Search is your friend, since this application is not automatically added to the Games Explorer for some reason). Then, navigate to the Marketplace tab, shown in Figure 4. From here, you can browse game add-ons, demos, videos, games, and other related content.

Figure 4. The Games for Windows - LIVE client provides access to a marketplace with a host of game-related downloads.

Some items, like game demos, are free. Others, like some game add-ons, require a fee. As with Xbox Live, you pay for items on the Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace using Microsoft Points, the software giant's micropayment system.

NOTE

Why can't Microsoft simply use local currency like all other online merchants? That's a fair question, and when pressed, Microsoft says the reason is that it would incur a credit card fee on every transaction, even those that were for small amounts of money, thus making local currency transactions prohibitively expensive. With Microsoft Points, you buy points in bulk in amounts like $25 or $50, saving Microsoft money. Of course, the problem with this system is that you often have leftover points that you can't redeem. Did we mention that this was like a free loan to Microsoft, the largest software company on earth? Yeah, it really is.

Microsoft Points do have one redeeming quality, assuming you've bought into the broader Microsoft ecosystem: they work across several services, including Xbox Live, Zune Marketplace, and the Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace. As a result, you could load up your account with points and purchase an Xbox Live Arcade game on Xbox Live, a Games for Windows - LIVE game title add-on from Games for Windows - LIVE Marketplace, and a digital version of the new U2 album, all in the same day, all using the same account.

Purchased Microsoft Points are associated with your Windows Live ID and, thus, with your Xbox Live Gamertag, your Zune profile, and your Games for Windows - LIVE Gamertag. You can purchase Microsoft Points in various ways, including via the Microsoft Points Web site (http://points.microsoft.com) and with prepaid Xbox Live and Zune Marketplace points cards (found near the register in electronics superstores like Best Buy). If you do need to add points, the Games for Windows - LIVE standalone application has a link, Add Points, that redirects you to the Microsoft Points Web site. Using the client, you can also redeem points using a prepaid card, using the 25-character code it contains.

Beyond this tepid step into e-commerce, the Games for Windows - LIVE client doesn't have much to offer currently. That could change in the future, but for now the real action occurs when you're using an actual Games for Windows - LIVE game title.

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