It's no big secret that Games for Windows Live sucks. While the name is comically bad, it's the most minor problem facing the fledgling service. It misses much of the mojo that makes Xbox Live for the...um... Xbox awesome. Once you're in an actual Games for Windows Live-compatible game, it works OK, but even starting a game and getting connected to Live can be a big problem.
If Microsoft is serious about helping PC gaming, Microsoft has to get on the stick and, at bare minimum, bring Games for Windows Live to the same level as the Xbox version. That means we need an always-on application that monitors our friends list and lets our pals send us game invites while we aren't necessarily playing one of the few games that actually supports Live. Creating this app should be Microsoft's number 1 priority.
Shared listen servers may be acceptable for console gamers, but PC gamers demand the better connection that only a dedicated server can provide. While Games for Windows Live includes some support for dedicated servers, games played on dedicated servers don't contribute to your achievements or ranking online. That's just unacceptable. A killer online service for the PC must include fully-fledged support for dedicated servers. Hell, making this work would be of huge benefit to PC and Xbox customers--with dedicated servers, Team Fortress 2 would have stood a chance on Xbox 360.
Games for Windows Live is plagued with connection problems, odd error messages, tricky-to-install updates, and a host of other problems make GfW Live more frustrating than fun. Some games suffered from epic matchmaking queues. Some seem to work, but never connect. Some rigs won't connect on the same network that work perfectly with an Xbox. Sure, once the connection is working, it's great. Until then, it's frustrating as hell.
Call me a whore for commerce, but I actually like Xbox Live Marketplace. It's really swell to be able to go out and purchase games, movies, and TV shows for play on my Xbox then download them on the spot. While there's a lot of crap on the service--I'm looking at you, card game genre--there are some legitimately wonderful games available or soon to be available for download. With downloadable demo version of every single game, Marketplace is a no-brainer. Why isn't there a PC version? Hell, we don't even mind converting our perfectly fungible US tender into goofy Microsoft 'points' in order to make purchases on Live Marketplace.
As of my last count, there are precisely seven games that support online play using Games for Windows Live. Seven. For the privilege of playing Halo 2, Shadowrun, Gears of War, Viva Pinata, Juiced 2, Kane & Lynch, and Universe at War online with my friends, I have to pay $60 a year. Don't get me wrong, I have absolutely no problem paying for Live as an Xbox owner. I have tons of games to play, and I like that people actually have something to lose by being asshats. But, the value proposition for Live for Windows is out of whack if you don't own an Xbox, and the arbitrary limitations that Microsoft has imposed on free Games for Windows Live accounts (you can't use your friends list for matchmaking, can only play in random matchmaking games, and can't collect multiplayer achievements) don't make much sense.
This is where I talk about Steam. Steam does everything that Games for Windows Live does, minus the Xbox Live integration (and really, do we want to play PC games with console weenies?). Steam offers the same voice chat and matchmaking that GfW Live does, but ups the ante with so much more! I'm going to break it down feature by feature:
This seems like a simple thing, but Microsoft hasn't been able to deliver it since GfWL launched in June of last year. The lightweight Steam app lies nestled snugly in my system tray, notifying me of friend's game invites, scheduled events, or questions from folks who are in-game. When I launch a game in Steam (even the ones not published by Valve), I simply press Shift+Tab and much of Steam's functionality is available in an overlay. This is how a friends list should work.
The worst part of playing PC games online is the constant patching. Updating a game like Call of Duty or Company of Heroes is a constant, never-ending affair, filled with confusion and heartbreak. Steam automatically patches games you purchase through the service, in much the same way that Xbox Live automatically patches Xbox games when you first load them. The other glorious thing about Steam is that games you purchase using the service don't include intrusive copy-protection software or CD-checks that frequently fail to work. You buy your game, you download it, and it simply works.
In your Steam client, you'll see a handy little tab. It's called Tools, but it's really the home for Dedicated servers. You can download and install the dedicated server client for many games straight from the Steam client. Additionally, Valve's made good tools to keep dedicated servers up to date with the latest patches. Since most home users Internet connection can't deliver as much bandwidth as a game server demands, there are also third-party dedicated hosts, who you (and your friends) can pay to host servers for you.
This seems relatively minor, but to people who are serious about competitve team-based games, its vital. Giving users the ability to form and manage clans (Valve calls them "Groups") kicks ass. Not only does Steam's Group feature offer roster management, it also gives you the ability to schedule events, denote the server your event will be on, join any of your clanmates in games, and even participate in clan-only chat. The conveniences Steam offers to competitive players are far superior to both Xbox Live and Games for Windows Live. The only thing that comes close is Xfire. (Feel free to join the Maximum PC Steam group if you're interested!)
This is the best part. Steam is available right now, and it's free to anyone. If you want to start using the friends list, all you need are some games you've purchased from Steam and some friends. When Games for Windows gets its ducks in a row, I'll play games with my Xbox brethren. Until then, I'll be playing some Team Fortress 2 on Steam.