DirectX 11 Details, Games for Windows to Launch Desktop Client and Marketplace

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One of the big announcements at this year’s Gamefest – Microsoft’s XNA developers conference taking place in Seattle right now – is the next step for the Games for Windows initiative. We spoke with Kevin Unangst, Senior Global Director of Games for Windows, who gave us a breakdown of the updated service and how it’ll affect current GFW account owners. Kevin also clued us into the details from the official DirectX 11 unveiling, including what three new features have been added to the API.

Starting today, Games for Windows will not be split into two subscriber account types. Instead of a free Silver or paid Gold account, all Games for Windows LIVE users will have the same free account, with all of the service’s features enabled. All of the functionality that used to be limited to Gold accounts will be free and shared for any registered user, which includes features from already existing GFW games (Gears of war, Shadowrun, Universe at War, etc).

If you take that account over to the Xbox 360, you’ll be a Silver user by default (no online play). If someone previously paid for an annual subscription for a Gold account and only played on Windows – something that can be determined – Microsoft’s customer service department will actually proactively alert you and refund what you’d paid so far. You’ll either receive a credit card refund or a check in the mail.

Said Kevin Unangst: “This is really an acknowledgement that we have two different services that are designed for two different audiences. On Windows, we’re taking a concerted look, listening to consumers and developers, and determining what functionality we need to develop on the base level and what optimizations we need to make for PC gamers.”

Another way the Games for Windows LIVE service will change is the look of the in-game UI. The original in-game “guide,” looked a lot like the Xbox 360 dashboard. With a Fall update, the UI will be revamped to be more user friendly for PC gamers. Says Unangst, “we’re redesigning the guide to make it more like a Windows app. It has drop down menus from the top, with close and back buttons. It’s going to be something that’s built for PC gamers from the ground up, both in the business model and how gamers access the service. What you’re going to see is different offerings on the PC and the Xbox. But what we will not move away from is having a service commonality, like cross-platform play.”

The fall release will also include the launch of a marketplace for Games for Windows LIVE, which won’t be a port of the Xbox LIVE marketplace. It’ll offer additional game content, which may be free or cost Microsoft Points (if the developers choose), as well as game trailers and demos. What you won’t see, though are movies or music. Said Unangst, “We’re not trying to build video marketplace or music marketplace at this time. There’s no limit to the type of game or game content that we can offer on the service, but we’re not announcing any plans at this point.”

The marketplace will be accessible from a new stand-alone client, in addition to the Games for Windows website and in-game guide, of course. The desktop client sounds like it’ll primarily be a gateway into the marketplace, and will only have limited access to community content. You’ll be able to check your Gamerscore and preferences, but Microsoft has yet to determine what community features will be integrated in the initial client as opposed to future releases.

When we asked Unangst of why Microsoft decided to free up GFW LIVE, he replied: “We had a renewed focus, particularly in the last year, on the investment and the service. This is simply a result of putting together a team of people, led by Chris Early, to focus on what works on the PC. What do game developers need? What do consumers need? And the reality is, baseline multiplayer play simply is something that Windows gamers and game developers expect to be free. This is an acknowledgement of how the PC model works. If you want to drive adoption, you look at the model that works.”

While it’s not exactly an admission that the paid-model was a bad idea, it’s probably the biggest concession we’ll get from Microsoft.

Microsoft also disclosed DirectX 11 details to the developers attending Gamefest. Three main enhancements were highlighted for the API:

  • The addition of compute shader technology, so developers will be able to use the GPU for more than 3D graphics.
  • Better support for multi-core resource handling and more efficient utilization of the processing pipeline.
  • New support for tessellation, which is actually a superset of what the Xbox 360 is already doing. According to Microsoft, this will “blur the line between super high quality pre-rendered scenes and scenes rendered in real-time, allowing game developers to refine models to be smoother and more attractive when seen up close.”

Kevin Unangst elaborates: “From a broad perspective, what’s important is that we’re making sure DX11 is fully compatible with DX10 and 10.1 hardware and working on Vista and the next version of Windows. This is definitely an enhancement – building on what we did with DX10, but doing it in a way that is backward compatible with the software and hardware. The improvements we’re adding to DX11 – the new shader work – are additions that developers have asked of us to take advantage of new hardware.”

Our opinion? Compute Shaders are interesting, but kind of a non-issue for desktop users, very few apps on the desktop are suited to use GPU-based computing and only a handful of apps actually use GPUs today. This is compounded by the fact that apps are tied to either ATI's or Nvidia's proprietary APIs, not a common API. Unfortunately, it's pretty unlikely that the industry is going to embrace a Microsoft-specific API, as most of the current users for GPU-based computing are on OS X, Linux, or other Unix-based platforms. It's much more likely that a cross-platform solution, like Apple's OpenCL will capture a large market share.

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