Vista for Games: Boon or Burden?

No matter what happens, or how good a new OS may be, there will be developers that hate it. I’m not taking either side, I’m just stating the facts. Windows Vista could make ponies out of raw dark matter and spit out 100-dollar bills and people would still complain that it doesn’t spit out twenties.
So, to clear up some personal confusion, I sat down with Brad Wardell, President and CEO of Stardock, and talked to him about what gaming can be like on Windows Vista. During out talk I found out a few of the good – graphics can reach a new level with DirectX 10 – and bad – you will need to upgrade your drivers immediately – things about Microsoft’s new OS. Our conversation was, as always, informative and casual.

What’s Up With Vista’s Games for Windows?
Giga Gamez: What’s the advantage of being a Game for Windows?
BW: Well, in theory, Microsoft is reserving shelf space for Games for Windows, so it’ll be easier to get shelf space. Which is ironic since MS has been targeting the top games for it. For instance, Company of Heroes is a Games for Windows, so it’s like “Thank God! I’m sure Company of Heroes couldn’t have gotten any shelf space otherwise!”
GG: Or World of Warcraft.
BW: Yeah, exactly. They need to get World of Warcraft in there because I’d love to see those Blizzard guys catch a break. Maybe they can start selling some copies of that game.
GG: It’s not like they have 8 million subscribers.
BW: Exactly. We have trouble getting Microsoft to pay attention to us and I’ve actually been at some of the meetings where they talk about how great this program is. I was at the CES as a member of the press – which is one of those murky things – and was at a Microsoft briefing in which they were talking about the program and how they’re working with developers. I know they’re not talking to us, though.
However, it is a worthwhile program, and I like what they’re doing, but right now they’re focusing on those top dozen AAA games. Once they have those nailed down, they’ll expand from there.
Is Vista the Indie Game Killer?
GG: Isn’t Vista requiring an ESRB rating for games?
Brad Wardell: To be in Games for Windows you do. You have to have an ESRB rating.
GG: That’s a different promotion or something?
BW: Yeah, that’s a Microsoft program. A game will run because there’s nothing in the code to say what the ESRB rating is, but if you want a tag on the box that says you’re in the Games for Windows program, you do. There’s various goodies that you get from Microsoft for those things, but the program is still in flux.
GG: I read an article recently that talked about Vista being harder for an indie developer to get into, but if it’s just the fact that it will run but not be a “Game for Windows,” then it’s not as much of a problem.
BW: You don’t need any help from Microsoft to show up in the Games Explorer. We just set up Galactic Civilizations II: Dark Avatar to show up in it. Their program is really buggy right now, by the way, in terms of getting that to work. Quite a bit of pain.
They have this thing called Games Explorer, and games install themselves and register themselves with Vista. Then a user can manage their games from this separate console other than the Start menu. I don’t know how useful that will be, but you can manage your games from that menu. Maybe if you’re using it as a set-top box.
GG: So you can run games from the Games Explorer?
BW: Right. You’re familiar with Media Center?
GG: Yeah.
BW: If you have movies on your machine, it will find them. If you have Thundercats – which is a bad example – and it has found it before, it doesn’t have to go searching for it again. When you load Media Center it sets up a thumbnail for it with a screen shot, and you press a button to play it.
The Games Explorer is basically the same thing. If the program properly registers itself with Vista, then in the Games Explorer you get a nice little box shot of the game and you can just click on that to run it. If you have your PC hooked up to your television, then that can be a much nicer interface.
The Developer’s Upside of Vista
GG: From a straight game development standpoint, what’s the best thing you can say about Vista?
BW: DirectX 10 of course. I mean, it won’t affect a strategy game like Galactic Civilizations that much, but if you’re doing something with a lot of physics, then the video card can do a lot more of the heavy lifting without going back to the CPU. That’s a big deal. You don’t want to have to send stuff back and forth across the bus while working on a model, because if it’s all being done on the card you get much better performance on sophisticated stuff.
GG: The desktop runs in DirectX all the time now, right?
BW: Right.
GG: How much does that actually save you in terms of performance?
BW: Well, let’s use an example. We worked with Microsoft on Windows Dream Scene, which is the animated wallpaper for Windows Vista Ultimate. You can now use a 10 or 20 second looping video as your desktop wallpaper. Of course, you’ll read some guy online saying “You could do that in Windows 95!” Sure you could, if you wanted to use 95% of your CPU. If you could realistically run animated wallpapers, people would be doing it now. Ever seen anyone running an animated wallpaper?
GG: No.
BW: No, because it sucks up all the processing power. Now, if you’re on a modern machine you’re only talking about 5-10% of your CPU, and that’s just the decoding. Next month we’ll be releasing Deskscapes, which does dynamic content. This is the real test of DirectX running as the desktop. We can run dynamic content onto the desktop as a wallpaper, real-time 3D rendered stuff, and it uses less than 1% of the CPU. That’s tested on my laptop, which isn’t exactly a good machine.
GG: What would that buy you with gaming?
BW: With games, not a lot. One can imagine that someday we’ll have much more obnoxious web ads. I could see people doing some interesting things with flash. When they update Flash some day, they might notice what’s going on with Vista and it could lead to some fancier Flash games. I think that casual games can now be a heck of a lot fancier. I mean, you can do DirectX in a window, but this makes it a ton easier and there’s more APIs that you’ll have access to that aren’t game related like the Windows Presentation Foundation. They’ll be able to make use of that and do some interesting things. There’s also a new mark-up language called XAML which lets you do some interesting stuff right on the desktop.
And Then the Bad…
GG: What’s bad about Vista?
BW: It’s very immature. When you get Windows Vista you’re going to need to update your video drivers right away. If you’re a gamer, there’s no question about it. It’s not a matter of “I’ll get around to it.” No, if you plan to game you’ll have to update immediately. If you don’t then your games are GOING to crash.
I will say that the ATI drivers are in better shape than the Nvidia ones. I’ve been trying to run Company of heroes on it and it just doesn’t work. This is just casual use. However, you can’t really blame ATI and Nvidia because Vista really just became stable last fall in a way that they could do any serious work. It’s also a lot harder to make a video driver for Windows Vista than it is for Windows XP.
GG: Aren’t drivers supposed to be signed by Microsoft at this point?
BW: No. There was some talk of doing that, but they decided against it. I can’t even imagine developing on Vista then because most of the drivers we’re using are in their beta state. However there are some incompatibility problems we’re running into with our gadgets. Apparently in Vista, you’re not allowed to get too deep in to the DRM. Anything that interacts deeply with Windows Media Player has to be signed by Microsoft.
GG: I could see that being a pain.
BW: Well to us, a Microsoft partner, it’s not that big of a deal, but what about an up-and-coming developer or if you’re in another country. What if they don’t have many resources or aren’t a Microsoft partner? You’re out of luck.
GG: So it won’t run until Microsoft has signed off on it?
BW: Right. It’s a tough thing because I understand the problems with piracy, but it’s hard on the smaller companies. For me, I don’t like being inconvenienced by the DRM.
What Can DirectX 10 Do For You?
GG: So casual gaming can make use of the DirectX desktop as well?
BW: Yeah, if I was playing a game like Spore or something, it’s going to be full screen and what will I care if the desktop is DirectX or not?
GG: When will we start seeing the effects of DirectX 10?
BW: When it comes to DirectX 10, Crysis is where you’re going to start to see the new features being taken advantage of. I’m sure they’ll have a halfway mode, but I think we’ll see a real quantum leap in the graphics in that game with DirectX 10. Or as we like to say around here, maybe we’ll actually start to see grass instead of spray-painted ground with occasional lines. Imagine how good the next Elder Scrolls game will be. You could end up in environments that just look incredible.