Back in September 2006, I wrote about Microsoft's fledgling Games for Windows initiative (see my showcase), a worthy attempt at making the Windows gaming experience as seamless and pain free as the experience consumers get on video game consoles like the Xbox 360. The idea is a great one: Windows-based games already outsell console games by a wide margin, and Windows Vista, Microsoft's latest OS, contains a number of gaming-related technologies, such as the Games Explorer, DirectX 10, and even compatibility with Xbox 360 peripherals. So why not make PC gaming as simple and pain-free as console gaming? After all, PC gamers are the ones who spend the big bucks.

There was just one major piece missing. While PC games often feature Internet connectivity so that gamers can play together and against one another online, each game has to create this online experience individually. On the Xbox 360, in particular, and on the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Nintendo Wii to a lesser extent, the online experience is a more cohesive whole, a first-tier part of the overall platform. In an effort to bring this experience to PC gamers, Microsoft announced that it would meld its Xbox 360-based Xbox Live service with Windows Live in something that was briefly called Live Anywhere. (I haven't seen that name used in a while.) Now called Games for Windows LIVE, this service melds the best of Xbox Live with, well, a small but important chunk of Windows Live, giving Windows-based gamers a subset of the Xbox Live experience. The first question, of course, is whether this makes any sense at all. Honestly, I'm not quite sure.

First, a baby step

The first step in melding Windows Live--which brings us such products and services as Windows Live Messenger (see my review), Windows Live Hotmail (see my review), and Windows Live Spaces (see my review of its predecessor, MSN Spaces), among others--and Xbox Live is the Spring 2007 Update for Xbox Live (see my review). This major Xbox update provides, among other things, a link between Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's PC-based instant messaging service, and Xbox Live. That means that gamers who own both a Windows-based PC and an Xbox 360 can be automatically logged onto Windows Live from either device and access their contacts list, host text chats, and discover what their buddies are up to online.

My take on this capability is simple: While it's a necessary connection piece, most adults will want to skip out on this feature, which I find annoying and distracting. Typically, when I jump on the Xbox 360, it's because I want to zone out and blast some aliens or whatever, and there's nothing I want less at that time than an IM-based interruption. That said, I'm 40 years old. For the legions of multitasking college student gamers out there, this is probably a killer feature. And on a technical level, even I can appreciate what Microsoft has done here: Bringing together Windows Live and Xbox Live in this fashion is a nascent first step to a truly interconnected future.

Then, bring Xbox Live basics to Windows

The next step, of course, is bringing Xbox Live functionality to the Windows side. Looking at the Xbox Live Dashboard, you can see a few key bits that would need to come over. Xbox Live customers each have a Gamertag, which is conveniently already associated with a Windows Live ID (formerly called a Passport account). This Gamertag includes a Rep, or reputation (one to five stars), a Gamerscore (the total number of Achievement points collected in all the Xbox 360 games they've played), and other data. There's a list of games played, with Achievements broken down by game. And each Gamertag has associated lists of messages (similar to emails), friends (like contacts), and players (other gamers they've faced off against online). Then, there are various settings, related to game types, the Dashboard, and other aspects of the Xbox 360 experience.

The reason the Gamertag system works so well on the 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 3 (see my review), or watching a live or recorded TV show via the 360's Media Center Extender functionality, your friends can see what you're up to, even if they're playing Rainbow Six Vegas (see my review) or just browsing the downloadable content on Xbox Live Marketplace. This is, in essence, the Xbox 360's killer feature, and its' astonishing to me that neither Sony, with the PS3, nor Nintendo, with the Wii, has figured this out. It's all about the community: Xbox Live members can link together no matter what they're doing.

The Games for Windows Live experience

So what's it like on Windows? Sadly, the integrated nature of Xbox Live is exactly what Microsoft got wrong with Games for Windows LIVE. On the Windows side, Microsoft has done nothing to make LIVE as ubiquitous as Xbox Live is on the Xbox 360. Nor has Microsoft done much to integrate LIVE into Windows Live Messenger, the obvious linking point between the two services. You can access your Xbox Live-based friends list from Messenger, via the Xbox 360 tab, but you can't access other Xbox Live data like stored messages or Achievements from that client. Additionally, you can't even access any Xbox Live/Games for Windows LIVE info from the Games Explorer in Windows Vista. Nope, Games for Windows LIVE is most incredibly a disconnected experience in Windows. Strictly speaking, you can only access the service from the very limited selection of games that are currently compatible with Games for Windows LIVE.

In other words, you're really only participating in Games for Windows LIVE when you're playing a compatible game, which right now amounts to almost no games at all: Only Halo 2 for Windows Vista, Shadowrun, and UNO are full-fledged Games for Windows LIVE titles, and UNO won't even ship until "later in 2007." Microsoft says that other games, including third party titles, will eventually appear, but for the foreseeable future, these three titles are all you're going to get.

See the problem yet?

Clearly, a better way to handle this would be for Microsoft to create a pervasive Games for Windows LIVE client, available via Games Explorer and Windows Live Messenger and elsewhere in Windows, which could be accessed both inside and outside of LIVE-compatible game titles. But since we don't have that kind of seamless experience, let's examine what we do get.

Boot up a LIVE-compatible title (did I mention there were just three coming in all of 2007?) and you can access the LIVE service by pressing the HOME button on your keyboard (Figure). As you can see, this is a reasonable facsimile of the Xbox Guide, which you access on the Xbox 360 when you press the Xbox button the controller. From here, you can access your Gamertag's Gamer Profile (Figure), your Messages, Friends, and Players lists, a Private Chat area for one-on-one voice conversations, and Personal Settings, which includes Online Status, Voice, and Notifications only. (On the Xbox 360, you also get Vibration, Themes, Active Downloads, and Shut Down, most of which are specific to the Xbox 360 console.)

As with the 360's Xbox Dashboard, virtual Xbox 360 controller buttons appear throughout the UI, so you know which buttons to press to perform different actions. (The red "B" button is typically "Back," for example.) However, on Windows, you can also hit the corresponding keyboard key (like "b") to perform the same actions, which is handy and logical.

Basically, the Games for Windows LIVE experience appears to be designed for just a few basic tasks, including:

Accessing and modifying information associated with your Gamertag. You can view your Gamerscore, Rep, and other related info, accessed overall and individual game Achievements (Figure), and so on. Account management occurs outside the client: If you access this option, you'll be presented with an IE window.

Messages. Here, you can access messages sent through the Xbox Live/Games for Windows LIVE network (Figure). These are email-like in nature, but can include audio and video messages in addition to normal text messages (the latter of which are limited to 255 characters).You can create new text and audio messages from the client, but cannot create video messages. You can send and approve Friend requests as well.

Friends. This is the list of people with whom you have created online relationships (Figure). As with the Xbox 360, this list is presented with the people online at the top, followed by the remainder of your Friends list in alphabetical order. You see what your online Friends are up to (which game they're playing, or other Xbox 360 experience they're enjoying, such as Windows Media Center or browsing the Xbox Dashboard).

Players. This is the list of Xbox Live/Games for Windows LIVE users with which you've competed recently online (Figure). As with the Friends list, players who are currently online appear at the top of the list. All the normal functions are available, so you can submit a player review, file a complaint, mute them, send a message or invite them to a private chat, or send a Friend Request.

Private Chat. Here, you engage in up to five separate one-on-one audio chats with Friends and other players.

Personal Settings. In this submenu, you can configure your Online Status (Online, Away, Busy, Appear Offline), your Voice options (playback and recording volume, plus access to sound hardware and a Mute Microphone option), and Notifications (even more limited than on the 360: You can toggle Show Notifications and Play Sound only).

As with Xbox Live, there are two levels of service, and if you're an Xbox Live member already, all your rights and capabilities transfer over automatically to Games for Windows LIVE as well. So users who opted for the free Xbox Live Silver membership can access a single Gamertag with an associated Gamer Profile, Gamerscore, and Friends list, single player game Achievements, private text and audio chat, and PC-only multiplayer gaming. For about $50 a year, you can upgrade to Xbox Live Gold, which gives you all the functionality from Silver plus multiplayer matchmaking capabilities with those in your Friends list, TrueSkill Matchmaking for finding players online that better match your own abilities, multiplayer Achievements, and cross-platform game play (limited to only Shadowrun for the rest of the year, apparently).

Now what?

In the days ahead, I'll be examining Halo 2 for Windows Vista (see my install screenshot gallery) and Shadowrun for Windows Vista and Xbox 360 (see my screenshot galleries) with an aim towards understanding how well the Achievements system meshes on the PC side and, with Shadowrun, to see what cross-platform online gaming is like. I expect that latter experiment to occupy the better part of an hour, but you never know.

Looking at the big picture, it's hard to escape the notion that Microsoft has delivered the absolute minimum here: A single online identity with a unified contacts list that combines people I communicate with on the Xbox 360 and the PC. So much other obvious functionality is missing in action. For example, why can't I change my Gamertag picture to any picture I can find on my PC? Why can't I access Xbox Live Marketplace content, especially the downloadable TV shows and movies, from my PC? Where are all the other games, especially third party titles? And how is Microsoft going to convince third parties to come on board when it's unclear what the advantage to LIVE is? The more I think about this, the more questions I have.

Looking ahead, I'm curious to see how many PC gamers sign on for the Gold level of service. My guess is that most Gold customers for the next year or more will come almost solely from the Xbox side. That will only change if Microsoft can surprise us with many more Games for Windows LIVE titles, especially those from third parties and those that offer cross-platform capabilities. Maybe the lure of cheap PC-based Achievements will lure a few gamers, I guess. Certainly, I'll be milking Halo 2 for Windows Vista for all its worth. But what happens when I finish that task a week later? There's still another 6 months left this year.

Final thoughts

In its current incarnation, Games for Windows LIVE isn't fully realized and is really only the first step toward linking the PC with its Xbox 360 stable mate. Connections between the two systems can and should improve over time, and while that's something to look forward to, there really isn't that much compelling content or functionality right now. Sure, I'm looking forward to Halo 2 on the PC, but then I'm a first-person shooter tool, when it comes down to it. And yes, Shadowrun will offer some novelty thrills for about 10 minutes unless the game is a million times better than it was in the Xbox 360-based beta. Overall, there's just not that much to get excited about right now, once you get past the notion of linking PC and Xbox 360 gaming. As usual with a 1.0 Microsoft product, the implementation is so much less dramatic than the promise. Here's to the future, which can only get better.