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Does Microsoft really believe in PC gaming's bright future?

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The Games for Windows PR juggernaut rolled inexorably forward this week, with the announcement that "Games for Windows - LIVE" - the cumbersomely monickered PC equivalent of Xbox Live - will appear in May, alongside Halo 2's long-delayed debut on Windows. Microsoft's declarations of its support for the PC as a gaming platform are approaching near-religious fervour, with each subsequent pronouncement more eager to prove the company's vast confidence in the future of the market.

Of course, there's a major catch. Microsoft's belief in the future of the PC gaming market, and even in the future of the Windows gaming market, is narrowly defined. The company believes in the future of the gaming market for consumers who upgrade to Windows Vista, for games companies who support Windows Vista's videogame-related features, and, of course, only for people who have hardware capable of meeting Vista's demands - not a problem for many hardcore gamers, but enough to deny the company's seal of approval to more casual players.

It's at least partially on that basis that Valve's marketing manager Doug Lombardi doesn't trust Microsoft's intentions. He told us last week at GDC, in no uncertain terms, that he thinks Microsoft's newfound dedication to the PC is all just "part of the marketing push to help Vista".

Moreover, he pulled no punches in his comments on the consequences of that; "if it's going to use it to promote sales of Vista, that's really not good for the industry, it's good for Microsoft in the short term."

Strong words, but let's face it - for all Microsoft's efforts to convince the world that it really, truly wants Windows to be the platform of choice for gaming, Lombardi is only saying what everyone else is thinking.

Microsoft is a conflicted company when it comes to games, and the threats to the dominance of the PC from the likes of Apple and Linux are minor and far-off compared to the uphill struggle the firm faces in the console market against the firmly entrenched Sony. If it comes down to it, any decision which calls for Microsoft to choose between the Xbox and Windows will always be made in favour of the Xbox - at least for the foreseeable future.

Vista represents the exception to that rule. Long-delayed and much-criticised, the new operating system is another aspect of the company's business that needs support - and gaming has, as Lombardi accuses, been drafted in to supply that support.

At the core of this lies what many developers have told me is a little white lie; namely, the careful inference that DirectX 10, Microsoft's new games technology platform, is so tightly integrated with Vista that it couldn't easily be retrofitted to Windows XP. Why, exactly, a relatively simple speedbump in the shader technology of graphics cards - which is the primary feature added in DirectX 10 - couldn't be implemented on XP has never been adequately explained.

It's rather too convenient that a technology which somehow won't work on the venerable and largely reliable Windows XP should emerge just as Vista pads out of its den, and it's clear - forgive me for stating what will be patently obvious to almost everyone, I'm sure - that the whole DirectX 10 thing is just a handy way of forcing gamers to upgrade to Vista.

The situation looks even more nonsensical when you consider that one of the first games to be Vista-only will be Halo 2 - a title which, over two years ago, ran perfectly happy on an Xbox console sporting a 700MHz processor and a GeForce 3 equivalent card, hardware built when DirectX 10 wasn't even a twinkle in Microsoft's avaricious eye.

So yes, Lombardi is quite right in his suspicions. While it doesn't take a man as knowledgable as he is about the PC market to point the finger of accusation at Microsoft's motives, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the developer of some of the most successful games on the platform giving such short shrift to the firm which is, in effect, the platform holder. You can't really imagine a Sony- or Nintendo-licensed developer making such an accusation about their platform holders' motives.

However, the PC market is not the same as the console market - and Microsoft may be the closest thing it has to a platform holder, but the fact remains that it is not a platform holder in PC, and never will be.

Those who saw Microsoft's decision to weigh in behind the platform as crucial - and those who stand to be most disappointed if the support wanes along with the need to shift copies of Vista - are those who still see the PC market as fragile and declining, a view supported by dropping retail sales in most territories.

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. The PC market is robust, healthy and diverse - supporting a rich and varied ecosystem of companies on a wide range of revenue streams and value chains. It's completely true that the boxed game market is in decline, and while that decline may be bumped by Microsoft's involvement, it is merely a temporary reprieve from the deathbed.

The true PC market - the market which is not measured in figures from NPD, Chart-Track or GfK - is a new economy, a truly 21st century digital marketplace which has been built by companies like Valve and Blizzard, and by a shoal of small, ambitious firms who are realising more and more of the potential of the world's most connected platform on a daily basis.

Doug Lombardi knows that, of course; Valve's Steam distribution service is one of the businesses on the vanguard of this market. Blizzard's World of Warcraft needs no introduction, and its revenues cause green-eyed jealousy in companies across the industry. Linden Labs' Second Life has uniquely merged the concepts of Web 2.0 and 3D MMOs to create an extraordinary media sensation, and a rather successful business.

Casual game firms like PopCap are turning ten-minute coffee breaks in offices around the world into the building blocks of corporate success. Tiny developers like Britain's celebrated and award-winning Introversion team are building unique, exciting content to fill the demand which is being tapped at last by digital distribution services. The PC market teems with life - but not as we know it.

This is a market which has been built almost entirely without Microsoft's intervention or assistance - and while the helping hand of the Redmond behemoth won't be slapped away by any of the companies involved, they are also keenly aware that should that hand be withdrawn, they can continue to grow and prosper without it.

The concern, of course, is that if Microsoft acts as a fair-weather champion for the PC, only to quietly edge away when the deed is done and the gamers have all upgraded to Vista, that retreat will signal yet more headlines about the death of the PC as a gaming platform - and it's in some measure this disquiet which makes PC developers and publishers cautious in their welcoming of the Games for Windows push.

The irony, of course, is that should those headlines ever appear, the writers who mourn the death of PC gaming will probably do so in between games of Bejeweled; or perhaps while waiting for rest bonus to stack up in World of Warcraft; or emailing a viral game advertising a new movie release to a friend; perhaps while waiting for a new indie game to download from Steam.

PC gaming, as usual, is a few years ahead of the console curve. Those who declare the PC gaming platform to be in ill health on the basis of the disappearance of the games from retail would do better to turn their logic on its head, and worry for the future of retail - because where the PC games disappear today, tomorrow the console titles will follow.

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