If you missed CNET's earlier coverage of Microsoft's announcements from the GameFest 2008 conference, here's a brief recap:
Games for Windows - Live is now free at all membership levels.
In the fall, Microsoft will launch a digital distribution service called the Games for Windows - Live Marketplace. DirectX 11 is official, and it will include support for GPU programming, among other new features.
CNET had a chance to talk to Kevin Unangst, Microsoft's Senior Director of Global Gaming, and he provided some more details.
CNET: What was the deciding factor that led Microsoft to drop the Gold-level membership fee for Games for Windows - Live?
Kevin Unangst: Since we introduced Games for Windows - Live we've listened to developers and to PC gamers and they said look, there's a baseline expectation that multiplayer is a service that is just free on Windows; that is just how it works. Looking at it from a competitive angle, it makes sense for us to deliver on that expectation and to go above and beyond. We're confident we have the best matchmaking service on the planet with TruSkill matchmaking and we want to make sure that's available to the largest group of Windows gamers. Making this decision really was a natural part of focusing on what gamers want and what game developers told us they wanted.
CNET: Do you expect Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 will remain a fee-based service?
KU: This announcement in no way has an effect on our Xbox Live plan. If you look at what we announced at E3, there's innovation happening on the Xbox side that's going to deliver great value to Xbox Live subscribers. That's not going to change. What's interesting for us is looking at these two services as connected yet different. We're acknowledging that the needs of PC gamers and PC developers are different and we're going to meet those needs. And there will be unique features that show up on Xbox and don't go to Windows, and there will be unique features that go to Windows and that don't go to Xbox.
CNET: What kinds of unique features do you mean?
KU: The business model clearly now is a differentiator. Cross-platform is something the two have in common, but there may be different types of content between the two. Now that we'll have the Marketplace that we'll distribute content on, the content does not have to be identical, the game types may be different. Pricing models, which we're not going into detail on today, may be different as well, based on what the expectations and needs are of the PC market versus the console market. If you look at some of the things announced at E3, it is not a foregone conclusion that some of the things that are uniquely designed for a console will come to the PC and vice versa.
CNET: Do you have agreements with any publishers to sell their games through the Games for Windows - Live Marketplace?
KU: We haven't made any announcements and aren't at this point talking about who's going to be in the store, but you can imagine our goal is to offer the widest range of content we can to our consumers, whether that's free content or paid content. We have great relationships on both platforms with publishers, and we'll certainly be working with all of them to encourage them to take advantage of what we're going to offer in the new Marketplace.
You can expect to see additional announcements moving ahead as we get closer to that fall release, both in games that take advantage of Games for Windows - Live, as well as content that may be available through the Marketplace.
CNET: How do you intend to differentiate Games for Windows - Live from Valve's Steam service?
KU: We're not focused on how we compete with Steam. We're focused on what kind of value we can deliver to gamers and PC games that make them more desirable. We have a lot of experience on things like achievements, both for single-player and multiplayer games. We've got the cross-platform connectivity. There are a lot of community features built-in, things like being able to choose to prefer or avoid players in our matchmaking. The feedback system I think is unmatched, and that's what you get from having experience with many millions of Xbox Live users. Really our focus is on making the games better, and the publishers will decide for themselves. I think what Steam's doing is a good service.
CNET: Can you get more specific than "fall" for the Marketplace release date?
KU: I have no more specifics other than we have a developer's kit available for game publishers and developers. The release will coincide with the initial games that take advantage of the Marketplace when it first ships. "By the end of the year" is as specific as we can get, but we're targeting fall to release to developers the full, final kit.
CNET: And public availability will happen after that?
KU: The way people will be able to get Marketplace content will be from the Web or from a stand-alone client. When the first games ship that take advantage of Marketplace, that client will be available from Microsoft for download to consumers.
CNET: What issues are there regarding Games for Windows that developers asked you to address?
KU: The biggest issue was the technical requirements that we had for developers to meet in order to be part of the Live Network on Windows. We've reduced those by nearly a third in terms of the hurdles and the technology they needed to include for testing.
CNET: On to DirectX 11. When is that due out?
KU: The final, commercial release will be available for both the next version of Windows and for Windows Vista at the time that the next version of Windows becomes available. We'll of course have developers' kits and other things prior to that. We want to make sure that folks know, we made a big leap with Windows Vista in terms of having to rewrite the graphics pipeline for performance and for new capability. Because we made that leap with Windows Vista, we don't have to make that kind of change moving ahead in terms of backward compatibility. DirectX 11 will support both Windows Vista and the next version of Windows. We'll also be compatible with DirectX 10 and DirectX 10.1 hardware in addition to new DirectX 11 hardware that comes out.
CNET: And because we have to ask, when can we expect the next version of Windows?
KU: There's no announced timing for any follow-ons to Windows Vista at this point.
CNET: How does DirectX 11 work with the other GPU computing software out there, like Nvidia's Cuda?
KU: There are different methods to implement similar goals. If you're going to do things like parallel programming for GPUs, the advantage with DirectX 11 is that the compute shader will be part of what we've done and have very similar functionality to the rest of the shaders and the rest of the language that we use in DirectX. We expect significant adoption, but that's a choice developers will make and how they want to implement it.
CNET: Is the goal similar to the streamlining that Direct3D achieved for 3D graphics drivers?
KU: The goal is really about adding the tools and functionality into the DirectX API that developers tell us they want. If that's multicore support or allowing more programmability on the shaders, all of those things are just about extending a known API that's trusted and used by literally millions of apps over the lifecycle of DirectX and extending that in a way that leverages the investment they already have.