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It's, uh, Live!

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I enjoy Xbox Live. It's a great service even if there are a lot of idiots using it. It took me awhile to warm up to the idea of paying a subscription fee to play games online, but I've since come to realize that with Xbox Live you get what you pay for. Apparently, I'm not the only one who feels this way. With several million subscribers and growing, the future of Xbox Live looks pretty bright right now. But can the service thrive beyond the Xbox?

Microsoft thinks so, and it's getting ready to raise the second pillar of its Live Anywhere triad, Games For Windows – Live. The notion of a unified community of PC game players and Xbox 360 game players living in harmony is hopelessly romantic, but if anyone is in the position to make it happen, it's Microsoft. Personally I couldn't care less about playing games on my PC that I could just as easily play on my Xbox 360, but I'm holding out hope that Games for Windows – Live will be everything Microsoft is promising and more. But even if the service fails miserably, it should be an interesting experiment.

Although I don't see Games for Windows – Live ever enjoying the kind of widespread success of its Xbox counterpart, Microsoft is a tenacious beast with money to burn. There's nothing to lose by trying to cater to the PC crowd by marketing the newly released Vista operating system as a gaming-centric product. The biggest hurdle for Microsoft is fact that PC gamers have been playing games online for a decade, whereas console gamers have only been playing online in significant numbers for three or four years. For the past few years console owners looking to play games online had but two choices: Xbox Live and whatever third-party solution any given PlayStation 2 game offered. Xbox Live was the first widely successful, unified online gaming service for home consoles, and that's the reason people use it and are willing to pay to do so.

It's an entirely different story with PC gaming. The PC culture is averse to paying for anything, or even thinking about paying for anything. There are all kinds of free software and services online, legitimate and otherwise. Why would people start paying money all of a sudden, especially when they don't really get much for the investment?

Here's what you get for free with Games for Windows – Live:

Shared account between Games for Windows – Live and Xbox Live
Single-player Achievements
Private Text and Voice Chat
Friends List
PC-only Multiplayer

…and here's what you get for $50 per year:

Multiplayer Matchmaking with Friends
TrueSkill Matchmaking
Multiplayer Achievements
Cross-platform Multiplayer Gameplay

Based on that features list, I'd say it would certainly make sense to sign up for a Silver account on Games for Windows – Live. For one thing, it's free so there's no risk. More importantly, it brings together all the people playing (supported) PC games and makes it easy to set up multiplayer matches for said games. I'm not convinced that paying for a Gold membership will see as much of a return. I'm curious to see how Microsoft is going to convince PC game players that they should start paying for the privilege of playing against Xbox 360 players. Will anyone with a free account feel like they're missing out because they can't play with Xbox 360 players? If anything, I feel a bit cheated for paying for Xbox 360-only multiplayer for the past year when the PC people are getting a comparable service for free right out of the gate.

Although it doesn't make much sense to me, I'm sure there are people out there who will pay, if only for those multiplayer achievements. I do think that there is a demand for a unified online gaming service, and although there are some such services available, there's plenty of room for improvement. From a development standpoint, online play has been handled differently on the PC than on consoles. Instead of catering multiplayer games to a singular online community, PC developers have typically developed online functionality for each individual game, around which relatively small, insular communities form. For instance, there's a huge community of Counter-Strike players and a huge community of Battlefield players, but the two groups have nothing to do with one another. Sure, some people might play both games, but the groups at large have no reason to mingle, even though they share a common interest (team-based shooters). There have been exceptions, such as Battle.net, which is Blizzard's online community for the various iterations of Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcraft. Battle.net is highly successful with millions of active users worldwide, but it's limited to a handful of Blizzard games. It's also free, which puts it in a slightly different category than Games for Windows – Live.

So once again the question is, will you pay for Games for Windows – Live? It doesn't matter for me because I already pay for Xbox Live, so I'm a subscriber by default. I don't imagine I will ever use it though, simply because I prefer to play games on my Xbox 360 and it doesn't matter to me whether I'm playing against someone on a PC or a console. Now if I could play an Xbox 360 game against someone with the same game on a PlayStation 3, that would be something worth getting excited about. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out by the end of the year, with PC gamers earning Halo 2 achievements while Xbox 360 gamers busy themselves with Halo 3. What do you think? Will Games for Windows – Live bring about a utopian state of free love and headshots between PC and Xbox 360 players?

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