Microsoft's big PC plans

DirectX 9 will be the last DX release for a while, as Microsoft focuses resources on making bigger improvements for PC gaming in Longhorn, including introducing a standard controller.


At GDC, we had a chance to sit down with Dean Lester, the head of Microsoft's Windows Graphics and Gaming division, to hear about the software giant's major new project to make the PC a better gaming platform. Lester acknowledged that two or three years of the company's attention was focused on launching the Xbox, but he said that now it's the PC's turn. The PC gaming initiative has support from "Bill and Ballmer" on down, and it's enough of a priority that there are some 200 people working on it. Basically, Microsoft will make improving the PC gaming experience one of the central appeals of Longhorn, the next major version of Windows that's expected in about two years.

Before saying too much about where Microsoft is going, it's important to know where the platform stands. We've seen major releases of DirectX nearly every year since the standard debuted in the early days of Windows 95. Lester revealed that DirectX 9 packs enough features to be future-proof and is a temporary stopping place for DX development. ATI, Nvidia, and other hardware companies have spelled out their road maps in enough detail that DX9 has previously unannounced support for all the next-generation graphics features, and as a result Microsoft doesn't expect to release another major DirectX update for a couple of years.

As has been rumored, Longhorn will likely include a major overhaul in Window's visual presentation, which may include 3D interface elements. Lester also said it would include a special "My Games" view that would centralize all the matchmaking, control panel settings, patching tools, and game lists and make such tasks much simpler. Microsoft is working on streamlining a number of current technical trouble areas, like the installation process and display drivers, and will centralize game updates through a Windows Update-like patch server. It's also looking into making it possible to run Windows games directly from the CD without installation. Somewhat more straightforward features include adding sophisticated matchmaking into Microsoft Messenger and parental controls over which users can play certain games.

There are a couple of parts of the initiative that will require wide industry support: new system requirements for retail packages and a standard for PC controllers. The current methods for listing system requirements are confusing and don't necessarily represent what's actually needed for a game to perform well. The plan is to set up a numerical system that categorizes and groups system levels, and when this goes into effect in 2005 or so, a level-1 system might represent the current or year-old value-priced PC configurations, while level 2 and level 3 group systems that define the mainstream and high-end performance of the time. As PCs progress, new levels will be added. Lester admitted that there were some challenges ahead to get the necessarily industry support, but he also noted that Longhorn would require the sort of general rethinking of PC standards that's accompanied previous Windows generations.

One of the bigger surprises came when Lester mentioned that Microsoft is working on a standard PC controller, which would allow a more seamless conversion of cross-platform titles and generally simplify the use of PC gamepads. To get the ball rolling, Microsoft will update its Sidewinder lineup with its own next-generation PC controller, but also expects other controller makers to follow suit. The heart of the controller initiative revolves around standardizing the number, type, and layout of buttons. In contrast to how it's now necessary to program PC gamepads for specific games, the standard should make things more plug-and-play.

Given that the gaming improvements will likely be touted as a reason to upgrade to Longhorn, Microsoft's business motivations for the project are fairly evident, particularly since the company's operating business is still it's most lucrative. But that in turn means there's some pressure for the initiative to be ready on time. Although all these elements are scheduled to be ready in time for Longhorn's roughly 2005 release schedule, Lester mentioned the possibility that some parts might be released at a later time.

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