Vista gaming gets Bay view

Microsoft Game Studios exec Rich Wickham talks PC gaming strategy at San Francisco press event.

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SAN FRANCISCO--Microsoft's Games for Windows division chose a clear but chilly San Francisco afternoon to hold a press event for its upcoming operating system, Windows Vista. Games for Windows director Rich Wickham opened the event with a brief address to cover the "most important points" for Vista's game-related features.

First, Wickham reminded his captive audience that the operating system itself will include numerous interface features to accommodate games. He noted the built-in "games explorer" start menu feature, which will help catalog saved game data and include enhanced and built-in parental controls. He commented on the controls, saying they will not only let concerned parents lock out games with mature content, but also help PC owners who share their computers with others maintain their game settings (rather than have them constantly switched by other people).

Vista helps bring the World in Conflict to a high-definition monitor near you.
Vista helps bring the World in Conflict to a high-definition monitor near you.

Second, Wickham discussed the importance of DirectX, not just because Vista will usher in Direct3D 10--which will allow for impressive graphics in games such as Crysis and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures--but also because Vista uses DirectX 9 for such applications as its 3D "Aero" desktop, a fact that should "hopefully open up application development in the future."

Next, Wickham reiterated that both versions of Vista--Premium and Ultimate--will ship with Windows Media Center software included. While Vista Premium will perhaps provide enough flexibility for average end users, Vista Ultimate will feature more functionality for "core users."

In addition, Vista will offer enhanced online play with Microsoft's upcoming Live for Windows functionality, which will not only encourage wireless online play, but also let players play games such as Shadowrun and UNO across platforms; that is, Xbox 360 players will be able to play multiplayer matches of cross-platform-enabled games with PC players.

Wickham also reminded the audience of Microsoft's plans to standardize control schemes and accessories by using the wireless USB adapter peripheral to use Xbox 360 controllers (such as the standard controller, the headset, and the driving wheel) on Vista PCs, suggesting that the lack of standardized controllers may have "led to some games going away on the PC platform," such as racing games.

Wickham also mentioned the company's continued efforts to work with manufacturers on gaming mice and keyboards to offer a variety of controller choices to PC game players. Finally, the director reaffirmed Microsoft's commitment to "fix what's wrong with the PC [game] space from a retail perspective" by adding prominently branded Games for Windows displays for PC games in 9,000 retail locations this year--1,000 of which will be "interactive" and let players actually step up and try out games--as well as by enhancing the general ease of use of computer games by adding drop-and-play functionality (the ability to place a new game CD in your computer's drive and begin playing immediately, rather than having to wait for a lengthy installation process)..."this year."

After Wickham's informal address, the press was cut loose to take in demonstrations of some of Vista's marquee PC games. Both Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and Crysis were on display in all their Direct3D 10-powered glory, showing off the more-complex lighting and shadows that will be possible with the new graphical programming interface and DX10 hardware.

Also on display were Shadowrun, the upcoming PC/Xbox 360 shooter that will pit sorcery against technology (and PC game players against Xbox 360 players); the recently finished Supreme Commander, the large-scale sci-fi real-time strategy heir to designer Chris Taylor's acclaimed game Total Annihilation; Hellgate: London, the first-person hack-and-slash successor to Diablo; and World in Conflict, a team-based multiplayer real-time strategy game from Massive Entertainment (not the in-game advertising specialist, but rather the Sweden-based developer of the Ground Control tactical strategy series).

Also on display were an array of Microsoft's "casual games," including Xbox Live favorite UNO, which will be coming to Vista in some form later this year. UNO was running on a Vista PC with a prerelease version of Live for Windows that directly patched into a universal Xbox Live-style friends list, which appears to be browsable by gamertag as well as by what platform each user is using. The Vista version of UNO will also apparently let players set up and run their own dedicated servers, setting passwords and specific house rules, much like PC game players currently do for other online multiplayer games.

In addition to showing off the games, Microsoft played host to a variety of hardware manufacturers, including chipmaker Nvidia, which showcased its latest graphics processing unit, the GeForce 8800 GTX. Also on hand were processor manufacturers Intel (with quad-core hardware) and AMD (which showed off its Quad FX dual-socket, dual-core system). Microsoft itself had its Habu gaming mouse and the Reclusa gaming keyboard--the fruits of a codevelopment project with the peripheral manufacturer Razer--on display.

Though much of what Microsoft showed at yesterday's event had already been on display previously at CES, the event itself was as much about outreach to the press as it was a reaffirmation of the company's renewed commitment to the PC as a gaming platform. That commitment was first discussed by Microsoft exec Peter Moore at last year's D.I.C.E. Summit.

The Windows Vista operating system is scheduled for worldwide release on January 30.

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