Over the last couple of years, Microsoft have come under fire from gamers and developers alike for ignoring the PC as a games platform, and instead choosing to focus their attention on the Xbox 360 console. The perceived stagnation of the PC games sector (the blame for which can be apportioned between most of the major publishers), combined with other factors (such as, we can speculate, Apple's decision to switch to Intel processors, and the runaway success of the dual-format World of Warcraft), resulted in Microsoft creating the Games for Windows branding programme in 2006 to promote the role of the PC as a games platform and Windows as the first choice gaming OS.

"Games for Windows" is a certification programme that is open to third-party publishers of Windows-compatible PC games. Although it has not been officially disclosed whether entry into the programme requires publishers to pay a per-unit licensing fee (as is the case with games released on any of the major consoles), this seems unlikely. The stated purpose of the scheme is to promote a consistent, user friendly, console-like experience when purchasing PC games.

The programme will be supported in the US by a (doubtless unreadable) official magazine from Ziff Davis Media, born from the ashes of Computer Gaming World.

At the time of writing only a few games have been released under the Games for Windows banner, the first two being THQ/Relic's Company of Heroes and Activision's Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. Many forthcoming high profile PC games have been announced as being with the programme.

Many of the aims of the programme will have a tangible benefit for consumers (or should have, if they are implemented properly). Standardised packaging will make it easier for stores to display PC games and consumers to locate them, and will also lead to fewer PC games shipping with poorly-designed, non-standard packaging. (I understand that in the US, many PC games are still being sold in cereal box sized cartons.)

At the moment it's unclear exactly how much flexibility publishers will have regarding the packaging. Hopefully plastic DVD cases will be used for most games, although worryingly, Company of Heroes uses a flimsy German-style double-DVD sized cardboard box. There are a couple of potential issues with the visual design as well: the 'Games for Windows' strap on the front of each game is very prominent, and unlike most platform designators it does not use neutral colours, so could clash quite badly with the cover art of the game. It has also been noted that there is no requirement for the minimum and recommended system specifications to be printed on the box, indeed, this information is conspicuously absent from the Company of Heroes packaging.

Games released under the programme must also meet certain limited quality criteria. The installation routine should minimise the number of clicks and choices needed to install the game and start playing. The game should also contain the relevant metadata to allow compatibility with Windows Vista's Game Explorer feature, which allows games to be accessed through a central library (similar in concept to the media library used by iTunes) which includes convenience features such as parental locks based on the various media ratings systems (ESRB, PEGI, etc.).

Windows Vista also incorporates a performance metric (the naffly-named Windows Experience Index or WEI), which will give gamers a simple way to determine whether a game will run acceptably on their hardware. (The new version of Solitaire, for example, has a WEI rating of 1.0; the highest rating on the scale is 5.9.) Games for Windows titles will automatically announce their requirements using this metric, although it is presumed that these recommendations can be ignored.

There are also a couple of requirements that potentially need to be implemented within the game itself, namely support for widescreen resolutions, and detection and key mappings for Xbox 360 peripherals. (Presumably this second requirement is only enforced for games that offer joypad or joystick controls, as it would be somewhat pointless in mouse-driven games.) Finally, games in the scheme may also support Microsoft's Live Anywhere technology, which is intended to allow networked multiplayer games to be cross-compatible (complete with high end features such as voice chat) between PCs, Xbox 360 consoles and Windows Mobile handhelds. (This system seems to largely exist on the drawing board at the moment, and it's complexity and lack of commercial justification means it is unlikely to be widely adopted outside of Microsoft Game Studios releases.)

A final requirement that isn't being widely publicised is that Games for Windows titles are only required to support at most Windows XP and Windows Vista (with future titles such as Halo 2 and Crysis being Vista-only). There is no guarantee that games released under this brand will run on Windows 2000, even though that operating system is for all intents and purposes fully compatible with Windows XP. Again, it's unclear at this stage how strictly this will be enforced (it might be the case that some games can still run on Windows 2000, just without official support), but the possibility of being prevented from playing a game purely on the basis of a marketing decision is still galling.

It should be noted that several of the software requirements seem to blur the boundary between the PC and the Xbox 360. This could be interpreted as a sign that Microsoft are considering using the PC as an escape ladder to get them out of the loss-making console hardware business at some point in the future. If they can bring the Xbox ecosystem back into the Windows mothership, this might allow them to continue their fight for the living room without having to throw billions of dollars at subsidising proprietary hardware.

A final thing to note about the scheme is that it could be seen as placing an obstacle in the path of PC game developers and publishers. It is conceivable that it could be difficult and expensive for smaller publishers to comply with the scheme, a barrier to entry that might be compounded by retailers being reluctant to stock PC games that aren't Games for Windows branded. It's probably safe to assume that Microsoft will be trying to make membership of the scheme as cheap and painless as possible (as they serve to benefit the most from its universal adoption), and in any case the additional hardships that it might cause publishers and developers pale into insignificance beside the exceptionally stringent requirements that have to be met to release a game on any of the console formats.

In summary, the Games for Windows programme is probably a Good Thing. And hey, even if it does all go wrong, online distribution is going to make retail game sales irrelevant within the next five year anyway*.

http://www.gamesforwindows.com - official website

*Actual outcome may differ from prediction