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Microsoft & gaming - a look at things to come
Microsoft's DirectX API has come a long way from the days when it was seen as something that was simply bolted onto games and another piece in the giant jigsaw puzzle that is the Redmond giant's product portfolio. DirectX has been dragged along for several years until now, where almost every gamer is sitting and waiting until the latest crop of DirectX 9 games come out; a symbol of the expectation in a product that initially failed to conjure up much enthusiasm but has grown to become the standard in game graphics. The function of any API is to standardize; give the ability to any program written in that API to run on any operating system, which supports that API. There was a time when games were made to run specifically on certain hardware and only through using wrappers could you get it to work on other architectures. That may seem like a laughable scenario to many, but thanks to such APIs we don't have to worry about that anymore. Most games require either DirectX or OpenGL support, both of which are supported by the leading graphics card manufacturers.

The development of DirectX ties in closely with hardware vendors and it needs to. In recent years greater emphasis has been put on DirectX compliance by video card vendors as they try to out-run each other. Initially, starting with a high-level idea, Microsoft go to developers and ask for their input, who in turn bring low-level details into the frame. While this may sound like a marketing ploy, it does make good business sense. If developers get what they want from an API, they're much more likely to use it rather than avoid it, and at end of the day this is what Microsoft and consumers want.

Although Microsoft say the hardware is developed "harmoniously" with DirectX development, they admitted to being surprised when ATI launched the Radeon 9700 PRO a couple of months before DirectX 9.0 had been released. So while consumers could own a DirectX 9 compliant video card, DirectX 9 itself wasn't available.

So has DirectX made the gaming world a nicer place for all? Well Microsoft is the first to admit it isn't "perfect", with work still needing to be done. The need for a "killer gaming experience" on the PC is something that has been touted for sometime, but Microsoft says that there will be a time when gaming on your PC will be as simple as gaming on a console. Lofty aims indeed, so how do they propose to do it?

In the latest version of DirectX, 9, the 'big feature' was shaders and what really pushes shader technology is the growing availability of programmable GPUs such as NVIDIA's NV35 and ATI's R350. Other advancements include decreased latency in DirectSound, an improved DirectPlay for multiplayer environments and the ability to allow developers to code in a much more compact and efficient way.

There's no doubt that DirectX 9 and games produced to that standard will bring gaming realism to new levels, but in order to produce that killer experience another vector is required apart from graphical reality, and that Microsoft say is simplicity. While enthuasiasts and everyday gamers are well aware of the trials and tribulations that come with playing games on a PC, the casual gamer sees the PC format as demanding; that requires work to be done before they are able to game. This is a key problem, not only for Microsoft in their quest for the killer gaming experience, but for gamers who would like to see more tournaments with greater prize money and social awareness. If gaming and 'Pro Gaming' is ever to take off there has to be mass market appeal. It simply cannot be restricted to several million people worldwide. Microsoft's goal with DirectX and Longhorn, their upcoming operating system, is to make gaming "easy for everyone" through simplifying the various aspects of PC gaming that pose a threat to casual gamers, such as compatibility with hardware, patches, controllers and installation.

The "big break" for gaming on the PC, according to Dean Lester, General Manager of Graphics and Gaming technologies at Microsoft is set to appear with Longhorn. It will feature the next version of DirectX, presumably numbered 10, and together with the new OS provide both raw technological advancements in areas such as shaders and concentrate on making aspects of gaming that are currently cumbersome more transparent and in many cases, invisible. Dean, speaking passionately wants to see games that "just work" on your computer.

Part of the "just work" ethic means better labelling of system requirements on packaging, installation procedures that don't require so many questions to be answered (becoming almost invisible), the driver model to be simplified and brought "up-to-date" and patching of games to become easier and invisible to the user.

"There's no place gamers can call home" says Dean, giving examples of games being installed into different directories, users having to fish around for relevant information on hardware, drivers and shortcuts. The idea is to have one place where users can find all their shortcuts, all relevant information about playing the game and items like the Device Manager, should they need to know what video card they have, for example. The ability to have every possible item that is required on tap should mean that people don't have to waste time fiddling about. "If a user wants to play a game for 1 hour, I want them to be playing the game for 59 minutes and 50 seconds, not wasting 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get it working." And that summarizes what most casual gamers see when they look at gaming on a computer. The strength of consoles lies in the fact that all one has to do is plug in a cartridge or slot in a CD and within a matter of 30 seconds they are having a gaming experience.

The patching or updating of games is something that lies at the very heart of PC gaming. The requirement to update games is something that a large portion of the gaming community misses altogether. Unlike console games whose development remains stationary after its launch, a vast number of titles for the PC have seen patches being launched, modifications and add-ons being launched years after it's original release that aren't available on their console based counterparts. The problem for publishers is awareness. Many casual gamers don't read gaming websites such as Shacknews, Bluesnews or VoodooExtreme to keep abreast of latest patches available, and sadly print based gaming magazines do little to inform them of recent developments, and why should they? After all, wasting valuable column inches on a game that is 6 months old takes up space for advertising. The result is gamers phone up the publisher's technical support lines with problems that have been fixed in the latest patch. Some of these calls could be avoided if those people knew that a patch was available and what that patch did. It avoids both wasted time and a bad experience for the casual user, something that needs to be avoided. Microsoft's intention is to let people know about what is available, whether the version they are running is the most up to date and update their program through extending Windows Update.

Multiplayer gaming, although gaining popularity has yet to have a big impact on a large portion of the gaming community, which is a real shame as most gamers agree that once you get the buzz from playing against real life opponents, no matter how good a game's artificial intelligence is, there is no substitute for the atmosphere, camaraderie and bloodlust found in multiplayer games. The aim here is, again, to increase awareness amongst the casual gaming fraternity and make it more accessible. While gamers hang around in groups on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Microsoft is aiming to use their more user friendly Messenger system to allow people to form groups or 'clans' and build relationships with other gamers, resulting in similarly found 'channels' on IRC networks. There's no doubt that while IRC may be more attractive to the hardcore gamer, one can cannot disagree that Messenger has greater mass market appeal.

So what can we learn from our talk with Dean? Well furthering the gaming world is as much about raw technological advancements such as pixel and vertex shaders as it is about widening the gaming experience to encompass more people. The days when gaming on the PC meant Dos, dodgy joysticks that didn't work much of the time and games tailored to specific hardware are long gone. In its place are more standardized and feature packed technologies which Microsoft hope, will allow users to pick up games, waste little time on installation and have them get down to the real business of playing and enjoying their time on a computer. Garnering mass market appeal for gaming on the PC will also mean a greater acceptance of 'hardcore gaming' and may well usher in a golden age where Pro-Gamers are given greater acceptance in general society; a time when people won't be surprised when they hear that you play games for a living.

Longhorn with its new version of DirectX Microsoft say "will simplify gaming" and make the PC the "ultimate gaming platform". So what exactly does it mean for Microsoft's console business? After all it would seem there's a conflict of interest between touting the PC as the ultimate gaming platform when you are spending billions of Dollars developing and promoting a console? Well, according to Dean what looks like two separate entities, the XBox and PC will eventually intertwine into one. For years we've been hearing how the PC will become a 'lifestyle device', part of that lifestyle will be watching movies, playing music, using the Internet and now we can add gaming to that list. After all, we think playing games should be part of anyone's healthy lifestyle.
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