[Another longer-form highlight from this week, with the wonderful Chris Remo talking about what Microsoft is doing to make Games For Windows Live a lot better - and they're certainly trying hard.]

Microsoft has released a major update to its in-game Games For Windows Live interface, the first in a new series of initiatives for the service that marketing manager Michael Wolf says will be "putting a lot of focus on PC gaming."

The revamp transforms an obviously console-ported menu system to one with more of a native PC feel, substituting the previous Xbox 360 "blade"-like aesthetic with a cleaner, more streamlined look taking visual cues from Windows Vista.

Buttons now also dynamically swap based on whether the user has an Xbox 360 controller active; previously, the interface used Xbox 360 controller iconography even if no controller was present.

"It's more Windows-oriented," said Games for Windows Live general manager Chris Early, speaking to us alongside Wolf prior to the update's release. Early acknowledged that the initial GFW Live incarnation was "clunky" and "essentially a port-over."

"This is a whole new interface," he went on, "but all the functions of Live are still there -- your gamertag, the games you've played, your achievements. It's all based on the Live system. Your community is the same, and you can see whether your friends are on PC or the console."

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Games that incorporate GFW Live, such as Bethesda's recently-released Fallout 3, will display a prompt to update to the new version upon their next startup.

A New Marketplace

Microsoft also plans to release a standalone Games for Windows Live client. Some gamers have criticized the initiative for lacking such a feature -- in constrast to the "home screen" dashboard of its Xbox 360 counterpart.

The upcoming client, which a Microsoft representative said will be released "in the next few weeks," was demonstrated to Gamasutra in preview form. It features information about current and upcoming games, community and friends-related features, and, notably, a marketplace for downloadable content.

The marketplace will use the same Microsoft Points system employed by Xbox Live Marketplace and Zune. Microsoft hopes to drive Games for Windows adoption among developers in part by offering a similar-enough slate of features between Xbox Live and Games for Windows Live that studios feel they may as well support both if they are already supporting one.

That strategy has already worked with Bethesda, which announced that its upcoming Fallout 3 DLC will be exclusive to Xbox 360 and PC -- distributed through GFW Live. Asked whether Microsoft paid for that honor, Early claimed no such incentive.

"We didn't ask them to restrict it," he answered. "They see the [DLC] conversion rates on the PC versus the conversion rates on the Xbox 360 with Live, relatively speaking. They look at that and say, 'Wow, the one-button buy-in is essential for this to make money, and now that it's supported on both PC and Xbox, it makes sense to do it.' They had [The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion] DLC on PC as well, but you had to go through their website, and it wasn't as easy."

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Regarding development, he added, "And the actual work is much less to get it to work on the two different platforms -- they code a little different one one [system] than the other, but it's a similar process."

There are two implications there -- one, that the development similarities between PC and Xbox 360 pay off more than they would on PlayStation 3; and two, that Bethesda may have seen its best DLC sales for Oblivion on Xbox 360, which boasts a centralized purchasing system.

Respecting The Platform

With initiatives like Games for Windows Live, Microsoft must walk a tight line between providing the kind of centralized multiplayer and marketplace functionality that has contributed heavily to Xbox 360's success, while avoiding acting like a traditional console-style gatekeeper that goes against the open platform mentality of the PC.

To that end, Microsoft announced earlier this year that participation in Games for Windows -- the collection of usability standard aimed at creating a more polished PC gaming experience -- and Games for Windows Live -- the Xbox Live-like online service component -- would be completely free to developer. Similarly, there are no longer subscription fees for gamers, as there on with the admittedly much more highly-used Xbox Live.

But Games for Windows would be ineffective without some level of accountability for those developers who choose to outfit their games with the service.

"We do require certification," Early explained. "It's very similar to the Xbox certification. It is something not everybody's used to. But what we found is that the [studios] that have been through Xbox certification already get it. They realize, it's not what is normally on the PC, but it does tend to make the game go out better. I think it's an overall advantage for everyone."

GFW titles also take advantage of Xbox Live-like patch checks. "We're able to keep everybody on the same version number," said Early. "When you connect to Live service, it checks right away. That really reduces the customer service burden on the publisher as well. It ends up being a net savings."

Games PC People Play

So far, however, though there have been a number of games adhering to the general Games for Windows standards, very few of them have actually integrated Games for Windows Live -- and Fallout 3, one of the program's higher-profile releases, is a single-player game that only uses Live for community features and DLC, not a multiplayer component.

Multiplayer Live-enabled games have included Halo 2 and Gears of War, both of which released long after their Xbox platform counterparts. Others, like Shadowrun, Universe at War: Earth Assault, and Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, failed to make much of a splash in the multiplayer community.

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Valve's Steam service has had similar limited external adoption of its own Steamworks multiplayer features. But both companies have attracted some big third-party names for the coming months: The Creative Assembly's Empire: Total War will use Steamworks, and Relic's Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II and Rockstar North's PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV will use the Games for Windows Live multiplayer implementation.

Much like how Microsoft hopes the promise of accessible DLC will drive publishers to its GFW Live Marketplace, it is trying to convince developers already using Xbox Live that also incorporating GFW Live multiplayer in their PC SKUs will be relatively straightforward and beneficial.

Wolf recalled an incident from Microsoft's Gamefest developer event in Seattle. "When we made the announcement that Games for Windows Live was going to be free, there were several of us on the GFW team there," he said. "A developer from a company working on a game turned to us and said, 'Okay, so it's free? What's the catch?' But there is no catch; it's completely free.

"He said they were working on a game for PC and Xbox 360, and they were trying to figure out what multiplayer engine they were going to put into it on the PC version. They're already doing all the work to make sure it works on Xbox Live for the Xbox version, so it's so much easier for them to just bring all that technology over to the PC version. It's a no-brainer.

"We're working with the publishers," he went on. "We're trying to reduce a lot of barriers. We're creating these SDKs and making it easier for them to use. It's certainly not [effortless] in every case, but often, the developers are saying, 'I've already got this code base that I'm building for the console platform, and this is using the same thing.' It's just so much easier."

Despite how long the initiative has technically been in operation, Games for Windows Live still feels like it's in its preliminary stages -- but from what Gamasutra has seen of its upcoming efforts, Microsoft is finally committing to the interface work and developer relationships that it needs to become a valuable service.

With increasing competition in the combined marketplace and multiplayer arena from Valve's Steam and Stardock's Impulse and the increasingly robust feature sets that are resulting from that contest, PC gamers stand to win.