Gaming and Windows Vista

In his 2005 book What the Dormouse Said, journalist John Markoff describes how the 1960s counterculture gave rise to and shaped the personal computer industry. At one point, he tells the story of how engineers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (SAIL) decided to create their own version of Spacewar, the world's first computer game (invented by MIT hacker Stephen Russell in 1962).

SAIL used a time-sharing system in which a number of terminals competed for the resources of a single minicomputer, and this often caused the Spacewar screen to freeze while it waited for processor cycles. To fix this problem, the Stanford engineers invented a new operating system mode that doled out processor resources in sixtieth-of-a-second slices, which improved the performance not only of Spacewar, but also of many other applications. Markoff concludes the story:

It was called "Spacewar mode" and was one of the earliest examples of how gaming advanced the state of computing.

That incident occurred 40 years ago, and gaming has been leaping ahead of the PC industry and dragging it along it in its wake ever since. Whether it's video hardware, networking advances, or graphics programming, game developers and hardcore gamers continually push PCs to their limits in the quest for higher-quality gaming experiences. Windows Vista will be known as the first Windows OS that targets gamers directly. Why the sudden focus on gaming?

Probably because Microsoft's own research uncovered an interesting and surprising fact: Gaming is the second most popular PC activity, well behind web surfing, but more popular even than email. Amazingly, about 1 in 5 users play games on their Windows PCs, which is a huge user base that Microsoft figures it can no longer ignore. Vista includes many new features that are aimed directly at the gaming market, including game developers, the gamers themselves (both hardcore and casual), and even their concerned parents.

The Game Explorer

Your first clue that Microsoft is serious about gaming in Vista is the newly elevated status of the Games folder. In Windows XP, Games was a mere submenu off the All Programs menu, but in Vista it takes a place of pride on the main Start menu along with Documents, Pictures, and Music. The first time you select Games, you see the Set Up Games Updates and Options dialog box, which displays two check boxes:

  • Download Information About Installed Games Leave this check box activated to allow Vista to download information such as game updates.
  • List Most Recently Played Games Leave this check box activated to allow Vista to track your game play.

The Game Explorer is a special shell folder that offers several new features for gamers and game developers:

  • A repository for all installed games.
  • Game-related tasks such as launching a game, linking to the developer's website, and setting up parental controls.
  • Support for games metadata such as the game's publisher and version number, and the last time you played the game.
  • Autoupdate of games. With the new Game Update feature, Vista automatically lets you know if a patch or a newer version is available for an installed game.

The Game Explorer is initially populated with the nine games that come in the Vista box. These games include updates to venerable Windows favorites (FreeCell, Hearts, Minesweeper, Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, and InkBall), and a few new additions (Chess Titans, Mahjong Titans, and Purble Place). All the games come with decent user interfaces that take full advantage of Vista's graphics capabilities.

Ideally, Microsoft would like to see all installed games show up in the Game Explorer. In practice, however, that's not easy to do because Vista has no reliable way of telling whether you're installing a game. As a first step toward solving this problem, Microsoft created the game-definition file (GDF). This is an XML file that describes various aspects of the game and enables Vista to recognize when a game is being installed so that it can add the game to the Game Explorer. Microsoft is implementing GDFs in three ways:

  • It's asking game developers to create a GDF for each new game they create and to embed the GDF in the game's executable file or an associated dynamic link library.
  • Microsoft has created GDFs for more than a thousand legacy games and included those GDFs in Windows Vista in the following file: %SystemRoot%\System32\GameUXLegacyGDFs.dll
  • Microsoft and/or game developers will continue to create GDFs after Vista ships, and these GDFs will be added to Vista as updates.

When you install a program, Vista looks either for a pointer to a GDF or for an entry in GameUXLegacyGDFs.dll. If it finds either one, it uses the data in the GDF to add the game to the Game Explorer.

Game-Related Tasks

The task toolbar in Windows Vista shell folders such as Pictures, Music, and Videos contain links to tasks related to the folder content. For example, the Pictures folder has tasks such as Slide Show and Order Prints, while the Music folder has tasks such as Play and Play All. The Game Explorer is also a shell folder, so it, too, comes with several content-specific tasks:

  • Play Launches the currently selected game.
  • Community and Support Displays a menu with two options: Home Page and Support. The Home Page item takes you to the main website of the currently selected game's developer, and the Support item takes you to the developer's main technical support page.
  • Options Displays the Set Up Games Updates and Options dialog box. Tools Gives you quick access to game-related hardware features in the Control Panel: Hardware, Display Devices, Input Devices, Audio Devices, Firewall, and Installed Programs.
  • Parental Controls Starts the Parental Controls feature.

Support for Games Metadata

Windows Vista brings metadata into the operating system in a meaningful way that enables you to sort, group, stack, and search based on property values. This new metadata focus shows up in the Game Explorer, as well, which keeps track of 11 properties for each game:

  • Name - The name of the game.
  • Publisher - The publisher of the game.
  • Developer - The developer of the game.
  • Last Played - The date and time that you last opened the game's executable file.
  • Product Version - The current version number of the game.
  • Release Date - The date the current version of the game was released.
  • Genre - The game genre (such as Shooter or Strategy).
  • Rating - The game's Entertainment Software Rating Board rating.
  • Game Restrictions - The restrictions that have been placed on running the game.
  • Content Descriptors - A word or phrase that describes the game content, as applied by the ESRB.
  • Install Location - The folder in which you installed the game.

To view all the metadata, switch to Details view (which doesn't show some metadata, including Release Date and Genre). Unfortunately, there is no editable metadata in the Game Explorer (except, indirectly, the Game Restrictions property, which you "edit" via the Parental Controls feature). It would be nice to have the capability to add comments or keywords, particularly on systems that have dozens of games.