DirectX, and other genuinely nice things about Microsoft
Posted at 21:56 on 4th April 2007 - permalink

Shacknews have posted a very interesting interview with Alex St John, one of the key figures behind the DirectX initiative at Microsoft in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

He explains how the reasoning behind DirectX was to build a gaming platform that could be anchored to the Windows PC and thereby avoid being upset by radical shifts in hardware, something that would have seemed very important with the transition from DOS to Windows and the 16-bit consoles to the Playstation fresh in people’s minds. It also seems to chime nicely with my probably-obvious theorising about the ultimate aims of the Games for Windows initiative.

His comments on Windows Vista are surprisingly candid, but it should be pointed out that he is connected to WildTangent, whose game catalogue storefront application thing (preloaded on millions PCs by the main OEMs) stands to be more grievously affected by Vista’s paranoid security features and the pointless Game Explorer than typical boxed games.

I get some stick on some forums I frequent for being “anti-Microsoft”, because I tend to be cynical about their intentions. (Interestingly, a good proportion of the UK developers I’ve spoken to have similar views, which may be linked to the fact that most of them orbited the Amiga and PS1 for many years, rather than the PC and Xbox.) What these stick-wielders (who generally have names like MasterCihef2005 and xHAL0Rul3Zx) fail to appreciate is that when it comes to their involvement in gaming, Microsoft have both positive and negative traits, which aren’t always in equilibrium.

I’m perfectly happy to praise them for the good things they’ve done, of which DirectX is probably the most significant. While the underlying aim of the project was dubious (to lock developers into Windows rather than sharing their goodies with other operating systems and consoles), the benefits that it had to deliver to achieve this goal (i.e. making Windows an attractive enough games platform for developers and consumers to accept) has been hugely advantageous to PC gaming and probably couldn’t have been achieved without Microsoft’s financial clout.

Xbox Live Arcade has been another praiseworthy endeavour, although the front end and procedure for getting third party content onto the system both desperately need to be overhauled. (It’s a victim of it’s own richly-deserved success.) In fact the Xbox 360 itself, while permanently hampered by several bad strategic decisions that now can’t be undone, is a good, solid and reasonably cheap platform for games like Oblivion and Crackdown.

It shouldn’t really matter who manufactures a console provided they keep their heads down, focus on lowering hardware costs and do their utmost not to interfere with how developers and publishers decide to use their platform. Sony and Microsoft are both guilty of forgetting this on occasion, loudly imparting their dumb opinions and surreptitiously trying to extract more money from their customers like the stereotypical annoying taxi driver.

Microsoft are getting a lot better at being neutral than they were in the Xbox1 days, but occasionally company-wide bad habits crash the party. The Xbox 360 Elite fairly reeks of them. It probably checks off lots of features on the TV and movie studios’ lists, but it has pretty much nothing to offer gamers over the existing 360 models. Backing the wrong horse with HD-DVD has painted them into a corner in terms of how they can offer HD movies. (Though they claim that they’ll bring out a Blu-Ray add-on if that format wins out, the black eye of capitulating to a Sony-backed standard – with an embedded JVM no less – guarantees that it won’t happen.) Deciding to use proprietary hard drives has left them trying to defend indefensible pricing (boy, did that guy ever draw the short straw).

Over on the Windows side of the fence, the hangover from the decision to make Xbox Live a walled garden is starting to hit home, with the untenable decision to charge for the PC incarnation of the service, which nobody wants or needs. These are all decisions that can be attributed to someone higher up the tree imposing the company line, which, as Alex St John can probably attest, isn’t conducive to progress.

As annoying or misguided as these decisions seem to me, I can at least see what the intention behind them was, and can’t begrudge Microsoft for trying to defend their interests. After all, DirectX shows that selfish intentions can sometimes inspire broader benefits.

What I can’t excuse however is the corporate culture that subtly (or not so subtly) influences the Home and Entertainment Division’s strategy and colours their outlook on the industry, their customers and competitors. With roots in the Americocentric, cut-throat world of business software, this culture just isn’t used to the idea of treating competitors with respect (this Wired piece on J Allard is typical of the endemic hubristic assholery), or of customers having tastes based on more nuanced concerns than just whizzbang graphics and adolescent competitive impulses, and in many ways is just as out of touch and self-serving as Sony are so frequently purported to be.

Deep down (okay! Maybe not that deep down), I’d be quite pleased to see Microsoft’s fingers being pried from the ledge by Sony and Nintendo over the next few years, if they keep on being unfocused and complacent. But I’d be just as happy to see them continue to learn and adapt, and offer a viable third way for developers. Periods of fierce competition result in much more diversity, innovation and risk-taking than periods of domination by a single platform.

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