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Microsoft's gaming service goes free, fails to set the world on fire.

Previously costing $49.95 a year, in quite possibly its smartest move to date, Microsoft has decided its 360-based Games for Windows Live Gold service should be free for PC users. The service allows online gaming achievements, and chat with other gamers. And if this is all sounding a bit familiar, it's because yes, it is a lot like Steam.

It makes you wonder why Microsoft ever thought it could charge for the service - in essence every service it provides is available free on the internet, and has been since PC gaming's inception. And with Valve's highly polished Steam and Stardock's up-and-coming Impulse offering similar free services, it's hard to see why anyone would even consider signing up for Games for Windows.

In fact, you may even have it installed on your PC without even realizing it. Unlike Steam, which announces its presence in a standalone client, Games for Windows sneakily installs itself with recent games such as Gears of War and Shadowrun. Merely accessing the service from within a game is an arduous task, and online registration seems to have been made as hard as possible.
There are some positive aspects of Games for Windows Live. It enables online play against Xbox 360 users, and Xbox gamer tags can be transferred easily; it includes achievements for single and multiplayer games and features Trueskill matchmaking - which enables players to compete online against players of similar ability. It's also fairly easy for developers to build Games for Windows Live support into their games - THQ, Sega and Eidos support the feature in upcoming games and Epic supports it directly in its omnipresent Unreal Engine 3.

But if Games for Windows Live is really going to match Steam, it will have to improve. Having to launch a game to see your Friends list is a royal pain in the rear, and voice conversations end as soon as you exit a game. If the service was integrated into, say, Windows Messenger, it might work a lot better.

Microsoft seems to be aware of the problems, and is working to sort them out. An update featuring an Xbox Live-style marketplace, with downloadable content such as games and levels, is touted for release later this year. As appropriately-named Games for Windows head honcho Kevin Unangst said, ‘It's something that's unique, and will evolve continually to be something PC gamers will love, and designed for PC gamers’. Having said thatScience Articles, it's still got a long way to go if it hopes to compete with Steam.

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