Ever since it launched the Xbox, Microsoft has had a fickle relationship with Windows as a gaming platform. On one hand PC gaming is a major driver of hardware and operating system sales, but on the other hand the PC is inherently less secure than the Xbox console, with piracy much more likely to impact sales of a PC title than a console one.
Over recent years we have seen Microsoft make several half-hearted attempts to nurture PC gaming. Games for Windows Live has been an attempt to bring some of the success of Xbox Live to the PC, and while many games have shipped with support for Games for Windows Live it hasn't exactly been a favourite of PC gamers.
At the same time that it was feebly pushing Games for Windows Live Microsoft was getting rid of its PC-centric game developers. Since 2007 it has disbanded Mechwarrior developer FASA Studio, canned Flight Simulator creator ACES Game Studios and closed down Age of Empires developer Ensemble Studios. This effectively reduced Microsoft's PC games output to occasional afterthought ports of Xbox 360 games.
At the same time as Microsoft was shedding PC developers Valve Software was building Steam into a digital distribution powerhouse. In many ways Steam has kept PC gaming alive in spite of Microsoft's efforts to bring the Xbox to the forefront. Last year Microsoft added a store to Games for Windows Live, but even that has barely put a dent into Steam's dominance as a distribution channel.
After all this half-hearted effort the last thing anyone expected was for Microsoft to announce new PC-only entries in the Flight Simulator and Age of Empires franchises. But yesterday it did just that, announcing a massively multiplayer version of Age of Empires and a new Flight Simulator called Flight. These sit alongside the previously announced PC version of Fable 3 as the titles spearheading Microsoft's renewed interest in PC gaming.
There are very few details currently available for Flight. There is a teaser webpage up with virtually no information and a trailer that has the same sort of fluffy inspirational vibe backed up with Coldplay-esque music that we have seen all too often in ads for Windows and the like. What we do know is that the game should feature some sort of cooperative multiplayer component and that it "will bring a new perspective to the long-standing genre, welcoming everyone, including long-time fans, to experience the magic of flight".
On the other hand Age of Empires Online is already in closed beta. With the announcement came the launch of a website for the game, which has a fair amount of information already. It is being developed by Robot Entertainment, one of the companies formed from the ashes of Ensemble studios.
The game will be distributed digitally through Games for Windows Live and won't have an offline component. Initially one will play as the Greek civilisation, with each player building a unique, persistent city. These cities will grow over time, even when players aren't logged in, and determine just what you can do in the game.
Progression will take the form of 'quests'. At the moment Microsoft describes these as single player or cooperative missions that help to build your character and empire. There is also the promise of competitive multiplayer games, although details are still light on how this will work.
With Flight, Age of Empires Online and Fable 3 there is hope that Microsoft will once again consider the PC to be a gaming platform. The big question is whether Microsoft can make Games For Windows Live relevant in a market where Steam has already taken a stranglehold on digital distribution, or whether it has left its run too late.