Back in late October Microsoft had announced that it would be completely rebuilding the Games for Windows Marketplace and updating the Games for Windows LIVE software (and website) to accommodate those changes on November 15th. True to their word, they did.
At first glance, Games for Windows LIVE won't appear to have been changed any more than a slight UI color change from white background to black background. I was fooled by this too - for many of the changes are under the hood. Unexpected news from Redmond came in the form of a standard press release from Microsoft's News Center stating how Microsoft is planning to take another stab at the the casual gaming demographic. Taking a cue from sources like Facebook and Steam and listening to the demands of gamers that simply want to play with other people and users who frequently boast about their new high scores has set Microsoft on their new course of action.
The Games for Windows Marketplace has been improved in it's functionality more than anything that's been done to the user interface. It's now much easier to search for and sort games by category, price, or release date. The Marketplace also has new filters to sort out demos, video, downloadable content, and which games are Live-enabled (meaning Leaderboards, Achievements, forms of multiplayer and chat).
Games Spotlight, Top Downloads, Daily Deal and Deal of the Week features are all still there as well. I've noticed that the shopping cart and checkout procedure runs much smoother with two less steps than before. I didn't have to sign in twice to confirm that I was making a purchase and I didn't have to re-load the website when switching my payment method from a credit card to Microsoft Points. I'd still like to see a gift option to purchase game content to send to a contact on the friend list, similar to what Steam currently offers, but I suppose we'll eventually get there.
Much more of the work has been done to the Live interface, specifically the in-game HUD. Signing in and out of the Live service while in-game wasn't a completely awful experience before this update but it wasn't all that pleasant either with stuttered connection issues and the annoyance of running the service on top of a running game. It looks as if the update has the whole issue ironed out and, dare I say, streamlined.
The Live HUD, like before, hangs delicately along the top center of the screen but is much more responsive to refreshing content, appearing, and then disappearing when ordered to (by pressing the Home key - default setting). The Games for Windows LIVE HUD is now more reminiscent of the Xbox 360's Guide menu in that it has quick access to everything you'd want to access quickly - your own profile, your friends list, messages (Yep, works with Messenger), recent players, Live settings, and (from the looks of it) a new simplified chat interface. How or if this is going to work at all with Microsoft's brand new Games Hub hasn't been revealed yet.
The more fun, more social, more unexpected news about Microsoft seemingly going about unifying all of their web-based gaming platforms for the casual gamer. The Games Hub, which is up and running right now if you want to check it out, will run in a frame bordering the games featured on Bing Entertainment, Windows Live Messenger, and MSN Games (it looks like MSN Games is still in preview).
By signing in with a Windows Live ID and/or your Facebook credentials you'll be able to save your favorite games, post high scores to your wall, see what your friends are playing, and even send or receive game invitations and challenges to and from your pals. Michael Wolf from Xbox Product Marketing went on to state in the press release that, "It doesn’t matter where you play – on Messenger, on Bing, on your mobile device, or on your PC. You can have that sense of connectivity and competition regardless of platform, which is something no one’s ever really done before." We sincerely doubt that he had deliberately meant that this is something that could be showing up on our mobile devices and probably did just use it as an example, but we do love to assume the best.
So how about it social gamers? Anyone up for some competitive mobile Zuma or Text Twist?