Last August, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT ) shut down its Games for Windows Live Marketplace. The biggest implication of this was that those who had unspent Microsoft Points in the system needed to spend them before the Marketplace shut down on Aug. 22. The GFWL client would remain operational, and the Marketplace function wasn't likely to be missed given how it was dwarfed by the catalogs of other digital distribution services like Steam or EA's (NASDAQ: EA ) Origin.
Fast forward a few months and it seems that the Games for Windows Live story isn't quite over ... but it looks like it will be soon. A support article for Age of Empires Online (which has since been deleted) mentioned that the entire Games for Windows Live service would be shutting down on July 1, 2014. This isn't overly surprising, as no new games were being added to the service and the service itself is unpopular among gamers. There is one problem, though: what happens to the games that rely on the service for authentication?
What does this mean for the games?
There are over 70 games that use the Games for Windows Live service, though many of these are slightly older games. A number of publishers who used the service at one point made the switch to Steam or other forms of digital distribution with successive releases, as seen most recently in Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) Warner Bros. releasing Batman: Arkham Origins using Steamworks for authentication and achievements after the previous "Arkham" games used Games for Windows Live.
The problem, of course, is that games that still rely on the service for authentication will not function properly -- if at all -- without being able to connect to Games for Windows Live servers. Unless the games are updated so that they no longer require the service for authentication, they may simply become unplayable if and when the service shuts down.
Some developers are being proactive about this, migrating their games to Valve's Steamworks or disabling authentication before the July 1 deadline so that players will have no issues. Not all of the games will be patched, however, either due to a lack of interest, the loss of rights, or studios shutting down. Microsoft itself has made no announcements regarding its own Microsoft Studios games, but that isn't surprising given that the July 1 date itself was only revealed by mistake. Gaming website Joystiq is keeping track of which games are being updated and which aren't here.
A sign of change?
Up until now, most changes in digital distribution services have come from minor services shutting down or being bought out by larger companies (such as Direct2Drive being purchased by Gamefly.) Games for Windows Live, while not used by a huge number of games, is the most high-profile service of its kind to face this sort of a shutdown. This has made some think for the first time about what would happen if other digital distribution platforms shut down.
While Origin and Steam aren't likely to go anywhere anytime soon, questions arise from time to time about what would happen if the services did shutter their doors. Valve reportedly has a patch that could be executed to disable authentication requirements if necessary, though details on it are vague and some users believe that talk of the patch is just a hand wave to appease users.
Regardless of whether contingency plans are in place or not, developers continue to flock to Valve and its Steamworks platform in the wake of Games for Windows Live's imminent shutdown. The service's size, immense market share, and integrated features make it appealing for devs hoping to find a stable service that will be supported well into the future.
Is this really the end?
While a Games for Windows Live shutdown has likely been inevitable for quite a while, it's important to remember that nobody really knows what Microsoft is up to at the moment. A statement released after the initial date leak was removed stated that the company intended to grow its support for Windows and PC gaming in the long term, and around the same time hired one of the engineers responsible for developing the Steam platform itself. We likely won't know more about Microsoft's plans until much closer to July, but at the very least the company has made people question what happens when the services that are always there shut down.