Seeing that Dark Souls is finally being unshackled from Games For Windows Live (which means you might be able to finally do proper match making without third party mods) got me thinking, once again, about Games For Windows Live.
How is it possible that Microsoft invested that much money and effort and status in a service that no human soul wanted and that every user agreed was destined for the dust bin of history? How and why do companies with effectively infinite budgets conjure and deploy such terrible and ultimately doomed projects? I mean, yeah, I know. Windows ME. It’s not their first cock up. But it’s a stand alone cock up, which means it was conjured in a vacuum.
Sure, there were likely some/many people involved in it that tried to make it a good service. And there were probably many more that knew damn well they were creating a blighting turd. And I know how it is – the people at the top have staked their jobs on the success of a thing without understanding it, and the people in the trenches don’t have the clout to defy them.
But my question is WHY? Why does that structure exist? Why has it not evolved? Where is the economic Darwinism that should have killed off that sort of project management ages ago? If companies that invest money in OBVIOUSLY doomed endeavors (and I’m not talking about experiments or high hope projects, I’m talking about sad pieces of crap like GFWL) objectively piss money away, why has no corporate mechanism or culture evolved to prevent that?
Now, please understand. I’m not trying to stifle new ideas. Innovation is the life blood of most industries, especially the tech sector. A certain number of new ideas and projects will fail. Some will fail because they were inherently bad ideas, or because of poor management, or they were ahead of their time, or even just that the right talent wasn’t on board. But there are certain initiatives, often high visibility initiatives, that are unanimously identified as doomed from the moment they surface. How do they get to that point without any sort of counter-check in place?
And sure, it’s easy to point your finger at a bad idea in hindsight. And many good ideas (even great ideas) also meet resistance and criticism. Case in point? I’ve had a Steam account since launch (because Valve pretty much made it mandatory for Half-Life 2) and I remember the sketchiness of that service’s early days. I remember the angry blowback from a great many users and gamers. It was a project that was honestly ahead of its time, but whose goals seemed weird and poorly outlined. And while there were some technical hurdles, there was a fundamental way that Steam (even in its infancy) was different than Games For Windows Live.
The problems with Steam were that it failed to deliver on its intended vision, and mostly for technical reasons. Those reasons resolved themselves thanks to the old equation of Time Plus Money. And also some savvy stewardship from Valve. Contrast that to GFWL, and it’s easy to see what marks the latter as a bad idea. First of all, it was never able to overcome its own technical hurdles. That’s pretty inexcusable, honestly, considering that Microsoft has infinity dollars AND controls both the service an the platform it ran on.
But the technical problems were really just window dressing. The main problem with GFWL was that even if it had been technically flawless from day one and had flawlessly delivered its exact vision, it was a terrible vision that no one wanted. No gamer wanted to tie their PC experience to their console. No gamer wanted to only be able to be logged into one piece of hardware at a time. No gamer wanted their PC titles to be associated with a list of other players that were almost guaranteed to be on an incompatable platform.
I could go on and on for ways and days, documenting every detail of GFWL’s terribleness. I won’t bother, because Google exists. But the core point is that with Steam, the core user feedback was that we didn’t quite understand what Valve was trying to make, and it didn’t work right. The core point with GFWL was that we understood exactly what Microsoft was trying to make, and it was stupid. And it didn’t work right.
So I’m not trying to stifle innovation or experimentation. That’s the last thing I want. But there are indicators and markers for projects that are clear winners, projects that are in flux, and projects that are guaranteed losers. Failures before they ever go live. Straight up money sinks. So why are they so common (although not exclusive) to tech – and especially gaming? And if the worst offenders are so easily identified, why hasn’t the business culture (so interested in maximizing profits) developed any ways to deal with them?