The just concluded holiday season marked an auspicious rollout for Microsoft’s Games for Windows Live Marketplace. The online PC game superstore that officially debuted on November 15th has removed the physical barriers between gamers and the titles they love through the convenience of the Web and the power of Games on Demand. The launch also marks a major step forward for Microsoft’s position in the online game server marketplace across an international gridiron of countries and languages. At the same time, the vast global undertaking integrates local talent and initiatives from both on and off the Microsoft campus in the areas of user interface, e-commerce and social media.
One key figure in bringing the new platform to market has been Avi Ben-Menahem, the Executive Producer for Games for Windows who at the start of the millennium went to work for the company at its Israeli subsidiary. In 2004, Avi moved his family from the Middie East to the rain-soaked Northwest. A more varied climate change might only be found inside a Games for Windows LIVE game.
We talked with Avi to get a global perspective on serving up the new gaming system a few weeks after the Games for Windows Marketplace went live and the performance metrics began to return some analytical results.
Seattle24x7: Before we go into the new world of Microsoft’s Games for Windows that you have been managing, what has been the biggest contrast for you personally in joining the Northwest location of a company you went to work for in Israel?
Avi: My family and I actually like the colder weather and the overall environment is much calmer here. It’s really a great environment to raise kids. For all of those reasons, we like it here very much. In Israel, my background with the company was in computer security. But I’m also an avid gamer. And this is one of the great things about Microsoft. I can choose to work on something that I’m most passionate about. So for me being able to merge my personal passion for gaming and my career and work on software that runs on hundreds and millions of desktops, well, I don’t think there is any other company in the world that can give you that kind of opportunity.
Seattle24x7: Since the launch of the Games for Windows Marketplace, you’ve been adding some of the hottest titles in the gaming world. How have you gauged the initial consumer reaction to this new offering by Microsoft?
Avi: The comments have been very positive both for Microsoft coming into the space and for the various products and services we are bringing. The general feedback is that having Microsoft involved is highly favorable for users because, at the end of the day, it will provide more games to users, support a more reliable, compatible and robust experience, and deliver it at a better price.
There are also a lot of comments about individual titles and features. For the holiday period, the new Age of Empires and the new Fable III made the tone of the product feedback very positive overall.
Seattle24x7: What are consumers most looking for in this new model of shopping for and fulfilling their gaming acquisitions online?
Avi: If you look at some of the other gaming distribution sites out there, one of the most critical factors is how easy it is to engage. In other words, what is the level of friction that you have to deal with, as a user, to make the most of the site? There are sites that require you to sign in and that make it hard to connect with what you’ve come to the site to do. We’ve also found that many sites are overly-congested in terms of design and layout. We want to make sure our design is clean, fresh, fast-paced and as friction-free as we can make it.
The second aspect in the space is about content and price. In addition to having a great site, you need to have the right product at the right price. Let me put it this way. You can have a store on 5th Avenue in New York, but if you only have one pair of shoes in it, nobody is going to come in. For us, Games for Windows Live Marketplace has been about not just building the store, but having the right content, and making sure that we are staying competitive relative to the prices of our portfolio offerings.
Seattle24x7: Can you fill us in on the social features for Games for Windows Live, beyond the gaming itself?
Avi: We have two types of social integration to our gaming properties. One is through the site, and that’s the more straightforward integration with Facebook and Twitter. This typically occurs from the game detail pages or from the purchase flow. It’s the more classic sharing of the experience, like I bought this particular game, or Microsoft has this great discount on that title. It lets you basically shout out that information directly from the site to your favorite social site.
The other type of social integration we have in our gaming platform is driven by the fact that we’re integrating the Windows Live and Xbox Live experience into the game itself. This allows the environment to basically surface your friends list, allows you to chat with friends, either by voice or by text, and to see your friends online, what they’re playing and so so forth.
Seattle24x7: How have you measured the adoption of those social features?
Avi: Since the launch,we’ve seen a 400% jump in our Facebook sign-ups and involvement from users in our Facebook pages which has been great. We’re seeing the same increase of involvement in our forums, as well as in game interaction.
Simply put, people have better tools to connect with us and with other users, and that has made a very positive difference.
Seattle24x7: You’ve turned to the Seattle firm known as POP for their input and design creativity. What can you tell us about that relationship?
Avi: POP has been working closely with other groups inside Microsoft, including the Xbox team, applying their design and artistic skills. We have found their talents and approach to be very desirable for the type of project that we are building. They have been the ones who have designed major parts of the look and feel of the site and performed a good deal of the development.
Seattle24x7: Do I have it correctly that POP was involved with the design of the recommendation engine?
Avi: The site itself is build on top of services that we have inside Microsoft such as commerce billing, the catalog, and more. POP developed the interface of the site making the internal calls to to the built-in Xbox services.
Seattle24x7: Any launch of the magnitude of Games for Windows is not without its share of hiccups? Have you hit any speed bumps?
Avi: Overall it’s been very smooth. We did a lot of testing before we launched — stress performance, and security. One early test was a weekend promotion where we sold Age of Empires 3 for 10 cents. That’s a game that normally costs $39 dollars!
We had huge, huge, huge traffic through the site. The entire team was on hand over the weekend just to make sure that everything was working as it should. And the promotion was so successful, we ran out of activation keys for the game. I’d call it a hiccup. but a good one!
Seattle24x7: The success of Xbox and Microsoft Gaming has been astounding. How do you see Games for Windows in terms of its fit within the ecosystem?
Avi: I think this is another pillar of the overall investment that we’re making across three screens to bring our game properties and social experiences from Xbox Live, which has been, a huge success on the console, to Windows, with the right social and commerce experiences, and to the TV and the mobile phone. So if you look at the overall strategy you see the console, the phone and the PC backed up, from the cloud, by Xbox Live. And most of the games can be played right from the moment of discovery in Bing. It’s exciting! [24×7]