After the Games for Windows Live shutdown debacle, I was confident that my own gaming habits would be largely immune to the fallout coming this summer. As it turns out, I was wrong. One such game I periodically indulge in will soon be the latest victim in a long string of mass digital killings perpetrated by Microsoft’s gaming division*. While the GfWL shutdown did stir up something of a tempest-in-a-teacup, I can’t place the complete blame on Microsoft. I think their fault is substantial, don’t get me wrong, but it should at least be shared among the game studios who are willing accomplices.

* Note: I’m not sure precisely who controls the GfWL division at this point. As I understand it, the intent is to bring everything under the Xbone’s black flag of doom. I guess it’s succeeding.

First, I should divulge that I own very few GfWL games. I never installed Microsoft Flight. I’ve never touched the Fable franchise or any of the other fantasy games slated to be shelved, either. Neither have I played those games for which DLC is no longer available thanks to last year’s marketplace shutdown. I can say with relative impunity that I’ve been well insulated from the impact Microsoft’s recent decisions have made. I doubt I’d be the only one to observe that Microsoft’s diminishing influence on PC gaming has relegated it to niche markets. Of course, whether or not GfWL games exist in niche markets precisely because Microsoft has done almost everything it could to force players onto the Xbox is another matter entirely. And let’s not kid ourselves: Few of the top PC sellers came from the Windows marketplace anyway. We’re in the minority here, folks. If it weren’t for Steam, I almost have to wonder what the landscape would look like.

That said, I learned of the GfWL shutdown through the somewhat ironic twist that I had been looking for a Microsoft Flight Simulator replacement. At that time, I remembered from a year or two prior that Microsoft had indeed released a successor, for free, along with DLC that could be purchased for a modest fee. Searching Steam at that moment yielded a surprising result: Only the trailer videos were available for download! Puzzled, I searched around and came across the rather disturbing news that Microsoft had been planning on shutting down the GfWL marketplace and took with it nearly every PC game that used Windows Live, including everything on Steam that wasn’t actively maintained and ported to use Steamworks. Oops.

Needless to say, Microsoft lost a sale. I ended up buying X-Plane 10 instead.

However, FSX is in a strangely fortunate position. It enjoys a highly active modding community with dozens of available addons (free and otherwise). And Lockheed Martin (yes, that Lockheed Martin) owns the rights to continue developing an FSX-compatible flight simulator under the Prepar3d moniker. I suspect that those of us who own FSX and plan to play it for many years to come will not be impaired by Microsoft’s idiotic decision. We might even be thankful. With Flight more or less out of the way, the arcade-ization of an otherwise realistic franchize will be forgotten as an unfortunate blip on the radar. It’s almost as if the FSX community is thriving in spite of Microsoft.

Sadly, other games aren’t faring so well. Lack of community influence, developer interest, and consumer willingness have pushed many franchises into the wastelands. It’s doubtful they’ll recover.

Thus, I return to Fuel. Ignoring for a minute some of the inane bugs in the game, like the moon rising in the wrong cardinal direction, it’s quite good and Fuel is one of the few–if not only!–racing games with a fully open world. Sure, it has races and challenges, but the real innovation is what happens between the races. Exploring is paramount to unlocking zones in Fuel, and it’s almost a requirement to progress. For that reason alone, Fuel certainly deserved more exposure in the PC gaming world, but its existence as a game ported from the Xbox undoubtedly hurt its reputation. I’d also wager that it wasn’t well marketed.

This is to say nothing of the endless Al Gore-isms and almost insulting environmentalist propaganda for each of the zones that made a tenuous plot laughable. I can ignore that, because the game is fun. I still can’t forgive them for a west-rising moon, however.

Code Masters’ reaction when pressed for Fuel’s current status by a player on the Steam forums was pathetic. Ridiculous but unsurprising, the studio has absolutely no intention of issuing a remedy. Their excuse? The game is too old. Never mind that it was ported to PC only a few short years prior! I can’t imagine it would take many man-hours to strip all of the GfWL dependencies, possibly replacing them with Steamworks, but who am I to judge? I think Code Masters simply doesn’t want the money.

I can’t really blame them, either. If you’ve been following the Flappy Bird nonsense, some developers lose their marbles over the idea that they’re literally swimming in cash. Imagine, for a moment, Scrooge McDuck but with a keyboard. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Maybe not, because some developers get cold feet when they imagine their player base as addicts continuing to hit up their game. Straight into the veins! Hey, now, I won’t judge. I think addictions are unhealthy, but if spending hours tapping away on an iDevice to maneuver an inept bird between pipes gets the dopamine flowing, more power to you.

Awful allegories aside, I think Code Masters isn’t that much unlike Dong Nguyen. They’re almost appalled someone wants to play their games. It’s a tragedy, really. I mean, heaven forbid that some idiots might actually want to buy their products, right? Except in this case, Mr. Nguyen took the moral high road, possibly because he felt it unfair to be so successful while his players were so addicted. We’d probably be in a much better world if drug dealers had this kind of empathy for their customers.

Actually, I doubt the Code Masters thing has anything to do with money. I think they’re headed the same was Electronic Arts was five, maybe ten years ago. That’s the real shame.

It’s here that I’ll take the liberty to offer a brief aside that’s killing me, because I only saw it a few days ago. On the title screen for Fuel, the developers had the nerve to include a little blurb of loading text that encourages the player to take a break. After all, they say, it’s not like the game is going to disappear. I’m serious–it actually says that. It’s almost as if the developers reached into the future to taunt future consumers, promptly flipping them a middle finger, then slipping a hand in their back pocket.

Don’t mind me. I’m just here to collect what you owe me. Yes, I know you already bought the game. No, I’m not going to give you anything new. Oh, and I should probably tell you that this game has a shelf life of two years. Thanks! And don’t forget to buy our new games coming out next fall. Suckers! [The mysterious hand retracts and disappears back into the void from whence it came.]

Anyway, I digress. Back to Microsoft. I’ve suspected for some time that the intent behind the GfWL coup de grĂ¢ce had more to do with product cannibalization and consolidation than improving some vague metric for customer satisfaction. Indeed, I wrote about precisely that last year. In particular, I strongly suspect that Microsoft–through some ray of brilliance or stupidity–is electing to destroy PC gaming entirely in the hopes that it forces consumers onto the Xbone. I really hope they’re not so myopic, because in spite of the supposed rampant piracy blamed by some developers as incentive to develop for consoles first and foremost, PC game sales certainly aren’t diminishing. Perhaps among the triple-A developers this may be true, but indie studios are doing relatively well.

On the other hand, according to Paul Thurrott, blamed by some to be a Microsoft shill, a certain Steven Sinofsky has been branded as the front man for everything wrong with Windows 8 and was removed shortly thereafter in effort to contain or otherwise mitigate the damage he wrought on the company’s cash cow. Or, so you’d hope. The simple fact that Microsoft has essentially killed off dozens of PC games that had active communities and active DLC sales is suggestive of a problem more systemic to Microsoft’s culture and less of a single so-called visionary who drove Windows careening into a side ditch in a career-ending joyride.

I suspect that the GfWL services and marketplace will be reborn under something that provides a certain degree of cross-platform support for PCs and the Xbone. I doubt Microsoft would be quite so stupid as to discount the PC market entirely with competitors like Valve making a pretty darned impressive living off digital downloads. Then again, considering the company’s less than stellar excursion (repeatedly, I might add) into the world of mobile devices (lol@Windows 8) I’m not quite sure what to believe. Given Microsoft’s track record as of late, I’m more inclined to believe they’re going to be Xboned.

It’s sad that the teardown of a single online service can almost literally wipe out dozens–if not hundreds–of games overnight, rendering them completely unplayable in spite of having been legally purchased even as few as six months prior. But then, that’s exactly the sort of thing that pundits, technophiles, gamers, indie developers, and myriad others have been warning us about for the better part of a decade or more. Draconian DRM, particularly that requiring online activation, is the bane of consumer freedom. As was brilliantly demonstrated by UbiSoft’s repeated failings insofar as online activation is concerned, DRM is the enemy of the consumer. Perhaps the shutdown of GfWL will refresh this debate and bring it back into the collective consciousness of thousands of consumers, angry that their games purchased with hard-earned cash are no longer playable.

I don’t have any such delusions that the average gamer is going to purchase subsequent games based on a notion as silly as consumer freedom, but I do hope that the fiasco might be memorable enough to give them pause for thought. It’s also a great time to remind everyone that indie developers seldom include DRM, because they value their time–and yours. For one, even the best DRM scheme will eventually be broken, and for two, several indie developers have repeated time and again that draconian DRM is outright insulting to their audience.

You know what you should do? You should support people like that. Better yet, it’s easy to do right now: Steam has available tons of indie games that have appeared independently on Humble Bundle and elsewhere. Ignoring for a minute that Steam itself is DRM (though it’s most certainly not the insulting kind!), you can do a whole lot more good for yourself and others if you buy indie games from platforms like Steam than to buy the next triple-A title from $bigassCompany.