Vista not playing nice with gamers

Windows Vista’s powerful new graphics engine may be one of its hallmark features, but it’s engendering complaints from a key segment of potential early adopters: hardcore gamers.

A small but significant number of games written for Windows XP either crash or creep along slowly on Vista, according to numerous complaints by game enthusiasts in online forums.

“Formatted PC, installed Vista, updated any drivers possible. Now half [of my] games will not run, or run with corrupt graphics,” lamented one poster on Jan. 31 in a discussion forum at graphics chipmaker Nvidia’s Web site.

“You installed Vista. You deserve your problems. Heh,” replied a second poster.

Most of the problems have been found in popular first-person shooter games such as CounterStrike, Half-Life 2, Doom 3 and F.E.A.R.

Games, especially first-person shooters, tend to strain a PC’s graphics capabilities much more than business or even multimedia applications.

Besides the occasional crash, the most common reports appear to be games whose animation speed, measured in frames per second, suffers under Vista.

Experts blame still-flaky software drivers, Vista’s complexity and a dearth of new video cards optimized for Vista’s new rendering technology, DirectX 10.

That’s despite promises from Microsoft that Vista is backwards-compatible with XP’s graphic engine, DirectX 9, and that it will support existing games.

Meanwhile, games written to take advantage of DirectX 10 have been slow to emerge. And one Nvidia executive predicts that gamers may not routinely see games optimized for DirectX 10 until mid-2008.

It’s not that bad, says Microsoft

Chris Donahue, manager of Microsoft’s Games for Windows group, says the company has tested 1,000 popular games from the past five years. Most work well with Vista, he said, declining to elaborate how many had problems and why.

Vista’s DirectX 10 is reportedly a complete rewrite of Microsoft’s graphic engine that should allow games written for the platform to run much faster and display more textured, lifelike images than under DirectX 9.

DirectX 10 is so advanced that even Vista’s advanced desktop interface, dubbed “Aero,” relies on the previous-generation DirectX 9 technology.

Leading game publishers such as Electronic Arts, PopCap Games, Vivendi Games, THQ, Slam Games and WildTangent are busily creating games taking advantage of DirectX 10, according to Microsoft. Microsoft, through its MSN Games group, is also releasing a number of less graphically-intensive “casual” games for Vista.

But so far, Microsoft has only shown off — and only via screenshots and video clips — a handful of games that truly take advantage of DirectX 10. And many of those improvements appear to be subtle ones that only the most avid gamers will notice.

Nvidia on the hot seat

Besides complaining to Microsoft, users are compiling lists of games that do and do not work on Vista, such as the collections at zetafleet.com(download PDF), compatdb.org and NTcompatible.com.

Graphics chipmakers such as Nvidia, Intel, and Advanced Micro Devices subsidiary ATI Technologies are rolling out drivers for existing graphics cards running their chips.

But chipmakers are being criticized because of the slow appearance of those drivers, as well as their unreliability — even those that have been certified by Microsoft’s Windows Hardware Quality Labs (WHQL).

Moreover, graphics chips optimized for DirectX 10 have yet to emerge from Intel or ATI, though the latter is expected to ship its first DirectX 10 processor, the R600, by midspring, according to unconfirmed reports.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia has released a processor for DirectX 10, the GeForce 8800. The drivers for the GeForce 8800, however, remain in beta and are not WHQL-certified.

Some users are so disgruntled that they have created a Web site threatening a lawsuit.

“Our [quality assurance staffers] didn’t expect there to be an extraordinary number of bugs, but people are hammering pretty hard on Vista, and there are obviously some parts that we missed,” said Daniel Vivoli, senior vice president for marketing at Nvidia.

While pointing out that other vendors such as mouse and keyboard maker Logitech International SA, sound card maker Creative Technology and Cisco Systems, as well as its wireless print server subsidary, Cisco-Linksys, have also gotten complaints for malfunctioning Vista drivers, Vivoli acknowledged that Nvidia deserves the criticism it is receiving.

“Early adopters of Vista are the PC enthusiasts, and that’s where we have 90% market share, so it’s not surprising we get more heat than ATI,” he said.

In response, Nvidia has created a page where users can directly report any problems with Vista drivers.

It is also devoting heavy resources to fixing those drivers until “everyone is delighted,” Vivoli said.

Games slow to level up

So when will Vista-optimized games arrive?

Besides driver problems, the lack of DirectX 10 video cards on the market so far has prevented game publishers from rushing to the new technology. Even Halo 2, Microsoft’s massive hit for the Xbox that it is busily porting over for a release later this year on Windows Vista, will still be based on XP’s DirectX 9 technology. That is changing. Nvidia said it plans to have an entire “top-to-bottom” family of GeForce 8800 chips by the end of the year.

Microsoft’s Donahue, citing unnamed forecasters, predicted that up to 9 million DirectX 10 graphic cards or chip sets will be on the market by the end of this year.

Microsoft is also working closely with game developers to train them in DirectX 10, though it is stopping short of offering financial incentives to move to the new platform.

“I’d be very surprised to see any games that hit the market from this point forward straight out not support Windows Vista,” he said.

But others equally plugged into game developers doubt such a quick timetable.

“DirectX 10 is a different way of programming. It’s harder,” Nvidia’s Vivoli said. “I think it will take 12 to 18 months before we start to see all of the gaming titles coming out on DirectX 10.”

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