Analysis: What Microsoft Could Learn From GTA 4

Grand Theft Auto IV

If ever two software debuts were so at opposite ends of the spectrum as far as public embrace goes, it may have be those of Microsoft's Vista and Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto IV.

The much-hyped release of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV has proven to be more then hype. GTA 4 has shattered game records with phenomenal, first-day sales and accolades from gaming reviewers. Various reviewers gave the game a perfect ten score and Game Rankings Website hailed it as "best video game ever."

As just about every gamer and his grandmother knows by now, GTA 4's premise follows the adventures of one Niko Bellic, a newly-arrived immigrant to the United States searching for his slice of the American Dream in the fictional locale of Liberty City -- a pretty impressive and detail-rich replica of the 5 boroughs of New York City. How Niko goes about this is up to the gamer: via the straight life or through more questionable means involving car, motorcycle and helicopter theft, shooting, fighting or cavorting with prostitutes. All of the seven deadly sins have representation in this game (as do nearly all of the seven dirty words made famous by comedian George Carlin).

Like Vista, the video game is certainly not without controversy, but its controversy stems more from moral objections about the game's content and not the underlying technology itself. Vista, however, has had its controversy steeped deeply into its very technology; with critics railing everything from the operating system's performance to its compatibility with third-party apps and devices.

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So why cheers for GTA 4 and jeers for Vista? Yes—it's an apples to oranges comparison: one is a game, the other is an OS, and yes Microsoft played a part in GTA 4's success, providing a less buggy hardware platform in Xbox than achieved with Playstation's version. Test Center reviewers had the laborious task of dedicating a few hours to GTA 4 game play. Are there lessons that the think-tanks behind Vista could learn from the developers and marketers of Grand Theft Auto? Perhaps these are some fundamental differences between the two:

Choice: Choices are the foundation of the game. The non-linear plot of GTA 4 allows users to have different outcomes and varied game experience, every time the game is played. Choice is not just limited to game play. Gamers get to choose among a variety of things: what car to steal, who to punch, what radio station to listen to in a stolen car. . . Microsoft did not give the market much of a choice with the decision to end support on XP. Although not much of an issue with home-users. VARs and technologists who have to support XP are forced to make a decision --- keep XP and have to face the fact support will imminently end on it, or forage into the newer territory that is Windows Vista? The best choices Microsoft provides in Vista are whether to disable features like Aero Glass or Windows Defender.

Consistency: It seems that the developers of GTA have kept the same basic algorithms and code since the days of the first release. The code has evolved in such a way that the game runs faster than ever. In contrast, Microsoft took what was long-developed code that made XP the relatively stable system it is, and started pretty much fresh with code for Vista. The old adage applies here -- if it ain't broke, don't fix, just make it better.

Performance: OK, so a couple of times, our hero's fist went through an opponent's face instead of landing directly on it -- a minor performance issue with proximity detection -- and there were some hurky-jerky movements while running the character through the streets, but other than that there were no crashes, freezes or frustratingly cryptic error message during game play. In comparison, Vista has publicized performance issues, particularly in head-to-head tests with its predecessor, XP.

Affordability: Xbox's low-end version retails for about $280. GTA 4 sells for under $70.00. Vista's low-end version-Vista Home, sells for $259 (not including pricing for additional memory to optimally run Vista).

One clear, noticeable facet stands out when playing GTA 4: the game was a labor of love by its developers. The game features the minutest of details, from the five o clock shadow on Nico's face to the outraged and often amusing outcries of unfortunate characters that get mowed down by vehicles. The level of detail is pervasive -- whether the main character is running through a hospital, the subway or a strip joint. It is obvious that the makers worked to give players the ultimate gaming experience. The focus was on their core, loyal market -- a focus that many believe Microsoft neglected with the launch of Vista.