Monday, December 13, 2010

Windows Vista Game Explorer (and 7, too)

Having picked up so many games this summer from the sales on Steam, I found myself looking into convenient ways of organising my games. Up until now, I've generally just kept all my games in the normal folders in the Windows Start menu, and putting an occasional shortcut to a game on the desktop. That last bit is usually unnecessary, since the Start menu ends up just showing my most often-played games in the list of most recently used programs.

But I started using the Steam client to launch the games, since they required the client to be open anyway, and I got tired of the "details mode" and/or "list mode" I usually kept my games list in, and tried out the grid view. I ended up liking that mode much better, with its large box-art-like graphics for each game, since looking at the images gave me a better sense of which game I felt like playing at any given moment.

The Game Explorer with partial remodeling underway

The problem: Not all of the games had that nice box art. Notably mods or non-Steam games, which showed only the little ugly icon. I searched online for how to change or add custom art to the Steam list, but to no avail. So, I ended up looking for other options.

A long-neglected wasteland on my start menu was the "Games" button, what I usually see called the Vista Game Explorer (or sometimes "Games Explorer" in the plural -- the window itself only says "Games", so I don't know which to use). Of course, it's also in Windows 7, so I guess we shouldn't call it "Vista Game Explorer" anymore.

It was mostly full of default Windows games, and the occasional other game that it happened to detect. From what I've read, the Game Explorer only officially supports games that bear the "Games for Windows" logo, which requires the company to include a special icon and rating information to appear in that window. Some older games are also supported, if they're popular enough.

At any rate, the Game Explorer offers pretty much the same kind of thing the Steam Grid View does, and with almost the same inability to customise the graphics. I say "almost", because there are some programs available that let you customise them, as well as add any games the Explorer never detected. This allows you not only to change the icons, but also edit the names.

For instance, you may have several games in a series which are named inconsistently, causing them to be ordered strangely. Or, perhaps you only have one game in a series, and you want it to be named by that particular game's name, instead of by the series name. Look under "K" for "Knights of the Old Republic", or "S" for "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic"? Look under "O" for "Oblivion", or "E" for "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion"? (Or worse, "T" for "THE Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion".) With this, you can order them however you like, unlike on Steam. Also, some publishers felt the need to add things like (TM) to the ends of their games' names, which makes it look ugly and tacky, so I removed those as well.


After some work, I'm very happy with my new, shiny Game Explorer with all my games (including Steam games) added into it (at least all the ones I care to play lately), and it has become my preferred method for selecting and launching my games.

I took the time to make custom graphics for almost all of them. Firstly for the ones that didn't have any graphics at all, and only showed a tiny icon like some of my games in the Steam list. Then I moved on to box art that was ugly. The box art gets downloaded automatically from some box art database, and sometimes it's low-contrast or projected onto a faux 3D box, even if it was a download-only game that never had a boxed version. Then I replaced graphics that were too abstract. Some games like Torchlight and The Witcher have nothing but abstract symbols with no title, as if the developers thought it should just be a really big icon, even at 256x256 pixels.

All in all, it was a consistency problem. Front shots, isometric shots, and icons, some round, some skinny, and some fat, all jumbled up together. I liked how Steam did it. All graphics are the same size and shape. What I didn't like about the Steam graphics was their choice of aspect ratio. Why a long horizontal rectangle, when most game boxes are vertical DVD-case-sized rectangles? This odd choice has some apparent problems for the design of the graphics for some games, with awkward blank space off to one side, or other strange element placement.

So, for my custom graphics, I chose a square for the canvas, maximising the available height and width, since the max limit was 256x256 anyway. This way, I've found I have no trouble placing the graphics and titles into the images in visually pleasing ways.

Making your own graphics for it

I took graphical elements from official game art, wallpapers, screenshots, box art, and whatever else I had on hand, and made them into nice little collages emphasising the themes of the games I enjoyed most about them, and getting rid of any ugly company logos that get in the way of the art (when you only have 256 pixels to work with, you don't want a lot of clutter). You've seen one of the results if you've read one of my earlier Baldur's Gate posts, which has a square logo I assembled from the cover of the manual. Moby Games is a good place to get box art, since they tend to have scans from numerous different editions of the game covers, some of which have fewer logos getting in the way of the art, or simply different art selections to choose from. You might also take a look at, which has mostly fan-made alternate DVD covers for a decent selection of games.

If you want to make your own graphics, I recommend finishing it up at about 350x350 pixels, and saving it as a PNG. Larger is probably unnecessary. You could use a JPEG, of course (the manager will convert it to whatever Windows actually needs), and you can use whatever size you want. The maximum size Game Explorer will use for it as an icon looks to be about 242x242 px (you can resize all the icons with the view slider like all icons in Vista/Win7), but you should also take into consideration that it also displays larger art in the Preview pane if you give it enough space for it, where all the rating info goes, and where in Win7 there are some additional features. I don't really care about the preview pane, though, and keep it hidden on mine. More space for games that way.

Windows standard icons are 256x256, but it's definitely not displaying them quite that size when the window is set to its maximum view size. I'm assuming Game Explorer Manager deals with the sizes when it makes the display DLL, though.

However, there are a large number of already-made icons for just about any game you can think of in PNG format at 256x256 resolution, if you just want to use pre-made ones. Using Google Image Search with the size restriction set to 256x256 seems to be ideal for finding ready-made icons for the game of your choice. Many of them seem to be using a circular template, though, or a partially-rotated 3D box style, so most of them aren't what I want, but you may like them that way, or just find them more convenient to use.


The two programs I tried out for doing all this custom work were Vista Game Explorer Manager, and Vista Game Explorer Editor (check out their nice "before and after" screens, which illustrate it nicely). I found VGEM to be much easier to use, so I'd recommend that one, even though it's no longer being updated (the author switched to Mac) and that it doesn't have an entry for adding Steam games (VGEE has one). I may revise this recommendation if VGEE continues to be developed and surpasses VGEM's no-nonsense, always-works ease of use. But you can add Steam games with it anyway if you do one manual tweak, so I'll give instructions for that in the next section. And despite the "Vista" in their names, they work the same for the Explorer in Windows 7.

There is one issue with VGEM that took me a while to overcome -- that it's designed for a minimum vertical screen resolution of 768px. This is a problem for netbooks, which typically are locked to a maximum resolution of 1024x600, because it means the most important buttons (add new game, edit existing game), which are located at the bottom of the window, are cut off and unable to be activated. There are two solutions to this, because netbooks generally can display higher resolutions, and they're just instructed not to for the small netbook monitors.

The easiest solution is probably just to plug it into an external monitor. The netbook should allow a higher resolution if you do that. If it doesn't, then try the second solution.

The second solution is to unlock the higher resolutions for the netbook screen. It's a simple registry edit. Just search for 'Display1_DownScalingSupported' and change the value from '0' to '1'. There are several entries with that name, and I'm not sure which one was really necessary, but I just changed it for all of them, and it worked fine. After a reboot, the higher resolutions should be available to you.

Getting it to work with Steam

There are two ways to get Steam games to show up and work properly in the Game Explorer, and one works better than the other. The not-so-good way is to just make your shortcut to the game executable in the Steam folder. When you execute it, it'll launch the Steam client and run the game its own way, but for some reason it didn't work for all games when I did it that way.

This might be why the other way works better: If you use the Steam client to make a shortcut to your game on the desktop, and you look at the properties of that shortcut, you'll see it doesn't actually link to the executable, but it rather sends a command to the Steam client to launch the game with that game ID. So, the way that works best for the Game Explorer is to:

  1. Create your new Explorer entry using Vista Game Explorer Manager (for the icon and such). Point the entry at the game executable for now.
  2. Create a shortcut to the Steam game on the desktop.
  3. Copy the address from the shortcut's properties.
  4. In Game Explorer, right-click on the game's entry and choose "customise". (This option was removed in Windows 7, so see below)
  5. You should see several unused "play commands" near the end of the list. Select one of those and click "Add".
  6. Paste the Steam address into that field. It treats it as an URL, which it basically is.
  7. Move that command up to the top so it'll be the default when you double-click the game.

All done!

Another way to add Steam games that I just learned about is something that also works for Windows 7. There's a program called Steam Assistance that can detect your Steam games, or let you choose them from a list, and it'll add the proper entry to your game explorer. It uses the wide-aspect Steam graphic for it, though, which amounts to only using maybe 35% of the available height for the graphic in the Game Explorer window. I couldn't find a way to get it to let me select my own image, even though it seems from the screenshots that there should be a way. If there's a way to get out of the "add/remove Steam game" wizard in that program and into an "Edit entry" screen like I think it's showing in the screenshots, I'd like to know how.

So, all in all, getting your Game Explorer in order is a bit of work, but I think of it as a crafting project, and I'm happy with having a nice, universal central location from which to launch all my games, with customisable graphics, reorganisable series names, and cleanup of unnecessary garbage.

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