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Microsoft needs to clearly articulate its vision for PC gaming

By Rob Fahey

Microsoft needs to clearly articulate its vision for PC gaming

Fri 11 Mar 2016 9:00am GMT / 4:00am EST / 1:00am PST
Development

Developer unrest over the UWP is justified; MS has not earned the benefit of the doubt, and has a responsibility to be transparent with its partners

I've written about Microsoft's plans for the Universal Windows Platform (UWP) a couple of times in recent weeks, but on both occasions I've been looking at what UWP will mean for the future of Xbox - with the console platform set to become, in effect, an extension of the Windows 10 ecosystem. As an Xbox One owner or an Xbox consumer in general, you may well find the changes proposed to be pretty positive overall; UWP heralds a potentially dramatic shift in Microsoft's console strategy which would change the Xbox landscape, but would overall result in Xbox consumers getting access to more software and functionality. It's a pretty good deal for those on the console side of the equation.

If you're looking at this from the perspective of a PC gamer, though, you'd be forgiven for being far, far less enthusiastic. Sure, the notion of being able to move games and applications between UWP devices is appealing - but it comes at the cost of shifting to the Universal Windows Application (UWA) architecture, whose pros and cons are still being hotly debated within the industry. The view of many developers - most notably and most vocally Tim Sweeney of Epic Games - is that UWA applications are more limited and more restricted than existing Windows apps, and are essentially designed to give Microsoft vastly more control of the application ecosystem on Windows. This doesn't bother Xbox users, of course; software for consoles can only be published by, or under license, from the platform holders. Shifting to that model for Windows, though, would represent a very major loss of freedom on the platform - one which makes developers deeply uncomfortable.

"It is Microsoft's responsibility to give consumers and developers proper, cast-iron guarantees about how the platform will evolve and develop"

It's important to underline that this is, to some degree, a slippery-slope argument. UWA is one framework developers can use on Windows 10, the other being Win32, the old, far less restricted application framework which has been the standard for Windows development for decades. Presently, you can download a Win32-based game or application from anywhere you like and run it on your Windows 10 PC without difficulty. UWA apps are more restricted in some important ways - they can't be effectively modded and you can't run companion apps like screen capture utilities with them; moreover, some features tied to third-party stores like Steam just don't work, including, it seems, the Steam controller hardware - but perhaps the biggest problem is that UWA apps are designed to be distributed through Microsoft's own Windows Store. The company has made it possible to "side-load" UWA applications on devices without going through the store, but the very term "side-load" makes it clear that this functions as a more complex, somewhat obfuscated process for advanced users - the company wants the majority of users to access their games and apps through the storefront it provides.

That's a problem for many developers, not just because of the current limitations of UWA - many of which ought to be fixed reasonably quickly as the software evolves - but because of how it undermines the freedom of the PC platform. The appeal of the PC to developers and to many consumers lies in the ability to run whatever software you like, and to modify and mess with that software to quite a degree. Developers can make whatever they wish and release it through whatever storefront or distribution mechanism they wish; consumers can buy from multiple sources, install mods or fan-developed updates, and use third-party applications in tandem with their games to add layers of functionality. None of that is possible on console platforms; it's also not possible on Apple's iOS. Android lies somewhere in the middle, with a Google-operated store but application side-loading also possible for the technically minded; but that's more of a cautionary tale than a recommendation for Microsoft's UWP approach, since Android's side-loading is largely only used by devoted hobbyists and effectively amounts to a curiosity rather than a genuinely alternative distribution and business model.

The future that developers like Sweeney imagine, should Microsoft continue down this path (or well-greased incline), is one where the PC drifts closer to the console or smartphone model; where anyone can pick up development tools and start making an application, but if you want to get it into the hands of consumers, you'll have to jump through whatever hoops Microsoft insists upon for the Windows Store (which could include restrictions on the content you're allowed to include) and pay a 30 percent fee to the company. The alternative will be to offer your games for side-loading, restricting yourself to potentially a tiny sliver of the market; or to develop a Win32 application, which may well mean targeting an increasingly out-of-date feature-set as UWA evolves to include new functionality and Win32 is left behind.

Microsoft's response to the controversy has been somewhat lukewarm; in a statement released after Sweeney's editorial was published in The Guardian, Microsoft describes UWP as a "fully open ecosystem" and promotes its addition of side-loading features to Windows 10 late last year. It also alluded to UWP being able to be supported by any store, implying that storefronts such as Steam or EA Origin will be available as alternatives to the Windows Store, though it's not clear what compromises or changes would have to be made either to UWP or to the storefronts in order to make that work.

It's entirely possible to read Microsoft's statement and give the company the full benefit of the doubt, dismissing this all as a storm in a teacup - but I don't think it should ever be the consumer's place to give companies a free pass like that, much less the place of the press. Rather, it is Microsoft's responsibility to give a full and transparent accounting of its decisions and plans for UWP, and to respond to criticisms from Sweeney and others in a way that properly addresses their concerns. This is a slippery slope argument, but it's not a very long slope; there really is not very far to go from the situation right now to a much more closed, console-like platform, and it is Microsoft's responsibility to give consumers and developers proper, cast-iron guarantees about how the platform will evolve and develop.

"If the PC platform were to become nothing more than a more expensive games console in a less nicely designed box, it would lose almost all of the magic that makes it into such a vital and dynamic part of the gaming world"

There are models out there which implement much of what Microsoft wants to do in a way that's mostly acceptable to developers, after all. In fact, while Apple's iOS App Store is pretty much exactly the nightmare scenario for Windows developers, the company's OSX App Store makes a much more decent fist of balancing the openness of the platform with security concerns and a desire to make discovery and distribution more straightforward. By default, OSX users can download software from the App Store or from any other provider that is signed up as an Apple Developer (a cheap and simple process which involves cryptographically signing apps to tie them to a developer's identity, which has proven quite effective, though by no means foolproof, at preventing malware). Things only get complex if you want to run software that's neither from the App Store nor from a registered developer - then you need to access a control panel, enter a password and click through some warnings - but this covers only a minority of usage cases. The OSX App Store is by no means ideal, and like UWP, has been strongly criticised for the limitations it imposes on applications; but it was introduced as a new way of obtaining software for OSX, not as a replacement for any of the existing ways, and there's little evidence of any "slippery slope" towards OSX being a more closed platform overall.

That, perhaps, is an example Microsoft would do well to consider. Its goals for UWP are lofty, and the notion of software that's largely able to run cross-platform between PCs, consoles, phones and tablets is an interesting and worthy one - but along the way, it risks losing sight of what makes the PC and Windows ecosystems great in the first place. The PC is a brilliant platform for games not because of the powerful hardware you can put into the box, but because of the openness and freedom of the platform - openness and freedom that encourages innovation, experimentation and creativity, that by its nature permits modding and extension of beloved games by talented fans, and frees users to change or add to their gaming experiences in novel and powerful ways. If the PC platform were to become nothing more than a more expensive games console in a less nicely designed box, it would lose almost all of the magic that makes it into such a vital and dynamic part of the gaming world. Microsoft may have no plans or intention of slaughtering the goose that lays such golden eggs; but if it's going to keep hanging around the barn with a meat cleaver in its hands, it needs to start explaining itself much more clearly, directly and honestly than it has been up until now.

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8 Comments

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,448 1,810 1.3
It is a testament to Microsoft's strength that PC gaming and Windows gaming are used interchangeably. But it is hard to imagine that the companies which now own the major Windows based distribution platforms could ever form a consortium to rid themselves from Windows. At least for as long as they intent to apply for Xbox development licences that is.

On the bright side, if Windows locked all software sales to its store, it would not last three months. In the end, a healthy Windows is not about the games, it is about the software used by companies. If they don't want port their software, e.g. to Vista, it will be dead on arrival.

Posted:3 months ago

#1

Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games

367 211 0.6
Why does Microsoft in particular need to do that?

Cast iron guarantees? Seriously? Has google or sony or apple or anyone for that matter ever done so?

Their platforms, Windows/Xbox, offer the most options by far to developers. So I can't see why they in particular have to articulate that. They are not newcomers. Microsoft is not an unknown quantity in software, especially in gaming.

In the recent case, with all due respect, I am not sure anyone should take that opinion seriously. Not the technical aspect of it of course, which is something that can easily be evaluated and rectified if necessary, but the rest of it.

Bitterness that someone will earn millions out of something someone thought of being a dead horse and gave it away is too obvious to be ignored. And before you say people at that level do not think like that I must remind you that contrary to common beliefs, business people are people like everyone else. They get angry, bitter etc. etc.

I can't possibly justify all this polemic, especially when it is a fact that the Windows Store is not the main source of software for PCs as it is in other platforms. (iOS, Android, Chrome OS, to a certain degree even Steam OS and Sony PS) Nor are there plans or indication of plans, or suspicion of indication of plans, to make it so. It would simply be disastrous for Microsoft. Makes no business sense at all.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Yiannis Koumoutzelis on 11th March 2016 4:46pm

Posted:3 months ago

#2

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd

430 1,129 2.6
Popular Comment
Further thoughts on this from Tim Sweeney: http://venturebeat.com/2016/03/10/epics-tim-sweeney-heres-how-to-keep-windows-an-open-platform/

@Yiannis: I don't think that Microsoft will succeed in turning Windows into a closed platform (nobody uses the Windows Store now, and it's not going to magically become functional or attractive if they go around smashing Steam and everyone else's windows) so I guess we agree. But I do think that it's important that developers speak out against attempts to reduce the platform's openness and functionality. It may seem like common sense for Microsoft not to poison their own well, but their traditional revenue streams are quickly evaporating, and in the ongoing absence of any clear vision or leadership, the vacuum could be filled by misguided short term thinking.

Posted:3 months ago

#3

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,998 2,319 1.2
especially when it is a fact that the Windows Store is not the main source of software for PCs [...] Nor are there plans or indication of plans, or suspicion of indication of plans, to make it so.
It's worth bearing in mind Microsoft's past Embrace, Extend, Extinguish philosophy. I'm sure this business strategy wasn't immediately obvious (and didn't have an immediate detrimental consequence) to the affected companies back then. But MS is a business that seems to take great pains in asking for a mile, when an inch would be reasonable. It really is so important developers (and journalists, and knowledgeable consumers) speak out.

Posted:3 months ago

#4

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,448 1,810 1.3
Imagine there was a TV which could only play one channel. Would you buy it? Hell no.

PC based platforms are just that, TV channels. One is called Steam, one is called Uplay, the other Origin, Gog, Humble, etc. After buying your PC hardware, you buy the software which holds all these video game platforms together: Windows.

Valve tried to get fancy with SteamOS, but in the end it amounts to being that very one-channel TV set you will never buy. What can Microsoft embrace, extend and extinguish here?`Their own competitive advantage over Linux? Apple is certainly no example of how a platform is locked down, since all that spawned was a rival platform, with the same apps. The ubiquity of ads for smarthphones and carriers is a good sign that those companies are not in dire need of replacing the Play or Apple store. Amazon on the other hand, did it instantly when they entered the market of selling devices. I assume Microsoft wants to remain the one, not become the one who spawned all the others. Because if you take off the Apple goggles and look at how software is sold on mobile devices, you quickly realize that nobody there has the amount of market power that Windows has at the moment.

If some Microsoft games are exclusive to their store, then that is no different to all the other games by big publishers being exclusive to one store or another. The difference being that in the grand scheme of PC things, first party Microsoft games are meaningless to the PC audience. It does not matter in which online store they fail miserably. Sure, Microsoft could try and extinguish all other sales platforms from Windows. But just like Apple, all they achieve is the rise of another platform. The last thing Microsoft needs right now is the gaming industry and software developers for small and medium sized businesses opting to move to Linux instead of taking a hit to their revenue after Microsoft forces them through their store.

Posted:3 months ago

#5

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic

1,998 2,319 1.2
Popular Comment
What you're forgetting, Klaus, is the pre-installed nature of Windows.

Would I buy a TV which could only play one channel? No. But if I bought a TV where one channel had a far better signal than the others, would I watch that one channel more? Some would, yes. And that's the fear with Windows Store - Microsoft using their leverage as the standard OS install in every pre-built PC out there to get people to use their store, because it's easier and doesn't require separate client install. And if enough start using it, devs/pubs will see that there's money to be made, and before you know it, one stupid decision later, they're giving MS power+30% revenue.
What can Microsoft embrace, extend and extinguish here?
Steam is to Microsoft Store what Netscape was to IE in the 90s. And just look at how much market share they had, then didn't have.
The last thing Microsoft needs right now is the gaming industry and software developers for small and medium sized businesses opting to move to Linux instead of taking a hit to their revenue after Microsoft forces them through their store.
Just because there is the potential for it to be bad the long-run, doesn't mean they're not willing to try.

And, yeah, this is fear and paranoia. Not saying it isn't. But really, when it comes to PC, so much of what MS touches turns to shit, and they don't even acknowledge it (as an example, still no apology for the GFWL games that have been rendered unplayable).

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 12th March 2016 7:59am

Posted:3 months ago

#6

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,559 1,586 0.6
(as an example, still no apology for the GFWL games that have been rendered unplayable).

The only "benefit" to that is I get to hit myself in the head with all those boxed retail GFWL titles in my library that don't function anymore. As if I needed to do that instead of playing those old games that would still be enjoyable if they actually ran. :P

Posted:3 months ago

#7

Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games

367 211 0.6
All I hear is "fear" and a ton of "ifs".

Would someone buy a TV with a single channel? No.

Now let me ask this:
Do you consider iOS and Android devices, TVs with one channel?
Yes/No and why?

Also I still don't have an answer why Microsoft in particular has to do that and not all other companies too. Or have they?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Yiannis Koumoutzelis on 18th March 2016 10:09am

Posted:3 months ago

#8

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