Who's afraid of the big bad Windows?
Developers hate Windows 8 - and rightly so. Microsoft's confused, dysfunctional OS threatens their markets
Blizzard doesn't like the look of it, Mojang doesn't much fancy it, and Valve downright hates it. Yet Microsoft is pressing ahead with its plans for the Windows Store in Windows 8, regardless of the misgivings of some of the most successful and influential game software creators and distributors on the Windows platform.
"The Windows Store is largely a consequence of Windows 8's own identity crisis"
Perhaps because few people actually have their hands on Windows 8 software right now, there are a host of misconceptions floating around about this dispute. Many consumers and commentators seem to be confused about what role the Windows Store actually serves; some even appear to believe that Microsoft is locking the Windows 8 OS down to the extent that the Windows Store will be the only way to acquire software.
That's not the case. In fact, the Windows Store is largely a consequence of Windows 8's own identity crisis; the operating system has two distinct and different user interfaces, the traditional Windows-style interface (which is only tweaked in minor ways from Windows 7's interface) and the new Windows Phone style interface, formerly called Metro, which is designed with touch/gesture interfaces and tablet devices in mind. These two interfaces co-exist alongside each other on most devices; you can swap between them easily. Some apps live on one interface, others live on the other.
The Windows Store is primarily there for the benefit of Metro apps. In fact, it's the only source of Metro apps - if you want your app to run on the Metro interface, you need to distribute it through the Windows Store. If you just want your app to run on the old-fashioned Windows interface, though, you're welcome to distribute it however you want - Steam will still work, as will any other distribution method you care to mention.
In other words, one way of looking at this whole situation is that Microsoft isn't actually restricting the existing Windows ecosystem - it's just bolting on a new, more restricted ecosystem alongside the existing system, but developers are free to continue to work as they always have if they wish. That's certainly how Microsoft would like the world to see these changes; viewed in this light, the whole thing is a storm in a teacup.
"What would have been so wrong with expanding Windows Phone's reach to encompass tablets, rather than creating this dysfunctional, split-personality desktop OS?"
The situation is more complex than that, though; the likes of Blizzard and Valve wouldn't be so openly critical otherwise. Some of the arguments regarding the Windows Store are slightly spurious - such as the claim that it's a slippery slope which will eventually see Microsoft taking complete control of software distribution for the entire platform. Even Apple, which embraces the walled garden model far readily than Microsoft, still allows you to develop and release OSX software freely; there's a Mac App Store, but it's optional, the only restriction being that use of Apple's own services (like iCloud) requires that you pass through the App Store testing process - which is fair enough, really. If Apple can resist the urge to close off its OS, the slippery slope argument doesn't have much traction (no pun intended).
Other arguments are more to the point. For a start, there's the significant confusion over Windows 8's various platforms and versions. If you furrowed your brow when I mentioned the co-existence of two entirely distinct user interfaces, with some apps available on one and some on the other, then you were quite right to do so - it's a bloody mess. Now consider that there are also two distinct versions of the operating system; the standard one which runs on Intel-style architecture (as found in PC and Mac computers, and in expensive, laptop-spec tablets), and something called Windows RT, which runs on the ARM chips found in more iPad-style tablets like the low- to mid-range versions of Microsoft's own Surface. Windows RT only runs Metro software; it won't run traditional desktop apps. So now we have some devices running two interfaces, and other devices running only the new interface and unable to run software for the old one, and... Well, it really does sound a bit of a mess, and leaves me wondering how ordinary consumers are meant to make sense of it. Really, what would have been so wrong with following Apple's lead by expanding Windows Phone's reach to encompass tablets, rather than creating this dysfunctional, split-personality desktop OS?
Once you look at it from that perspective, you start to see why game developers are so concerned. If and when Windows RT devices become popular, developers will have no choice but to focus on that platform - which has a knock-on impact on the entire market. This threatens a significant split in the Windows market, with the "core" market of people using powerful, game-capable machines running Windows 8 on i386 architecture becoming isolated from the wider market of people using either Windows RT systems, or whose usage is focused on the Metro interface and its store to the exclusion of all else. This kind of balkanisation can't be healthy; it forces us all into the uncomfortable position of wondering whether the core PC market can actually support a thriving development scene, without the benefit of a huge population of more casual gamers who are outside the "core", but who regularly dip in, engage and purchase.
Besides that, there's the simple fact that developers had probably assumed that any move by Microsoft into the tablet market would take the opposite approach to Apple's iPad - building an open platform based on Windows which would set the stage for a clash as much ideological as commercial with Apple's walled garden. Much of their displeasure now may stem from the fact that Microsoft's tablets will be just as closed as Apple's.
"Microsoft's decision to create a hybrid desktop/tablet OS may well end up locking a large swathe of the market off from developers who don't embrace Windows Store"
The whole affair gains an extra dimension when you consider that we're not just talking about developers having to fork over a percentage of revenue and submit their apps for testing - there are also significant content controls in place on Microsoft's Windows Store, including a ban on any content that attracts a rating above ESRB Mature, or PEGI 16. In other words, everything has to be family-friendly; which makes a kind of sense, until you recall that the same companies who impose restrictions like that on games and apps will happily sell you 18-rated movies, copies of 50 Shades of Grey, and so on.
The misunderstandings around this dispute often mask the reality that users will have a choice about the Windows Store. If you don't want to use it, you won't have to - unless you're on a Windows RT device (I have a suspicion, by the way, that a lot of those are going to get returned to stores when less-informed consumers realise that they don't run standard Windows software). Steam will still work. You'll still be able to buy Minecraft direct from Mojang, or download the latest Blizzard games from Battle.net.
For developers, though, this is undoubtedly a gathering storm. They know perfectly well that at the outset, Windows 8 will work just like Windows 7 as far as they and their consumers are concerned. They're right to be worried, though. Microsoft's decision to create a hybrid desktop/tablet OS creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty, and may well end up locking a very large swathe of the market off from developers who don't embrace Windows Store, or whose content doesn't conform to Microsoft's family-friendly values. This may look like a storm in a teacup now - but depending on how the market moves in the next year or so, it's definitely one that could end up overspilling the saucer, soaking the tablecloth, and ruining the teaparty for a lot of people.
Update: In the original version of this article, I implied that content with an ESRB Mature rating, or a PEGI 18 rating, would be banned from the store. In fact, while PEGI 18 material is banned, ESRB Mature material is permitted - only the rarer ESRB Adults-Only rating will be forbidden. Oddly, this means that many games - including the entire Grand Theft Auto series, for example - would be permissible on the Windows Store in North America, but banned in Europe. It remains to be seen how that will play out once the store actually launches.