The Windows Store and therestrictions it places on games and game settings have been rising over the past week, ever since the release of Ashes of the Singularityand Gears of War Ultimate Edition. We’ve reached out to Microsoft in an attempt to clarify some of these issues, specifically those related to V-Sync, WDDM 2.0, and the current limits that lock down Windows Store titles. Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games and lead developer on the Unreal Engine, recently blasted Microsoft’s Universal Windows Platform, UWP, and called for a complete boycott of the platform.
In an op/ed for The Guardian, Sweeney describes Microsoft’s actions as an aggressive attempt to lock down the Windows ecosystem, thereby monopolizing both application distribution and commerce. He writes:
Microsoft has launched new PC Windows features exclusively in UWP, and is effectively telling developers you can use these Windows features only if you submit to the control of our locked-down UWP ecosystem. They’re curtailing users’ freedom to install full-featured PC software, and subverting the rights of developers and publishers to maintain a direct relationship with their customers.
Sweeney states that he has no problem with the Windows Store as such, but takes issue with the way Microsoft has locked down the platform. Because Microsoft controls the only distribution point for UWP applications, no other company can offer equivalent software. Side-loading can be enabled, but it’s off by default and could be removed entirely in a future Windows Update.
Sweeney calls on Microsoft to allow UWP applications to be distributed just as Win32 applications are now, for any company to be allowed to distribute UWP applications, including Steam and GOG, and that users and publishers should be allowed to directly engage in commerce with each other without paying a 30% fee to Microsoft. It should be noted that Valve, which owns the vast majority of digital distribution on the PC, also charges a 30% fee.
This true openness requires that Microsoft not follow Google’s clever but conniving lead with the Android platform, which is technically open, but practically closed…
The ultimate danger here is that Microsoft continually improves UWP while neglecting and even degrading win32, over time making it harder for developers and publishers to escape from Microsoft’s new UWP commerce monopoly. Ultimately, the open win32 Windows experience could be relegated to Enterprise and Developer editions of Windows.
Right now, the Windows Store is a mess compared with the gaming options available on Steam, GOG, and even publisher-specific options like Origin or uPlay. Microsoft clearly wants to jump-start the store with options like cross-purchase with the Xbox One, but the Gears of War port we got earlier this week was a poor way to do that. Sweeney pulls no punches here, either, writing:
In my view, if Microsoft does not commit to opening PC UWP up in the manner described here, then PC UWP can, should, must and will, die as a result of industry backlash. Gamers, developers, publishers simply cannot trust the PC UWP “platform” so long as Microsoft gives evasive, ambiguous and sneaky answers to questions about UWP’s future, as if it’s a PR issue. This isn’t a PR issue, it’s an existential issue for Microsoft, a first-class determinant of Microsoft’s future role in the world.
Them’s fightin’ words. But is it true?
Is Microsoft trying to take over PC commerce?
It’s interesting to me that Sweeney, who works on one of the leading PC gaming engines, didn’t say much about technical limitations or problems implementing specific features that PC gamers want. The word from Microsoft (such as it has been) on these restrictions is that solutions to the various technical problems are coming. AMD is adding DirectFlip to its DX12 drivers, a V-Sync “fix” is in the works at Redmond, and patches are in development for Gears of War.
The technical issues that the press and readers have been cataloging, in other words, may simply be a sign of a still-developing ecosystem and early support.
Sweeney’s argument isn’t technical, it’s economic. And I can see where he’s coming from. There’s an old saying: “If all your traffic comes from X, your customers (or readers) aren’t yours — they’re X’s.” The rise of Facebook and social networking has had an enormous impact on web publishing — more and more traffic flows over these sources, and less comes in direct web searching or homepage visits. The idea of typing a direct URL into a browser window is apparently an anachronism.
Even Sweeney admits that the Windows Store as it exists today is a shadow of what it would need to be to actually start locking down the game industry. His remarks remind me of Gabe Newell’s back when Microsoft launched Windows 8. The Windows Store is at least a tremendous theoretical threat to Steam — if Microsoft dominated game distribution, Valve, which currently owns most of the digital PC gaming space, would see its revenue plunge. Sweeney may be sincere when he claims to be fighting for the rights of both gamers and publishers, but that doesn’t mean he wants to pay Microsoft a 30% cut for distributing games on the Windows Store platform.
I don’t think Microsoft will ever open the UWP application concept to any and all programs, but hopefully we’ll see some technical improvement to the applications distributed via this method. Allowing Valve or GOG to publish games that have been certified as UWP-compatible also seems like a fair change, provided those titles aren’t gimped like the current products sold via the Windows Store.
Personally, I’m not sure if I agree with Sweeney or not. The puzzle pieces he’s fit together are definitely on the table — Microsoft has moved to new revenue models with Windows 10, the Windows Store lockdown mirrors what Android and iOS already do, and Universal applications are meant to replace the older Win32-style apps in the long run. I’m not sure the PC software industry is particularly interested in doing that, and there are some practical reasons not to — Windows Store applications are restricted in ways that can result in an inferior user experience.
Even if Microsoft has no plans to go full villain, the concerns he raises are valid, and the lack of communication from Redmond on many of these issues is disquieting.