Windows 8, Games and The Critical Miss of Expecting The Desktop to Disappear.

If you were to believe what some games industry big wigs were saying you’d be lead to believe that Windows 8 was the beginning of the rapture for games on the Microsoft platform. At first it was just a couple developers, big ones in their own right (like Notch), but when someone like Gabe Newell chimes in you start to take notice as distributing games on the Windows platform is his bread and butter and he doesn’t say things like this lightly. However as someone who’s grown up on the Microsoft platform, from the old MS-DOS days until today where I’m running Windows 8 full time on my home PC, and has made his career on their products I still can’t help but feel that their concerns are misplaced as they seem to hinge on a fundamental miscalculation about Microsoft’s overall product strategy.

Those concerns are laid out in lengthy detail by Casey Muratori in his latest instalment of Critical Detail: The Next Twenty Years. In there he lays out the future of the Microsoft platform, drawing on the past few decades of Microsoft’s developments and using them to draw conclusions about what the Microsoft ecosystem will look like in 2032. In this world the future of games on Windows seems grim as all the current AAA titles don’t meet the requirements to be present on the Windows Store and the desktop interface is long gone, effectively destroying the games industry on any PC running their operating system.

It’s a grim future and the number of people worried about this coming to fruition seems to increase on a daily basis. However I believe that some of the assumptions made ignore critical facts that render all this doom and glooming moot, mostly because they ignore Microsoft’s larger strategies.

Before I dive into that however let me just acknowledge that yes the Windows Store doesn’t seem like it would be a great place for current games developers. Realistically it’s no different from Google Play or the iOS App Store as many of the requirements are identical. Indeed all of the platforms strive for the same “family friendly” environment that’s bereft of porn (or anything overtly sexual), violence and excessive profanity which does exclude a good number of games from making their debut on the platform. This hasn’t stopped countless numbers of companies from profiting on this platform but there is no denying that the traditional games industry, with its love of all those things these market places abhor, would struggle with these guidelines.

The fundamental misstep that many games developers appear to be making though is thinking that the Windows Store and the guidelines that come along with it will be the only platform available for them to release games onto the Windows operating system. Looking back to previous examples of Windows does show that Microsoft puts an end date on many technologies however I don’t believe that the desktop will be among them. Sure you might not be able to write a DOS game and have it run in Windows 8 but you can take a MFC app built in 1992 and run today (with the biggest challenge there possibly being recompiling it, but the same code will work).

The reason for the Metro (or Modern or whatever they’re calling it now) interface’s existence is not, as many believe, a direct reaction to the success of the iPad/Android devices and Microsoft’s failure to capitalize on it. The Metro interface, which is built upon the WinRT framework, exists primarily to provide a unified platform where applications can provide a unified experience across the three major screens which users interact with. The capabilities provided within that framework are a fairly comprehensive subset of the larger .NET framework but it’s not fully feature complete as the instruction set needed to be cut down in order for it to be usable on ARM based devices. Whilst it still has access to the goodies required to make games (you can get DirectX on it for example) it’s still not the default platform, is just another one which developers can target.

If the WinRT/Metro framework was Microsoft’s preferred direction for all application development then it wouldn’t be the bastard step-child of their main development technologies, it would become the new .NET. Whilst it is going to be the framework for cross platform applications it’s most definitely not going to be the platform for native development on Windows PCs. The argument can be made that Microsoft wants to transition everyone to WinRT as the default platform but I’ve seen no evidence to support that apart from the idea that because the Metro UI is front and centre that means it’s Microsoft’s main focus.

I find that hard to believe as whilst Metro is great on tablets and smart phones it unfortunately struggles in a mouse and keyboard environment as nearly every review of it has mentioned. Microsoft isn’t stupid, they’ve likely heard much of this feedback through other channels and will be integrating it into their future product strategies. To simply say that they’ll go “Nope, we know we’re going in the right direction and completely killing the desktop” is to be ignorant of the fact that Microsoft works extremely closely with their customers, especially the big organisations who have been the most vocal opponents of Metro-first design. They’re also a pretty big player in the games industry, what with that Xbox being so darn popular, so again I fail to see how they wouldn’t take the feedback on board, especially from such a dedicated audience like us PC gamers.

I’d lend some credence to the theory if the desktop environment hadn’t received much love in Windows 8 in lieu of all the work done on Metro but yet again I find myself coming up empty handed. The UI received a massive overhaul so that the styling would be in line with the rest of Microsoft’s products and there have been numerous improvements in functionality and usability. Why Microsoft would invest so heavily in something that will be slated to be removed within a couple generations of Windows releases is beyond me as most of their deprecated technologies receive no updates for decades prior to them being made obsolete.

And the applications, oh don’t get me started about Microsoft’s own applications.

Whilst Metro has some of the basic applications available in it (like Office and….yeah Office) all of Microsoft’s current catalogue received a revamp as desktop applications, not Metro apps. You’d think that if their future direction was going to be all Metro-esque that more of their staple application suites would have received that treatment, but they didn’t. In fact the amount of applications that are available on the desktop vs the ones available on Metro makes it look more like Metro was the afterthought of the desktop and not the other way around.

If Microsoft’s future is going to be all Windows Store and WinRT apps there’s really no evidence showing to show for it and this is the reason why I don’t feel sympathetic to those developers who are bellyaching about it. Sure if you take a really, really narrow view of the Microsoft ecosystem it looks like the end is nigh for the current utopia of game development that is Windows 7 but in doing so you’re ignoring the wealth of information that will prove you otherwise. The Windows Store might not be your distribution platform of choice (and it likely will never be) but don’t think that the traditional methods that you’ve been using are going anywhere because if Microsoft’s overall strategy is anything to go by they aren’t.

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