Will Microsoft kill PC gaming?
By Ajith Ram June 15, 2016
- Microsoft has a history of deceit and broken promises
- Windows Store could become exclusive sales portal
OH, what a difference a few hundred million dollars in the bank and independence from Microsoft makes!
Suddenly, you are free to spout the truth and annoy a former partner who is also one of the world's largest companies. That seems to be the case with games industry legend, Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games and lead coder on games like Unreal, Gears of War and the much-licensed Unreal engine.
Free at last from the constraints of being tied to Microsoft which published his company's Gears of War game trilogy, Tim Sweeney has suddenly been beset with a major bout of candour. Writing in The Guardian earlier this year, Sweeney lambasted Microsoft for its implementation of Windows Store and Universal Windows Platform in Windows 10.
"In my view, this is the most aggressive move Microsoft has ever made," he wrote. "Here, Microsoft is moving against the entire PC industry – including consumers (and gamers in particular), software developers such as Epic Games, publishers like EA and Activision, and distributors like Valve and Good Old Games. 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."
Speaking later at the GamesBeat Summit in California, Sweeney drew a parallel between Facebook and Microsoft. He pointed out that Facebook was a lot more open during the early days, but has become a straitjacket as time passed.
“Nobody is adopting UWP except the small group of developers Microsoft is paying to do so,” Sweeney said. “It’s the same with the Windows Store – it’s mostly ports of Android titles.”
He even gave an interesting metaphor, further ramming his point home. “If you throw a frog in boiling water, he’ll just hop out,” he said. “But if you put him in warm water and you slowly ramp up the temperature, he will not notice and he’ll be boiled. But a lot of frogs in the industry have already been boiled. Look at Facebook: Every company moved their brand presence to Facebook, sending out messages for their customers to receive. Now, you have to pay to send out your messages to people who chose to follow you - a boiling frog.”
Since The Guardian article, the gaming media has gone into a tizzy about the pros and cons of Microsoft's UWP strategy. Like this discussion below.
This criticism of the Windows Store is not new. Years ago, Valve's Gabe Newell called Windows 8 a 'catastrophe' for developers. At that time, many assumed it was purely because the billionaire did not want to see another competitor to Steam, particularly a store backed by a giant such as Microsoft.
If you agree with Tim Sweeney, it now seems as if Newell's comments were almost prophetic.
Microsoft is quick to dismiss these concerns. "We are not locking down the app framework to lock down people's ability to distribute games and applications on the platform,'" Xbox supremo, Phil Spencer told press at Microsoft's Build developer conference recently. "That's right, that's not what we're doing. You have to submit to our store if you're going to sell through our store, but you don't have to sell through our store," he pronounced."
Speaking at Unite Europe recently, Senior Product Planner, Alex Teodorescu-Badia reiterated that the company would continue to advocate openness in UWP. “One of the reasons I’m here is to, as a company, commit us to this idea that if there are barriers to openness, that we will overcome them.”
So does that settle the imbroglio? Are we supposed to take Microsoft's word for it?
Going by its previous actions, Microsoft should be the company least trusted by PC gamers and game developers. The company has a long history of failures, broken promises and outright deceit in its dealings with the PC gaming community.
Here are my favourites.
Fahrenheit: A failed dream
Does anyone remember Fahrenheit? Probably only a few old fogies such as myself.
Back in the late 1990's, the games industry witnessed the 'battle of the graphics APIs'. Hardware 3D acceleration via GPUs was just coming into vogue and almost every graphics chip manufacturer had their own 3D graphics API. Proprietary manufacturer-specific APIs like Glide from 3dfx and Metal from S3 competed with DirectX from Microsoft and OpenGL from SGI.
Fahrenheit was Microsoft's grand attempt to merge both DirectX and OpenGL graphics APIs. The goal was to create a single API which could be used for both games and high-end CG applications like 3DS Max and Maya. After its announcement, Microsoft evangelists fanned out across the world touting the imminent arrival of the new API.
Like many Microsoft initiatives and attempts to work with competitors, it failed and was quietly wrapped up. You can read more about it here.
After the failure of the project, both Microsoft and SGI went their separate ways in developing DirectX and OpenGL. The company never gave up its control of DirectX and always treated OpenGL as a second class citizen on Windows. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing as Microsoft might have ended up strangling Fahrenheit with its bureaucracy and marketing tactics.
DirectX 8: Ignoring loyal partners
Introducing the concept of pixel and vertex shaders, this was the first version of DirectX to support fully programmable GPUs. It was also the period when Microsoft waded into the games console business with its original Xbox powered by a Nvidia GPU.
Unfortunately, this proved to be a knife in the back for other GPU manufacturers and Microsoft 'partners' such as ATI, 3dfx and S3. Much to their consternation, the specification of the PC version of DirectX 8.0 turned out to be exactly what Nvidia wanted - and they did not.
With the Xbox GPU win, Nvidia had become Microsoft's favourite. The other GPU manufacturers were left with no choice but to tweak their designs and drivers to match Microsoft's specifications. Some of the more advanced features in the GPUs of Nvidia's competitors remained hidden.
DirectX 8.1: Rift with Nvidia
As things turned out, true to Microsoft tradition, the company's cosy relationship with Nvidia did not last long. With the sales of the original Xbox lagging behind Sony's PlayStation 2, Microsoft was desperate to reduce its losses. They asked Nvidia to reduce the price the Xbox GPUs and the 'request' was turned down.
This led to a very public spat between the two companies. By the time it was sorted, Microsoft had decided Nvidia needed to be taught a 'lesson'. The company announced the release of DirectX 8.1. A minor update to the original DirectX 8.0 specification, it ended up being supported by very few game developers.
Unfortunately for Nvidia, the new specification was partially incompatible with the company's GPU lineup. But it was fully compatible with the GPUs of Nvidia's main competitor - ATI.
Hardly surprising as the DirectX 8.1 specification itself came from the Canadian company. The ATI sales team was able to gleefully go around the world pointing out to OEMs, Nvidia's 'partial' compatibility with DirectX 8.1.
DirectX 10: Broken promises and lies
This version of DirectX shipped with Windows Vista. But it was not always meant to be that way. Microsoft had earlier announced at GDC Europe that DirectX 10 will be compatible with Windows XP as well.
Unfortunately, by all accounts, Microsoft's powerful marketing department got involved and DirectX 10 became exclusive to Vista. But this proved to be a real problem for PC game developers. Due to the huge install base of Windows XP, they could not abandon XP or support the new API. In the end, most developers decided to stick with Windows XP and DirectX 9.
It was also during this period that Microsoft proved itself to be a big fat liar. At the same GDC Europe event, the company went to great lengths to extol the game performance increase that will accompany DirectX 10. PC game developers were promised a three to four fold increase in shader performance, compared to DirectX 9 on the same piece of hardware.
Microsoft even went to the extent of releasing a DirectX 10 'screenshot' from their in-house flight simulator game. See the image below.
Predictably, many gaming websites got sucker punched by the beauty of the image. It was later revealed that the image is merely an artist's impression of how a DirectX 10 game will look like. Needless to say, contrary to Microsoft's grand promises, DirectX 10 did not offer any meaningful performance increase over DirectX 9.
To make matters even more hilarious, Windows Vista ended up being Microsoft's most loathed operating system. As one wag on the internet put it, it is hardly surprising as Vista actually stands for virus infection, spam, trojan attack.
Are PC gamers and game developers supposed to believe a company with such a track record?
As Tim Sweeney says, despite Microsoft's promise to keep Windows 10 open to all competitors, “Microsoft has given itself the ability to force dash updates without your authorisation. It will just update itself and you can’t do anything about it. They can change the rules of the game at any time.”
Sweeney points out that most of the major breakthroughs on the PC came from outside Microsoft. “The GPU revolution started there, well before Microsoft adopted it. If that had relied on Microsoft initiative and Microsoft had actively blocked external drivers and apps supporting these things they didn’t approve of, it never would have happened,” he said.
There is a real possibility that Microsoft will continuously improve UWP while neglecting the older win32 API. If that happens, over a period of years, it will become impossible for PC game developers to ignore UWP.
It could very well turn out that Microsoft has no choice but to tighten the screws on Windows 10 and UWP. Like all stock market listed companies, the company is duty bound to 'maximise shareholder value'. With the PC market in sharp decline and massive competition in growing fields like cloud computing, Microsoft is now being boxed into a corner. With the sale of Nokia, Microsoft has already given up on its mobile battle against iOS and Android.
Its only real hope of future revenue growth might be to make Windows a 'walled garden' like Apple's iOS. It simply might have no choice in this matter.
Steam, the biggest competitor to Windows Store for PC games, accounts for over 90 percent of the PC digital download games market with over US $3.5 billion in annual revenue.
This does not even include direct sales by hundreds of other non-gaming Windows software vendors such as Adobe and Autodesk, worth tens of billions of dollars. At the moment, Microsoft receives absolutely nothing from any of these sales. There is little doubt that the giant of Seattle would love to get its hands on a sizeable chunk of that revenue.
So do not be surprised if a 'mandatory revenue share' announcement pops up in the near future from Microsoft. Like Apple, Microsoft could easily demand 30% of all Windows software sales revenue. It could very well be just a matter of time.
As Tim Sweeney concludes, Microsoft's actions speak plainly enough: they are working to turn today’s open PC ecosystem into a closed, Microsoft-controlled distribution and commerce monopoly. The other software companies might have no choice but to cede control to the software leviathan.
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