Even in an ideal world, Microsoft's Windows Store can't compete with Steam. But Epic Games boss Tim Sweeney predicts that Microsoft will use nefarious tactics to overthrown Valve's reign on the PC games industry.
Epic Games boss Tim Sweeney doesn't trust Microsoft's Windows 10 UWP platform. Sweeney has been a vocal opponent of UWP, accusing Microsoft of "monopolizing PC games development", and now he claims that Redmond will slowly chip away at the foundations of Steam on an OS level and ultimately force gamers to use the Windows Store for their PC gaming needs.
"Slowly, over the next five years, they will force-patch Windows 10 to make Steam progressively worse and more broken. They'll never completely break it, but will continue to break it until, in five years, people are so fed up that Steam is buggy that the Windows Store seems like an ideal alternative," Sweeney said in a recent interview with Edge magazine. "That's exactly what they did to their previous competitors in other areas. Now they're doing it to Steam. It's only just starting to become visible. Microsoft might not be competent enough to succeed with their plan, but they're certainly trying."
"The risk here is that if Microsoft convinces everybody to use UWP, then they phase out Win32 apps. If they can succeed in doing that then it's a small leap to forcing all apps and games to be distributed through the Windows Store. Once we reach that point, the PC has become a closed platform. It won't be that one day they flip a switch that will break your Steam library - what they're trying to do is a series of sneaky maneuvers."
Once again Microsoft responded to Sweeney's warnings with its own issued statements and assertions that UWP is a "free" and "open" platform:
"As stated previously, the Universal Windows Platform is a fully open ecosystem that is available to every developer, and can be supported by any store. It's early, and we recognize there is still work to be done, but we want to make Windows the best development platform regardless of technologies used," a Microsoft rep told Game Informer.
Truth or tinfoil hats?
Even if you think Sweeney's rants have no merits and think the dev needs a tinfoil hat, he does has a point. As of June, Windows 10 is the predominant OS for Steam users. More and more people will convert as the free Windows 10 upgrade nears--hey, it's free, right?
What's more is that Microsoft has furthered UWP domination by releasing a tool that converts Win32 applications to its new UWP framework. The tool is called Project Centennial, and it's a huge game changer.
"Project Centennial enables you to take your existing .NET or Win32 applications and distribute them through the Windows Store, while also enhancing them with the new device capabilities," reads announcement.
Not so long ago I wrote a piece on how Microsoft's plan to take over gaming might actually work. With Sweeney's descriptions of a bleak Microsoft-ruled PC gaming dystopia, that article seems to make a lot more sense. But maybe I'm being too dramatic?
I still think it's important gamers at least entertain the idea, though. Between widespread Windows 10 adoption and UWP app conversion, most of the PC gaming populace is already in Microsoft's back pocket.
But wait a minute, why would Microsoft want to totally destroy Steam? After all, Xbox's Phil Spencer confirmed the company will release games on Steam again.
"We will ship games on Steam again," Phil Spencer said on Giant Bomb's E3 2016 livestream. "I look at Steam today, it's on an incredible growth trajectory. It's a massive force in gaming; a positive force.
"I look at Valve as an important [independent software vendor] for us on Windows. They are a critical part of gaming's success on Windows. I don't think Valve's hurt by not having our first-party games in their store right now. There's going to be areas where we cooperate and there's going to be areas where we compete. The end result is better for gamers."
Which games is Spencer talking about? Certainly not all those games shown off at E3 2016. Those were all marked as "Windows 10 and Xbox exclusive," with absolutely no mention of Steam. After all, Steam is a rival force that Microsoft will have to deal with eventually.
A war of attrition--Microsoft is biding its time
For now Microsoft just needs to build its brand and win gamers over. It's already won us over with the free Windows 10 upgrade. Now Redmond will continue trying to coax PC gamers over to the UWP-powered Windows Store with its new Play Anywhere initiative.
With Play Anywhere Microsoft is basically giving Xbox owners free copies of PC games. Sure you need to have both an Xbox and a Windows 10 PC to maximize the benefit, but that's the point--Microsoft wants to make the Xbox a more attractive choice so you'll buy it.
Microsoft is also busily fortifying the Universal Windows Platform-powered Windows Store, which is the most important weapon against PC games rival Valve.
When it opened up with games like Quantum Break, the Windows Store was a total mess: it was missing FreeSync/G-Sync support, multi-GPUs had frame locks, no mod support, no way to disable V-Sync. These are core tenants to any PC gaming platform and gamers everywhere make a laughing stock of the platform.
But Microsoft has listened to the feedback and they're fixing their mess. They've enabled FreeSync, G-Sync and unlocked frame rates on the Windows Store, and Gears of War 4 will be the showhorse for the Windows Store's new capabilities.
On the Xbox conversion front, Redmond has already pushed Xbox-to-PC game streaming, and soon it'll push PC-to-Xbox game streaming, so in conjunction with Play Anywhere, the Xbox console platform becomes a lot more attractive. Until, of course, you actually play the console and its underwhelming specs cause you to lose your mind.
Redmond also has a new three-pronged approach to its Xbox console market: the vanilla $249 Xbox One for 1080p gaming, the $299 Xbox One S for upscaled 4K gaming and UHD 4K playback, and its new monster Project Scorpio console that will likely hit 1080p 60FPS, 4K 30FPS, upscaled 4K 60FPS and VR in up to 90FPS.
All of these consoles are unified with the UWP Windows 10 OneCore framework, and come with the benefits of the ecosystem like eventual Windows 10 apps, Play Anywhere, game streaming, etc.
From the strategies we've seen so far, we know Microsoft isn't going to strike fast. It's entrenched in a slow siege war, a war of attrition, and it's planned for the long game. Just look at how it's evolved and merged its Xbox console platform with Windows 10 to make a cross-platform ecosystem as an answer to Sony's wild success with the PlayStation 4.
Microsoft isn't interested on playing on anyone's terms any more; it's going to set the rules now, and honestly, the company's plans are deviously smart. They're tactical.
Bumbling and fumbling
But at the same time, Microsoft still tries to act innocent and bumbles along trying to set out fires with PR-speak. In a very real sense, Microsoft is calculating and reserved, but also perplexed and clumsy, especially in its handling of specific marketing concepts.
Just look at how Redmond handled the Xbox One S launch! The company breeds skepticism where there's actually no need for skepticism a lot of the time, further breeding this kind of strange misappropriated scrutiny--it's almost as if Microsoft is comfortable being in this role.
Instead of releasing the 500GB, 1TB and 2TB Xbox One S SKUs all at once, Microsoft chose to stagger the launch. So the $399 2TB Xbox One S launches weeks ahead of the other models simply because MS wants you to buy the most expensive model. I instantly recognized this staggered launch for what it is--a coercive marketing ploy.
That's not it, either. Major Nelson just revealed some snazzy 1TB and 500GB Xbox One S bundles. But he didn't talk about the base 500GB and 1TB consoles, just the bundles. The two Xbox One S bundles (Halo Collection and Madden NFL 17) release on August 23, but there's absolutely no clear mention of a release date for the non-console bundles.
Why is there no mention of the regular Xbox One SKUs? Do the 500GB and 1TB Xbox One models only come in bundle form? The $399 2TB Xbox One S comes in a bundle-less SKU, so what about the other models? Why didn't we get a clear explanation that both the bundles and base consoles launch on August 23? Major Nelson only says the Xbox One S bundles launch on August 23, and leaves out the base consoles.
There's always this weird feeling Microsoft is holding something back, like they're not giving us a clear picture. They continually obfuscate things needlessly, and when they jump in to clarify, it somehow muddies things even more and they somehow leave us with more questions than what we started with.
It's a strange dynamic that Microsoft has patented over time.
And we don't even have to point to the botched Xbox One launch in 2013; just look at Phil Spencer's words about Project Scorpio "not doing anything" for 1080p HDTV owners, or how Yusuf Medhi quietly updated the post about "all future Microsoft Studios games coming to PC" (they're not, sadly, only the ones shown at E3 are).
Microsoft is a powerful force in gaming, but I don't think they'll become so actively nefarious as Sweeney portrays just yet. Not until they get new execs and a full changing of the guard. And that's not to give offense to the current Microsoft execs, as a lot of them seem to be genuinely passionate and absolutely ardent in their cause, but....they just have a habit of saying the wrong things and needing to clarify things way too often. But hey, at least Mattrick is gone right?
In any case, whether or not you think Tim Sweeney is just a doomsayer or a flat-out nut, at least mull over his words. Think about what Microsoft is doing, and how they're doing it. Pay attention to their endgame, or even speculate on what their endgame might be. Once you ponder it for a bit, Sweeney's warnings might not sound so crazy after all.