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IT & Systems Management

How Microsoft's former PC gaming glory could help fix today's Windows gaming woes

Microsoft gaming is at a tipping point. Public perception has shifted toward the negative as the Windows Store and Windows 10’s universal app platform come under heavy—and deserved—fire.

This may sound bizarre to anybody introduced to gaming during the Xbox era, but Microsoft is why I became a PC gamer all those years ago, with legendary games like Flight Simulator and Age of Empires. In those days, the company published magnificent games that defined the PC platform and laid the groundwork for it to be the greatest way to game.

Things have changed, but there’s a lot Microsoft can do to return to greatness. We’ll dive deeply into concrete ideas for how Microsoft can fix its PC gaming troubles going forward. First, though, it’s important to review Microsoft’s tumultuous history with PC gaming, to understand why PC gamers are so skeptical of the company’s newest endeavors—and how its glorious past can help bolster Microsoft’s future.

Microsoft’s PC gaming past: A decade of glory…

MyAbandonWare

MechWarrior 3

Microsoft began publishing video games in earnest in 1996, beginning with games like Terminal Reality’s Hellbender and Monster Truck Madness, as well as Close Combat, a critically acclaimed game that spawned a long-lasting series of tactical war titles.

For the next decade, Microsoft released some of the coolest, most innovative games on the market. The Madness games expanded with Motocross Madness and Midtown Madness. Zoo Tycoon was amazing. Starlancer was flawed but memorable. Impossible Creatures remains one of the most remarkable strategy games ever made. When Microsoft purchased FASA, it reintroduced the beloved MechWarrior and MechCommander series before launching Crimson Skies in 2001.

Then, of course, there was Age of Empires, which evolved into one of the most successful strategy series of all time. Its 1999 sequel, Age of Empires II, was so well-loved that 17 years after it launched, it remains the most-played real-time strategy game on Steam.

Age of Empires II’s HD remake.

During its golden years, Microsoft games embraced everything special to PC gaming, from design complexity to mod support so deep that some games even bundled 3D modeling tools. The golden age didn’t last forever, though. The downfall began with Halo 2 for PC, an unmitigated disaster that locked users into the unpopular Windows Vista.

But the root of Microsoft’s problems came from elsewhere.

…followed by darker days

With the advent of the Xbox gaming console in 2001, Microsoft slowly began abandoning the PC platform. By the time of the Great Recession, Microsoft had shuttered its expensive, PC-centric studios and franchises like ACES, FASA, and Ensemble.

The PC customer base didn’t move from the PC to the Xbox, though. The Steam renaissance—where Steam became the dominant PC platform—was just around the corner.

Microsoft introduced a new platform, Games for Windows Live, but calling it a catastrophe would be an understatement. GFWL often broke games and sometimes even deleted saves.

Softonic

I remember trying to boot Bulletstorm, only to have the game freeze at the sign-in stage and demand a patch for GWFL, which meant exiting the program. Exiting repeated the vicious cycle. Force-quitting the program offered a 50/50 chance that GFWL would actually download a patch. Then I rebooted the game, only to be faced with a patch for the game itself, starting the nightmare anew.

Gamers hated it. Many publishers backed away from GFWL and embraced Steam DRM instead. The service was eventually shuttered in 2013.

Around the same time, Microsoft attempted to release some free-to-play versions of its most popular series, Age of Empires Online and Microsoft Flight. Both were poorly received.

Microsoft Flight

My copy of Flight (Microsoft’s followup to the beloved Flight Simulator series) refused to work due to GFWL errors. It also slapped series enthusiasts in the face by offering only the Hawaiian islands for free; purchasing all the airplanes and the Alaskan add-on cost around $100. Previous entries in the series had dozens of planes, thousands of mods, and the entire surface of Earth for around half the cost. 

Between the GFWL disaster and the nasty free-to-play push, PC gamers (rightly) felt betrayed. Many still do.

Microsoft continued to make and break promises to PC gamers, as an infamous NeoGAF post detailed. Microsoft’s classic games are absent from services like Steam and gog.com, though some stellar newer releases like Age of Empires II HD and Ori and the Blind Forest are there. But most new releases from Microsoft’s classic series have been disappointing; Zoo Tycoon fails to live up to the original. MechWarrior has become a weak free-to-play game. Flight Simulator X was licensed to Dovetail Games, who released it on Steam with $1,621.15 of DLC.

Microsoft's new plans for the PC move to Windows 10’s Universal Windows Platform. UWP is supposed to make our lives better: Anyone can release a universal Windows app, which, in theory, should work across all Windows-based platforms—any Windows PC or tablet, and even the Xbox One or HoloLens.

The idea is cool, but the execution has some serious problems.

Page 2: The problems with Microsoft’s current approach to PC gaming.

Microsoft’s problematic present

Let’s start with simple usability. Is it easy to buy and play games in the Windows Store? Unfortunately not.

Buy a program on the Windows Store—which, by the way is the branded “Store” app and separate from the “Microsoft Store,” a retail and web store—and it’s tied to your Microsoft account. No need to save CDs or activation codes: Just sign in to your computer or console, and all the software you’ve purchased is available for use.

Unfortunately, the Windows Store is dominated by shovelware, and the good software doesn’t work well. Good luck even finding the games on your computer. Take a look at this shot of the Windows Store:

Do you have any idea where your software library is? It took me a while to realize I had to click that tiny circle next to the Search box.

When you get to your library, you’re faced with this:

I have no idea how Candy Crush Saga is there or why it’s at the top of my list. To view all your games, you have to click the games-specific Show all button, which expands into an equally screen-wasting page with no sorting options or easy access to software. Contrast this with Steam, which has a very clear library option on display at all times, and allows users to default to their library, which is customizable and organized quite nicely:

The idea of tying games to your account is great, but only when accessing software is quick and easy. Steam makes library navigation easy, even with 2,000 games in my collection. Microsoft makes it a hassle that requires too many clicks with just a fraction of as many games.

Microsoft offers an alternative: the Xbox app. Actually, there are five Xbox apps: the Xbox app, the Xbox One Smartglass app, the Xbox 360 Smartglass app, the Xbox Avatar app, and the Xbox Accessories app, which is for the $150 Xbox Elite controller. Why are there so many apps? Why aren’t avatars built right into the Xbox app? Why isn’t Smartglass simply a tab on the Xbox app that is linked to the consoles linked to you? 

As I was writing this article, I booted up the Xbox app, which welcomed me to “check out our new features!”—one of which was bug-fixing. The app froze on this screen, and took several minutes to unfreeze on a machine that has no trouble running games like Crysis. When it finally did, it presented me with this:

None of that information is useful to me with the exception of the option to stream my console—and that feature doesn’t work consistently. Despite a 100-percent wired connection that the app tells me can handle “very high settings,” streaming suffers from excessive macroblocking and freezing.

The other information is unnecessary. I don’t need to know that one of my friends added a new friend or uploaded a video clip. I don’t need my friends list open at all times. What I want to see is my game library and information relevant to those games.

Even if I could default to my library, what I see there is simply an alphabetical list of my games. Steam displays a list where I can sort—even hide—games by putting them into folders, and it also reveals information about the currently selected or most recent game in the main pane. Searching for any Steam game pulls up relevant information: how much time I’ve played it for, where it’s installed, whether I want to stream it, my screenshots, the latest news and patch notes, and, yes, which friends are currently playing it. This information’s also designed to be viewed on a computer monitor. The Xbox app has these needlessly giant icons that may work on a tablet, but that's not where I'd be playing the PC editions of Quantum Break or Gears of War.

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.

The Xbox app does have some advantages. Access to screenshots is easy, video recording’s a neat touch that Steam lacks, and the Xbox One/Windows 10 cross-buy functionality introduced with Killer Instinct and Quantum Break rocks, especially when saves transfer over. Being able to message friends in the app is awesome—Steam doesn’t have a good offline messaging service. There are a lot of fresh ideas in the Xbox app, but Steam is better at the basics.

Universal Windows apps disappoint

Let’s assume Microsoft gets all that worked out. Then we run into another problem: the limitations of universal Windows apps themselves

Until recently, Microsoft limited Windows Store installations to your PC’s C: drive. You can now install games to multiple drives, but you can’t pick specific destination folders. Worse, you can’t access those folders, even with admin rights. To PC gamers, this is a huge problem, as it prevents other programs and mods from hooking into your games. If something doesn’t work, you can’t even mod it to fix it—an essential element of PC gaming, as fans of Bethesda RPGs can tell you.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is available in the Windows Store, but is objectively better via Steam.

The restrictions on Windows Store apps go deeper. When Rise of the Tomb Raider launched, fans quickly discovered a multitude of universal Windows app problems. Games run in borderless windowed mode exclusively, but graphics cards run better in dedicated full-screen mode. Dual-GPU setups won’t work unless the game developers specifically support DirectX 12 trickery. Window overlays, for software like FRAPS and Forge.gg, don’t work, and you can’t even add the games to the Steam launcher or use the Steam Controller with them, because Windows Store games lack traditional .EXE files. Want to inject things like SweetFX to pretty up your graphics? No can do. 

Windows Store games also started out life with V-sync always enabled, which can cause nasty input lag on some machines, and lacked support for FreeSync and G-Sync monitors. Fortunately, those flaws were fixed in a recent update..

Gears of War’s launch on the PC had its own problems: The game refused to download or run for many players. Microsoft has solved some issues, but it’s denied users the option of refunding broken games. For now, it is objectively better to buy games like Rise of the Tomb Raider on Steam, where they'll run great, let you do pretty much whatever you want with them, and you can even be refunded if they don’t work.

Page 3: What Microsoft can do to fix its PC gaming problems

What Microsoft needs to do in the future

These deep-rooted flaws disappoint, but don’t write off universal Windows apps yet. This is Microsoft, the company that built the biggest gaming platform in the world. Many of the underlying ideas are great, and there are ways to improve. Here’s how.

Step 1: Re-release Microsoft’s entire gaming back catalog, preferably on a service like Steam or gog.com. This would quickly win back goodwill from PC gamers. Age of Empires II HD is a great step, but where’s the original Age of Empires? Where’s Midtown Madness or MechCommander or Halo or Zoo Tycoon? Companies like Night Dive Studios and CD Projekt specialize in bringing old games to modern systems, so Microsoft doesn’t even have to handle it. Just release the games at a fair $6 to $10 price point, and an awful lot of people will be pleased.

Step 2: Open Windows Store games to tinkering. This is PC gaming. If I buy a game, I want to be able to mess with it. I’d be happy if I could run Forge, inject SweetFX, and even tinker with .INI files from time to time. No more encrypted drive/no exe/only install to one specific location nonsense, Microsoft. Let me pick when, where, and how the software runs on my machine.

The Windows Experience Index, which was retired in Windows 8.1.

Step 3: Make system performance clear and allow refunds. Earlier Windows iterations had the great idea of deriving a score from the computer’s available power to indicate whether the PC could run specific software. Something similar would be useful in the Windows Store. After all, a Surface Pro can’t run Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, but my GeForce GTX 970-powered desktop can. If a game doesn’t work, even if the computer says it should, people should be allowed to refund it.

Step 4: Make sure everything is cross-buy and cross-play. If you want to pull me away from Steam, you need a feature that really pops. Cross-buy/play is that feature, but support is far from universal thus far. I own Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Rise of the Tomb Raider on my Xbox. If Microsoft wants UWAs to succeed, I should be able to run those on any Windows 10 platform with the right amount of power.

If you buy a Windows Store game, you should ideally be able to play it on any Windows 10-powered device you own, including the Xbox.

I bought a copy of Rise of the Tomb Raider for Steam because of the Windows Store’s issues, but if the game embraced the convenience of a cross-buy system, I’d spend more time with the Microsoft option. Add cloud-save compatibility, so users can play a single Tomb Raider save on the PC one moment and my Xbox the next, and suddenly the Microsoft store is more appealing. Some of Microsoft’s own games offer this, but to truly shine, cross-buy needs to be as ubiquitous as Steam Cloud support.

Step 5: Compete with the Steam client. Let me manage my entire UWA games library from the Xbox application. That includes downloading or hiding games, installing to any directory I see fit, and sorting them however I want.

Consolidate all the applications into one or remove them entirely. There are no avatars on the Xbox One or in the Xbox app, so why does the avatar app exist?

The Xbox Avatars app is useless to PC gamers.

Give me an Xbox app whose main screen is less about my friends and more about my games. At the very least, let me set which tab of the app is my default page—I want to boot directly into the library 90 percent of the time.

Give me better access to screenshot sharing: Steam lets me press F12 to get a screenshot, then pops up a helpful screenshot window after the game is closed. The Windows app requires me to press at least three buttons, then I have to open up the Xbox app, find the Windows DVR function, and hope it synced the screenshots properly (which isn’t a sure thing).

Provide a compelling reason to use the party function. Right now, I and many other PC gamers use Discord because it’s overflowing with useful features. Why should I use the Xbox party system?

Step 6: Release some new games on PC, specifically for the PC. Nothing has been as disappointing as getting a new Halo that’s a free-to-play PC game exclusive to Russia, or an Age of Empires that’s just Clash of Clans and has no business being on a 27-inch monitor. Come on, Microsoft! Release a new Age of Empires with Bruce Shelley on board, with a UI that’s designed to be read on a monitor and navigated with a mouse. Release a new Flight Simulator or Forza game that we can mod and build cars for. Foster a community around moddable games the way Bethesda and Valve have. Stick to traditional price points for new games ($30 to $60).

Dozens of Microsoft’s legendary games are locked away and no longer playable, despite the clear hunger indicated by sales of Microsoft’s strategy game re-releases. Microsoft should be competing with Steam, or at least cooperating with it. The advantages of UWP—cross-buy, save sharing, and storing digital purchases across accounts—paired with nostalgic remakes could be a powerful one-two punch.

A new era or more of the same?

Microsoft’s approach to PC gaming needs to change. The companys needs a lean, competitive gaming platform that plays to the core strengths of Windows apps and embraces the glory days. But right now, Microsoft’s presented us with the Edge browser of gaming platforms—a shiny package hiding glaring deficiencies.

Microsoft has the capacity to be exciting. Time will tell whether the company’s ready to move past its trail of broken promises. Major changes need to happen before the Windows Store can even begin to compete with Steam. Here’s hoping Microsoft manages to relive its glory days…someday.

IDG Insider

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