Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, available only on the Windows Store (and Xbox One). Image: Microsoft
Tim Sweeney, co-founder of powerhouse video game developer and publisher Epic Games, has tapped into the anxiety felt by some gamers who are suspicious of Microsoft’s plans to exert influence over PC gaming using its digital download store.
In an op-ed for The Guardian on Friday morning, Sweeney claimed Microsoft was actively “moving against the entire PC industry” with its Windows Store and Universal Windows Platform initiatives, both of which are key component of Windows 10 (more on that shortly). The op-ed comes just a few days after Microsoft laid out its vision for the future of PC gaming.
Sweeney fears that developers will be forced to use the Windows Store in order to gain access to the exclusive Windows features offered by the Universal Windows Platform. Right now, these exclusive features aren’t anything to lose sleep over, such the ability to sync Xbox Live data (like Achievements and friend lists) between Xbox One and PC games. But the fear is that Microsoft will flip a switch—Windows 10 updates automatically by default, remember—and one day make an important feature of Windows (like DirectX, for example) exclusively available to Universal Windows Apps.
“This isn’t a PR issue,” said Sweeney, “it’s an existential issue for Microsoft, a first-class determinant of Microsoft’s future role in the world.”
There’s a bit of terminology here that normally isn’t used outside of a Microsoft developer conference or hardcore PC gaming message boards, so let’s take a minute to unpack exactly what Sweeney is talking about, and what it potentially means for the future.
Think of this like the App Store on your iPhone or Google Play on your Android smartphone. It lets users download and install apps directly to their PC. Until the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider for the PC in January, the Windows Store was primarily used to distribute simpler apps like Netflix and Candy Crush Saga.
Universal Windows Platform
This is Microsoft’s grand-sounding name for apps that can be run, with minimal changes to the underlying code, across a variety of Windows-based devices. Relevant here is the ability to create games for the Xbox One and then with only some minor tweaks get them up and running on Windows 10. While the Windows Store is the primary means of distributing Universal apps, it is important to point out that, if you do some digging into Windows’ settings (which everyday consumers aren’t likely to do), you can “side load” Universal apps downloaded from elsewhere on the internet.
The looming threat potentially posed by the Windows Store was first noticed by hardcore PC gamers alongside the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider a few months ago. Among other restrictions compared to the Steam version of the game, the Windows Store version doesn’t support the use of multiple graphics cards (which are used in high-end PCs to run games at ludicrously high resolutions), always has V-Sync enabled (which helps eliminate an annoying visual artifact known as screen tearing but also introduces input lag), and doesn’t support the use of third-party mods.
In short, there’s currently little reason for PC gamers, particularly hardcore PC gamers with high-end systems, to stop using popular storefronts like Steam, GoG, and Origin. The concern is that Microsoft will use its heft to promote the Windows Store and effectively lock publishers and consumers into using it.
Naturally Microsoft hasn’t taken kindly to Sweeney’s remarks. After all, it’s one thing for a bunch of angry Redditors to complain about the Windows Store and Universal apps, but it’s quite another when the man whose company is responsible for smash hit games like Unreal calls you out.
“The Universal Windows Platform is a fully open ecosystem, available to every developer, that can be supported by any store,” said Kevin Gallo, corporate vice president of Windows at Microsoft, in a statement to The Guardian, noting the introduction of Universal app loading last November. This coincides with similar comments Microsoft made to PC enthusiast website Toms Hardware earlier this week, noting that developers could “come to us” to strike a deal to sell Universal apps on stores like Steam.
While all of this may seem dense, deeply nerdy, and only of interest to people who spend their free time tinkering with .ini files, the broader point that Sweeney makes (and that Valve boss Gabe Newell made in 2012 with the launch of Windows 8) is the critical importance of the PC remaining an open platform. “We won’t let Microsoft close down the PC platform overnight with a fight,” said Sweeney. “Microsoft’s intentions must be judged by Microsoft’s actions, not Microsoft’s words.”