So what’s actually going on here?
Let’s start with Gabe Newell, the co-founder and boss at Valve, which owns the megapopular game distribution platform Steam. A few weeks back, he unleashed a polemic about Windows 8. He called it a “catastrophe for everyone in the PC space.” Blizzard (Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo) and Notch of Mojang (Minecraft) piled on.
This gave voice to a lot of the concerns that people who haven’t had a chance to use Windows 8 have had. But it also wasn’t about really about playing video games, either. Mainly, it’s been about Metro. Newell said of the new interface, “I think that they will basically rage quit computing after they use it. Things that used to be incredibly simple are now very complicated and hard.” Which is, of course, not true at all.
Metro is mostly optional; you can revert to the familiar desktop at any time. Your Steam apps will work exactly the same as they always have. Were you really going through your file hierarchy in the Start Menu and selecting your Steam games like that? Or were you using shortcuts, or just launching through Steam? Because you can still do that. Windows 8 Doesn’t change that. Or you can just press the Start key, and type out the first few letters of a game’s name, just like the old Start Menu. Then press enter. Not much has changed.
They put my game in Accessories but I wanted it in Program Files and I can’t believe that they cut my sandwich into squares when I specifically asked for triangles. And so on.
And for actually getting down to gaming? I mean, can we talk about that? Things run better on Windows 8. It’s easier and lighter on hardware than Windows 7. Launching apps is basically no different, and in some ways easier. The start screen takes getting used to, yes, but in no way affects gamers while they are playing games. It seems tantamount to killing a restaurant that’s making all of your favourite dishes better than ever because it hired a new maître d’ who doesn’t have his shit totally together.
Certified and the Windows Store
The more valid complaint is that Microsoft’s policies and charges for certifying games has been prohibitively expensive. Additionally, people like Notch are worried that the arrival of the Windows store will mean heavy regulations that will negatively affect indie developers.
But how? Sandboxing, one of the more controversial parts of the walled garden approach Apple and Microsoft seem to be taking with desktop apps, doesn’t really affect games in the same way it does general apps, since games don’t require deep permissions as do-it-app apps.
Here’s the key point to Metro apps and games: They’re dirt simple for you, the user.
That matters. It matters a lot. Microsoft’s ideal world isn’t just a unified UI experience, but a frictionless marketplace for the entire platform. You know how Apple makes billions and billions and billions of dollars because its marketplace is so easy to use? And how its developers make way, way, way more money than other platforms’ developers because of that? Yeah.
And forget certification and backend stuff and all the inside baseball stuff that we get bogged down in so often. Sure, that stuff has a real, tangible effect on the quality of games, but let’s, for a minute, assume that a multi-billion-dollar industry won’t just start shitting its pants all over the place and forget how to make good content because of a certification process.
So What We Are Really Talking About
So what’s all this really about? Distribution. By creating a Windows Store that lets you buy and store all of your software in one place, Microsoft is moving in on Valve’s territory in a big way. And everyone else seems worried that that will also mean Microsoft forcing them to live on that same, misappropriated territory.
Make no mistake: Valve and Blizzard and all the rest of the suddenly unsettled game companies don’t give one good goddamn about Metro, or how it affects your day-to-days. They know you’re not going anywhere. You didn’t after Vista broke your computers, and you won’t when Metro rearranges the furniture.
Valve’s got even more at stake than you might realize; earlier this month, it announced its intention to start selling non-game apps in Steam. Which is great, except that the Windows Store is moving in on that front — and games too. Blizzard’s disapproval has been a little overblown, but even just going on Executive VP of Game Design Rob Pardo’s tweet agreeing with Newell, Blizzard has a deep interest in distribution as well, holding its games out of services like Steam, Origin, and the Mac App store.
But these aren’t stupid people or companies. Valve and Blizzard are a lot of things, but they aren’t stupid, or careless, most times. This isn’t just blind, unthinking lashing out. It’s something else.
See, this is Microsoft we’re talking about. The gaming industry was able to mostly ignore the Mac App Store — with its sandboxing and 30 per cent cut — picking up traction with “newer” titles like Call of Duty 4 and RAGE, because lol gaming on a Mac. Didn’t they just get DOOM 3 last month or something? But gaming on Windows? Uh oh. That’s looks a lot more like the Microsoft that’s been (mostly) kicking Sony and Nintendo’s asses up and down the block for the better part of a decade. Microsoft knows gaming, and everyone else knows that it knows. So all this bemoaning Metro before the general public even gets its hands on Windows 8? Pre-emptive carpet bombing.
The list of who isn’t complaining about the catastrophe of Windows 8 is telling: Razer, Nvidia, AMD, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t heavily vested in distribution. It seems like those companies would have as much to lose as anyone if they really thought that Windows 8 would deeply damage PC gaming. And yet, nothing.
Why Do We Care?
A few weeks ago, Grantland’s Jay Caspian Kang wrote an oppressively smart piece about sports fans’ illogical personification of their teams’ owners’ bank accounts as their own. That, in the dog pile of following all of the minutia of the modern 24-hour sports cycle, we have come to internalize our teams’ financial situations instead of just saying, “Give me the best team possible; I don’t care what it costs you.”
That mindset is clearly not limited to sports.
It makes perfect sense that companies would be worried about a Windows platform that is also a marketplace. You don’t just buy games for Xbox, you can buy games from Xbox. And it’s great. Apply that same method to the PC, and everyone who’s been working as middlemen, or methodically avoiding them, should rightly be nervous.
But that doesn’t affect you. It won’t affect the stuff you buy, just the bottom lines of the companies that make it. And sure, AAA games are about budget, but companies are already paying Steam for distribution. This scuffle is just about who gets to collect the vig.
The really great games have always been about ideas. And Apple’s model has already proven that creative indie developers can thrive in a relatively closed, curated, first party distribution environment. Microsoft just needs to iron out a few issues to follow suit. And anyway, there’s no indication that Microsoft even intends to close off competitors. It’s got a mixed history when it comes to open platforms, but blindly assuming it’s going to happen is wrongheaded.
So no, Windows 8 is not bad for gaming. Unless you’re trying to distribute video games.
* Shut up. The UI is called Metro until Microsoft makes up its damn mind.