Let Off Some Steam is the place where Kotaku readers can discuss a topic or get a few things off their chests. It's been a while since we've ran one, but today's effort, by Braycen Jackwitz, is nicely timely. Windows 8 is now in the wild, and it's already gotten a bad reputation amongst developers and gamers. Is this reputation justified? Braycen isn't so sure...
Is Windows 8 Really That Bad For Developers?
Windows 8, Microsoft’s latest version of its 17 year old Operating System, is set to be released in a few weeks. The OS has been plagued by controversy since it was first shown off, the most notorious being the allegations from a few major game developers about it being a “catastrophe”. Ask anyone why this is and you’ll get either no reason, or conflicting reasons. The confusion surrounding these rather serious allegations is somewhat disturbing, so why don’t we delve through it all and see what’s really going on here?
Windows 7 to Windows 8: What’s changed?
There have been a few major changes. The start menu has been given an overhaul, now being full screen and somewhat rearranged. Also, the addition of Metro Apps, a new class of fullscreen programs designed to run well on desktops, laptops and tablets. These new kinds of programs will run on both Windows 8 and Windows RT (a spin off OS meant to run on tablets with ARM processors, the low powered processors found in phones and currently available tablets), and are only available from Windows 8’s new app store. The underlying OS has also gone through a performance overhaul, a good thing for gamers, helping them eke out those few more frames per second from their hard working hardware.
So what’s changed for developers? Basically, nothing. Every method of making games still works as it has in previous versions of Windows. UE3, Unity, Flash, XNA, Java, Proprietary Engines, you name it, you can still use it for making games on Windows 8. All that’s changed is the addition of the Metro ‘platform’, giving developers more options for how they make and sell their games, and what kinds of devices they target.
What’s so bad about that?
So why is Windows 8 so bad for developers? One of the oft toted reasons by citizens of the internet is that it’s because the people that have made these claims have a stake in digital distribution, the most notable one being Gabe Newell of Valve and Steam fame. The reasoning is that because Windows’ new app store will be ubiquitous, on every single copy of windows sold unlike Steam, it will become the de facto place people will head to get apps and games. This will then eat into the sales on Steam and other digital distribution services, something their respective CEO’s obviously won’t want. Thus the reasoning wraps up by concluding that these people have only made these claims to bad mouth their new competition, meaning Windows 8 is a catastrophe…but only for their wallets.
Although this may be the underlying reason why the accusations were made in the first place, it completely ignores the point the accusations were making. The point centers on the new app store and Microsoft’s motives for adding it, saying that this is the first step towards Microsoft making Windows a closed system, only able to run programs/apps that Microsoft has approved, similar to Apple with iOS. iOS is notorious for being closed, sometimes not approving apps for little or no reason, and making developers have to conform to their strict requirements before their programs can be run on Apple devices. Generally a bad thing, and this is what game developers don’t want happening to Windows.
The new Metro ‘platform’ is closed; Microsoft’s app store is the only place you can get these apps from, and many people argue that Microsoft will replace the desktop with the Metro platform sometime in the future, and that the only reason they still have the desktop in Windows 8 is for legacy support. However, this is unlikely to happen for two reasons. One, Metro cannot replace the desktop for productive work. Microsoft itself has said that only certain kinds of programs work well as metro apps and that others only really work as desktop programs, ie. Photoshop, the very tools developers use to make pc, mobile and console games. To quote Steven Sinofsky, Head of the Windows and Windows Live division at Microsoft, “(…)the role of the Windows desktop is clear. It powers the hundreds of thousands of existing apps that people rely on today, a vast array of business software, and provides a level of precision and control that is essential for certain tasks. The things that people do today on PCs don’t suddenly go away just because there are new Metro style apps.” and “But if you do see value in the desktop experience—in precise control, in powerful windowing and file management, in compatibility with hundreds of thousands of existing programs and devices, in support of your business software, those capabilities are right at your fingertips as well. You don’t need to change to a different device if you want to edit photos or movies professionally, create documents for your job or school, manage a large corpus of media or data, or get done the infinite number of things people do with a PC today.”
Secondly, Microsoft only allows games under a certain rating to be listed on their app store. From Windows 8’s App Certification Requirements:
5.1 Your app must not contain adult content, and metadata must be appropriate for everyone Apps with a rating over PEGI 16, ESRB MATURE, or that contain content that would warrant such a rating, are not allowed. Metadata and other content you submit to accompany your app may contain only content that would merit a rating of PEGI 12, ESRB EVERYONE, or Windows Store 12+, or lower.
Seeing as though quite a lot of the most popular AAA games (Call of Duty, Battlefield, Borderlands, Skyrim, The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed etc.) have a rating of PEGI 16 or higher, the Windows app store sure won’t be becoming the only place to buy games from anytime soon.
But wait, there’s more...
However, the recent kerfuffle between Notch and Microsoft highlights one of the lesser known features of the app store. Not only are Metro apps available from the app store, desktop programs will be available on there too. You won’t be able to buy them from there though. The listings just link you to the developer’s website, but they will need to be certified like Metro apps need to be before they’re listed on the store.
Theoretically, this means that Microsoft could make Windows only be able to run certified desktop programs, but to think Microsoft would actually do this is somewhat absurd. To again quote Steven Sinofsky: “our perspective rests on the foundation of the open PC architecture that has proven flexible and adaptable over many significant changes in hardware capabilities and software paradigms. This is the flexibility that has served as a cornerstone through transitions in user interface, connectivity, programming models, and hardware capabilities (to name a few).”
One of the things that has made Windows so popular is its backwards compatibility. Aside from technical issues, the vast majority of Windows programs just work on any new versions of the operating system that come out. And after 17 years, there are a lot of Windows programs out there. It would be a nightmare trying to get those programs certified, time wise and cost wise, plus their developers would have to submit them in the first place and pay for them to be certified, which a lot of developers of small or older software may not see as worthwhile. Windows is too widely used for Microsoft to get away with dumping all those programs, the outroar from the public at large would be deafening. Any other operating system (like OS X which is close to doing it anyway) would be able to get away more easily with such a monumental move due to their vastly smaller market share, but not Windows which practically dominates the PC market and has so many people and businesses relying on its openness.
So why is Windows 8 bad for developers? Only because of the highly unlikely possibility that Windows could one day become closed and restrict what developers can do with their games. Everything else is a benefit: general performance increases, easier to target multiple kinds of devices, cross platform multiplayer between phones, tablets, desktops and Xboxes, and a ubiquitous app store for greater exposure all serve to make the perceived downsides negligible.