Gabe Newell, managing director of Steam and (arguably) savior of PC gaming, lashed out at Windows 8 yesterday, saying that Windows 8 is “a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space”. As he did not explain himself very well, it took a while for things to sink in, but sink in it did. Newell is a known critic of Microsoft but he – as an ex-employee – understands Microsoft better than most people do. He also understands PC gaming better than anyone, giving these strong words meaning and cause for the gaming world to snap to attention.
So what is all the ruckus about? Is Newell afraid Microsoft’s new Marketplace will compete with Steam? Does he despise the new Metro desktop and thinks it will make it more difficult for games to be found? Or is there some other reason behind his remark?
The answer is "unfair competition".
The new Windows Marketplace will, in theory, compete with Steam. Contrary to Games for Windows Live, the Marketplace is a decent digital storefront that works more like the digital store on your phone than your average web shop. Buying and installing Apps will be quick and painless. In many ways, it is a big improvement on how these things are done on Windows today.
In practice, however, I doubt that gamers will be won over by the service and game developers will shun it like the plague.
A stream of bad publicity has washed over Microsoft’s current gaming store, XBLA, and it has exposed some unwelcome practices by the software giant that will hold both gamers and developers at bay. On the consumer side, discovering new games on XBLA has become increasingly difficult as each new XBLA dashboard has downplayed Xbox’s gaming side and increased focus on ads and non-gaming activities. On the developer side, news came out that releasing a second patch for a released XBLA game costs around 40.000 dollars. A lot of cash and at that price many small developers and publishers will think twice about releasing a game for XBLA when they can patch it for free on Steam. The practice may also explain why bigger publishers at times seem to cease post-release support for their games a little too early.
Combine the above with Microsoft’s lousy track record in the PC gaming space (Games for Windows Live, killing their PC franchises after the launch of the original Xbox, no DX10 support for Windows XP, the list goes on and on), and you can see why I think it is doubtful that the Marketplace will be the primary go-to for gaming. This is especially true when popular, game-centric alternatives such as Steam exist as well.
There is no doubt in my mind that Newell is secure in the knowledge that Steam is a competent platform with a huge following and strong industry support. If allowed to compete freely and fairly, Steam will be the driving power in the PC gaming industry for years to come.
But what if that is taken away? What if Microsoft closes the shutters on its Windows OS and makes it impossible for Steam to compete?
That is exactly what appears to be at stake here: Windows 8 makes it ‘illegal’ to purchase and download software through any other storefront than Marketplace – unless – it has been licensed by Microsoft. In other words, Steam’s very existence on your PC will be deemed illegal by Microsoft. The same looks to be true for pretty much every other piece of software – gaming or otherwise – on your Windows 8 PC as well.
Microsoft is clearly trying to emulate Apple’s astounding success with the App Store. Apple takes a cut from every sale made through the App Store and Microsoft has been eyeing this revenue stream jealously for years.
PC users have long had the freedom to install whatever software they feel like installing. From obscure little pieces of software to popular packages such as Chrome or Open Office, consumers have always been in control of their desktop. Bill Gates envisioned Windows to be an open place where software from any source could be installed without any interference. This vision has contributed much to the OS’s success over the years. Once given, freedom is not so easily taken away again and consumers won’t take kindly to seeing their Windows experience being locked down. They may well stick with Windows 7 or look for greener pastures elsewhere, and it will probably have the color of a certain popular fruit. Linux distro’s have made tremendous progress over the last few years but will still feel too cumbersome to many consumers. This leads me to think that Microsoft is actually driving people straight into the arms of its biggest competitor, Apple. While it is true that similar restrictions exist on iOS, the key difference is that people can make a choice to live with those restrictions as a necessary part of an OS that has always been closed, rather than see them forcefully applied to one that used to be open.
Gamers just stick with Windows 7
Most PC gamers love Steam. Many have a dozen or more games in their library and spend time on the service every day. If Steam is an illegal app on Windows 8, there is little doubt that gamers will give Windows 8 a pass. Should this happen, it is yet another example of Microsoft’s unwillingness to see PC gaming for what it is: a mature and influential movement that has long propelled PC sales, comprised of tech savvy people who would move to another OS in an instant if it would improve their gaming experience.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out.