If my editorial from yesterday didn't get you interested in this discussion, then perhaps a new line of talking from Microsoft's Phil Spencer will do the job. During its spring presser, the company's gaming lead talked about a plan to merge the PC and Xbox gaming experiences with cross platform gaming, universal applications and compatibility for upgraded Xbox consoles. I found a great write up over at The Guardian that I will pick some of the quotes from and then offer up my views.
Now it seems Microsoft’s plan is to shift the entire development model towards universal applications that run across PC and console – indeed any machine that’s compatible with the Universal Windows Platform. This could have radical implications for the console model, which so far has always been based on the idea that the hardware has to remain largely unchanged throughout the machine’s lifespan.
Much like I detailed in yesterday's story, the Universal Windows Platform and applications are the key here, with the goal of allowing developers to code a single game or program that will run on the entire gamut of PCs in the world including desktops and tablets, as well as on the Xbox One game console.
“In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so,” said Spencer. “We’re allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs.”
I am actually incredibly excited for the idea of more, and more frequently, updated Xbox hardware from Microsoft. Like it or not, with UWP or without it, consoles and their hardware capability have always been a somewhat limiting factor on how much effort game devs put into creating new games for the PC. If we can depend on newer console hardware, and that games will more ably handle newer, faster components, then it raises the ceiling for image quality, new features, experiences like VR, etc.
“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”
Expect to see some rolled eyes as you read this quote from Spencer; as PC gamers we already HAVE that capability and the move to UWP and UWAs is threatening to hinder that for us going forward. The PC has seen Steam, Origin, DRM-free gaming, an accelerated path to digital distribution, mods, overlays, benchmarking – all things that were held back or outlawed on consoles.
The Xbox chief ended his keynote by reiterating the importance of the PC as a gaming platform. He promised that UWAs will support multiple different graphics processors and that issues with V-Sync ( a setting that matches the game framerate with your monitor’s screen refresh rate) would be resolved.
Enabling support for different GPUs is a good promise, but much more important than just saying it is knowing HOW that support will be handled. As we saw based on our testing and research with Ashes of the Singularity, just supporting Radeon and GeForce cards isn't enough. What about features unique to each GPU? What about SLI and CrossFire? Variable refresh rate monitors? Enabling maximum performance with exclusive fullscreen modes? There is a lot to be answered and discussed.
Quantum Break will be on PC, exclusively as a Unified Windows App
This also marks the second time I have heard Spencer mention a "fix" for Vsync issues. I'd love to hear what they have in mind, and I have asked MS several times, but so far I haven't gotten any kind of solid answer. The real question is: does MS understand the problem and the gaming community on the PC well enough to even know what the problem is they are trying to fix?
The big question now is how onboard the development community is with the UWA concept. In theory, these apps should run seamlessly on top of PC and Xbox One architectures, with abstractions to exploit the graphics processors, system memory and other hardware features, as well as compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectX application programming interface (API) for enhanced graphics performance. But will the reality match the promise?
"In theory" and "in practice" are two wildly different things, and we've already seen one example of this not going as planned. I do believe that game developers would jump at the chance to have true cross compatibility as long as the hiccups and issues we are discussing can be dealt with in a reasonable way. It just makes sense: this eases development hurdles and expands the possible customer base.
Outside of Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how studios react. “In principle UWA sounds like a good idea,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones, a veteran games programmer, now running his own indie studio, Xiotex, and working on sci-fi puzzler, Caretaker. “It offers a more unified platform or environment rather than a fragmented operating systems running on an even more fragmented hardware base. However, this is all reliant on just how hard it is to develop for and how much of a closed shop it will become.
“The best thing about PC is that anyone can make a game for it and UWA sounds like it’s going to become a curated system that will probably require some developer registration to get on.”
Exactly this. The benefit of the PC is its openness, even when running on Windows (as opposed to SteamOS or Linux, for example.) If you take that away, will developers and gamers start to walk?
Given that Microsoft is promoting UWP as a catch-all platform for Windows 10 that encompasses Xbox one, what does this mean in terms of support for the console’s hardware specifications? “As it stands currently, if you are making an Xbox one game you can be sure on what kind of hardware it’s running,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If developers are then forced down a UWA route, is it going to be the case that this certainty is gone and we get back to the situation on PC where you have to start specifying a minimum spec – which kind of renders a unified platform redundant?”
I disagree that having a minimum spec makes a unified platform less useful, it simply sets a standard for which experience and gameplay can be measured. Even Apple iPhones and iOS implement this to some degree and they have as locked down of a software ecosystem as you can get. If it's handled correctly, Microsoft could be the arbiter of hardware classification and certification, as they kind of already are with WHQL, making sure that any PC hardware or updated Xbox hardware will pass the test for previous and upcoming gaming titles.
But that is a very difficult task and is likely why MS would like to integrate some restrictions through the API and Windows compositing engine to help them hold that promise moving into the future.
But he will have to convince not just gamers, but the development community. “Microsoft has tried this before with Games for Windows and that was a disaster,” says Atkinson-Jones. “There will be many game developers who had to go through that monstrosity shaking their heads in disbelief that history may just be about to repeat itself.”
Oh yeah, that…remember Games for Windows Live? Remember when it cratered and we had to deal with the fallout of some games not working without GWL servers running? Or just the complication of needing a unique sign-in that often tied the game down in unwieldy ways? That's the dystopian future that PC gamers want to avoid.
All of that being said, I'm still hopeful that Microsoft can turn this into a positive movement. Removing the 7 year upgrade cycle for the Xbox One means that PC gamers will benefit from moving specs on the consoles, giving game developers the ability to target higher end hardware as the platform evolves. I do believe that cross platform games will mean an increase in innovative titles with expanded audiences and more opportunity for developers to make money for their work. But all of this has to be done with more sensitivity to the PC ecosystem than it is being addressed with currently. If nothing else, PC gamers are a loud and easily started group.
Be sure you read the full story over at The Guardian!