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Microsoft’s plan to unify the Xbox and PC is doomed

Microsoft released a flurry of gaming announcements on March 1, so many it’s hard to keep them straight. In addition to an extensive game preview, the company revealed it’s working to unify the Universal Windows Application platform between PCs and its consoles, and hinted it may adopt a new strategy of incremental console upgrades that mimics a computer’s expandability.

These efforts sound great, at least on paper. While some entitled Xbox One owners have whined about the loss of some Xbox games exclusive to the PC, most gamers on both platforms will enjoy greater compatibility between the two. The strategy could greatly expand the appeal of Xbox, which has struggled since the release of Sony’s PlayStation 4, and also bring new games and features to the PC.

But I’m skeptical. As great as all of this sounds, Microsoft has a tendency to announce big plans that ultimately come to nothing. And even if the company follows through, it will have to resolve a serious failing – the Windows Store.

Who wants to shop on the Windows Store?

The announcement of a unified Universal Windows Application (UAW) platform is easily the most important announcement made by Microsoft. It’s a simple plan, in theory. With UAW, developers will be able to produce apps that work not only with Windows 10 and Xbox, but also Windows 10 Mobile, the new smartphone and tablet OS.

It’s a good plan, one that frankly has been too long in coming to fruition – Microsoft has suggested this possibility for years. But there’s a catch. UAW apps can only be obtained through the Windows Store.

No one wants to use the Windows Store.

That’s a big problem. In fact, it may kill the entire idea of unification before it has a chance.

Though it’s now been available in Windows for several years, it has failed to gain the attention of developers or users. Our own Justin Pot recently interviewed several developers about the Windows Store, and found unanimous disappointment.  Scott Peterson, part of the team behind Cortanium, remarked the store has “never ever been my bread and butter.” Gaurav Kalra, part of the development team behind top-selling Windows 10 app NextGen Reader, told us only 90,000 copies of the app have been sold through the Store. While that may sound significant, it pales in comparison Android and iOS. Top apps on those platforms can sell millions.

No one wants to use the Windows Store. Microsoft no doubt hopes that its plan will give users a reason to change their attitude. But I doubt that’ll happen. Instead, gamers are likely to see UAW, and the Windows Store, as an annoying layer of additional DRM, similar to Ubisoft’s UPlay.

In fact, Microsoft already tried this with its failed Games For Windows Live. Microsoft thought the service would bring the benefits of Xbox Live, including achievements and voice chat, to Windows. But gamers solidly rejected it, viewing the service as an annoying add-on.

windows store laptop

There’s no reason to think it’ll be different this time around. UAW may bring its benefits, but like Games For Windows Live, it will force players to use a specific portal to access them. Want to use Steam instead? Tough luck. Want a refund? Sorry. The Windows Store refund policy is not as generous as Steam and GOG.

Technical problems exist, too. UAW games don’t respond to some driver-level settings available from AMD and Nvidia, and they don’t support CrossFire or SLI. Microsoft has promised it’ll eventually resolve these limitations, but has declined to say when that will happen.

The Gears grind to a halt

Microsoft’s burst of press information was accompanied by the release of Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, which everyone knew was coming, but didn’t have a release date. The company no doubt hoped it would burst onto the PC gaming landscape and provide definite proof of its seriousness. In fact, it’s had the opposite effect.

The game’s launch is a flop on the scale of Batman: Arkham Knight. Gamers have reported a long list of problems, with AMD taking the brunt of the blow. For some reason, even the AMD R9 Fury performs terribly at 1440p resolution, stuttering or hitching as if the game was running on a decade-old GPU. Yet other AMD owners are reporting no problem, making it unclear why the issue has appeared.

And that issue, though the most severe, is only one of many. Other problems include frame pacing issues when the game is used with a G-Sync monitor, ugly texture pop-in problems, and an issue that causes the game to run on a laptop’s Intel IGP even if it has an Nvidia discrete GPU. An administrator post on the Gears of War forum recommends some potential fixes, but they’re not likely to make gamers happy. AMD owners, for example, are told to play the game at 1080p resolution or lower with Ambient Occlusion off.

Gears of War’s botched launch is sure to make gamers feel Microsoft is all talk, and no action.

This is exactly what Microsoft didn’t need. Unifying the PC and Xbox is meant to do more than just add features. It is a goodwill gesture, a sign the company “gets it,” and understands that it messed up when it launched the Xbox One. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition’s botched launch is sure to make gamers feel like the company is all talk, and no action.

And they’re right. There’s ample reason to believe Redmond’s management doesn’t get it. Microsoft knows how to plan, but it often fails to follow through. Just ask the Windows Phone fans, still pining for compatibility with proper Windows 10 apps. Just ask the Surface owners, still waiting for driver updates that’ll finally make their beautiful 2-in-1 reliable. Just ask Kinect owners, on the hook for an expensive gadget that’s ignored even by most Xbox exclusives. Gears of War’s problems are not a fluke, they’re business as usual.