Is The Windows 10 Store The Next Step For PC Apps And Games?

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry analyst, design consultant and the creator of leading blog What Games Are. He is currently writing a book called Core Game Design. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Writing has a kind of half-life. As you’re drafting you tend to find your way to what you want to say, and it’s a little like enriching your rods. When you get to publishing your words often feel at their most energetic, ready to burst upon the world, and you feel a combination of utter certainty on the one hand and complete powerlessness on the other. You know that a minute after publishing you will either have been Right or Wrong in the eyes of the world (well, Twitter and the comments section) but before that moment you know nothing.

However, regardless of either outcome, their energy soon dissipates. In the days after publishing you sneakily tweak a post occasionally after noticing the inevitable grammatical error that slipped through but beyond that it quickly fades from view. A month later you don’t remember what exactly you said. Six months later you forget that you even wrote a post on a particular topic at all, occasionally finding yourself writing the exact same article and only remembering half way through.

The feeling upon reading your older work, as a result, is not good. Like many people who write I hate re-reading what I’ve published long after it’s done because when I do I usually feel like a fool. Every post is a plethora of flabby paragraphs, forgettable constructions, ill-advised imagery and trip-ups in the narrative that only I can see yet which damn me for all time. I realize just how wrong I was. Games that I thought would be big deals turn out to have been damp squibs. Market movements that I was convinced would take off fizzled and died leaving nothing in their wake.

This happens to anyone who writes about anything 99% of the time. But sometimes there are those 1%’s, those instances when you got something dead goddamn right. It’s rare that the future as envisioned comes through exactly as you predicted (timeframes are usually wrong) but the essence turns out to be as you foretold. Then you feel great. Temporary insight is useful but insight that hits home are worth their weight in gold, worth the risk.  Those moments make the failures feel survivable.

This leads me to thinking about the Windows 10 Store and its imminent re-launch, and in particular its impact on games. A few years ago we (consultants, bloggers, pundits etc) predicted the arrival of a mobile idea on desktop computers: app stores. Soon after came the Mac App Store, and then the Windows Store. Both heralded PC gaming’s future, particularly for the more casual end of the market. We’d already had the Steam store forever but it was always just a bit too geeky for commoner-player usage. Mobile showed there was a way to attract a wider tranche of players with cheap or free games, in-app purchases and so on. The task for Apple and Microsoft seemed to be to create environments that would bring Clash of Clans equivalents to laptops and desktops everywhere, and from there would fortunes be made anew.

The reality? Crickets or – as my Americans friends might say – bupkis. Nothing really happened, no desktop app revolution kicked off. Unlike the incredibly competitive iOS App Store, the Mac App Store quickly devolved into an Olde Curiosity Shoppe selling $50 applications to Mac customers already used to buying OmniGraffle and the like. But not much else. According to reports it’s very easy to chart on the Mac App Store but sadly it means very little. The games selection, meanwhile, is incredibly poor with not a single major iOS hit (like Clash of ClansCandy Crush etc) coming anywhere near it. The current number 1 game has but 75 reviews. Windows was no better. When the bulk of your user base spends all of its time rejecting your snazzy new interface then the little Store pane inside it stands zero chance of being clicked. So, no sales.

The other factor weighing heavily against the PC app revolution was developers. I love game (and other kinds) developers but they’re often herd-like. In most developers’ minds a 0.01% chance of making a billion dollars outweighs a 10% chance of making a million dollars, and this emotion drives their choice of what platforms to support. Devs follow success bias in droves and – for all their vaunted metrics – typically their dataset for making strategic platform decisions is non-existent. So they pile into the same venues as everyone else, even when the conditions in those venues work against them. Their selection comes down to feels of what’s hot or not, what narrative is in the ascendance and what is considered gauche.

These factors were why the desktop app revolution never took off. It was too awkward, the narratives of the day were all about iPhones and the sentiment among devs was that the hot ticket money was to be found in mobile. Even despite numbers showing perfectly healthy install numbers across Mac and PC and stores that lacked for much competition, no studio was willing to really take the plunge and be the Rovio of desktop. At best they went to iOS or Steam – where every last dev already was – and avoided desktop app stores entirely. I was wrong three years ago as a result, but I think I’m inching toward being right. And maybe Windows 10 could be the conduit of my rightness.

My reasons are these:

  1. The dynamics have shifted considerably. Mobile is so pressured by competition that bigger publishers like GREE are already starting to fall out, and while there is still plenty of scope for interestingly (and, increasingly, arty) games the bulk of studios are feeling the kind of pinch that makes them fly or die.
  2. Ditto Steam. The default games store for the PC industry has become a haven of endless kvetching from developers on everything from the deals-driven mentality of its customers to the tone of its forums and communities. And although its scale may seem much smaller in comparison to mobile, the fact that there are 5000+ games on Steam is seen as a major threat to many incumbents.
  3. The mood around Windows 10 is 10000% more positive than it was for Windows 8. We can debate the to and fro of whether it’s great or adequate (I find the W10 Start menu too heavy and pine for W7’s – the best version of Windows to date – elegance) but there’s no denying that it’s popular, and in a high tide all boats rise.

Really it comes down to whether Microsoft grasps the nettle. Apple isn’t likely to shake up its own Mac App Store with El Capita and so Microsoft has a year to kickstart the revolution. It has a year to strike some deals with big providers and convert some well known games to fire interest, then to feature, push and promote the new and improved Windows 10 Store.

At some point my feeling about the desktop app revolution will be proven correct. It’s just a question of when.

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