COD:IW and the Windows Store
Posted at 20:35 on 4th November 2016 - permalink

There’s recently been a little bit of a kerfuffle about Activision making the puzzling decision to release a separate (UWP) version of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare on the Windows Store, in which the multiplayer mode only allows you to play with other UWP players (and not with players who have bought the game anywhere else – Steam, retail, etc.).

Microsoft presumably knew that this wouldn’t go down well with the specialist press, so released an official (making no mention of the game or Activision) and unofficial statement to a friendly site. Predictably, many of the major games sites that have picked up on the story have merged these two messages together, resulting in headlines along the lines of “Windows Store version of COD won’t let you play with Steam players and it’s Activision’s fault.”.

I don’t have any inside information about how the deal went down between Microsoft and Activision, but can make some confident guesses about some aspects:

1. Surely the only reason COD:IW is on the Windows Store is because Microsoft desperately want it there, and will have reached some kind of arrangement with Activision (involving cash, better terms, free marketing, technical assistance and/or some other incentive) to put it there. You can liken this to the deals they did around GTA IV (coughing up $50m for GFWL integration, some level of timed exclusivity, DLC, etc.) or ensuring big ‘name brand’ mobile apps (Angry Birds, Netflix, etc.) were on the Windows Phone store when they were still trying to make that work. I’d go so far as to speculate that Microsoft may even be eating the cost of the discounted launch price.

2. There is little chance of this version making much profit beyond that one-shot incentive, so Activision will have made the minimal effort possible to do the port. COD is a franchise that still does a big proportion of its business in console boxed copies, and while the PC market has exploded in recent years, the additional sales that could be mustered from small (non-Steam) distribution channels are unlikely to be a priority for them.

There is an assumption that the Windows Store can’t be doing that badly (compared to uPlay, Origin, GOG and the other stores that occupy the edges of the PC digital games market not taken up by Steam) because it’s bundled with Windows 10, but outside of a couple of Microsoft-owned IP, it’s hard to point to any notable success stories there. The fact that high profile ‘exclusive’ games like Tomb Raider and Quantum Break had to messily reverse out of their exclusivity deals don’t exactly suggest a marketplace in robust health.

3. Microsoft can safely say that they’ve not ordered Activision to break compatibility. What I suspect they’ve done is sneakier, and it’s a tactic that have form for using in the past to disadvantage rivals.

The Windows Store version of COD:IW has to support the weird Windows 10 Xbox app to facilitate multiplayer. The standard version uses Steamworks. While Microsoft don’t prevent developers from implementing Steamworks in UWP games in addition (although they used to), it’s extra cost and work to implement and test two separate systems. (There is a bit of confusion over what MS require, ban, or just make needlessly difficult to implement for UWP games sold on their store, but you get the general gist. The fact that MS are even able to refer to ‘crossplay’ as an optional feature between users on the same hardware platform shows how ludicrous this situation is.)

This is similar to how Microsoft tilted the playing field against Netscape back in the day. OEMs weren’t prevented from installing other browsers on new PCs, but Microsoft argued that Internet Explorer couldn’t be removed as it was part of the operating system. (This turned out to be flim-flam, and the European Court wasn’t very pleased.) OEMs didn’t want the cost of supporting two browsers, so Netscape got the bullet.

I don’t think that this latest silliness poses any kind of serious threat to Steam’s dominance of the PC games space, but it does add another little bit of fuel to the fire of Tim Sweeney’s argument that UWP and the Windows Store risk being used as a trojan horse to turn Windows into a walled garden.

Personally I don’t think that Microsoft can make the PC games market swallow the pill of the PC as a closed iOS-like platform even if they want to. No amount of money would have made GFWL work, and consumers rejected punitative ‘always on’ DRM systems (for the most part). That said, we should continue to scrutinise and question any moves Microsoft (or anyone else) make that normalise a situation where PC games can’t be modified by end users, and access to the market is increasingly reserved for major publishers with deep pockets.

I think it’s in everyone’s best interest for the PC to have credible alternatives to Steam (which is far from perfect itself), and I hope that Microsoft are listening. A few years ago I wouldn’t have believed that they’d ever kill Kinect (and various other ill-conceived projects) to save their Xbox business, so maybe they’re not still the stubborn gorilla we assume.

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