A few months ago I wrote a piece detailing how utterly terrible the Windows 10 Store (now called the Microsoft Store) is for core gamers (or well, almost anyone, really), but what has changed since then? Sadly, not a whole lot.
Microsoft has addressed many of my criticisms, but mainly the superficial ones. There's a new row showcasing PC games specifically near the top of the page. The "top rated" games (i.e. bad casino mobile apps full of fake reviews) are now listed at the bottom of the store. There's a section showcasing games enabled with Xbox Live, and hey, there's even quite a few decent titles in there now, including Middle-earth: Shadow of War, GWENT: A Witcher Card Game, and recently, The Long Dark. But it's not enough.
This fall-winter gaming season has made me realize that, for Microsoft Studios to grow both in terms of credibility and mindshare, they have to give up on Microsoft Store exclusivity. It's probably too late to fix its reputation.
Cuphead becomes a meme, because of Steam
Microsoft seemingly sank a lot of money into Cuphead, the maddeningly difficult and artistically awe-inspiring platformer from Studio MDHR. While not a Microsoft Studios-published title, Cuphead enjoys permanent exclusivity on Xbox One, presumably in exchange for marketing efforts and investment. Cuphead was delayed quite a bit to expand the scope of the game, adding more bosses and platforming levels into the mix over the course of development.
Cuphead sold an incredible 1 million copies in two weeks, which is outstanding for a side-scrolling platformer from a fresh IP. The game's art style, punishingly rewarding gameplay, and overall quality really helped it achieve serious success, as well as word-of-mouth, influencer YouTube and streaming content, and piles and piles of memes.
"Cupsouls," is one such meme, a portmanteau of Dark Souls and Cuphead, in honor of the game's difficulty. Cuphead's "learn-by-dying" gameplay is superficially reminiscent of Dark Souls' hardcore ARPG combat, which rewards players for persistence and patience. Perhaps it's also to mock game journalists who describe any hard game as being "like Dark Souls."
Memes and fandom are organic things, and every time a corporate entity attempts to tap into them, it's almost always a cringefest. Memes are the social media equivalent of word-of-mouth, and the discussion revolving around Cuphead certainly helped it reach a bigger audience. There's no real way to measure this, of course, but I'd be willing to bet money that Cuphead wouldn't have achieved its fandom/memetic status without hitting Steam. It certainly wouldn't have achieved its sales success having been locked to the Microsoft Store on PC.
The same can be said about other quality Xbox console exclusives that hit UWP and Steam, including Ori and the Blind Forest. Killer Instinct might have fared better had it launched on Steam, instead of years after the fact. Imagine how much bigger Halo 5's eSports scene could have been if it was on Steam? Etcetera, etcetera.
Many "core" gamers, the sort likely to share and celebrate the culture of games online are often on PC, and for them, Steam is the de-facto king of PC games distribution. How does Microsoft expect to reach that audience when its store simply sucks, even for the basics?
YouTube gaming "influencers," the major PC discussion forums, subreddits, and beyond, it's always about Steam, and games that arrive via Steam. Save for exceptions like Blizzard's Battle.net, which has earned its place on PC across decades of solid online services and high-quality games.
When it comes to Microsoft-backed titles, giving a game like Cuphead a Microsoft Store restriction on PC wouldn't have just hurt the reach of the game, but it creates that negative association on PC that Microsoft has earned itself through the continuing tragedy that is the Windows 10 app store. Microsoft Store exclusivity hurts PC games, it doesn't help PC games.
It's time to give up on Microsoft Store exclusivity
Microsoft has had years to solve even the most incredibly basic issues with the Windows 10 app store, and yet it continues to pass the buck. Forza Motorsport 7 and Middle-earth: Shadow of War launched a few weeks ago, plagued by download issues owing to the fact the Microsoft Store still struggles with large file sizes. This is basic stuff, and the fact that it wasn't fixed for the launch of these flagship UWP titles speaks to me of complacency or, just plain apathy.
It's the Windows team that handles the Microsoft Store, for some reason, when it should probably be Xbox. The Xbox Store has no such issues handling large file sizes, even when you interrupt downloads mid-way. The same cannot be said for the Microsoft Store on Windows, which in some cases, an interrupted download can lead to having to re-download the entire game again, blowing up data caps. Some of these games are pushing 100 GB due to 4K assets, so to have the download restart at the last minute is just unforgiveable, particularly if you have a particularly bad ISP.
There's still no easy way to access your game library, as we get on Steam. It's still a chore to filter and discover new games, compared to Steam. And still, the Microsoft Store is crammed with shovelware, casino games, and the haunted remains of its dead mobile platform. Dangling like a shrivelled, vestigial limb.
The difference between the Xbox version of the Microsoft Store on console and the Microsoft Store for games on PC is almost night and day. Clear and useful categories rather than hidden filters, dedicated (and fast) game library section for installation management, quick access to social features, and so on. On PC, we have an incredibly, woefully, painfully clunky Xbox app, which does have some of these features too, but UWP doesn't seem to be a fast enough vehicle for a program with this sort of complexity. No self respecting PC gamer is going to choose Xbox Clubs over Discord or Steam for keeping in touch with their clan, because even on a quad-core PC the Xbox app is slow as molasses, and that's when it isn't crashing.
I never use Microsoft's gaming ecosystem on PC out of choice, it's always because I'm forced to. I like the usability of UWP containers vs. legacy Win32 implementations for games (when they work), but the apps that power and catalog these experiences are never a pleasant experience to use. It all just continues to feel like an afterthought for Microsoft. Recently, it was updated with fluent design translucency and a new icon, though. Hooray.
End of the road
Even if the most cynical scenario is true, that Microsoft's approach to this stuff is do as little as possible, to make as much money as possible, surely simply putting games like Forza Motorsport 7, Halo Wars 2, and ReCore Definitive Edition on Steam is a surefire way to approach this, rather than fixing their own store. And the thing is, I know this scenario isn't true. I know there are people at Microsoft and Xbox who genuinely want to create a good experience for PC gamers.
Putting titles on Steam will mean Valve gets a cut of the profits, but perhaps Microsoft can begin patching its reputation with the PC gaming audience whose historical mistrust of Microsoft (due to Games for Windows Live) has only been tempered by the debacle that is the Microsoft Store. If you're going to emulate something, like Steam, you'd better hope that your attempts at least approach the same level of quality. Otherwise, being forced to use it is just going to breed resentment.
Cuphead and others might not have achieved the status they did if Redmond had restricted them to the Microsoft Store as part of an exclusivity deal. And sure, it's not just because the Microsoft Store isn't nice to use, it's also because it's exclusive to Windows 10. Many PC gamers opt in to Windows 7, an incredibly old OS, because they don't see the value in upgrading. That's a whole other problem.
Previously there was a legitimate reason to restrict games to UWP and the Windows 10 Store to serve cross-play for games like Killer Instinct, but since Steam has now opened up its systems to Xbox Live cross-play the barriers are gone.
At the end of the day, it looks as though Microsoft is actively exploring porting its games across to Steam anyway. Halo Wars Definitive Edition already arrived, and I've seen some evidence that Halo Wars 2 could be following it. But what of the mainline Halos, Forzas, and Gears of Wars of the world? Why the inconsistency and arbitrary restrictions? I think it's time to bite the bullet, so to speak.
I want to reiterate that there are people at Microsoft and Xbox who want to fix this, it's just doesn't seem to be a priority higher up the Windows chain. There's also nobody who wants the Microsoft ecosystem to succeed more than me, but it has just become apparent that the drive to succeed in this area isn't there.
The Microsoft Store is "fine" for those who are just using it for Xbox Play Anywhere titles across from their Xbox One, but for dedicated PC-gamers, if it can't offer the usability Steam delivers, or other PC distribution platforms for that matter. All the Microsoft Store does is punish gamers who want to play Microsoft games. That's not helping Microsoft's image as a game publisher, it's not helping those developers and games to make money, and certainly, its not helping gamers.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!