Windows H8: developers question Microsoft as XNA falters

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Somehow, in Windows 8, Microsoft seems to have constructed the operating system equivalent of Nick Clegg: highly visible, sound in concept, but more or less disliked by everyone who really knows what they’re talking about. In July, Valve’s Gabe Newell attacked the closed-nature of the OS, telling attendees at Casual Connect, “I think that Windows 8 is kind of a catastrophe for everybody in the PC space […] Valve wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the PC. Id Software, Epic, Zynga, Facebook, and Google wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform”. Responding to this, Rob Pardo from Blizzard tweeted that the OS wasn’t awesome for them either.

Later, Minecraft creator Notch joined the angry fray. When approached by Microsoft to help ensure the game would be certified for Windows 8 he stormed on to Twitter: “I told them to stop trying to ruin the PC as an open platform … I’d rather have minecraft not run on win 8 at all than to play along. Maybe we can convince a few people not to switch to win 8 that way.”

And today, indie developer Dan Marshall has written about the shock and dispair he felt when it looked as though the project he’d spent 18 months developing using Microsoft’s much valued XNA tools might not run on Windows 8. In June, Marshall talked to staff manning the Windows 8 stand at the Develop conference and asked whether XNA titles would be supported in the Windows 8 OS. He was told they wouldn’t be, and after a bit of internet research it seemed that developer rumours were backing this up. Thing is, Marshall’s next game, The Swindle, was written entirely using the XNA architecture.

Since then, he’s discovered that, actually, XNA-developed titles should run okay on Windows 8 machines – however, the system’s Metro app store will not directly support those games, so if you want your masterpiece to go in Microsoft’s big shop, you’ll have to convert to C++ and DirectX, or use a third-party conversion framework like MonoGame. But even then there are lots of ambiguities – and for indies, ambiguities mean time and expense, both of which are rather scary.

Marshall writes: “I love XNA, it’s a beautiful set of tools. But I can’t keep developing a game over the next year or so when I don’t really know if it’ll be supported on future platforms. Being tied to one platform, coupled with some problems we’d had getting Privates to run consistently on different setups, it was all just looking so uncertain.

“As an indie, I haven’t got a massive amount of cash and being faced with having a game ready that potentially wouldn’t run on people’s trendy, futuristic computers was a huge worry. I was in a very dark place. I made a heart-wrenching choice to stop development and start over from scratch.”

Marshall ended up converting his game to Unity, which not only bypassed the issue but also allowed him to create code that could then be transported to other platforms. Meanwhile, the fear remains that with Windows 8, Microsoft is attempting to build a walled garden monopoly on game distribution. It’s this fear from which a lot of Newell’s anger might actually be coming; if Microsoft creates a game store that integrates purchases, leaderboards and achievements with Xbox (including the new one coming next year), it will be quite a considerable threat to Steam.

And that’s where the analogy with Nick Clegg ends: Windows 8 might get a lot of stick, but when it arrives, it will at least represent a force to be reckoned with.