Microsoft's push for a unified cross-platform gaming experience backfires

Over the past few years, Microsoft has made a few attempts to build bridges to the PC gaming community. More often than not, though, those efforts have ended with unhappy customers and the perception that Redmond is out of touch with PC gamers. For some time now, it's felt like Microsoft and the PC gaming community have reached an uneasy peace. Over the past week, though, it feels like we've gone from zero to "WTF?" again at a rapid pace.

This most recent spat started with the release of some weird-looking benchmark results for the latest beta of Ashes of the Singularity from the folks at Guru3D. Ryan Shrout at PC Perspective attempted to get to the bottom of this issue, and he discovered some troubling behaviors that might become par for the course for DirectX 12 games in general and Universal Windows Platform games in particular.

According to Shrout, vsync remains turned on for DirectX 12 games running on AMD hardware, even if it's turned off in a game's settings. He discovered that turning off vsync in Ashes doesn't actually do what one might expect. Instead, the game engine will render as fast as it's able, but any frames that fall outside the vsync interval will simply be dropped from the pipeline. Shrout warns this behavior can still lead to judder during gameplay, even if it does eliminate tearing.

Shrout says that's all that's thanks to games and drivers taking advantage of Windows Display Driver Model (or WDDM) 2.0. In conjunction with DirectX 12, this new model apparently requires games to use a new compositing method that's similar to borderless windowed mode in today's applications. Using this compositing path lets games run without tearing, but it apparently makes it harder for games to render with the uncapped frame rates that PC gamers have come to know and enjoy.

The furor only intensified when it came to light that Quantum Break, an upcoming DirectX 12 game from Max Payne developer Remedy Entertainment, would only be available on Windows 10 through the Microsoft Store. It appears that Store apps—specifically, UWP games—come with the same kinds of restrictions Shrout discovered when testing Ashes.

According to Mark Walton at Ars Technica, the Windows Store version of Rise of the Tomb Raider won't let users disable vsync, for example, and it has problems running with CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configs. The Store version of RoTR also doesn't appear to expose an executable file to apps that need one to work, like Steam's Big Picture mode, graphics card control panels, and game overlays like Fraps.

Since other programs can't hook into Store apps, PC Perspective's Shrout worries that a wide range of tools that PC enthusiast sites use to benchmark hardware will no longer work. He thinks that restriction means developers will have to begin writing benchmarking tools into games themselves, something that Ashes of the Singularity developer Oxide Games has done quite competently.

Even if one developer has made a good tool, though, the implications of a fragmented benchmarking environment that only lets hardware reviewers get as much of a look into a game's performance as its developer allows is a chilling prospect. I think that development also puts control of benchmarking results into the hands of those with the most incentive to meddle with them, and it's a frightening prospect to consider that PC hardware reviewers might not be able to independently verify the truthfulness of the tools we're given.

It doesn't help that Microsoft's communication about effects of these new technologies and platforms has been quite muted, too, given the potential magnitude of changes they could hold for the future of gaming on Windows. The company held a press event last week to showcase its vision of the future of gaming across the PC and the Xbox One, two islands that it wants to bridge with universal Windows apps. The broader public is just hearing about the details of this event today.

Attendees brought up complaints about vsync and benchmarking (among other issues) with Xbox head Phil Spencer. Going by Sam Machkovech's account at Ars Technica, Spencer said "These [issues] are all in our roadmap...We hear the feedback from the community, and we will embrace it."

The problem from this PC gamer's perspective is that these issues have rarely been problems for games sold through any platform save the one Microsoft is trying to establish. If the company truly understood the wants and needs of the PC gamer, these issues would surely have been ironed out before major titles like Gears of War: Ultimate Edition and Rise of the Tomb Raider exposed them in another publicity firestorm.

No matter how you slice it, this debacle is another black mark on Microsoft's efforts to reach the PC gaming community, and it's one the company could ill afford given its past relationships with that market. Only time will tell whether the company will truly embrace community feedback and make Windows Store games into the kinds of experiences that PC players (and testers) value. For now, though, gamers can simply choose to put their dollars into other, more "open" platforms like Steam, Origin, Uplay, and GOG, and we imagine they'll do just that.

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