Arkadium, a maker and publisher of more than 300 casual games on the web, isn’t usually an early adopter of new platforms. But the New York-based company made a huge bet on Windows 8 back in November, 2011, when it signed a multi-year agreement to make games for Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system which finally debuted yesterday.
Microsoft co-invested resources with Arkadium, which created four first-party titles published under the Microsoft name, such as a new version of Microsoft Minesweeper. Roughly 40 percent of Arkadium’s development team toiled away on making games that could run on Windows phones, tablets, and PCs. More titles are on the way. Arkadium was just one of many PC game developers to make a renewed investment in games with Microsoft, which finally treated the Windows 8 game launches as the equivalent of a console game launch.
“Being a first mover will result in major upside for us,” said Kenny Rosenblatt, president of Arkadium, in an interview with GamesBeat. “We have been in business 11 years and we knew our time would come. We were late to mobile and late to Facebook. We thought this was our chance to be first on a platform. Here was a huge opportunity to be a player from the start. And we were willing to make that bet with Microsoft.”
Bill Rehbock, general manager of mobile games at Microsoft’s partner Nvidia, which is making chips for Microsoft’s Windows RT-based Surface tablet, said the evolution of the PC toward touch-oriented user interfaces will make games a lot more accessible to a broader audience than traditional gamers. He noted that Microsoft didn’t really emphasize Windows 8′s benefits for games.
“But what they have done with it is remarkable for games,” he said. “They have successfully done the nuts and bolts that defines the PC as a real game platform for the first time. The cream of the crop of game developers are embracing it and doing amazing work with it.”
Most of the game developers and publishers we contacted have nothing but good things to say about Windows 8 and its impact on games. So far, the transition has been remarkably smooth, thanks in no small part to the fact that the operating system has been tested for over a billion hours with early adopters.
“We think Windows 8 represents a huge opportunity for game developers,” said Russell Kay, chief technology officer at development tool maker YoYo Games. “Windows 8 is a good thing in that it starts to move Microsoft away from the desktop and brings in more monetization opportunities for developers. Windows Phone 8 is a great thing as it is a very real alternative to Apple and Google dominance, it is visually differentiated, and has some good software for it. The combination of the two is great for developers as they are so similar and the form factors are colliding.”
Some critics have surfaced. Gabe Newell, chief executive of Valve, warned that Microsoft’s closed approach to its Windows Store for downloading apps and Windows 8 in general was a “catastrophe.” Newell worried that top-tier PC makers would exit the market and that alternatives like Linux should be used as a hedge. But was that the game maker in Newell, or the operator of the rival digital download store, Steam, doing the speaking?
Alex St. John, (who has a long history with Microsoft, as the original co-creator of Microsoft’s DirectX gaming technology), is founder of the social gaming firm Magi.com. He is disappointed with Microsoft and feels like Windows 8 is a step back from Windows 7 in user experience. Overall, he has mixed feelings on Windows 8 and games.
“The intrusive store experience will actually drive more consumers toward Apple,” he said. “The Apple feature Microsoft should be copying is the focus on designing innovative products consumers are excited to adopt, not using their channel to impose products that nobody would use given a choice.”
Markus “Notch” Persson, the developer of Minecraft, also criticized Microsoft for requiring apps submitted to the Windows Store be certified. He warned that certification was a step that would “ruin the PC as an open platform.” That was a little strange, since Minecraft has been certified on the Xbox 360, another closed Microsoft platform.
But the points are well taken. The PC is thriving as a game platform, as noted by Jen Hsun-Huang, chief executive of Nvidia. That is partly because it remains open, and closing down parts of the platform is a risky bet by Microsoft. But PC games are also thriving because the game consoles are getting old and the PC is constantly embracing new technology such as better 3D graphics and faster processors.
Microsoft’s previously code-named Metro user interface (pictured right) has beautiful, colorful boxes that you can’t miss if you’re using a touchscreen or a mouse. And PCs are now powerful enough to run such graphics in a responsive way. You can swipe through the interface at high speed. And you can do the same in touch-enabled games that debuted yesterday.
Microsoft launched 29 first party games for Windows 8, including three made by Arkadium. Those games are all built using a software development kit (created by more than 100 Xbox engineers) that makes it easy to add lots of features to games. They can come with Xbox Live achievements and automatically run on Windows Phone 8, Windows tablets, and Windows 8 computers. They have the “play, pause, resume” feature, where you can start playing a game on one device, pause it when you go to work, and then resume it on a mobile device or the office PC.
“That is a pretty awesome feature,” Rosenblatt said. “It is a differentiator.”
Zen Studios also worked closely with Microsoft for almost a year to launch its Pinball FX2 game and a huge library of downloadable content on the launch day. Mel Kirk, head of marketing at Zen Studios, said the experience was a great one. It isn’t that easy to launch new content, but Kirk hopes that will become easier over time.
Some developers are giving Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. But they want to see follow-through by Microsoft. Regarding Windows Phone 8, Brad Foxhoven, co-founder of location gaming firm Ogmento, said, “We see this as a great opportunity to support a new mobile platform and reach additional players. It’s impact will come with great games and content. The technology is there; it’s now up Microsoft to help support developers in finding ways to make it stand out.”