Get Your Ass To Metro (Windows 8)

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Love it or hate it, Windows 8 is a big deal and it’s only going to get bigger. Particularly the Metro side. The Windows Store will bring app store economics to the PC in a way that most users have never experienced before, and that represents a golden opportunity for developers. However they will have to move incredibly quickly to get ahead of the rush.

In the physical world of shops and car parks, something weird happens around Wal-mart. The company establishes a big presence in the area, a store where everything happens under one roof with a measure of quality control and consistency. This proves so attractive that shoppers travel from near and far to buy their goods at Wal-Mart, and it becomes the king. So much so that it kills the centres of many small towns, leaving it as the default choice. (It’s even called the Wal-Mart Effect).

Software services often do something similar. Google owns searching of the entire Internet and is not about to let that go. Facebook has placed itself at the heart of private communication between groups of friends, and Twitter does likewise for public communication and news. Amazon had the foresight to realise that it could be the Wal-Mart of the Internet and own shopping (and also ebooks). Then there’s iTunes, which does the same for music, and the App Store for games.

The reason that one service dominates is because it becomes the obvious access point, the one with everything under one roof. Most people have a hard time remembering – or caring about – a bunch of names and places that they could go to get what they want, and they’d rather just have one general access point. For many people Google is the Internet, and they navigate to sites they know by googling them rather than entering URLs. So the one that becomes the default access point wins.

Owing to the effects of platform amnesia, this effect presents a golden opportunity for content providers who dominate that access point early in the cycle. Zynga made its bones largely on being an early mover on Facebook. Rovio did something similar in mobile. But these opportunities have a half-life, and if you miss them when they show up, you’re not likely to get a second chance. The “rush” aspect of a gold rush is just as important as the gold itself.

The last five years have seen an explosion in new platforms, means to distribute software and resets of user expectations. Even software itself has undergone something of a rebranding, from application to app. Everything has seemed new all over again. Tablets and phones have largely driven this supernova of excitement, but their next five will be more about expanding upon those early successes. Macs have had the same experience with the Mac App Store, but it’s been muted somewhat by the Mac not knowing whether it wants to be an iOS-like machine or not.

On Windows the app-store effect has largely been absent. For those in the know there is Steam, but Steam is just the wrong side of geeky for many normal users to get behind. So this whole new way of buying software for the PC is about to be a revelation for many. With Windows 8 and its Windows Store, it’s about to be a gleeful time in PC-land. Users will buy lots of new games just to try them out. They will explore to see what new casual game they can find. They’ll transact at volume, get into free-to-play gaming on the desktop, and otherwise form the next gold rush.

All of which leads me up to saying this: You should be developing or retooling your games and apps for the Windows Store right now. And also this: You don’t have long.

I don’t think that Windows 8 is a great operating system. Last year I wrote an article in which I tore into its interface and explained why I thought it was pretty for presentation but poor in the real world. I faulted its reliance on hidden UI elements and user memory, as well as its lack of effective task switching. I also bemoaned its implementation on Xbox 360 and the wisdom of Microsoft’s one-UI-to-rule-them-all strategy. These criticisms are still valid.

However, irrespective of personal opinions, Microsoft sold at least 4 million copies of Windows 8 since launching it last week. With 670 million Windows 7 installs out there already, it is likely to sell a whole lot more. That means that the Windows Store is going to be highly visible to a whole lot of eyeballs. It’s also positioned to become a default option, because developers will not be able to sell apps on Windows without it. Oh, sure, there’s still that desktop option – but do you really expect that to last?

In short, Microsoft is poised to apply a Wal-Mart Effect to PC software (including games) in a way that not even Steam can match (and Steam may well be doomed). Pretty soon that store is going to be filled to high heaven with millions of apps, its shelves groaning with choices. It’s likely to have mountains of cheap casual games, converted free-to-play games and tonnes of indie games all jostling for position. It will be a giant market, probably bigger than iOS in the long run. And right now there are only 10,000 apps there. So the time to strike is now before the rush becomes a torrent.

The thing is that, unlike mobile, there are already a ton of PC-compatible games out there, and this is why the time pressure is so tight. At a time when PCs are supposedly out of fashion, Steam goes from strength to strength. Valve continues to expand the service, adding new features like Big Picture and the possibility of selling applications. Gamers, for the most part, love it and – while sales of the PC platform in general are down – few people seriously expect the gaming PC to go away.

Many game makers are already developing their games in cross-platform engines like Unity. Many others have games which are already built to work on PC and likely need some adaptation for Metro. Remembering that W8 is a tablet operating system as well as a desktop one, there are also many opportunities to consider in touch gaming as well as mouse and keyboard (with the caveat that Surface RT probably isn’t The One).

The point is – regardless of your personal feelings for Windows vs Mac, etc. – for the daring developer this represents a golden opportunity, but also one that needs to be moved on very quickly. PC developers can be just as conservative as everyone else in their estimations of whether to get on board a new train. But they will, eventually, and when they do they will do so by the metric tonne. Then it will be too late.

So move your ass. The Windows Store is likely to be the last opportunity of its kind for quite some time.