so let’s talk about buying games on windows, directly from microsoft

Microsoft dominated my early PC gaming experience. Flight Simulator 98, Age of Empires, the Madness game demos from the MSN Gaming Zone Disc… where my friends talked about games like Warcraft, Starcraft, Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and Smash Bros, my limited access to games, growing up in a Fundamentalist Christian Household, meant that the majority of my familiarity was with Microsoft-published games. Heck, I really got into games when I heard about Rise of Nations and realized that Microsoft was associated with both. I went out to buy a magazine demo, discovered that issue of Maximum PC was no longer on the shelf, bought the latest issue instead… and that was that. That’s when I really got into games.

So, hey, this is one of my patreon-supported articles. Windows is freaking out on my desktop about RAM issues, so I can’t capture footage and finish the intricate game design article I was working on. In order to hit June’s patreon deadline, I’m now writing THIS article and hoping it suffices. That says, it’s probably a bit stream-of-consciousy due to the lack of time. I’m very sorry about this. I had so many beautiful FPS gifs I was making for you!

I think it’s kind of gauche to talk about one’s past in a video game article — we all have a history with games, after all, and few of us are unique — but I do feel it’s important to explain that hey, I’m pretty sympathetic to Microsoft. No axes to grind here, folks, just a guy who used to consult big AAA types on games and software and feels he has a helpful analysis to offer.

Some time ago, I wrote about my frustrations with the Microsoft store, including a time when literally all of my games became unplayable and I had to reinstall Windows and nearly a terabyte of Microsoft store games. It was frustrating. It was unpleasant. It strained my relationships with Cox Communications, my cable provider.

If you want to know what the Microsoft store used to be like, you can read about that here.

Microsoft used to be, in my opinion, the best publisher on PC, right up there with Blizzard. They published hugely influential, extremely high quality games.

Then along came Steam and everything changed.

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via https://www.reddit.com/r/gaming/comments/723dml/the_original_steam_gametab_layout_10_years_ago/

Steam introduced a new way to buy and play video games. No need for disc drives or serial keys, just buy a game online, click ‘install,’ and play. It had hiccups, at first, but it got better, and now it looks like this:

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I’m running a skin called Metro for Steam

Steam is, without a doubt, my favorite place to buy video games. Just look at that library! I can quickly see which friends are playing which games, I can see what achievements I’ve got, how long I’ve played, whether the game is installed, the screenshots I’ve taken (they’re cloud saved!), what DLC I have owned, what DLC I have installed (you can choose what DLC to install if you don’t like one), a list of updates and what they do, the ability to sort games by categories of your own making on the left, and all sorts of helpful links on the right, including the all-important community discussion tab. Got technical problems? Check out the community.

I know I said this was about the Microsoft store. It is. Trust me. But it’s also important to establish a baseline, and this is that baseline. I can see what my friends are doing, I can see my account balance, I can see what friends play what games, I can do literally everything from this clean, easy-to-understand user interface.

I literally cannot think of a feature that Steam doesn’t have that I wish it had. You can even stream it to your television or phone! Add non-steam games (though there’s a nasty bug that randomly forgets your non-steam games). Heck, you can even click on a game’s properties to pick whether you’re in regular or beta branch, immediately go to the game’s install location to investigate bugs or modify files to your liking, and set command line arguments (which are invaluable for older, pre-win10 games).

This is the new Games Store on Windows.

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Now, let’s be clear: this? This is a beta.

The install process was difficult; first, I tried to install it (by going to the website, the application wasn’t anywhere in the Microsoft store) and found I couldn’t. Windows said I was out of date. Weird, because Windows Update said I was up-to-date. Eventually found out that I was on Windows 18something, and I needed to be on Windows 1903, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t. Cool. Okay.

Again, beta. Not holding that against it, but if anyone from Microsoft reads this, I hope that you can make that process smoother in the future. I’m sure once it exits beta, it’s going to be much easier to install.

I’m having some stability issues, not really sure why, and I can’t find any error logs to figure it out. Sometimes the app starts up… then closes. A lot of apps from the Microsoft Store do this, and it’s very frustrating. It seems to be a related issue to the “this app took too long to start” bug I get on my Xbox One X all the time. General stability for Microsoft apps outside of Word and Edge seems like a problem.

So, the first problem: I can’t find my game library anywhere. Like, arguably the single most important part of a video game launcher, and… it’s just… not… there? I can’t see what I have access to or how to install it.

“Okay, Doc, then what are all those icons on the left?”

Those are… some of my games. Not all of them. Just some of them.

If you hover over the game with the missing icon (there are several, believe it or not, like both Halo twin-stick shooters), you can see the game’s name. You can actually see that with any game. Not gonna lie, though, on this 1080p laptop, those icons are kind of hard to read. On my 4k monitor, it’s nearly impossible.

After some fiddling, I found out that you can expand the list.

Behold!

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However, it doesn’t appear to stay open, and there’s no rhyme nor reason to the way it sorts games.

Contrast that with Steam, which makes it really easy to see all the games I own, what games are installed, and sort/categorize them as I’d like.

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Heck, check this out! Every category, the number of everything installed, and so on and so forth. There are even different library views, the option to display icons (I have almost 3000 games on Steam; even with 16GB of DDR4 RAM, the performance hit is sizeable, so I leave them off).

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So, okay, Steam is the clear winner in terms of “hey, this is what you have and what you have installed.” It also has a much, much larger feature set in terms of screenshots and stuff. That said, I’m a huge fan of the windows game bar.

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Weirdly, it took a while for this to come up, and I have some issues getting it to stream properly, but man, oh man, does this feel pretty great. Sure, I like being able to just press F12 in Steam to get a screenshot that goes to both the cloud AND a folder I specified, but this is such a tremendous leap in quality over the previous game bar and shows performance options and monitoring that Steam doesn’t.

Again, I want to stress that this is a beta, so things are likely to change. Consider this a progress report that identifies pain points. Hopefully, someone reading this, whether they work on the Xbox apps or Battle.net or even Steam can benefit from reading this.

Wanna see something weird, though?

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I own Forza Horizon 4: Ultimate Edition. Don’t believe me? Check out my Xbox:

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See? Owned.

Not really sure what the difference between “owned” and “installed” is, and the store doesn’t either. Like, I bought every Arkham game and DLC a while ago, but it’s showing up as being for sale even though I own all the games and have them installed.

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See? It gets worse.

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Hmm, so I don’t own that Flashpoint skin?

Let’s click it:

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Apparently, I do.

One thing that the Xbox and Microsoft stores both kind of suck at is knowing what I own and what I have installed. On my Xbox, for instance, Contrast that with Steam:

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Steam’s game library shows me whether or not something is installed, while the store shows me whether I own something, whether it’s on my wishlist, or if it’s neither (I own Dark Souls, I want Dead Cells, and I don’t own or have Pixark wishlisted).

There’s one last problem I think is really important, and that’s CUSTOMIZATION. I’m not just talking about skins, I’m talking about simple stuff like “being able to pick where you install games,” or “being able to pick where you save clips to.”

I honestly have no idea how to pick where clips go. For some reason, there appear to be no options whatsoever for where they go. It just sends them to Windows’ default image directory. That’s frustrating, because that’s where I keep personal things, like family photos and videos. I have a hard drive dedicated to game screenshots, and that’s where I make Steam/Elgato/FRAPS/etc save to.

Then there’s the whole “where do you want to install games?” thing. Here’s how you do it on Windows: create a steam folder, tell Steam that it’s a library folder, and install there.

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One great thing about this is that I can go to the library, download a game on my laptop, then copy that game folder to my Steam library on my desktop computer, and play. The Xbox Store won’t let me do that. It won’t let me mess with any of my files at all.

So. Let’s recap:

This is a beta.

  1. It does not show games you own that are not installed.
  2. It lacks any features showing achievements, screenshots, friends who own and play the game, and so on.
  3. All of Microsoft’s stores — the MS store itself, the Xbox, and the new Xbox app on PC, fail to adequately communicate what you own or don’t own. This appears to be an underlying technology issue, and I hope it is resolved soon.

My thinking is, right now, Microsoft is predominantly launching the app as a means to play Xbox Game Pass PC games. I’m not… entirely sure why they’re separate services, or what, exactly, the naming differences are between the two without looking them up, but as far as I can tell, hey, this is a beta, they want to get things right before they go full launch. That’s all well and good… but it’s still kind of weird to me that they’re not making this THE place to install Windows games.

What If I Told You There Were Actually Two Xbox Game Stores On PC And They Had Different Libraries?

bet u werent expecting a subhead in the middle of all this.

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Welcome to the Microsoft Store. It took me eleven seconds to actually load this page. I have NO idea why it takes so long on this connection:

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But that’s not the important part.

As you can see, I can’t install most of the games in my library. This is because they only run on my Xbox. However, there are some games I have installed, like Final Fantasy IX.

As I was browsing my library, the Microsoft Store crashed. Just now. Like… dude. What?

Anyways, hey, so, I own several games on PC, like Final Fantasy IX… that just… don’t show up at all, either in the Xbox app or the Microsoft Store. Here we see on the store page that it’s installed:

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And, uh…

Oh, hey, it’s here now! Before the store crashed on me, it wasn’t there. Now it is.

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Cool. So it wasn’t there, but now it is there. And I don’t know why. But, more importantly, Final Fantasy IX doesn’t show up in the Xbox store at all. Neither do other games I own, like Quantum Break, Romancing SaGa 2, Voodoo Vince, Forza Street, Cuphead, Forza Motorsport 7, Forza Motorsport 6 Apex, Middle Earth: Shadow of War… okay, hmm. I’m beginning to sense a pattern.

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So, Microsoft’s messaging wasn’t super clear. I was under the impression that this was a replacement for the Microsoft Store, a way to install and manage all your PC games. Instead, this app, simply titled “Xbox,” is solely a PC Game Pass Specific storefront. You can BUY these games, at which point, they become yours, but if they’re not on the PC version of Game Pass… they might as well not exist?

Please tell me you see how confusing that is. We have an app, simply called “Xbox,” that appears to be a new storefront for PC games on the Xbox, but it’s only for games in the Xbox Game Pass (but only the Xbox Game Pass for PC) services. Your games library on the PC is now effectively split between two completely different storefronts.

If I want to play Final Fantasy IX or Forza Motorsport 7, I have to use the Microsoft Store.

If I want to play The Turing Test or Valkyria Chronicles, I have to use the Xbox (beta) app.

If I want to play Gears of War 4 or Forza Horizon 4, I can use either the Microsoft Store or the Xbox app.

I’m still not even sure what the difference between Game Pass (on console) and Game Pass (on PC) is. Apparently they have slightly different sets of games, and Xbox Game Pass (on console) has some games that are Xbox Play Anywhere games, which means they’ll work on both your PC and your Xbox. But if you want the PC-exclusive games, you need to subscribe to a different service or Ultimate.

It’s, um, it’s confusing, to say the least.

So, let’s break this down.

  1. Your PC games are split between two separate storefronts, and one storefront only has games that are ALSO on Game Pass.
  2. We have looked at this storefront (“Xbox (beta)”) and compared features with Steam, and we find that most features are missing, though some are split into Game Bar.

The only real way to see what games are available to you are to browse the “game pass” tab. The Xbox (beta) app simply will not show PC games you own through Microsoft, like, say, Quantum Break. The Microsoft Store will.

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Furthermore, the only way to browse all games available to you as a subscriber is to click on “game pass,” scroll down to “all games,” and then you find a page that looks… well… like this. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way it’s sorted. It’s certainly not alphabetical. Worse still, it seems like the list loads in as you scroll, and if you click on a game and come back to this page, you lose your place and it re-sorts the games?

I remember having a similar issue with the store on my Xbox, which made it very hard to browse sales and see if there was anything I wanted that was on sale for a price I wanted it at.

I don’t… like, look, fundamentally, I don’t understand these design decisions, right? As someone who helps people with UX and storytelling, my thought process is about “how do I make someone feel good about engaging with the content?” Happy customers are spendy customers. One of the reasons I bought so many games on Steam was their sales were fun and navigating the store to find the items I wanted was always incredibly easy.

Ages ago, I went to a comic book store on an assignment from an editor. It was dimly lit, smelled way too musty to be healthy, and an obviously ungroomed man with angry-looking eyes and pit stains sat across from me at the register. “We don’t sell books from Boom,” he sneered, with obvious disdain, causing some of his customers to look awkwardly in our direction.

It wasn’t a pleasant shopping experience, so I never returned. When a customer is happy, they’re likely to spend more. There are three components to making a pleasurable shopping experience:

  1. Make it easy for the customer to find what they are looking for.
  2. Entice the customer with other things they want but don’t necessarily need.
  3. Make the experience look and feel good. In a physical store, this is going to be through things like lighting, displays, mood music, friendly store staff, and so on. Online, we’re talking about clicking on buttons in a way that feels joyful and responsive (look at how happy the Nintendo Switch Store UI is!).

The steam shopping list looks great. Earlier today, I filtered the list by “75% off or more,” scrolled through games I’d been adding as a result of various past sale minigames or news posts, and bought like 5 different games that were on sale that looked cool but hadn’t been on my radar.

I don’t see myself doing that on the Xbox app, because even downloading the games I’m subbed for is a confusing experience. How does that keep customers around? How does that make a customer go “yes, okay, I love it here and I want to spend more time here”?

When you scroll to the bottom of a list and it takes 9 seconds to load every single game… that doesn’t feel super good.

So, to recap this section: The Xbox Store Is Confusing And It’s Hard To Understand Why I Can’t Play Final Fantasy IX Even Though I Bought It For PC When It Came Out. It’s Also Hard Sort Through The Game Pass List Too.

(also, hey, one cool thing about Steam? you can see what DLC you own, and unlike certain games on Xbox, like Forza Motorsport 7, where two DLC cars share the same id and can’t be installed together on Windows, or Resident Evil 7, where the DLC can’t be installed on any drive other than the C drive, it all installs to the game directory without a hitch)

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Check out how the steam store shows me what DLC I own (blue), what DLC I don’t own but have wishlisted (white), and, if it were in my cart, what DLC I have in my cart.

By the way… Steam has a wishlist and a shopping cart. I don’t believe the Xbox app has wishlisting OR shopping cart features.

Remember when I said this was kind of stream of consciousness? This post has to be up in 50 minutes and I got one more fish to fry, so here goes:

The Part About Accessibility

Play Anywhere was a cool initiative. The idea was simple: buy a game on your Xbox or PC, play it on either system, whenever you want. As someone with severe, untreated chronic pain issues (the whole reason I live off this Patreon is because I cannot afford medical treatment for my health limitations and unless I find a full-time job in another state, I’m stuck in Kansas, a state that works against disabled people like me), being able to play games on my laptop in bed with a controller, on my desktop with a mouse and keyboard, or on my Xbox on my couch as my health demands is wonderful.

I can’t tell if splitting this service means Play Anywhere is dead. Take Wolfenstein, for instance. I was playing it on my PC, then I booted it up on my Xbox, where I hoped to continue my save… only to find… there was no save. I have shared progress on Forza Horizon 3 and Forza Motorsport 7 (not in the Xbox Beta Store) and on Forza Horizon 4 (which is in the Xbox Beta Store), but not on other games, like Wolfenstein 2.

Tell me something, if you look at these two pages, how immediately obvious is it whether a game supports cloud saves on both PC and Xbox?

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If your answer is “I have no idea if either of these games supports cross platform saving,” well,

yeah

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If you scroll all the way down, past recommended pages and stuff, you can actually find a statement claiming that you can “install on your home Xbox One console and Windows 10 PC, plus have access when you’re connected to your Microsoft account.”

Now, I can ALSO install Wolfenstein 2 on my Xbox One and PC, but the message there only says I can install it on my Windows 10 PC. My assumption is that Microsoft considers Wolfenstein 2 on “Xbox (beta)” to be different from Wolfenstein 2 on my literal Xbox. Because of the brand overlap here, it’s difficult to understand, and the text doesn’t actually say “you don’t have cross save.”

It’s entirely reasonable for someone to boot up a game on their Xbox, a game that they got with Xbox Ultimate, play it for several hours, go over to their PC, assume they can pick up and play the game there, and either have it work flawlessly (like Forza Horizon 4) or not have it show up (like Forza Horizon 3), or not have it cross save but earn achievements (like Wolfenstein 2).

Ah, yes, another wrinkle.

In fact, there’s yet another Xbox app, the app formerly known as “Xbox,” but now known as the “Xbox Console Companion” app. I’m not sure why Microsoft has 9 apps: Xbox (beta), Xbox Console Companion, Xbox Avatar Editor, Xbox Insider Hub, Xbox Console Companion (beta), Xbox Accessories, Xbox Game Bar, Xbox Original Avatars, and Xbox One SmartGlass, but they do.

In this app, which takes 17 seconds to load the Achievements tab (yes, it’s separate from either store), we find… what’s this?

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Two separate Wolfenstein apps. The only visible difference is that on one, I’ve earned 65 achievements, and on the other, I’ve earned 0. Also one is Wolfenstein® II: The New Colossus™ and the other is Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The PC version is the more readable one.

So… it even tracks achievements separately. There is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no way of knowing this until you discover it, as I did.

Worse still, some games don’t even have achievements. Pony Island doesn’t. Battle Chasers doesn’t. A bunch of games don’t have achievements, a bunch of games do, and there is literally no way to tell which is which until you boot it up, then open up an alternate application, the companion app, which will then only let you know the game doesn’t support achievements by virtue of that game not appearing in the list.

Do you see how that’s frustrating?

To me, this is the core of the experience. It’s not focused. It’s not clear. It’s a lot of ideas, some of which are absolutely brilliant, some of which are not, with a big list of problems, most of which are centered entirely around marketing and messaging.

The Xbox App should be a unified experience.

In a perfect world, I open up one app. That app lets me see what games I own, what DLC I own, and makes it clear which games I do not own. If we’re designing a store, we want to ensure the customer never suffers from “do I own that?” fatigue.

The consumer buys any game available to them on PC. Perhaps they can also buy all their Xbox One and 360 games through this store as well (it would be amazing if I could see the weekly 360 deals, as there are still games I have purchased there, like Eternal Sonata, and it would be really amazing if I could see Xbox 360 prices and use my Microsoft store balance, which you can currently only do on 360). Either way, it’s clear that the consumer knows what they do and do not have. If I click on a game name, I want to know what DLC I own and what DLC I do not own. I only JUST NOW found out that Enslaved had a DLC! I had no idea! I just bought it. How many more sales could you drive by letting players know “hey, there’s new content for this game you really liked!”

Okay, so now the consumer has purchased a game, like, say, Final Fantasy IX.

They can see, by looking at the game’s page, that it supports achievements and cross platform saving. Great!

Maybe they buy Battle Chasers and it can’t support those things. In a perfect world, sure, every game supports those features, but hey, Steam doesn’t have achievements for everything, so why should the Microsoft store? Let’s not force devs to do something they don’t want.

Microsoft does have control over clarity, though. They’re the ones who can make it clear: this game has cross saving, this game has achievements, this does not.

In our app (or, heck, on the game bar so I can track them while I’m playing), we should be able to see a game’s achievements. (there are a lot of rules I wish achievements had, like only being divisible by 5 and always tracking progress, but that’s just a personal wish; it wouldn’t inherently make achievements better)

We should be able to sort games and put them into folders. We should be able to choose exactly where they install to (and where to put screenshots), and we should be able to decide what hotkeys to use for those features. I have extra buttons on my keyboard I’d love to assign to quick screenshot functions since I take lot of them for work.

I’m not even talking about dream features, like an instant-share-to-social-media-gif button, or rebuilding Skype to actually be as good as Discord, or anything like that.

I just want one store, where I can buy my games and manage those games as I see fit. I want to understand why something is or is not available, and I want to know whether or not a game is

I want these things because I like that Microsoft is trying to build a competitive product. I like Microsoft’s games (even before they worked with Microsoft, my three favorite game devs were Remedy, Epic, and Bungie!). I’m writing this because I like what they’re trying but I think if they want to succeed, they need to sit down and build a complete, comprehensive plan for what this store needs to look like from the CONSUMER side of things.

No one’s going to shop in a store with great features if the store isn’t pleasing to shop in.

So Microsoft needs to make the store pleasing to shop in.

Sorry for the rushed nature of this post; like I said, I have mostly written a different article but none of my gifs and footage are accessible right now. If you like my work, you can always buy me a coffee on ko-fi.com/stompsite or support me on patreon at patreon.com/docgames. I’m working on a new, post-Paratopic video game, which I hope to reveal pretty soon, but I’m also trying to secure funding for a bigger, more ambitious game. If you know anyone in the market for a great, service-based shooter, have ’em hit me up.

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.

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