Forget the UWP doomsaying, the Windows 10 Xbox App is just annoying

I've heard a lot of people talk about how Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform plans are bad news for PC gaming. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has attacked Microsoft for it time and time again, calling it an attempt to create a “Microsoft-controlled distribution and commerce monopoly." Well known modder Peter "Durante" Thoman even wrote a piece for us about why PC games should never be universal apps.

While I heard these concerns, they didn't feel like they affected me. I hadn't played a game that required the use Windows 10 and the Xbox App until I recently had it thrust upon me when I started playing the fantastic Forza Horizon 3. I wasn't truly prepared for just how terrible it is. But I'm not talking about it in the context of the "end of open PC gaming" doomsaying, I'm talking about how embarrassingly poor the user experience of the Xbox App is right now. 

It's laughably bad. It has one of the ugliest UIs I've seen made by a major company, it's needlessly complicated, slow and clunky to coordinate with friends, and somehow messes up even the most basic of features like game invites and chat. Forza Horizon 3 may be one of my favorite games of the year, but at times it's significantly hampered by Microsoft's cumbersome, one-size-fits-all platform. These aren't obscure technical problems, but unavoidable roadblocks that get in the way of trying to play a game. 

When the text turns grey, I've hit enter. Anything typed after that is deleted.

For example, the chat. I'm not sure how Microsoft managed to mess up a simple chat client in 2016, but they did. When you send a message to a friend, it can take a full two seconds (I timed it) to actually send. That would be a minor inconvenience on its own, but it's coupled with the fact that anything else you type during that wait time gets deleted when the message finally sends. This makes any sort of fast communication impossible, and makes trying to have a full conversation infuriating. Instant messaging is such a basic, ancient thing, and Xbox App gets it inexcusably wrong. 

Online game invites aren't much better, as they are only visible through your Windows 10 notifications, even when sent from within Forza. So when I sent James an invite to play co-op online together, he never even saw it. He had turned notifications off for the Xbox App, not knowing it would fundamentally break functionality in UWP games. And turning the notification off is an understandable thing to do, as every time you get an achievement or a friend beats one of your high scores on a race, your OS will let you know. So if you want chat notifications and invites for games that go through the UWP, you also have to suffer the unnecessary social media side of Microsoft's platform.

Holding good games hostage

Another thing I couldn't believe was just how many hoops it makes you jump through to simply play a game. I had to make a Microsoft account so I could log in to the Windows Store to buy and download the game, then make an Xbox account and sign in to that once the game was actually launched. If Microsoft is building a universal platform, why are they splitting functionality across multiple, unlinked accounts? 

At one point Wes was logged into his Microsoft account on the Dream Machine in our office. I opened the Windows store, logged him out, and logged myself in. I then went to my library full of my games in the store, launched Forza, and loaded into the game only to discover I wasn't in my own game because Wes' Xbox account was still signed in. If I buy a game with one account, why are you making me play it with another? It's an unintuitive and confusing way to set up how players navigate your platform. 

The app itself is not too pleasing to look at.

A large part of this, I think, is Microsoft's determination to make Xbox a social platform that acts the same on Xbox One and PC. Maybe that makes sense on Xbox One, where you can't easily have a browser tab/Discord/Steam open to talk with your friends or share game moments. All the communication and sharing has to go through the Xbox. But that functionality clearly isn't designed for a PC, where standards are higher and you have endless choice in the programs you use. Microsoft has made the Xbox App the same on both platforms but only built it for one of them.

The UWP's clunky uniformity can be felt in-game as well. When online, Forza doesn't have a way to switch to push-to-talk, forcing you to completely mute people in your group if they are noisy or if you want to use a separate VoIP program—and even that sometimes forces you to go through into the Xbox App to mute them from their "gamercard." A closed system like the Xbox One doesn't need options like that, but it's silly to exclude them on PC.

I'm nervous about what the UWP means for PC gaming, but also probably slightly more optimistic about it than Sweeney is—as Wes said, if it's as bad as he says, it's already doomed. But forget the future, the platform as it stands right now is simply a mess. Most of these issues aren't impossible to fix. Microsoft could still make improvements to polish the (extremely) rough edges, but the Xbox App has been out since Windows 10 launched last year and those edges are still sharp. Holding good games like Forza hostage behind poorly designed programs doesn't make anyone happy, and it leaves a bad impression of the platform Microsoft is trying to convince us won't hurt PC gaming. 

Tom Marks
Tom is PC Gamer’s Associate Editor. He enjoys platformers, puzzles and puzzle-platformers. He also enjoys talking about PC games, which he now no longer does alone. Tune in every Wednesday at 1pm Pacific on to see Tom host The PC Gamer Show.