Our recent review of Forza Horizon 4, arguably Microsoft's biggest new game this holiday season, came packed with praise. The combined chops of car-sim veterans Turn 10 and open-world stunners Playground Games are on full display in this enthralling take on the "Horizon" series fork. We tested the racing game on a variety of hardware, as well, and it proved impressive on both Xbox One X and high-end Windows 10 systems... but the latter came with a significant asterisk.
Sadly, FH4's first pre-release patch rendered the game unplayable on our rig. Worse, loading the game on any other testing rig resulted in the same crash, over and over—with no error message.
We posted that statement after more than a week of back and forth with Microsoft and Turn 10 representatives, along with a promise to follow up on any solution we found. In good news, at least, we got the game running on Windows 10 again. But that hasn't sweetened the sour taste in our mouths about the experience of running Universal Windows Platform (UWP) games and apps—and that sour taste has lingered, on and off, for over a year at this point.
The excruciating smokescreen approach
Microsoft's "Xbox Play Anywhere" initiative began in earnest in late 2016 with the launch of Recore, a middling 3D action game. Honestly, that game's Play Anywhere perk—of working on both Xbox One consoles and Windows 10 PCs, so long as they had the same Microsoft account credentials and had a paid copy of the game's digital version—was its most interesting aspect.
From that point forward, every new game that Microsoft published on Xbox One came with this perk. In order to claim Windows 10 copies, you must find the same game via the Microsoft Store interface, then install its UWP version on your system. Compared to other digital-distribution platforms like Steam, Origin, Battle.net, and Uplay, Microsoft's take is much more locked down. In particular, you can't scroll through Windows Explorer folders (even "hidden" ones) and dig up installed UWP files, let alone see where they're installed or exactly which files and folders demand the most space on your hard drive. (You'll need to visit your Win10 Control Panel and scroll through its "apps" tab to find any of that info.)
That might be all well and good if the system works as advertised—to easily enable cross-platform support for games and apps between PCs and consoles, all while adding a thick, Microsoft-guaranteed layer of security on the PC side. But when UWP doesn't work, this smokescreen approach is obtuse and excruciating.
I have now had four separate games, all first-party titles from Microsoft, stop working in Windows 10 for one reason or another. My first issue cropped up in June 2017, when the publisher went back to 2016's Forza Horizon 3 and spruced it up for a PC launch. Trying to install this version resulted in a nightmare loop of errors and confusion, and one of Microsoft's official PR handlers summarized my woes when forwarding my case to a Microsoft engineer. As this PR rep put it:
Sam has been unable to play Forza Horizon 3 on his PC, and it has been a nightmare of error codes and unclear explanations on official Microsoft forums. Additionally, he cannot install or uninstall the game. He also expressed that Windows keeps attempting to download gigs of data, and he has gone over his data plan this month as a result.
The error code in question for attempts to install or uninstall the game, "0x80070003," failed to narrow down any source for the error; it seemed to plague games and apps alike, and forum posts at the time included all-caps questions that had gone unanswered. And since this install had been placed on my smallest SSD, I pulled my hair out wondering why I couldn't just go into a folder and force a deletion.
In the troubleshooting process that followed, my assigned engineer had me take these steps:
- Reset the Windows Store's cache via the "wsreset.exe" command
- Reproduce the error (of trying to download the game, only to have it fail), and run the wscollect.exe command, which created a *.cab file
- Open Windows PowerShell as an Administrator and poke at the FH3 executable with a "get-appxpackage" prompt
- Poke at a pair of possible installation entries in that same Powershell with a "remove-appxpackage" prompt
- Search for an "AppxManifest.xml" file, then copy it into a requested folder with a lengthy gibberish name
- Fail to do so, because I was unable to peek into the protected WindowsApp folder as requested; instead, I received this error: "this access control entry is corrupt"
- Load Windows' command prompt as an administrator and try to manually locate the folder in question (which also failed)
This all ended with Microsoft throwing its hands in the air and asking that I reinstall that year's Windows Creators Update, which—lo and behold—did the trick, even though that put yet another 70GB demand on my bandwidth-capped Comcast account. Strangely, even after doing all of this, the official Halo app within Windows 10 still didn't load (and doesn't load to this day).
The last communique I had with Microsoft on that issue was dated June 29, 2017: "We're now working to get clarity on the Halo app issues, will circle back as soon as we have updates."
Back to the “wsreset” pool
In January of this year, attempts to load the Microsoft-published Gears of War 4 on my Windows 10 PC kept timing out, only this time without any error code to speak of. A small splash screen appeared after trying to load the game, and this would vanish with no indication of what might happen next: no full-screen blackout to a game; no copyright window; and certainly no error code or confirmation that the process had somehow stopped.
MS reps offered similar steps with this issue: a "wsreset" command, along with going into the game's entry in control panel's "apps" tab, then picking "reset app." If both of these steps failed (which did), then I would have to fully uninstall and reinstall the game. Weirdly, I was asked to uninstall the game, turn my PC off, and then wait a full 10 minutes before rebooting. "This wait time is important for the files to be fully deleted and avoid being 'relinked' upon reinstall," I was told. (My colleagues at Ars Technica agree that a 10-minute wait between uninstall and reinstall on a PC makes sense... when the machine is turned on. Applying that wait when the machine is powered off, however, strikes us all as peculiar.)
The uninstall-and-reinstall did the trick, at any rate. At that time, one of the steps was to "sign into the account that has the game entitlement," even though I only had one Microsoft Account on the affected PC. I can't even imagine the nightmare that multi-user PCs must go through with these kinds of credential checks, but clearly, that's a part of the UWP ecosystem—to confirm that a game or app is assigned to its paying user.
Burnt by... Afterburner?
Last week's Forza Horizon 4 gave me identical headaches—the game would crash after showing that splash window with zero error code or indication that it had actually crashed. This, bizarrely, only began after installing a multi-gig patch during the pre-release review period. Before that, the game had booted with zero incident.
Once this issue arose, I went through the same steps as with Gears 4 earlier that year. In all, I downloaded the 45GB game four times—thus putting quite a dent in my September data allotment. Microsoft representatives once again weighed in on the issue, but it wasn't until the game had formally launched (in that obnoxious, "pay for a special edition for a few days of early access" way) that someone from the Turn 10 development team offered a solution: disable any graphics-card overclocking software.
That did the trick. With MSI Afterburner disabled, I could get the game to run. (I had run into the same issue while testing EVGA's updated X1 software, designed for Nvidia's 2000-class GPUs.) As of press time, the game's PC version remains unpatched, so while Microsoft says it's working on a fix, it hasn't been rolled out to paying gamers yet. The only recourse for this crash is to disable every gaming-related background app you can think of (including game-streaming software like OBS) until a patch comes out.
Hilariously, this pre-launch check for background apps only runs a single check, so as soon as the FH4 splash screen turns into a copyright notice, we can double-click MSI Afterburner, then enjoy standard GPU overclocking options while pushing our PCs to their limits. MSI Afterburner is essential on my hardware configuration in order to run the game's full 4K mode at a locked 60fps refresh; without MSI's overclocks, I have to go into serious settings-toggle mode to avoid sub-60 stutters.
Blame game—does that crash in UWP, too?
A member of the FH4 team claimed that UWP was not to blame in a final email about my personal woes. But I struggle to take that suggestion at face value. When standard Windows executables fail to turn over but don't crash as a result of, say, a power surge or other hardware-specific failure, error codes and crash notices are common—and they're often easily exposed by crash logs. UWP apps keep that kind of information under wraps. They search for licenses and other system information before proceeding with an executable's boot, and we've seen these failures time and time again.
In fact, I was unable to load the Microsoft-published Sea of Thieves on the same Windows 10 PC during the same testing period, with the exact same no-error-message crashes, no less. But that game's failures were fixed by a simple uninstall-and-reinstall.
When we're getting up to 20GB and above as a standard UWP game download, is that really a workable solution? Should paying customers be stuck expecting random, unexplained crashes, followed by redownload-and-pray stretches of time being bored and out of their favorite games? And what do we say to users who dare connect multiple family accounts to a single PC, thus proving more complicated than my testing rig's single Microsoft-linked account?
This is by no means a comprehensive look at the clustercuss that is UWP. Windows 10's error-report forums are full of similarly confused cries, as are popular gaming forums like ResetERA. But Microsoft has a pretty severe lack of solid, exclusive software in its Xbox Play Anywhere portfolio this year. While we wait for the likes of Crackdown 3 and Halo Infinite, perhaps Microsoft's Xbox and Windows teams can take this opportunity to get stuff squared away; its biggest holiday-2017 release has already fallen victim. Here's to hoping other Microsoft games, future and past, can get over the UWP hump, and soon.