Windows Store refresh promises simple, stunning experience for Windows 8.1

Last June, Ted Dworkin, director of Program Management for Windows Store, took to the stage at Build to show off a more visual shopping experience that will put the spotlight where it belongs: on the apps and games that developers have created.

The Windows Store team has been developing new features and tools continuously since the store first opened its doors last fall. With the launch of Windows 8.1 on Oct. 18, consumers and developers will be able to interact with the new experience firsthand. Redesigned detail pages will give developers a more visually stunning platform upon which to highlight their apps with increased merchandising capabilities, while search and recommendation features will make it easier for customers to find the best apps and games.

Running a service at this scale gives the Windows Store team minute-to-minute feedback and insights into the customer experience which, along with feedback the team received directly from developers, motivated a number of the design changes.

“This really gives us an unprecedented opportunity to really understand what developers want or care about or are challenged with,” Dworkin says. “In some ways, the bigger challenge isn’t what’s happening with developers and how to stay in touch, but really with how to channel all that feedback and organize it in a way that allows us to take action that will have the most impact.”

Perhaps one of the most notable addition to the Windows Store shopping experience this year will be the introduction of gift cards over the next few months just in time for the holiday season. Always a hot commodity around the holidays, gift cards offer new revenue opportunities for Windows Store app builders.

The Windows Store catalog currently has well over 100,000 apps that address a variety of interests. With the release of Windows 8.1 and support for XAML and WinJS, Dworkin is excited about the significant wave of new apps that are taking advantage of the updated platform.

Finding those apps will also be easier with the addition of a Bing recommendation engine that suggests apps and games based on factors such as previous selections, community favorites, and a range of other signals that create connections between customers and the best apps for them.

Beginning Oct. 18, the Windows Store team has committed to no more than five days for initial certification, with many apps passing within a day or two, for apps developers submit for Windows 8.1. The Windows Store will continue to offer Windows 8 apps, and those apps will run on Windows 8.1. But Dworkin encourages developers to maximize their apps for Windows 8.1 to take advantage of the new features Windows 8.1 offers both developers and consumers, including automatic app updates.

James Seaman, vice president of Business Development for Artifex Mundi, has been particularly impressed by the responsiveness of the Windows Store team in the run up to the availability of Windows 8.1.

Seaman says, “These [Windows Store] guys are always helping me, making sure games are featured. And that’s really important to me, to have that sort of relationship with a first party.”

The Polish game studio has a solid reputation for creating hidden-object adventures such as the “Nightmares from the Deep” and “Enigmatus” titles. One of the secrets behind the quality of Artifex Mundi games is the studio’s gaming engine, Spark Casual, which gives developers more time to create engrossing story lines and rich graphics, helping the company rack up more than 12 million downloads of its games across multiple platforms.

In the next few months Artifex Mundi will launch new titles for some of its biggest franchises. With the combined support of the Windows Store team and features such as gift cards and the Bing recommendation engine, Seaman is rather bullish about the prospects of these upcoming releases on Windows 8.1.

“A high percentage of people play across all our brands because of the quality we deliver, and once people get into our franchises, they’re going to be hooked,” Seaman says. “With our new titles featured on the Windows Store and gift cards being available, we’ll hopefully bypass one of these other publishing houses.”

In the case of indie developers such as SkyVu Entertainment, you could say that the Windows Store helps level the playing field. Launched from a garage in 2009, SkyVu is a quintessential indie developer, and that same energy is still apparent within the studio, says Andrew Sipotz, director of Business Development and Marketing at SkyVu.

SkyVu is located in Omaha, Neb., and the company hires a lot of home-grown talent, which Sipotz says has helped to retain much of the energy and collaboration that’s apparent when you walk into the studio.

Today the company has around 45 employees and 27 million downloads of its line of “Battle Bears” games. And although SkyVu has a substantial marketing budget, it doesn’t compare to some of the larger gaming studios.

In July SkyVu expanded to Windows 8 to tap into the solid base of gamers for whom Windows is the platform of choice. Part of the reasoning behind that was the belief that the Windows Store would provide an easier way for its titles to gain visibility and continue the company’s growth cycle.

“One of the biggest problems, especially for indie developers, is standing out in these app stores because there’s so much content,” Sipotz says. “The gaming industry’s emphasis on chart placement has become kind of this rickety, almost unstable environment where it’s a race to see who can spend the most money to get into the top 10. And that’s not sustainable. One of the great things about Windows 8 is that it’s a platform where the quality of the game speaks out more than how much you spend on marketing.”  

Sipotz notes the visual layout of the Windows Store, which developers can use to create a much clearer presentation of what their apps are all about. And with the availability of gift cards, Sipotz and his colleagues also look forward to an additional uptick in revenue.

“Our titles are free to play,” he says. “We make our paychecks off of in-app purchases, so the addition of consumables makes a huge difference.”

Next week, with Windows 8.1 general availability, the Windows Store will roll out its new features and developers will be able to start submitting their new or updated Windows 8.1 apps.

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Microsoft News Center Staff