Rick Gibson debates whether a one-size-fits-all policy for game releases really works
The year’s end is traditionally the time for crystal ball gazing, and at a recent conference, an investor was asked what he wanted from the industry. His request – a game playable, albeit lightly, on all devices – struck an old nerve, one adjacent to dreamy prognostications about convergence to a single über-device, an end to the console generations or the demise of publishers.
In this day and age, can your game be everywhere at once? Is that cross-media, multi-platform ideal deliverable, commercially viable or even strategically a good idea?
For starters, it’s never a bad idea to dream big, which reminds me of Michael Acton-Smith’s napkin. He tells the story of drawing the Moshi Monsters concept on napkins in a London café. With characteristic chutzpah, he envisioned a cross-media franchise centred on the virtual world, orbited by video games, toys, books, a magazine, TV shows, trading cards, mobile and retail figurines.
Remarkably he delivered these, but several years after launch and only with the pre-requisites of an increasingly global brand, millions of users, tens of millions in marketing expenditure, and hundreds of staff. Although he licensed much of his non-virtual world activity to third parties, such expansions would have been impossible without these conditions. He had to pick his battles.
For small companies – most British games companies – choice of platform isn’t a tactical decision, it’s a strategic one. Extending onto another platform can tie your staff down for months and could dictate your survival. It’s rarely just about what is technically possible.
Platform choice raises many questions with deeper implications. How long will it take to deliver a top quality product that suits different platforms and form factors? How do you market and distribute on different platforms? How do you service the requirements of their different consumers? How do you adapt commercial models and thus the game itself? How do you scale your team?
Choose your battles
The answers to these questions vary so wildly for each platform and market that the only option is to limit how many you support. Even the biggest publishers will usually only be willing or able to cover some of the major platforms for a single brand. Through trial and error during the last console cycle, they discovered that one-size-fits-all releases were lower quality and thus poorly received, which was fixable only by using discrete teams working on platform-specific SKUs, usually on larger platforms with low risk of cannibalising the cash cow.
Being everywhere for the sake of it is beyond the reach of most studios, who sensibly focus on two or perhaps three closely related platforms. Opportunities abound and there’s nothing wrong with being agile and open to new platforms, but the chance of leading a new market is low and risks stretching finite resources.
There’s a reason why no-one has actually realised the investor’s dream of being all things to all men. It’s not clear that consumers actually want universally playable games. Plenty have had grand ambitions to create write once/run everywhere games but many have failed.
Similarly, several broader multi-platform initiatives have failed. Microsoft promoted cross-platform development using XNA before killing a platform that had failed to track the market.
This investor’s future-gazing was dangerous only if it persuaded studio heads looking for funding that they must start spreading themselves across all platforms. By all means think big. But for most, when it comes to platform choice, it’s focus or fail.
Rick Gibson is a managing director of Ludifi, a studio that makes video interactive and playful.