Ideaworks3D chief technology officer Tim Closs talked multi-platform gaming at the Evolve conference in Brighton, pulling together examples of how games are being launched and played across multiple devices and services. Starting with Tetris.
"Tetris is just an evergreen brand and it’s been rolled out on every platform as these platforms have come along, but there hasn’t really been an overarching multi-platform strategy," said Closs, who went on to describe Angry Birds as "perhaps the Tetris of today" – one of the most sought-after games on any new platform that comes to market. But again, not a game that’s particularly played across those platforms.
Closs also highlighted some games that were ahead of their time, including Reset Generation by RedLynx, which was a native Symbian game for Nokia’s N-Gage phones, but could also be played online from a PC. He also cited EA’s The Sims franchise, where the mobile game shared an avatar database with the PC version, enabling players to use the same character in both.
Meanwhile, Closs also talked about Microsoft’s XNA environment, which was announced in 2004 and released two years later, although he admitted that the dream of gaming across three screens – PC, console and mobile – "remains elusive".
It is still tough to get genuine multi-platform gameplay going, but Closs thinks the industry has changed, with all devices connected, and individuals using multiple devices. "What’s happening is that lots of things you might have thought of as websites are just thought of as internet services, because they”ve migrated across all of these devices… Facebook has 750 million users, and 250 million of those are using it on mobile."
Closs cited research from Microsoft showing that gamers are most positive about multi-screen experiences – they’re accessing services across PC, console/TV and mobile more than the average consumer.
He also talked about the idea of ‘social superdiscovery’ – "the social networks are acting as viral discovery engines… social networks span platforms, and your social market isn’t a platform silo…" So games firms need to be on all these different platforms to tap into the word of mouth.
Closs also thinks that the app economy is democratising content, witth more than 450,000 apps available for iOS, 300,000 for Android and more than 10,000 games on Facebook. "The channels themselves are very free – free to suck analytics out of, free to set your price point, you can do almost immediate app updates."
The downside: "Because these platforms are so friction-free, there’s an oversupply. The supply outstrips the demand, which is why a lot of iPhone games literally sell zero copies."
Closs also talked about social games publisher Zynga’s strategy in taking its games to mobile, suggesting that it still has lessons to learn about how people play on the move – especially when network connectivity is reduced. By way of illustration, he showed a screenshot of the message FarmVille for iPhone players get when they don’t have a connection: they can’t play the game at all.
"That to me shows that Zynga don’t understand the mechanics of playing on mobile yet: not everyone wants to play with a persistent internet connection… I was disappointed to find out that I couldn’t play FarmVille on the train. They’re trying to solve this through acquisitions, I think."
Closs also addressed the growing tension between games publishers who want to have player communities extending across multiple devices and platforms, and platform owners (Apple, Microsoft etc) who want to maintain their own sealed communities. "There’s a tension there and it will be interesting to see how that’s solved," he said.
How about making money from these multi-platform games? Closs referred to recent research from Flurry that showed 65% of App Store Top 100 Grossing Games revenues came from freemium games, with 35% coming from premium (i.e. paid) games. In January freemium generated 39% of revenues for those companies, while paid downloads generated 61%.
"There is a drive towards free-to-play almost as a necessity," said Closs. "There is definitely pressure on you to make your game free to play on some of these channels… If platforms like Facebook and iPhone are driving the freemium agenda, it will be interesting to see if you can maintain a different business model on other platforms. Will console be driven towards free-to-play too?"
Closs also said that there is more tension around free-to-play models across multiple platforms: if one game runs across Facebook and iPhone for example, how do players buy in-game items and virtual currency using the different payment methods (iOS in-app payments v Facebook Credits)?
Onto the future. "The network is just going to become more and more important part of the gaming experience," said Closs. "More and more data and services are going to move away from being stored locally towards being stored in the cloud. And there will be even more emphasis on the social aspect… Multi-platform is dead: it’s about one platform. The cloud… Your game is going to be a networked service, and devices will be just expressions of that."