Chapter 5: Multi-Platform Gaming

With all this talk of new platforms, I really want to talk about all the new possibilities of gaming on these different platforms. Console developers have gotten it pretty figured out that if they want to maximize their profits, their games need to be on as many consoles as possible.

However, when it comes to PCs, things kind of fall flat. Most console developers really don’t take the care into developing for the PC as they do for consoles. People play console and PC games different and the games should be tailored for the specific play styles. However, many game developers will just port the game straight over and ignore what PC gamers actually want.

Developers have gotten lazy. Gamers hate them for it.

On the other end of the scale, we have several developers who make PC gaming a priority and put their whole hearts into the experience. They know what PC gamers want and what they don’t.

So let’s look at this multi-platform paradigm.

Gaming Across Consoles

Cross platform gaming on consoles has been around for as long as we have had multiple consoles. SNES games were on the Genesis, N64 games were on the PS1, PS2 games were on the Xbox and PS3 games are on the 360.

During most of these generations there is often a third console that is left out of the bunch. The Atari Jaguar was left out of the SNES/Genesis fun, The Saturn was left out of the N64/PS1 party. The Gamecube sat on the sidelines of the Xbox/PS2 battle. Now we have the Wii enjoying its own party while the PS3 and 360 duke it out.

The first few generations of console pariahs was due to limited market potential of the console. Each console was third place behind the others. Yet, something really weird happened in the most recent generation. The most popular console is the one being ignored for cross platform releases, or any real release.

You see, the Wii sold like hot cakes for the first few years and it wasn’t until its fifth year that sales started to drop. But during those years, very few games that were released on the PS3 and 360 made their way to the Wii.

Why? Well, Nintendo decided to take a different strategy this generation. It decided that gaming hardware and all the processing power it possessed during the generation of the Gamecube was really at the optimal level. It figured that trying to compete by pushing forward into ever more powerful hardware was a losing battle and they needed to innovate in other areas in order to compete.

This move and the Wii Remote that came of it was the reason why a lot of developers couldn’t see the potential in the hardware. They saw the Wii as yesterday’s tech and didn’t want anything to do with it.

Of course, we gamers didn’t help matters any. A large chunk of gamers wrote the Wii off for the same reason. This left Nintendo on their own to innovate and build games for the new class of gamers it brought in.

So while Nintendo was off doing its own thing, Sony and Microsoft were off competing with each other for the rest of the gaming world. They are working hard to provide the most awesomely powerful games possible.

It is this generation of consoles, and these two in particular, that has really brought out cross platform gaming. Just about every developer that is not tied directly to a console manufacturer is making their games for both consoles. They find that it is the best way to maximize their profit potential, limit their risk and gain the most fans.

So while the games themselves are pretty much the same between consoles, the consoles themselves are vastly different, particularly when it comes to multiplayer. So while the gamers are playing the same game, PS3 owners and 360 owners can’t play with each other. For most gamers, this isn’t really an issue, but in the long run we will see a desire for far more from the console manufacturers on this front.

Console To PC Ports

The sticking point with console to PC ports is that developers get lazy and expect gamers to play games on their PC just like they play on their consoles.

This is not acceptable to the PC gamer. They want to play games on their PC like they play games on their PC, with a keyboard and mouse. They want to be able to adjust settings like the resolution and configure the keyboard layout.

If your game cannot do everything it can with a controller using a mouse and keyboard, you have failed.

The only reason I can think of besides laziness on why console to PC ports are done so poorly is that the developers first develop for the console where the larger audience is and then port to PC with the least amount of change to the code as possible. OK, I guess that is laziness.

So what could be done about this as a developer? The first thing a developer needs to realize is that they are going to be porting to the PC and they need to accommodate for that from the beginning of development. They need to work all that code in from the beginning.

Sure it is far easier to write your 360 code first and then hire a contractor to do the PC port based on that code, but in the end you get a crap product. If it were instead done by the people who designed the game and done right, you will do far better as a company in the eyes of the gamers.

What can we as gamers do? Well, the first thing is to avoid buying crap ports. What this will do is tell developers that we are not going to take being given crap and told to enjoy it. We want quality products.

After we don’t buy the crap, spend money on those developers who create ports that actually work on the PC the way they are meant to.

If we are avoiding crap and buying gems, that would send a strong message. Sure some developers are going to misinterpret the message and assume that there is no PC market for their games. Those developers will then decide to stop making PC versions of their games. Is that really a bad thing? Do we really want developers whose hearts are not into PC game development? I don’t think so.

Mac Games

Something that gets little attention in the gaming world is alternative operating systems such as MacOS and Linux. I want to address these separately to give them their proper credit. Both are minority operating systems with single digit market shares according to most reports.

First, we have the MacOS. According to the most recent OS market share data, Macs make up between 5-6% of the over all PC market. This means for every 100 computers in homes and businesses, 5 or 6 of them are Macs. So it is a fairly small market.

Yet, despite the small market share, there are some developers who choose to make their games available for it. Even Valve has recognized the market potential of the Mac and made their Steam platform available as of 2011.

A major reason for this change in pace is the emergence of the iPhone and iPad. These products have brought fresh blood into the Apple fold. With more and more people using these mobile products, they are looking more and more into what desktop and laptop products exist.

Sadly, major publishers are still treating the Mac users as second class citizens. When most games are ported to Macs, it is done months to a year after the initial release. Then they complain that Mac sales are slow or nonexistent.

What they over look in this case is that when they finally do release on the Mac, the hype for the game is dead and those who do buy are those who don’t dual boot between MacOS and Windows to play games. If they would make the Mac version ready and release it at the same time as the Windows version, they would see a stronger surge in Mac sales.

Another reason for weak or nonexistent Mac ports is that PC developers will often code their games using Microsoft’s proprietary DirectX. This code base is not easily ported to the Mac. Much of it would need to be converted to use OpenGL, OpenAL and other cross platform libraries.

Just like Console to PC ports, a Windows to Mac port simply needs a little forethought into the development process to make it work. So why don’t developers do it? Mostly, it is the relatively small market share. But when you really think about it, 5 out of 100 computers or 5 million out of every 100 million computers isn’t really that small.

As a Mac user, you really need to be buying only games that have been developed for your OS. There is no other way to get the change in developer behavior to happen. If you buy Windows versions of games and run them through virtual machines or emulators, you are doing yourself and the whole platform a disservice.

Linux Games

As a gamer that has decided to use Linux as my primary OS for me and my family, I find the lack of attention given to Linux by major games developers troubling.

We have already discussed the MacOS’s operating share (5%). It should come to no surprise that Linux’s share is even smaller at 1%. But I must ask, why is Linux’s 1% valued so little compared to the Mac’s 5%. Both are relatively small compared to Windows’ astounding 92%.

So what are the major arguments against developing for Linux? For the first of the common arguments let’s take a look at a quote from Unity’s CCO:

So yes, the market just isn’t big enough. We don’t have the resources to cure the miniscule of the Linux-buying games community… If the linux community suddenly starts buying up huge amounts of games, then there is a case for us. So far, sadly, that is not the case.

The core of the argument is that not enough Linux users are buying games so they don’t feel the need to support the platform. Isn’t this the very definition of a Catch 22? How are Linux users supposed to buy games if there are no games for them to buy? Does any platform have fans before the games start rolling in?

As a bit of a contrast to that viewpoint, I would like to bring up 2d Boy’s World of Goo. According to their blog announcement of the Linux version of the game, Linux versions account for 4.6% of the full downloads from their site. During their Birthday Pay What You Want Sale, Linux downloads accounted for 17% of all downloads.

So they are selling a fairly substantial number of copies to Linux users. Would other developers see less? I doubt it.

Here is an example of another argument made against Linux development:

The question is, does it make sense right now, in the real world of trade offs, limited resources and unintended consequences, and given the fact that most Linux geeks are constitutionally unwilling to pay for stuff? It does not.

The key take away from this point is the myth that Linux users are unwilling to pay for software. This is patently false. Yes, the core idea behind Linux is the use of free and open source software. That does not mean that Linux users are unwilling to pay for quality games and software.

Again, we will look at 2d Boy for an example. During their Pay What You Want Sale, Linux users held the highest average price paid for World of Goo out of the three supported platforms. Linux users paid about $3.25 on average while Mac and Windows users paid $2.50 and $1.90 respectively. So clearly Linux users were willing to pay for this game, why not others?

Personally I think these arguments against Linux development have no merit. I think the games industry is looking at the Linux gamer in the wrong way. You really shouldn’t be looking at Linux users in their willingness to purchase the games, but in their willingness to game period.

For this example, I point you towards the Wine project. Here is a community that is dedicated to trying to get the games that developers make to work on the OS they choose. They want to play these games and they have to jump through some pretty amazing hoops to get there. Why would developers not want such enthusiastic gamers buying their games?

Other things to consider as well is that many PC manufacturers are looking to Linux as an alternative OS to Windows. This is especially true for Netbooks. By ignoring this OS they are also ignoring the potential customers that choose those computers over their Windows based brothers.

In the end, I don’t think the problem is with Linux or the users of Linux that brings about the shortage of games. It is the developers of the games whose unwillingness to support this emerging market that is failing here. If game developers took the initiative to support Linux as well as other platforms from the beginning, the impact would be negligible. It is easier to do it at the start of a project than to try to shoehorn it in at the end.

We are seeing a trend among independent developers who are choosing to add Linux to their list of supported operating systems. It is only a matter of time before the majority of PC game developers recognize Linux as a valid gaming platform and follow suit.

As Linux gamers, it is up to us to make sure that we are expressing our desire to play games on Linux. We should do everything we can to support game makers who develop for the platform while at the same time letting them know just why we chose this platform for their games.

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