How Cross-Platform Gaming Will Change The Way You Play

by Kyle Hilliard on Aug 17, 2012 at 05:00 AM

(This feature originally appeared in issue 231 of Game Informer)

In previous generations, a game was a singular experience. You put it in a console, played, and completed it in front of your television with a controller in hand. Today, major publishers see their franchises as entertainment packages to be enjoyed across multiple platforms in multiple locations. They want you to take your games everywhere. Increasingly, these experiences are being delivered on a variety of social and mobile platforms. For gamers, this means that your Facebook and mobile gaming time can now be spent leveling up a character or unlocking new items in the game you’re playing on your home console.

Mobile and social gaming platforms have exploded in popularity in recent years, creating suddenly viable platforms. Companies like Zynga and Rovio have become new power players in the publishing world with games like Words with Friends and Angry Birds. While not all have been quick to respond, many traditional game publishers are starting to establish footholds on these quickly growing new platforms. Rather than spending time and money coming up with new ideas, many companies like Ubisoft are leveraging their known brands like Assassin’s Creed and Ghost Recon as a means to break into this ­popular ­market.

When Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood released in 2010, Ubisoft decided to do an experiment. Without the benefit of any advertising or marketing, the company quietly released Assassin’s Creed: Project Legacy on Facebook. The game allowed players to send out assassins on missions and collect money and experience that could be redeemed by Ezio in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, but Project Legacy was only promoted through in-game text in Brotherhood.

“What we were trying to find out at the time is, ‘Are there really gamers on Facebook?’” says Chris Early, vice president of digital publishing for Ubisoft. The experiment proved a success, with a strong overlap of 80 percent of gamers playing Project Legacy on Facebook also playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Early defines this new type of cross-platform gaming across singular franchises as companion gaming. “[Project Legacy] by itself is still fun to play,” Early says. “We look at, ‘How do we take that same franchise and deliver it on another platform?’ because we know that our fans aren’t sitting in front of their consoles 24 hours a day. You just don’t have as much of the benefit of companion gaming rewards if you’re not playing other games in the franchise at the same time or planning on it.”

In Assassin's Creed: Project Legacy on Facebook, players can send their collected assassins out on missions which levels them up. When you return to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, your assassins are even stronger. You can also earn extra skills for Ezio, as well as extra currency.

Legacy clearly indicated that Assassin’s Creed fans were interested in interacting with their favorite franchise outside of the console experience. Bolstered by its success, Ubisoft started to explore other options to engage the rabid fans of its properties. “Some guys are all about baseball all the time,” Early says. “They can quote stats to you, they watch every game on TV, they listen to it on the radio at work. They go to games a bunch, and they wear the team’s colors. That’s a very engaged fan. There is a lot for them to do. Then there are those people who maybe only watch the games in the evening on television, or read about the games in the paper.” The idea behind companion gaming is to offer the same sort of choices to gamers, except instead of sports teams, everything revolves around fictional video game universes.

Despite being smaller games on less powerful platforms, there is a degree of difficulty in producing these different types of games and allowing them to interact. Microsoft and Sony both currently restrict the cooperation of games outside of Xbox Live and PSN, but they are opening up to the idea. “In terms of restrictions from Sony and Microsoft, there are some, but they recognize that this is the age of cloud computing and I think they’re evolving to keep up,” says Aaryn Flynn, general manager of BioWare’s Edmonton and Montreal locations. “I certainly hope they do, because there’s a lot that can be ­done ­here.”

“It is technically difficult because you are really spanning game systems that weren’t designed to be spanned,” Early says. “It’s also ‘policy difficult.’ Xbox Live, for example, has been known for a long time to be a very close-walled garden, so it takes working with Microsoft to get permission to do the things that we’re looking to do for our players.”

To make these games speak to one another, companies like EA and Ubisoft have to create their own external infrastructures. “In laymen’s terms, we take data generated by the gameplay of each game or app that we create, and aggregate it up to a central server,” Flynn says. “From there, those games are also free to pull down data generated by the others, and reflect that data back in interesting and specific ways.”

Once the infrastructures are in place, developers are starting to find new and creative ways to use this data. The Call of Duty Elite app allows players to customize their assorted loadouts and classes in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and EA recently revealed that NHL 13 will have a companion app that allows users to make trades, sign free agents, tweak their lineups, and send messages to other users to set up matches in the new Connected GM mode.

Head to page two to read about the profitability of cross-platform gaming.

Mass Effect: Infiltrator is a separate action game built for the iOS touchscreen, but it offers some additional Galactic Readiness for Mass Effect 3, as well as war assets for players who finish the game.

Follow the Money
Companion games may allow fans to engage their favorite franchises when they’re away from the consoles, but they are also new revenue streams for pre-established brands. Many of these apps are currently free, such as the Call of Duty Elite app, while others allow players to speed up a leveling process by purchasing in-game currency or experience. Mass Effect: Infiltrator, a standalone iOS game that feeds into Mass Effect 3, is comparably priced to other premium games on Apple’s ­App ­Store.

“Each one of the [companion] games are stand-alone businesses if you want to think of it that way,” Early says, “We hope that one seeds another and the interested fan plays a variety of those games. Each one is a business in and of itself. That said, we are a for-profit company and each of the games we write, whether it’s on a console, Facebook, or PC, are designed to be profitable ventures. We are looking for a business return to all ­those ­games.”

Therein lies the possible danger of companion gaming. With the increasing budget sizes of today’s triple-A video games, publishers are pursuing any and all means to monetize their brands outside of the initial adoption at the retail level. Some consumers worry that you may no longer have access to the full experience of a console game in the future, especially if a profit-hungry publisher decides consumers need to purchase a mobile app to have access to everything in the base game. Mass Effect 3 allows players to build up their galactic readiness by playing multiplayer on the console, downloading the free Datapad iOS app, or the paid Infiltrator iOS game. How long until publishers require a single paid app for a similar experience?

Publishers also run the risk of diluting their brands with inferior mobile and social products. For instance, EA pulled the free Battlefield 3: Aftershock from the App Store in March due to the amount of negative user feedback. If rabid fans download an app related to their favorite brand and the companion game fails to meet their expectations, it may leave a sour taste in their mouths and make them second-guess making similar purchases in the future.

Playing the Dragon Age Legends turn-based RPG on Facebook allows players to unlock special items in Dragon Age II.

Different Strokes
While Ubisoft saw an 80 percent overlap of Project Legacy players playing Brotherhood on consoles, not every publisher has found such a symmetry between their console and social offerings. Whether it was a difference in marketing or in the type of gamer who was interested in the games, Flynn saw ­something ­else.

Both Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2 have companion games, but BioWare found little to no overlap between the console audience and the companion game audience. “I’m not sure we’ve parsed all of the data yet to be more specific, but personally I think they’re different audiences,” Flynn says. “Sure, we have players on our console games who also play social games, and vice versa. But given the relative sizes of those two audiences I think there isn’t a great deal ­of ­overlap.”

Others are experimenting in ways to take these two different audiences, the console gamers and the mobile gamers, and allow them to work together. The upcoming Human Element game from former Call of Duty developer Robert Bowling and his new studio Robotoki allows console gamers to team up with those playing the mobile version to exchange supplies. This means players of both versions will benefit from one another regardless of their platform of choice.

The Mass Effect Datapad allows players to boost their Mass Effect 3 Galactic Readiness by deploying ships to star clusters in need of assistance, and also to access the Codex and read about all of the lore and details of the Mass Effect universe, complete ­with ­narration.

Whether gamers play franchise-specific social games, stick to the console version, or play both simultaneously, publishers see a large audience waiting to be tapped. “I think the big focus will be less on the platform and device, and more about getting that all-important data to the cloud so other games and apps can plug in to it,” Flynn says. “Once that’s there, the data is ready for whatever new platforms evolve. That said, personally I hold out hope for a Twitter game.”

With the next generation of consoles expected to be even more connected than their predecessors, many publishers and developers we’ve spoken with recently expect cross-platform gaming to become more prevalent in the coming years. When asked if companion gaming would be a strategy for other Ubisoft games moving forward, Early says, “I know it will be.”