This is something that I have been thinking about for well over a year now, but my recent experience with Section 8 has finally prompted me to write about it. Specifically, I have been wondering for a while why developers do not support cross-platform play between Xbox 360 and PC more often. I have played a ton of Shadowrun on the PC over the years, and if it wasn’t for the Xbox 360 players, there would not have been enough players around to make that game last this long. I have always felt that one large unified player base would be better than two smaller ones, so it was surprising to me that this feature was so uncommon. Two of the only games that I have seen support this are Shadowrun and Universe at War. When I noticed that Section 8 was supporting Games for Windows Live (a pre-requisite for cross-platform play), I was hoping that they would be supporting it. During the beta, I got a chance to ask the question to the developers in an IRC chatroom:
[21:42] NeutralX2 asks a loaded question: “Seeing as GFWL is supported, was cross-platform play ever considered? If so, why not supported?”
[21:42] <@TGS-BrettN> Oh god yes.
[21:42] <@TGS-BrettN> That one comes up a lot.
[21:42] <@TGS-BrettN> We had a throwdown over that one internally for awhile.
[21:43] <@TGS-BrettN> In the end we felt that tying the two together added a lot of overhead without really making the player’s experience better.
[21:43] <@TGS-BrettN> The only way we felt it really made the player experience outright ‘better’ was if it made matchmaking or similiar elements smoother.
[21:43] <@TGS-BrettN> The truth is we got arrogant.
[21:43] <@TGS-BrettN> We were all like’ but there will be SOOO many people playing on both platforms’
[21:44] <@TGS-BrettN> we can afford two player bases!
[21:44] <@TGS-BrettN> In the end, merging your player bases is only worth it if you get something out of it.
[21:44] <@TGS-BrettN> And we’re banking on ‘there will be enough people playing S8 on both platforms for us not to worry about it’
[21:44] <@TGS-BrettN> and because of that, we got more time to do cooler stuff that made the game better.
So apparently they thought that they would have a strong enough player base across both platforms that the work needed to add cross-platform play would not be justified. Instead, they focused on other stuff to make the game “cooler”. They thought wrong. Currently, Section 8 is mostly a ghost town. There is occasionally a populated server or two, but most of the online games are simply filled with bots.
This issue is not exclusive to Section 8. There are a number of Xbox 360 games that literally have no one playing online. If you were one of the few to buy these games, your copy is essentially useless, as they are multilayer focused games without a community to play with. About a year ago I wrote in to the Official Xbox Magazine Podcast with a question as to why cross-platform gameplay isn’t supported in a lot of these games. In fact, I was hoping that they might end up passing the question along to a developer or two so I could get their take. My question to them was as follows:
Hey guys, this is Ryan, Gamertag NeutralX2, with a question regarding cross-platform play between PC and Xbox 360 games. While I was reading the article “Dead on Live” in the January 2009 issue, I started thinking about how cross-platform support could have potentially saved some of these games. For example, Unreal Tournament 3 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars are essentially dead on the Xbox 360, but their communities are still active on the PC. Had the developers included cross-platform support, 360 gamers would still have a community to play with. Shadowrun managed to do a pretty good job connecting PC and 360 players, and that game doesn’t have any major balance problems. So why don’t more developers support this feature?
Unfortunately they never took my question. I assume it was just overlooked, as the question could have started an interesting discussion. Anyway, the article that I referenced, “Dead on Live“, was an article in which the staff at OXM fired up some old Xbox 360 games to see what their online communities were like. Many of the games, such as Stranglehold, were empty. For these games it is not surprising, as their online components were clearly afterthoughts without any real lasting appeal. They were probably populated for a month or two after the game launched, but since then everyone has lost interest.
The games that they covered in the article that interested me the most were the games that were entirely online focused: Enemy Territory Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament 3. Both of these games are extremely well designed and fun to play, but they are clearly games developed with the PC community in mind. Of course not everyone could afford a PC to run these games, so console versions made sense. But clearly these versions were not that popular with the console gaming crowd, and it is now extremely difficult to find matches online. However, both of these games are still alive and kicking over on the PC. I can fire up either game right now and have zero issue finding players. That is not to say that they are extremely popular, just that there are enough still playing on the PC side to always have a few servers full.
Now to me, it seems as if both the PC and Xbox 360 players would have benefited greatly from cross-platform support. The benefits are obvious. First, the 360 players would actually be able to play their game for a change. Instead of being a waste of $60, those games would still have value instead of being completely useless. Second, while the PC side does have a decent amount of players, more would never hurt. People looking at both ETQW and UT3 on the 360 today have zero incentive to buy them (assuming they are aware of the current state of their online communities). The chance for future sales of those games are understandably poor. If they had the player base cross-platform support would have given them, perhaps they would still be selling copies today.
So, why don’t more developers add this feature to their games? Well, I think one of the reason has already been stated clearly by the Timegate Studios guys. They simply feel that they can afford having two separate player bases. I was actually surprised to hear them say that, it was as if they were totally unaware how much of a niche game Section 8 was. A science fiction online team based shooter with jetpacks and deployable objects. That sounds a lot like Starsiege Tribes to me, and you don’t see many people play that today. So reason one is that they don’t feel that the cost is justified in terms of getting a unified player base, no matter how wrong they often end up being in the end.
The second reason I find more legitimate. It has not been explicitly said by anyone, but it makes sense that balance issues would be a big concern. Some games have done a great job of balancing the two platforms. Shadowrun is a perfect example. The way the weapons and abilities are deigned (with a cone of fire for all the weapons that expands when moving and shooting), negates the extra precision that a mouse provides. Shadowrun is one of those games where tactics and teamwork matter just as much, if not more, then your ability to hold a targeting reticule over an opponent and hold down the fire button. I have played Shadowrun for a few years now, and I feel just as comfortable on a gamepad as I do with a keyboard and mouse.
So there are ways to design games in such as way as to keep them balanced, but it is true that there are some games where no matter what you do, keyboard and mouse will always be superior. Unreal Tournament 3 is a great example of this. In UT3, your most important assets are fast reflexes and pinpoint accuracy. I make no claim that this game could be balanced in such a way as to provide a level playing field between the two platforms. So the question then becomes: would you rather have no one to play with at all, or play with PC players at a bit of a disadvantage? For me, the answer to that question is obvious: I would rather be owned then play alone.
Now, what if the game supports cross-platform play, but there is enough of a player base there to support both communities individually. Obviously there would be Xbox 360 players who would not want to play with PC players if they didn’t have to. The solution here is simple, just add a toggle option to the matchmaking menu that either returns cross-platform enabled matches or platform exclusive ones. That way you have the option to play with those on the other platform if necessary, but are not required to if you don’t want to.
I think with that type of setup, everyone would win. Sure, there is the added development cost of supporting such features, and some games clearly don’t have to worry about player bases (Halo and Call of Duty for example). However, I would strongly suggest that every other developer out there seriously consider their audience for their game, how important multiplayer is for it, and if they can justify adding the feature.