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Alex Hutchinson talks platform exclusivity and special hats
Google has finally announced its brand new game-streaming platform, cunningly titled Project Stream. It’s a slick and easy to use implementation of a cool idea: what if anyone who has access to a browser could just press a button and play any game they wanted, anywhere, at any time? But with everyone scrambling to become the ‘ Netflix of games’, Google is about to confront the same problem Netflix already did: it doesn’t have any content. More challengingly, unlike Netflix, I don’t get the impression that Google particularly wants to make its own games, or even publish them. It needs other studios – ones like ours, in theory – to do it instead.
Over the last few years I’ve had several meetings with Google’s outreach mob, from the early days when its team was mostly people from Sony, to the more polished suits from this year’s GDC. Eventually it settled on questions publishers and distributors have been asking devs for years: would you make something exclusively for us? What about a timed exclusive? What about just some exclusive content? A unique weapon? A cool outfit? A hat? What would a hat cost?
This is both an exciting and terrifying question for any game developer (the exclusive bit, I mean; none of us has ever been particularly excited by making hats). Gaining early access to a platform or a peripheral can be a ticket to big sales in a relatively constrained market. But choosing an exclusive platform by definition shrinks your potential audience, and adding any unique features increases costs and, potentially, development time.
Ubisoft has a history of good early bets on new hardware and by getting in early, it has been one of the only thirdparty publishers to make any real money on Nintendo systems. Red Steel did surprisingly well by being out on Wii launch day, although the strategy doesn’t always work. Ubisoft was an early backer of VR and, well, that’s not exactly paid off yet.
Splitting your bets across genres and platforms makes sense for a big publisher, but at Typhoon we have one bet to place, and we don’t really have the cash in the bank (yet!) to survive a long period of trying to secure a new project if this one fails. In our world, we need to give ourselves as many opportunities to find an audience as possible: we could certainly support unique features or bonuses for specific platforms, but the idea of exclusivity would essentially require someone to offer so much money that we could survive if we didn’t sell any copies at all. And while there have always been a few vanity studios on the payroll of big platform holders, we are not that company.
So what should we say to Google? Maybe we could make something unique for Project Stream that would be attractive enough for Google to get you a bit of additional funding, or maybe some marketing on the platform to raise awareness, but more and more it seems like the only sensible strategy for a developer is to remain as platform-agnostic as possible.
Highlighting the potential terror of being tied to a single piece of hardware was Microsoft’s immediate trump card when it announced the XCloud service, which sounds exactly the same as Project Stream except with an immediate and vast back catalogue of games. I presume eventually it will have built-in access to the Game Pass library, so it also has a clear and solid business model, which from a consumer perspective is great. That Microsoft and Google have announced their plans so closely together is, however, a concern: any studio who has signed up exclusively with one service or the other could end up backing Betamax instead of VHS and killing their company.
The power we have at Typhoon is that we don’t really care which platform is winning the console war, or even if there are any consoles, because we make content, and that will always be the thing that drives excitement amongst players. The hope of a new console is about the kind of games it could power, not the fantasy of statistics and tech demos. And that for me is the unifying element of all these cloud announcements: the obfuscation of platforms and hardware. I don’t care about what is happening under the hood, I just care that we get the best game possible, and if we end up with a variety of people offering services that mean players don’t need to worry, then players and developers will be the real winners. The more the merrier, then – just so long as we don’t have to make too many special hats.
I don’t care about what is happening under the hood, I just care that we get the best game possible