Monday, March 4, 2013

Cross-Play

Recently, I was contacted by a couple of digital games vendors (ShinyLoot and Amazon Digital Games) about the possibility of selling NEO Scavenger on their services.

First of all, that's great news! It's encouraging to have folks asking to host NEO Scavenger. And those services each represent good-but-different opportunities to serve a greater market. I look forward to exploring those, and other, options further as NEO Scavenger approaches completion.

The point of this post, however, is more about the big picture, and how to properly balance NEO Scavenger's sale across multiple vendors. Specifically, I want to muse on the topic of "cross play."

What Is Cross-Play?

When I say "cross-play," what I'm referring to is the ability to buy a game from one service, and to have that unlock access on other services. I realize there are a few definitions of "cross-play" out there, but for the purposes of this post, it's about buying the game once, and playing anywhere.

In the case of NEO Scavenger, buying beta access at bluebottlegames.com automatically grants access on Desura. Similarly, buying a copy of the game on Desura allows the user to unlock a copy at bluebottlegames.com, using the Desura Connect feature.

When NEO Scavenger was sold in the Be Mine 5 bundle, Desura keys were given out, so those customers were also eligible for cross-play. Though in retrospect, that was less than fully effective: many customers didn't realize they had Desura keys, and weren't aware how to update, or even that they could. I should probably see about doing keys-only, rather than binaries plus keys, in the future to reduce confusion.

Why Provide Cross-Play?

One of the biggest reasons to provide cross-play is simply because it makes the customer happy. Customers feel like they're part of something bigger, and dealing with a business that values them more than their dollar. It let's them know that no matter which store they bought your product in, they're your customer, and you appreciate them just the same. And customers who feel appreciated are more likely to return for future business.

It also helps keep the audience fragmentation to a minimum. If communities were to develop at each storefront, then those communities may diverge over time, making it difficult to satisfy all tastes as they become incompatible. Smoothing out inroads between communities helps everyone stay on the same page, and helps keep the audience united.

There are also marketing advantages to providing cross-play. Customers who are pleased with the arrangement are more likely to recommend it to friends. And the relative rarity of cross-play may mean the press finds it a newsworthy business practice.

It can also accelerate sales, in the case of a gradual product roll-out (as is the case with NEO Scavenger). Knowing that one's preferred service will be supported in the future sometimes causes hesitation in customers, as they'd prefer to wait until the game comes out there. However, if purchasing the game now entitles them to a free unlock on their service of choice later, then there's no reason to wait. This was particularly the case with Steam users, as noted by the comments in NEO Scavenger's Greenlight page.

Lastly, there's a neat technical benefit to having cross-play enabled for one's game: redundancy. If something fails on one service, there's a way to get affected customers up and running again on a different cross-play service.

A recent example of this was when a new build was launched on Friday to both bluebottlegames.com and Desura. The new version went live immediately on bluebottlegames.com, but the Desura version was awaiting authorization over the weekend. Customers who wanted access right away simply used the connect feature to get the latest version at bluebottlegames.com instead.

Why Not?

One of the first reasons most will think of against providing cross-play is that there's a potential hit to sales. This is probably true. Anecdotal evidence abounds for customers buying and re-buying the same game across different services as they become available. Some are accidental (e.g. losing a CD or key), others are intentional (e.g. wanting the game in their Steam library for convenience). In some cases, they're even points of pride for the customer ("I love this game so much I bought it five times!").

In the first two cases, the customer is repurchasing the game for their own benefit. In the third case, it's primarily benefiting the developer. With cross-play, the customer can still repurchase the game if they want to, so the third situation is unchanged.

The important thing to remember about the first two cases is that customers who don't want to repurchase the game no longer have to. It might cost the developer the price of a new (or discounted) copy, but it gains the developer some good will. And I'd rather have an existing customer's good will than their additional $10 or less.

There is the possibility of customers giving cross-play keys to friends, so I suppose that's a consideration. I'm not really one to police pirates, though. And I figure that if they're going to pirate the game, cross-play doesn't greatly change their ability over the DRM-free version I sell now.


Technical feasibility may be a bigger reason. So far, cross-play between Desura and bluebottlegames.com has been pretty easy to implement. Desura has a workflow already setup for this, and adding a custom one to my site was entirely up to me. I want to do the same with Steam, though I may only be able to provide one-way unlocks (e.g. bluebottlegames.com customers get Steam keys, but not the other way around) depending on whether Steam has any mechanisms in place for cross-play.

Furthermore, each new case creates an increasing amount of integration work, and it would likely grow out of hand pretty quickly. There are a lot of services out there. E.g. ShinyLoot, Amazon, Good Old Games, Impulse, Origin, Google, iTunes, Ubuntu Software Center, etc. They all likely have different capabilities.

As such, it may be the case that my cross-play plans are impossible across 100% of vendors, even if I had the manpower.


Selective Cross-Play

In all likelihood, 100% reciprocal cross-play will not be possible as I offer NEO Scavenger in more places. So I'll need to come up with an acceptable compromise. The alternative would be to ignore sales channels that didn't offer cross-play tools.

I already suspect Steam is a one-way street in this regard, and cutting out Steam from sales channels would be pretty dumb. In fact, I think most online storefronts lack Desura's "connect" feature, so I may be living in a fantasy land right now.

One thing I can still do, however, is enable cross-play from bluebottlegames.com some other services. I.e. if they purchase at my site, they can get free keys to Steam, Desura, and maybe another service to two. More than likely, Steam and Desura are all most players care about anyway.

Plus, offering the one-way cross-play radiating out from bluebottlegames.com makes it somewhat more attractive to buy it there. The customer could still get a version on the service they want, plus elsewhere in the network. And more of the purchase money goes into developing new games. That seems like a nice win-win.

I'll have to see how this plays out, though. So far, I've been pretty lucky in that my only other vendor, Desura, makes this cross-play easy to do. So I've been treating it as my preferred business practice. But as I start working with new vendors, I'm see that the cross-play option is going to be complex to support.

Hopefully, I can find a way that is both sustainable and appreciated by my customers!

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