There was once a time when "playing Nintendo" was a synonym for gaming - it was genericized. PlayStation got close in the 90s, like Hoover and vacuum cleaners. But it's impossible to imagine any single brand in the games market transcending its niche again.
For game creators the range of platforms to develop for has never been greater. And of course it often makes sense to release games across multiple platforms, whether that be in order to exploit a hit or to scramble together enough aggregate sales to make the P&L stack up.
"A platform may have a large audience but different genres perform very differently"
Steam, Origin, Facebook App v. standalone with Facebook Connect, G+, iOS (all of Phones, Pods, Pads?), Android (Phones, Pads, Notes), Kindle Fire, PlayStation Mobile, Xperia, Chrome Web Store, Windows Store, MacOS appstore, the casual portals or Bigpoint, 3DS, Vita, Wii, Wii U, X360 (Kinect?), XBLA, Xbox Live Indie, PS Minis, PSN, PlayStation 3, "Durango", "Orbis", Smart TV, erm Ouya (Okay, that'll do).
Supply-side logic suggests selecting a mix of platforms with similar specifications, display size, or UI mechanism (touch, dual analogue sticks, hand-wavy motion control). This reduces the incremental cost of supporting additional platforms - it creates economies of scope. Avoiding steep learning curves by leveraging development team experience makes sense too. And middleware can make all the difference.
The demand-side logic entails prioritising market size and audience taste - a platform may have a large audience but different genres perform very differently across platforms. And how about business models? Some platforms work great for free-to-play games (ability to analyse player behaviour, painlessly update games and run A-B tests) - others don't. Some platforms deliver lower volumes and high prices. Others offer lots of installs and modest conversion and average revenue per user. Does it make sense to test the market and if so which platforms provide the best evidence base for future versions? Or will you only achieve critical mass, viral growth and bang-for-your-marketing-buck by hitting multiple platforms simultaneously?
When supply and demand arguments conflict developers face tough decisions.
And sometimes platforms that work in isolation don't combine well. In mixing business models and price points there is a danger of cannibalising your own high value sales with a free version, or at least confusing your audience - of course most gamers have access to multiple platforms. But don't forget exclusivity in return for support from platforms, getting featured might make all the difference. Some platforms won't be accessible until you're proven on others (e.g. Steam), while others will be reluctant to take games that have appeared elsewhere first (Sony/Microsoft).
"In mixing business models and price points there is a danger of cannibalising your own high value sales with a free version"
The diversity of platforms means choice for consumers and a growing market. But fragmentation means economies of scope are more difficult to achieve and optimal multi-platform strategies more difficult to determine. While waiting for streaming to provide the elegant solution to the above (don't hold your breath) there are opportunities for middleware vendors and conversion houses. And there are also opportunities for game designers and brand managers that can turn the complex landscape to their advantage in building and exploiting game IP in ever more smart and creative ways.
We are surely at a peak of platform fragmentation and there will be more platforms exiting the above list than joining it over the next three years - especially those platforms tied to physical hardware. But the days of any "playing Nintendo" transcendent brand are surely gone for good.
Ed Daly is a Partner at Tenshi Consulting. Tenshi's group of games industry consultants are providing regular opinion pieces for GamesIndustry International.