Traditionally game consoles have been walled gardens, where users could wander freely amongst the delights of the games provided. You were never allowed to play with gamers who dwelt in other gardens - in fact, you couldn't even see them or be made aware of their existence. Now, that reality is changing.
We're seeing glimmers of this on Nintendo Wii U. Australian indie developers Nnooo are releasing Cubemen 2 later this year on the Wii U, joining the PC and iOS versions in allowing cross-platform multiplayer and sharing of content.
"I'm really proud to be able to announce this," said Nic Watt, creative director at Nnooo. "We've spent the last few months working with both Nintendo and 3 Sprockets, the game's developer, to make this a reality. Cubemen 2 is an amazing game and a great fit for Nintendo players. We can't wait to see how creative they are, whether in tactical multiplayer online or in the new levels they build." There are 4,000 user-created levels available, which Wii U users can access. The game is playable across the Wii U, PC and iOS.
This is newsworthy because it's so rare. World of Tanks on the Xbox 360 has its own servers, and there will not be cross-platform play with World of Tanks on the PC. Certainly Wargaming would love to see that happen. Activision would be happy if Call of Duty players on Xbox could play with PlayStation players; likewise EA would be excited to have FIFA players competing across all platforms. Yet the console makers generally don't allow this.
Uniqueness is one of the key selling points of consoles. Exclusive titles sell hardware, and that's been true for decades. If you really want to play a particular title that's only on the PS3, that's why you'll choose a PS3 over an Xbox 360. Hardware makers want to have exclusive titles in order to sell hardware... yet an exclusive title is limiting the audience by its very nature. Yes, Halo sells Xboxes. But Halo could sell many more units if it was also available on PlayStation. If the profits in the business are really from software sales and not from hardware, is this limiting potential profitability?
Look at it another way. Xbox Live has some 50 million members, PlayStation Network over 90 million members. Those are impressive numbers... until you start looking at the size of other networks. World of Tanks has 60 million members. Apple's Game Center has over 65 million members. Zynga has 187 million monthly active users. Facebook has over 1 billion members.
The potential audience for gaming is far larger than any one network - well, maybe not larger than Facebook's network, but certainly larger than any console's network. The power of gaming platforms is rising, making it easier for games to be cross-platform (especially more casual games). The vast majority of the gaming audience would prefer that a game is available on multiple platforms.
Read more of this analysis, including where cross-platform gaming is heading, on our sister site the [a] list daily.