We know that games without cross-play exclude a huge chunk of their target audience, which means lost marketing and sales potential for game studios relying on recuperating the massive expense of making them. But omitting cross-play negatively impacts gameplay, too.
The most obvious downside is gamers can't play with friends on different platforms. But smaller, segmented pools of players also result in longer wait times and poorer matchmaking. Added to that, niche game modes and features may not be sustainable to maintain without cross-play to aggregate player populations.
But for small studios, enabling cross-play is yet another problem that needs solving. And it's the last thing you need to be worrying about at launch if the backend you've been using is not already cross-play compatible.
Launching with cross-play takes a huge amount of resource
"You should be launching on every platform that makes sense for your game," says Chris Giroir, senior software engineer at Improbable. "If your game plays well on a platform and it's fun on a platform, there shouldn't be a technical reason you don't launch on that platform."
Having spent eight and a half years at Blizzard Entertainment working on titles like Overwatch and World of Warcraft, it's fair to say Giroir knows a thing or two about game development. Now, he's a lead in the Improbable online services department with the mission to empower smaller game studios to reach similar heights.
Grioir knows all too well the challenges of launching on multiple platforms and stores: "They all come with their quirks. They all come with different certification requirements. They all come with a different set of rules that you have to accomplish in order to release on their platform."
He estimates you'd need two people working in-house full-time for three months for every new platform or store you want to launch on. "And that's not something normally teams can pull out of a hat."
"You should be launching on every platform that makes sense for your game"
Chris Giroir, Improbable
Midwinter Entertainment is partnering up to enable cross-play
Right now, Scavengers is in Early Access and available exclusively on PC. But very soon it'll be publicly available on PlayStation and Xbox with cross-play.
So, how is Midwinter Entertainment -- a lean new studio founded by former Halo devs -- enabling cross-play for their latest game? By drafting in Giroir and the team, backend services like social, presence, chat, lobby, matchmaking, progression are all in hand. "They can focus on their game, focus on making it fun, and we can provide these multiplayer, multiplatform aspects," says Giroir.
A cross-platform identity service lets players log in with their preferred account
The player identity service (provided by Improbable Multiplayer Services) that Scavengers uses is built on an industry-standard OAuth 2.0 server, which is the most used and validated authentication protocol available on the market today. This allows players to register with any account across any store, platform, or social account, including Steam, Google, Epic Games Store, PSN, Xbox and Twitch. And, if they're playing on multiple platforms, they'll be recognised as the same player.
Not only is this a core component for cross-platform social and real-money transactions, it also makes for quicker, more effective matchmaking because there's now a single, far bigger pool of players. You cansay goodbye to imbalanced matches or long queue times. However, the service can still accommodate the strict requirements imposed by Sony and Xbox, such as PlayStation players having the option to play only with other PlayStation players, or the need to display a platform-specific identity.
Because it's based on open standards, integrating with it was easy for the Midwinter Entertainment team. To make it happen, Giroir says you simply "login with the platform that you're already using, send us some of the details, and we'll tell you what user account you're actually dealing with so you can have cross-progression, cross-play, and all of those things really, really easily.". Plus, its extensible system means they can add on additional third-party support when needed.
A custom solution enables cross-platform and cross-store social
Cross-platform social means gamers can send invites to players across all platforms and stores. But since friends lists are platform-specific, extra work is needed. What that work looks like depends on the game: Scavengers is unique in that it requires the ability to create squads of three players; other games might need something else entirely.
For Scavengers, it was important to create a solution that was easy to integrate with, hence Giroir and the Improbable Multiplayer Services (IMS) team creating a custom solution built off XMPP. "It's a protocol that's, again, open and standard. You can find clients for it anywhere," he explains.
Existing Unreal Engine plugins also made integration straightforward for Midwinter Entertainment. On top of this, the firm added in all the custom features Scavengers needed, including integration with the progression and login systems.
"Nowadays these things are live-running - they require live ops; they require platforms to stay up; they require operations engineers all the time."
Chris Giroir, Improbable
The game data API makes inventory and cross-platform progression seamless
"One of the tricky aspects [of real-money transactions]," explains Giroir, "is the different platforms actually own a lot of the data. When you're buying items in Scavengers, you're giving your credit card information to Steam, or to PlayStation, or to Xbox, right? We never touch it, which is a good thing. You want that data to be in the safe place and in the right place."
Of course, none of the individual stores handle transactions in the same way.The solution to this is what we call a game data API: a backend service that underpins the entitlements service and progression system, handling things like players' levels, what Explorers they own, and real-money transactions.
Making these work cross-platform is far from straightforward, because all the platforms do things differently. But with IMS "Midwinter doesn't have to worry about those details," says Giroir. "With the exception of needing to integrate with each store's purchase experience, there is no client code needed to handle these different items. You just see what's for sale, the user requests to buy something and we handle that all in the background on that platform." Launching on a new platform simply involves adding it to the backend.
Focus on making the game fun, and we'll focus on keeping it running
The biggest goal for the teams right now is certification on all the platforms - and Giroir says they're "very, very close." But what then? "After that comes [Midwinter Entertainment] improving its game," continues Giroir.. "New game modes, maps --all the fun stuff that comes with an ongoing live game." As with any studio, being able to tweak parameters in response to player analytics is a top priority.
The days of a game going gold, being shipped and that's the end of it are over. "Nowadays these things are live-running. They require live ops; they require platforms to stay up; they require operations engineers all the time," explains Giroir. "And a lot of these small studiosdon't have the manpower to do that. And they shouldn't, right? They should focus on making the game fun, and we'll focus on keeping it running."
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Online services from Improbable Multiplayer Services (IMS) are cross-play by default, so using them from the outset means your game will "work 'magically' with all the other platforms as soon as you turn those options on," as Grior explains. Unlike other providers of similar services, IMS also offers solutions for enabling cross-play in live games, including recommending and migrating your game to cross-play-compatible services.
"Not only do we have the services that you can use," Grior concludes. "But on top of that, we have people in the company that are experts in this area and can do custom work for you." It's this combination that makes partnering with IMS to enable cross-play not only easier, but also quicker, cheaper, and less risky than attempting it in-house.