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Universal Apps

‘Universal Apps’ on Apple’s App Store are great. As we all know the same app works across iPhone, iPad and iPod, so as a user you do not have to agonise over which version to buy if you have more than one of these platforms, as many now do.

This is not much of a practical change, as within the code of ‘non-universal’ Apps typically there are already components specific to different screen parameters, rendering and performance options, to cater for different generations of hardware.

The question is how universal are they/should they be, and can this principle be extended further?

At Frontier, we released two Universal Apps on the App Store at the end of last year, Kinectimals and LostWinds.  But it highlighted to me that in many ways this covers quite different platforms – an iPad differs more from an iPhone than say, a non-Kinect Xbox 360 differs from a non-Move PlayStation 3.  OK, from a software viewpoint, the iOS platforms are quite similar, but that is just a small part of the equation.

The issue is the different styles of play. With an iPad, the tendency is to place it flat on a table or lap, whereas with an iPhone or iPod it is to hold it with one hand and use the other on the screen.  This alone tends to affect which control schemes work best, and can make a big difference to the difficulty of a game if you are not used to it.

We learned this lesson with LostWinds, but the beauty of online sales is updates are easy. Only a few days after the update went live, the majority of users had already added it, which included a new control scheme as well as the old one, and this was very well received.

Even with the same interface, the usage cases can be different, but when it comes to ‘cross interface’ development, some big challenges arise for developers.  We saw it a great deal with the Wii – where many games regressed to using the D-pad rather than embracing motion control – to make cross platform development easier.

But in my experience true cross-interface development is much harder than cross-platform. There is a wider point on ‘universality’, especially for a cross-platform developer like Frontier, and that is how far we can extend it.

One big change is the commercial nature of making a game available on different platforms as a single purchase. I think this is a good thing as one frustration as a developer is seeing someone restricted to playing a game on one platform, but unable to migrate to another, even when the game exists on both.

Realistically, few people buy a game on multiple platforms, but many have the ability to play them on multiple devices if the opportunity presents itself.  With the rise of high-powered mobile platforms like the high-end Android and iOS devices, 3D, and Vita, there is an opportunity for broader universality across ecosystems, though it will be a big commercial challenge.

The presumption is this will not happen as these ecosystems are separated by a strict commercial divide, but even this is changing fast with interoperability across platforms – for example, Kinectimals across Xbox 360, Windows Mobile and iOS.

The big question is if or when free-to-play comes to console, do they share game worlds or are they separate instances?  If it is the former, then we truly could have universal apps with just one set of purchases – even if the actual code run by each platform is different.  This does not address how funding is divided between those platforms to the manufacturers, given we would want an equivalent of the manufacturer levy. Perhaps this could be done by play-time stats rather like how the PRS operates in the music world?

Our industry is changing faster than ever.