You should only ever have to buy a game once. Really, this is true for all things from books to movies, music to software, but being a gamer this issue is the most salient to me in the modern frontier of downloadable games on every platform.

The first time this issue even occurred to me was back when Steam was gaining popularity and a little thing called the Orange Box was released, containing Counter-Strike, Team Fortress 2, some various incarnations of Half-Life 2, and Portal. I originally got the Orange Box for PC as a Christmas present back when my desktop, the Green Monster, was still a powerful, functional gaming machine.

It wasn’t until some time later when two things happened in close proximity to each other that I really started to become aware of cross-platform purchases: 1) My desktop entered its death throes, sputtering out of life from my shortsighted lack of a decent power supply and good cooling and 2) Half-Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2 were ported to the Mac.

Steam handled (and continues to handle) the matter gracefully, as every PC purchaser of these games was able to install them on their Mac free of charge on day one. When my desktop bit the dust and I switched to my Macbook Pro for gaming (laptop gaming?! heresy, I know), I installed these games right away and I was good to play without skipping a beat. Maybe that experience spoiled me for the future of multi-platform releases, but I like to think that it really set the tone for what it should be like.

So years passed and we’re in an era of the App Store, the Amazon Store, Wiiware, DSiWare, the Playstation Network, XBox Live Arcade, and Steam (for PC and Mac). That’s essentially 7 distinct marketplaces with around a dozen different platforms not counting the myriad of Android hardware configurations out there. To complicate matters further, each marketplace has its own distinct rules for both users and developers. In such a complicated world of downloadable games, how should everything work?

“You should only have to buy a game once.”

I won’t claim to be an expert who’s navigated all of the ins and outs of each and every platform, marketplace, and development atmosphere, but I have one singular, idealistic dream: You should only have to buy a game once.

If I own Plants vs. Zombies, for instance, I shouldn’t have to buy it once for PC and Mac, once for my iPod Touch, once for my iPad, once for the DS, and once for PS3. I shouldn’t have to buy Final Fantasy 3 once for the iPod Touch and then again a few weeks later for the exact same price just to play it on my iPad. If I bought Clash of Heroes HD for the PS3 and it came out later for the iPad, I should be able to download it for free on the new platform.

Wouldn't you love to buy this gorgeous game once and play it everywhere?

So why we can’t do this?

  1. The big name companies have to be willing to share. They own the marketplaces have a great deal of power over this issue, perhaps more than anyone else. At one end of the spectrum is Apple, who have built in the Universal option to allow developers the freedom to make their application available to all of Apple’s systems. At the other end of the spectrum is Nintendo, who I gather to be the absolute most difficult company to work with if you’re a small studio trying to get a downloadable game out there. If you want to have cross-platform downloads, companies need to allow it to happen and some of them are bound to be reluctant to do this.
  2. The publishers have to be willing to put in the effort to push a game on multiple platforms. This probably rests more on the developers, however, because…
  3. The developers need to be willing and able to develop the same game on multiple platforms. Sometimes this is easy, e.g. getting a game on both the iPhone and iPad, and sometimes it’s a monster of a challenge, e.g. developing a game for PS3 and DS. It needs to be possible to even adapt the game across platforms sensibly, so the prerequisite really needs to be there that the game has to exist on multiple platforms first. That being said, if a game is out on multiple platforms, my original point still stands.
  4. Gamers themselves need to be willing to dish out a little more dough. If developers, publishers, and marketplace owners are going to sacrifice multiple sales to allow some cross-platform consistency, that means that fewer actual sales are going to happen so individual sales need to count for more. This unavoidably is going to mean that premium games you only have to buy once should logically cost a little bit more. They shouldn’t be anywhere near as expensive as they’d be if you bought them individually for every platform in question, but they realistically can’t be as cheap as their cheapest version. $1 can’t realistically get you Angry Birds on five systems.

This all sounds kind of abstract, so let’s put things into perspective with some real examples on how I think things should and shouldn’t work out.

Who’s Doing it Right

Valve – Portal 2: This game was $40 on Amazon for PS3 and included the PS3 disc as well as a free Steam code valid for a PC/Mac download. Additionally, your save data syncs across platforms and you can play with anyone on any platform from any platform. I can play on my PS3, save, pick up on my Macbook Pro later, and then play with my friend on her PC. This is perfect implementation of cross-platform consistency, as one purchase allows me to seamlessly play wherever I want with whomever I want.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP: Craig Adams, Jim Guthrie, and the Capybara Games guys did everything right here. The game came out about a month ago for the iPad, then released just a few days ago for the iPhone and iPod Touch. When it came out on the iPhone, the iPad version of the app went universal, meaning if you already owned it and had both an iPad and iPhone, you could instantly download it for the iPhone free of charge and you didn’t have to pay for it a second time. Awesome. They didn’t have to do anything else to make this perfect implementation, but they even went the extra mile and released a second edition, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP Micro, that was cheaper and strictly for the iPhone and iPod Touch. If you wanted a universal app, it was there for you, but if you only wanted a one-platform version you could get it and pay a couple bucks less.

Who’s Doing it Wrong

Square Enix – Everything: Their mobile division are the worst offenders, but Square Enix is notorious for screwing its consumers with an utter lack of universal editions and cross-platform releases. If not for the PS One Classics line being automatically available as a download for both PS3 and PSP once purchased, I don’t think Square Enix would release a single game that you could buy once and download for more than one system. The most recent offender is Final Fantasy 3 for iOS, where the game came out for the iPhone and iPod Touch for $15.99 then released a month later for iPad for $16.99. Not only was there almost no mention of an impending iPad release, but the game didn’t go universal, leaving users who bought the iPhone edition to play on the iPad high and dry when they were forced to shell out another $16.99 to play the game in native iPad resolution. This, in my opinion, is how not to treat your customers.

“[These games are] often squeezing the same fans for more money to play the same game in a new place.”

Popcap  Games – Plants vs. Zombies: Let me preface this by saying that I absolutely adore Plants vs. Zombies and I own multiple versions of it, and I’ve successfully evangelized the game to numerous friends and family members because it’s so good. That being said, Popcap’s distribution model hasn’t been my cup of tea. Every system that Plants vs. Zombies has been ported to has required an additional purchase. Get it for your Mac and want it on your iPad? Buy it again. Get it for your iPad and want it on your iPhone? Too bad there’s no universal update! Buy it again. Want it for the DS? Buy it again. How about the PS3? Buy it again. The latest versions don’t even end up including all of the features that their previous incarnations had! There are mini-games on the Mac version that didn’t make it to the subsequent iPad version, for instance. Got a mobile device, handheld, or console? No Zen Garden or Tree of Wisdom for you! Popcap’s handling of this series’ travel to new platforms has been great to expand the audience a bit, but also a money milking escapade, often squeezing the same fans for more money to play the same game in a new place.

What Can Be Done?

I think the change has to be driven by the community, with gamers being the ones to ask for games that reward them for playing on multiple systems, not punishing them for wanting to play games they love in more than one context. I love my PS3, for example, but often I’m on the road and I only have my iPad with me so that becomes my “console” of choice. Sometimes it’s nice to play games on my laptop where I can listen to music or have a movie playing in the background. At other times, I really prefer my DS because I love the combination of a touch screen and buttons and the fact that it’s strictly a gaming device and not some multimedia superhub. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to play Peggle wherever I want once I own it or that Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes should be inaccessible if I’ve only purchased the DS cartridge or the PS3 download.

“It would be great if I could play Puzzle Quest 2 on the road with my iPad, on my laptop when I’m waiting for class to start, and on my PS3 when I’m at home with my home theater system all using the same save file and off of the same purchase”

There are many games where this makes a lot of sense, such as several that I’ve already mentioned like Plants vs. Zombies, the Final Fantasy games, and a ton of the stuff coming out for iOS, PSN, and XBLA. It would be great if I could play Puzzle Quest 2 on the road with my iPad, on my laptop when I’m waiting for class to start, and on my PS3 when I’m at home with my home theater system all using the same save file and off of the same purchase. In fact, the technology, the developers, and the atmosphere all exist for this sort of thing. Someone just needs to step up and make it a reality.