Ultrahorse Entertainment has risen from stealth mode with its multiplayer side-scroller shooter game, SquadBlast. The team has focused on creating an engaging multiplayer experience developed with cross-platform capabilities as a core focus.
In this post, Ultrahorse shares its extensive knowledge and experience in creating a game amid current industry changes and shifts in how players engage with content.
This post tackles the advantages of cross-platform, the challenges in porting between those platforms and how to ease player frustration. Stay tuned for the second part of this deep dive into the next generation of games.
The last few quarters in gaming have been like shaking a kaleidoscope and trying to figure out what comes next - each month, the picture keeps changing. The recent shifts in the industry are so big you can’t just sum them up in a few slides. As a team, we’re fortunate to have been around for decades, creating experiences with completely new business models and learning to see and build on emerging patterns. As a company, we're young.
We’ve been freely sharing our experiences in building gameplay, and now we want to share our thoughts on how gaming business models are changing. We’ll discuss building a base that supports cross-platform, cross-play, and direct-to-consumer cross-pay. With the launch of SquadBlast on the web, I’ll share what we’ve learned from browser-based gaming. What’s really key is understanding how all these different parts connect when deciding on game commerce models.
Creating this material took quite a bit of time and effort, aided by my partners and inspired by the innovative thinkers at NFX, who are known for unlocking the potential of entire industries, Xsolla, which fuels some of the most innovative game economies in the world, and our angels.
The next generation of games is under threat.Ultrahorse Entertainment
The game industry is changing, and the wave crest that the next successful companies need to ride is at the convergence of cross-platform and direct-to-consumer models.
I’ll be blunt. If you confine yourself to the box of traditional distribution, you’ve got business models like IAP, ads, subscriptions, and paid. You’ve tried publisher's bundles and received MGs (minimal guarantees) from cloud and game pass distributions. These methods are proven, yet somehow (as in *cough* margins *cough*), they are making your business less sustainable in the long run.
Some of us still remember the times when the web was wild, and Facebook Canvas wasn’t all about Meta Pay. We were free to craft monetisation solutions and in-game economies free of constraints. In 2023, ‘modern’ models - and the fees that come along with platforms - feel dated and limited.
On top of that, when an MMP (think of a measurement partner as Google Analytics for mobile) offers to charge a whopping $0.35 per install, or your cloud server provider wipes your servers and upsells you enterprise support…you know things are not going well far beyond platforms. A resurgence in rent-seeking brings the industry back to its roots with lose-lose revenue share rates. If you thought we’d passed the big squeeze of yesteryear with Apple vs Facebook, hold my beer.
The next generation of games is under threat.
Looking at Steam with its Marketplace and Workshop and creator economies within Roblox, Fortnite, and Minecraft, you realise that traditional platforms restrict a range of breakthrough game commerce models. You have to sidestep all of that or go beyond them.
Being future-proofed is about playing hands and hedging bets while dodging the lava bursts erupting through the cracks of platforms shifting into different directions. Pangea has cracked, and we are feeling the aftermath, with aftershocks picking up in cadence. If you don’t disrupt the status quo of platform economies, they’ll do it for you.
We felt the shift was coming; thus, Ultrahorse was cross-platform from day one. We settled on this concept well before we experienced the gameplay of our genre-bending run-and-gun shooter. We've shipped dozens of games for every platform, and to us, cross-platform isn’t about scaling the UX across different screen sizes. We never had doubts that the tactile nature of a game could be perfected, regardless of control methods, from controller to mouse and keyboard to touchscreen. From native to browser to cloud - it’s a matter of patience and diligence - done deal. What drove us from day one was the passion for assembling mosaics from business models that have emerged as a result of the mess the current market landscape brought itself into.
For us, cross-platform is about choosing the way we do game commerce. That’s why we’ve embarked on a path toward preferring a direct-to-consumer (DTC) approach. It doesn’t just open up a host of new opportunities. Without it, you can’t compete or afford many things - like creator payouts or brand collabs - while leaving over 40% of the money on the table.
You have to be the platform, at least for yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, traditional platforms are essential, yet there comes a point where you need to own your player base and have the freedom to explore and define new business models around it. As it might be clear by now, we’ve bet on DTC to unlock the power of multi-way marketplaces.
The Basics: Advantages of Cross-Platform, Cross-Play and Cross-Pay Development
Developing games with cross-platform and cross-play capabilities is essential for meeting the expectations of modern gamers who desire accessible experiences across all devices, screen sizes, and surface mediums. This approach requires developers to create games that scale well for different control types, including keyboard and mouse, joysticks/controllers, and touchscreens. Although it requires extra effort, think of it as the game development equivalent of power levelling: by grinding early on, you can level up faster and reap greater rewards in the long run. Very few companies have mastered that.
Let’s start with improved marketability as the first reward. By enabling creators to promote games on all platforms and allowing friends to connect regardless of their gaming platform of choice, cross-platform development can greatly enhance the discoverability and reach of a game. This is especially important in today's crowded gaming market, where players are more likely to download a new game after watching their favourite creator play it or receiving recommendations from friends. This is one of the few remaining avenues towards achieving virality of some sort. As we’ve adopted a free-to-play model, players can join the game within seconds through web or cloud versions and then decide to download the native ones.
With creators depending on long-term revenue share deals and expectations of mutual reciprocity where creators bring quality game experiences outside of game time, it is essential to have proven ways to perform payouts and build trustful referral programs.
You need direct-to-consumer relations to have margins to achieve that.
Cross-platform development provides the basis for a more efficient and resilient marketing strategy. By ensuring that a game is available on all platforms, developers can reduce the barriers to entry for potential players and reach a wider audience with a single marketing campaign. This approach is more resilient to ecosystem shifts, such as IDFA deprecation or marketing platforms going wild. This approach allows developers to continue promoting their games even if some platforms become less viable for advertising. Think of bringing games to the web where a game can ingest a half million new players a day when a new school year starts, or think of the reach of portals like CrazyGames, which has 20 million+ MAU. Yet your own DTC destination shifts the balance even further.
Porting games between platforms can be challenging due to differences in control schemes, UI/HUD resolution, and technological constraints.Ultrahorse Entertainment
Challenges of Porting Games Between Platforms
Porting games between platforms can be challenging due to differences in control schemes, UI/HUD resolution, and technological constraints. Developers must stay mindful of these differences and find ways to maintain the core gameplay experience while adapting to various devices. Collaborating with specialised companies can be helpful for game developers who lack experience in mobile game development. For instance, the rights holders of high-profile games like Call of Duty and PUBG collaborated with Tencent to develop highly successful mobile versions, but all of them have learned that running incompatible (with PC and Console) versions is tricky, and players don’t like that. That is why they are building the new versions; with full cross-play in mind, in-house.
Agile game development studios with experience in both PC-first and mobile-first development are better positioned to succeed in the future of cross-platform gaming. With a focus on flexibility and continuous improvement, these studios are well-suited to this type of development. Success demands a deep understanding of multiple platforms, and building CI/CD systems that ensure you can notice when a title passes a tech threshold, making it impossible to ship for some platforms, is essential. Got a 20GB Unreal Engine vertical slice demo for PC? Uh-oh, too late; scaling it down to mobile phones is going to be an adventure.
Adapting to diverse technical requirements and constraints is not unprecedented. Epic Games has squeezed Fortnite from PC not just to lower-performing consoles like Switch but to mobile phones as well. If Tim Sweeney sounds too ambitious, consider miHoYo, which initially announced Genshin Impact as a console game and shipped it for mobile at the same time. Of course, it's better to start speccing your min and max devices pretty early on to understand how your tech will fit into all these platforms. But what’s even more tricky is skillfully scaling up or down gameplay experiences to achieve the perfect equilibrium of accessibility across all platforms. This means making UI/HUD compromises, proper control choices, and other artful gameplay adaptations where necessary. For any new challenges that arise, nimble development methodologies allow teams to quickly iterate and solve problems to arrive at optimal solutions.
Fortunately for us, our team at Ultrahorse has decades of experience shipping games across various platforms, including consoles, PCs, mobile devices, the web, and now cloud. We aren’t porting. We are building in a platform-native way. With this expertise, we have been able to keep development of all versions in-house, ensuring they remain in lockstep with each other. We kept gradually expanding our playtests beyond the PC to Xbox, iOS, Android, Cloud, Web, DTC platforms, and more. It doesn’t come easy or cheap, but the quest to find the next super-scalable gameplay is worth the journey. The exploration of what each platform demands or has to offer elevates experiences across all mediums.
Designing for mobile devices presents unique challenges for game developers. A mobile-first approach often results in a minimalist design with fewer buttons, creating an experience that can feel like a Skinner box. Conversely, developing a mobile version of a complex AAA game requires a balance between fidelity, distribution size, and ease of use. It's not just about the user interface and heads-up display but also about the depth of gameplay and the controls that support it. These factors can limit the audience to only the most dedicated and hardcore players. However, even with these limiting factors, mobile can serve as a discovery platform, with players migrating to more accessible platforms and even acquiring external controllers to compete at a higher level. In some cases, all the players want is the ability to login and chat with friends and clanmates while on the go.
Truthfully, it has never been so easy to put your game into an auto-updating launcher, implement a cross-platform login, and inventory management system.Ultrahorse Entertainment
Easing Player Frustration with Misaligned Game Versions
Players often express frustration with different game versions on various platforms, experiencing incompatible login systems, such as not being able to carry over in-game purchases from one platform to another, disparate progression rewards, and other limitations. For example, a player who has invested time and money into a particular character or weapon on one platform may find themselves starting from scratch when switching to another platform. Developers must prioritise seamless cross-platform experiences to meet players' expectations and ensure their satisfaction to keep them coming back.
Yet, it’s not that easy when it comes to picking sustainable business models that scale across all platforms. With some console platforms still demanding that Virtual Currency balance be limited to their own platforms and ad monetisation not being accessible across all platforms, developers have to be mindful of feature disparity across different platforms.
The answer is your game’s direct-to-consumer edition, a version that is fully powered and controlled by the developer. It might sound scary to stray away from Steam or EGS into the uncharted, self-publishing waters of DTC relations.
Truthfully, it has never been so easy to put your game into an auto-updating launcher, implement a cross-platform login, and inventory management system.
When we started developing our own DTC version, we were thrown off by tackling more “businessy” “platform-like” issues like handling merchant of record monetisation, payouts, and anything else creator-related expected when you launch a title. When you think about how Genshin Impact and Star Rail rewrote the rules of launching games, engaging players and creators previously reserved for the biggest giants like Blizzard, you realise how high the bar is set. And you have to match it by providing them with the same services.
What are the rewards of having a reliable game commerce platform? They start with the better margins generated by players trusting developers’ official game editions. You can mix and match business models that platforms find too risky. Think of the Multi-Way Marketplaces that games like Roblox and Fortnite offer to their creators via DTC versions. And you do reinvest these margins back into your community, back into brand partnership deals, and creator collaborations.
Thankfully, that’s where Xsolla solutions came in at the right time. It wasn’t just about the Login and Launcher systems well integrated with inventory and payments; it went well beyond that. From Cloud Distribution to Creator Programs (XPN) and Payouts, we’ve gradually started to tame the full power of an ever-expanding Publishing Suite and built a solid foundation for our self-publishing platform.
Check back soon as part two of this post offers more on the impact of cross-platform, browser-based gaming and Ultrahorse's final thoughts on the rewards of building a cross-platform game.
Edited by Paige Cook