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A Potential Dilemma for Developers: Omnivorous Gamers

Developers think hard about where their games go. Consumers, maybe not so much.

Eric Johnson

Technology is sort of like the ocean tides, albeit far less predictable. Just last year, the waters of two types of devices — Valve’s Linux-based Steam Machines and Android-based “microconsoles” like the Ouya — seemed to be advancing. These, proponents said, were “console killers.”

And then they began to ebb. Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles sold well, games on the Ouya sold poorly and the first-previewed Steam Machines were met with skepticism, and then delayed until 2015.

Now a new survey from UBM Tech, the organizers of the Game Developers Conference, suggests that some game developers are steering their ships toward the new hotness: Virtual reality. The survey, conducted in advance of UBM’s GDC Europe conference in August, asked developers which platforms interested them the most “right now.”

PCs, mobile devices and the PlayStation 4 led the pack, but “VR headsets” like the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus were not far behind, narrowly edging out the Xbox One. Interest in Steam Machines and Android microconsoles slipped by 11 and 25 percentage points respectively since last year, to 26 percent and 7 percent of respondents this year.

What platforms a game is made for can be a crucial decision in terms of both game mechanics and business impact. A hardcore shooter game, for instance, is likely better suited for a PC or console than a smartphone; meanwhile, developers picking one platform over another are betting on both the robustness of that platform and their own ability to be discovered. Here’s the hitch, though: Consumers might not care.

A different survey of videogame players in the U.S., conducted recently by the NPD Group, certainly suggests as much. The only segment of gamers that has grown in 2014, the report found, are “avid omni gamers” who play often on multiple platforms. That group now represents 22 percent of all gamers.

Reaching that audience, whose preferred platform is mobile, means figuring out what types of games will be most entertaining on multiple devices, each of which could be dropped for gaming on another on a whim.

And the answer is not as simple as just “Let’s make a game for all the platforms.” Software made with specific hardware in mind — consider how Angry Birds felt so natural and intuitive on mobile phones — often gains an added leg up over the competition. And particularly in the case of virtual reality, software not made with the platform in mind can be a headache, literally.

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