Thursday, March 17, 2011

GDC 2011: The Game of Platform Power

Here are the slides and notes to my GDC presentation, "The Game of Platform Power".   In our industry, history repeats itself again and again, but each new generation of developers often fails to learn past lessons.  Platforms in particular have a well established life cycle and their relationship with a developer changes as they mature.    Yet, I regularly see developers completely caught off guards as their new favorite platform suddenly stops being their friend and starts treating them as a harvestable resource.  Don't be surprised.  This is the way of things and it has happened dozens of times in the past.

My small hope is that by naming and illuminating some of the common phases and practices of platforms, developers will be able to better deal with the inevitable shifts.  I would like nothing better than smart game developers to divorce their businesses from the platform life cycle and build direct relationships with long lasting communities of passionate gamers.

I will note that I have nothing against platforms despite what my occasionally spicy rhetoric may suggest. I respect and appreciate them like a biologist appreciates a large predator. I've personally walked many miles in the shoes of platform developer. (I spent 10 years building platforms and I loved it.) It is a hard path and platforms do their best. However, ultimately I feel it is better for everyone to be a strong advocate for the users and the game developers that directly serve them.  In the long view of history picture, these two are the essential players.

take care,


  1. Thanks for sharing this! It was a fascinating read:)

  2. Excellent post, thanks again for sharing!

  3. Great stuff, it's empowering to see the big picture. Thanks.

  4. Dan, it's a *really* good presentation. I've been ranting about closed vs open platforms for some time, but you really formalized the rules and stages in a way I've not been doing well. Bravo.

    Two points:
    1) On the examples of platforms that don't do this (e.g. linux, wordpress...), it's not just altruism; it's that these are but one player in an open ecosystem with competing options, etc. In the case of game consoles, it's a bit more like an oligopoly.
    2) On the recommended actions, you missed a key two:
    (i) Talk to other developers. Knowledge is power and collective knowledge is exponential power. I know a lot of indies compare notes on terms, royalty rates, volumes, etc.
    (ii) Collective action. One developer walking is inconvenient. One developer walking at talking to press is a minor PR hiccup. A group of devs taking action, well, someone might lose their job. The XBLA royalty rate change was sort of an informal version of this (it was rolled out at GDC and word spread fast), but maybe a better (though somewhat different) example was the famed "OpenGL letter" to MS. It didn't end up changing the course of the API, but developers had a much stronger voice at the table from that point forward. (URL:

  5. Are "Games journalists" a platform?

    Tru question bro.

  6. @kim
    Appreciate the kind comments. As David can tell you, I struggled with this one a bit...the original deck was like 130 slides. Once you get into the metaphor of platforms are governments an amazing number of rat holes appear. :-)

    re: Competition
    The competition and positioning as the 'open alternative' are definitely powerful factors in keeping a platform friendly to developers. The one example I wanted to get into more deeply, but didn't have time to research fully was Steam. They find themselves in a very strong market position with what is essentially a walled garden. I'm curious if they've started extracting value or if they are still growing and engaging customers.

    This talk originally started out when I was sketching power diagrams for all the various game markets out there. These are the big trends and systems, but there is still a surprising amount of variation. Nintendo is really a great example of a platform that still knows how to generate value all by itself.

    Re: Talking to other devs.
    Great point. I allude to that in one of the slides, but it really does deserve to be called out. It is a wonderful way of breaking down propaganda and perceived power.

    Re: Collective Action.
    I actually took this slide out. There are rare examples of this working, but they are almost always the results of press pressure and not collective power. I've noticed that this is a default action for a lot of developers: "Let's form a group and complain" If you don't have a strong martyr to rally around, this is a waste of time. So the real lever is the press and your efforts as a developer are better spent building your community rather than herding other developers.

    Re: Game Journalists as a platform
    You know, they used to be. In mature platforms like console and PC, game journalists acted as a form of marketing for games. It was never a huge impact, but they were a means of attracting new customers and reengaging past players.

    With newer markets, the reach of journalists have been massively curtailed. They don't write all that much about social, mobile, browser or casual games. This reduces their utility to developers in those markets. The massive fragmentation of audiences also reduces their effectiveness and power over other groups in the market. I was surprised to find out that this blog has multiple times the readership of the minimum bar needed to get a press pass to E3. Now that could just be low standards, but I suspect it is an accurate reflection of hundreds of tiny pockets of gamers that modern journalists serve.

    take care

  7. Agreed, though I'd add that the press plays best when around a good story, and while "David fed up with Goliath" is a good story, it can easily be turned into "Goliath claims David is a whiner". The press story plays stronger when it's "Alliance of Indies walks out".

    To extend your government metaphor, governments less likely to crush a group of protestors when cameras are pointed at them.

  8. Great article! A ton of different (interesting and useful) opinions and ideas.

    A couple of questions though, you note that systems like Linux, android, and wordpress don't have the same issues as they are built on fundamentals of open, community driven platforms. Do you think something like this is possible in a gaming platform? Also, I noticed you never mentioned google in all of this, any particular reason?

    Great article though, thanks!

  9. Nice presentation, although it kind of seems to be somewhat limited to small Flash, Indie and/or social games with the main source of revenue being "monetization" on "platforms" instead of big titles that play by their own rules and go retail.

  10. Great presentation. That being said, there were couple things which bothered me.

    1. There are a few minor grammatical errors. Spell-check isn't everything!

    2. There seemed to be a lot of fluff. The same concepts being repeated many times.

    Otherwise, very informative and useful as always.

  11. Great presentation. Any chance of a simple pdf link though? This slideshare has terrible scrolling, no keyboard controls, and you have to create an account to download...

  12. Great presentation, thanks so much for sharing it!

  13. Great presentation. Definitely something to take into account at all times as a developer.

    At what point does the time cost of being mutliplatform outweigh giving into the man? Your proposal of taking your game multiplatform means loads more work than giving into Facebook.

    Aren't your examples of PopCap and Habbo Shirley Temples? :)

  14. Hey, I know this is waaay off topic, but I used some of your resources to make a short animated film for a contest right here:

    Thank you very much, they were very helpful,


  15. Isn't unity itself a platform controlled by adobe? You buy it and they tell you what you can do with it. They might even do the 'only X payment providers acceptable' ;)