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GDC 2011: Game Developers And The Platform Power Struggle

GDC 2011: Game Developers And The Platform Power Struggle

March 1, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

March 1, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, GDC

In his GDC 2011 lecture, Daniel Cook, co-founder of Triple Town developer Spry Fox, warned developers that platforms come, go, and inevitably abuse developers -- and developers must play to win the long game, by directly gaining users for themselves.

Platforms, said Cook, inevitably wield power over developers. Sometimes in their early phases this power is beneficial to developers, but platform success inevitably leads to decisions that will adversely affect developers -- who don't have power in the situation.

Spry Fox is familiar with platforms that are still in their early phases. The young game developer released the successful Triple Town on Amazon's Kindle e-reader, a device not primarily recognized as a gaming platform.

"If you ask a platform company they believe they are deeply, deeply improving the world," said Cook. And he feels that they are, generally.

But once these companies find success, he said, "The power dynamic shifts, and the platform now becomes more powerful relative to the customers and very much relative to the developer."

In extreme cases -- as when Facebook shut down Lolapps' viral notifications last October -- a developer can functionally cease to exist.

This is common among platform holders, warned Cook. Nintendo blocked unlicensed games on the NES, Apple blocks Sony's eReader from its iPad, and more.

As the platform becomes more powerful, developers' profit margins decrease, creative control decreases as "people no longer make the games they want to make, but instead the games they have to make", and "entangling relationships" arise as developers get into complicated relationships to try and make the most of their platform.

"Ultimately you sell out or die and that is the way of this. This is our world. This is the lifecycle of the mayfly developer," warned Cook.

However, he said, "If you can understand the game of power you can break that cycle."

Said Cook, "Platforms are not the same entity at different moments in their lifecycle." During their growth phase, "they're welcoming, they're friendly, they're enabling, they're on the side of the developer, they're your best friend ever."

But when success starts to come, "You suddenly gain this army of people developing for your platform." The rules change. Platform holders start to promote successful games -- to entice more developers to join the party.

"Braid alone has inspired an entire generation of indie developers to throw away their lives to target Xbox Live Arcade, they're targeting a platform that isn't even open to them anymore," Cook observed.

Sometimes the platform owners decide to take top products internal, as with Twitter buying the Tweetie client and essentially killing the marketplace for competitive mobile Twitter clients.

But if a developer reaches a large audience, the platform will curb their power with changes to the system -- such as how Facebook changed notifications in the wake of Zynga's runaway success.

Suppress The Infection

Facebook is faced with a dilemma here: "What happens if they decide to leave for MySpace? What if they decide to say 'Hey, Facebook, we like you and all, but why don't you start to do some stuff for us?'"

Facebook, in this case, had no choice but to "suppress the infection,” said Cook.

Once "you have a huge population of people" on the platform, "you start extracting value from everyone who's participating in the platform -- users and developers," said Cook.

This is done through taxation, he said. "At a certain point a platform is no longer a direct provider of value" and becomes "a virtual government". There were once multiple payment solutions on Facebook with competition refining them. Now there is only Facebook Credits.

"They were able to say now, 'Here's a tax on the game developers' and the game developers have absolutely no way of gainsaying that whatsoever," said Cook. However, he said it is not a "blatant power grab" but instead a gradual introduction of a dominating system over a long period of time.

"By the end when everything was finally revealed, we were all kind of used to the concept. We may not like certain aspects of it but we were used to it. There's no martyr here."

Facebook may have done it gradually, but Microsoft did not when it tried to raise Xbox Live Arcade royalty rates. That "power grab ended up failing, and as such that whole group lost an immense amount of power in the eyes of the developers."

Said Cook, "We can actually embarrass the platform -- platforms are made of individuals and there are promotions on the line. If you do not pass the PR test, you do not vest."

"Large companies are inherently schizophrenic," said Cook. When his partner in Spry Fox, David Edery, was the worldwide platform manager for Xbox Live Arcade, he had five bosses, across seven reorganizations, in three years.

"Corporate strategy flip-flopped three times, so if you made a deal with someone, you may have made a deal with someone for a game they may not want six months later," Cook said.

"Platforms are macroeconomic structures that have this bubbling of all of these different people pursuing all of these different strategies. Crimes that occur in platforms are crimes with no criminal; there's no one to blame for it."


Platform holders also participate in "legal screwage" -- "they have an entire legal team littering the contract with legal bombs." He cited Amazon's Android app store contract, which dictates that Amazon can set the price for your game, and also pay you only 20 percent of its list price-derived revenue, it given specific circumstances, solely at its discretion.

But too much in the way of negative power exercised over developers creates a problem: "eventually a platform becomes so onerous to develop for the developers start leaving for greener fields."

Why? Because "What's happened over this entire huge arc of this evolution they [the platform] have stopped creating value, they have become managers of value. No one actually kills platforms. Platforms kill themselves, they kill it through greed and mismanagement."

In Cook's view, "Facebook is going to be around for decades and it is going to be a big powerful force in this industry for a very long time."

"There is hope!" he said, after painting this "bleak picture.” Said Cook, "If you are in a situation and you're negotiating something... If the terms aren't good for you, walk away. You always have the ability to say no. You can always go elsewhere. There are lots of exciting platforms."

And while developers may decide to "organize into publishers for power", "it creates yet a new umbrella organization that oppresses the developers in the end." The most famous and obvious example is Electronic Arts, which celebrated developers at its outset and, not too long ago, was being sued by developers due to poor working conditions.

"PopCap is one of the companies that has won the game of power," said Cook. "They're on pretty much every damn platform known to mankind -- it's amazing how may platforms they put their game out on. They're never in the situation that Lolapps was in."

Where does a developer's true power lie? "You can retain users a heck of a lot better than most people, so you should use this. You should retain users for you."

As a developer, "if your superpower is retention, then you need to play the long game. There are a lot of game developers out there for the quick buck and you can't do that."

In Cook's view, "We're building services and we have to get that through our head. If we take that attitude then we are building games, we can optimize for the long term, we can give up short term wins for long term wins."

Said Cook, "Your game is at the center, you have a direct connection of your users, you have a connection with a portfolio of competing platforms that you're managing, and you only gain users that it's economically viable for you to your game, and because you have this huge platform of direct users so you get these competing payment folks as well."

As a developer you must control your own retention and engagement, and manage a competitive relationship on gaining new users and monetization. "You can slowly, incrementally get each one of these pieces and not tie yourself to a single domineering platform," said Cook.

Epic Games has games and the Unreal Engine, Valve has games and the Steam platform, and Habbo Hotel has a huge engaged community.

A questioner asked Cook -- in the case of Steam and Unreal -- "Is the only way to win to become the bad guy?"

Cook said no. "There's absolutely a balance." Epic and Valve are "fundamentally philosophically about making games," and this keeps them from becoming bad. "The philosophy of the company has a huge impact on whether they're evil or not," Cook said.

And he advised creating many small, accessible games over one large game. "A great accessible game design creates this amazing wonderful game in the player's head. If you can do that you can spread all over the place these days. I do not believe that technical differentiation is a strong strategy these days," he said.

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