The Game Platform Design Fallacy

Something extraordinary happened this weekend, that set off a cascade of thoughts and experiences that left me utterly humbled. But if I write about that now, I will be breaking my word to you, gentle reader, to respond to Shawn’s recent article asserting that the most successful games will be those that are designed to their platforms. And to be fair to the new topic, I do need a couple of days to process just what happened. But in the meantime, let’s take a look at this Social Game Darwinism approach. Shawn states that one cannot consistently have the same social game on both social networks and mobile and have them both be successful. Instead, the successful companies will be those that specifically build to mobile. He is not alone in this. I would say most social developers have adopted a specialist approach, narrowing down on platform with almost religious fervor. Crowdstar for one has converted from Orthodox Facebook to the Church of Latter-Day Mobile in the space of a few short months. I don’t mean to criticize the decision, certainly mobile has ongoing growth opportunities where social is more mature as a market. But the idea that developers must tailor their games to the platform to achieve true success is a philosophy that best serves the platform. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good platform, some of my best friends are platform people. But I prefer a philosophy that best serves the player.

It’s true, we live in a universe where apparently competing models each can yield true results. Newtonian mechanics adequately describe the relationships of the bodies in the Solar System, but Einstein’s General Relativity better models galaxies and wormholes. But neither hold a candle to quantum mechanics in describing that baffling realm. There is no grand unified field theory yet that combines them all, yet each model delivers repeatable results when applied in that area. In short, they are all reliably accurate, despite being at odds, because of the scope applied. Similarly, the unified hardware-software ideology of Steve Jobs seemed to fly in the face of the customizable, modular approach of Bill Gates. Both denied the validity of the other’s approach until just a few years ago, and then only grudgingly, and only because it’s hard to disregard the phenomenal outlier success of both Apple and Microsoft. Both models worked, delivering repeatable success when applied to their target market. The point here is that you can have a fundamental disagreement about what’s going to work, and then both be proven right. But I raise this point only to shoot it down. Platform-centrism is Kool-Aid.

I stipulate that there are few examples of social games running successfully on both social and mobile platforms. Crime City and Kingdom Age from Funzio, are ready examples that come to mind, since I work there. Because of that vantage point, I’d posit that this market hesitance has more to do with willpower and market preference than anything inherent to game design. Frankly, there’s more of a game-altering effect in bringing RTS games from PC to console, than in bringing social games to mobile. Playing a social game on a computer is barely different from playing it on a tablet or even a phone, if you make the proper adjustments for time and space. But you don’t need to be Vulcan to pull it off. We regularly present at game conferences like GDC and Casual Connect doing our best to share the experiences and specifics of how we adapt successfully to become natively fluent on all platforms.

But setting the day-job hat aside for a moment, if you take the longer historical view, all the great platform-centric games of the past three decades had more to do with the genius of the designer than the unique features of the platform. Every extraordinary game Nintendo has released, from Donkey Kong to Wii Sports, was driven by Shigeru Miyamoto, not arcade sticks and motion controls. There have been thousands of other arcade stick-controlled games, and certainly massive volumes of discount bins filled with third-party attempts at waggling in on the Nintendo Wii bandwagon. Flow wasn’t brilliant because of the Sixaxis PS3 motion controller, it was brilliant because Jenova Chen is a genius. The inexact Sixaxis in fact killed other fine-control-dependent games like Lair. The biggest platform exclusive games had nothing to do with unique features of the platforms, from every Final Fantasy to Gears of War and Uncharted. Certainly Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, and The Sims haven’t suffered for being multiplaform. Instead, it got the game out to more people on the platform of their choice.

So why haven’t other social games gone multiplatform? You might as well ask why blue oceans are blue. Just because something hasn’t happened much, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or practical. Especially in a young market. Certainly platform exclusives were the order of the day in the early age of videogames, before EA, Activision, Rockstar, and Bethesda. But isn’t mobile fundamentally different? It’s got GPS. It’s got a smaller screen. Okay, sure, but the last time we had smaller portable devices with some other unique features, like Gameboys, DSes, and PSPs, their most successful games weren’t driven by anything different. They were still Zelda, Metroid, and God of War games. Pokemon seems like a good counterexample, but at the same time, it seems like a good early example of a perfectly tuned RPG with social multiplayer virality – for which platform is not dispositive since that just described most games on Facebook.

Having said all that, I do believe touch makes a significant difference. Touch is the future. But if games designed to be social can be played with a mouse on one device, and by touch on another, does it really have that much talismanic significance? It’s not that important to design. It is import to form. Tablets are even more the future than touch alone. I just don’t believe that the most successful games will be those that have some gimmicky use of some feature of the device. You’ve got to create a great game. You have to earn the devotion of the player. You can’t trick them through sleight of hand or slick marketing, like some carnival barker. Sure that’s easier, and platform-centrism is a great way to gentrify the effort. But platform-centrism is still about their interest. Mind you, we shouldn’t kid ourselves, we’re all about our own interest too, but platforms will try to assert that their uniqueness makes them effective. Instead, I’d assert that whichever platform serves players best makes a platform effective – and a strong business partner motived by mutual interest and putting the player experience first. But otherwise, they’re far more similar than they would have you believe.

Finally, let’s step back from our early-adopter, myopic view of the universe for a moment. Normal people don’t care about what platforms enable. They do care about getting great entertainment. So, focus on your craft. Make your games for the player. The market does not discriminate. Your games will not be judged by the gimmick of their design, but by the character of their content.

SF: Well written Jamil. I think social has found a home on mobile because it is a low hanging fruit. It’s a lot easier to take a system working on Platform X and move it to Platform Y than it is to design something uniquely suited to either. In the early stages of a platform, I think the users are less inclined to be discriminating because the content hasn’t had a chance to evolve. I think it isn’t a coincidence that RTS games naturally reside on the PC while sports games have found a home on the console. Touch is a radically new form of input, and I’ll expect its nuances to give birth to some very different progeny as time goes on. However, for the meantime, it doesn’t shock or alarm me that known intellectual property with a proven track record elsewhere, such as Crime City, is tearing up the charts. But I do think the future of mobile looks a lot more like Infinity Blade than it does Farmville.

JM: Thank you Shawn. Part me hopes to see the breakout, customized innovation you predict, I’m not immune to the logic of software-hardware integration. But Farmville isn’t what I have in mind. Instead, I’m seeing that the top grossing list is populated by RPGs, a pictionary game, a poker game, a slot game, a physics game, Scrabble games, Minecraft, Bejeweled, and so on. Like the present and the past, I believe the future will be populated by proven, timeless, spaceless designs.


2 thoughts on “The Game Platform Design Fallacy

  1. I don’t have much to say about social or mobile games, as I don’t have much experience with either, but in regards to the effect of the platform, there’s truth to both views. I think it depends on the design goals (and often times business goals) of a developer and/or platform holder.

    Mario Kart on the DS is not all that different from Mario Kart on the console, even if there are a few neat platform specific features here and there.

    On the other hand playing Texas Hold’em on Xbox and playing it at your dining table and playing it at a casino are all very different experiences. The platform can certainly make a significant difference in the experience. I chose a “real life” game because it’s easy to make a comparison; often in the case of the best games with platform specific features, there is also platform exclusivity. However, I think Shawn’s point is still valid. At least in some cases, a great game can be tailored to a platform in such a way that the experience is either impossible to have on another platform or at least is just plain different on another platform (and perhaps worse).

    I know some things about multiple next-gen platforms and the owners are certainly producing things that will be difficult or impossible to imitate on other platforms.

    Not every great game is unique to a particular platform, but that doesn’t mean platform never matters.

    Not every platform exclusive is impossible otherwise, but that doesn’t mean every platform exclusive can (or should) be made to work on another platform.

  2. Thank you Olan, as usual, you’re probably right – the reality of the matter is likely on a continuum between the two points Shawn and I articulated. I would be very interested to see how platforms promote unique experiences, but at the same time, I wonder if uniqueness of something like input is just a temporary thing. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before every console has touch, just like it was just a matter of time before every console had gesture.

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