Bubbling under the Games as Services (GaaS) phenomenon are platforms (GaaP). I previously on these subjects in my post on Games as Services and on platforms in general. In business terms, it is the next evolution in the attempt to capture the added value of long-running games and recoup the investment in the massive virtual worlds.

Screenshot of Super Mario Bros level 1-1
The original game as a platform.

As I have argued before, in my opinion, it is the rise of GaaS that finally separates games from other forms of media. Unlike books or movies, it allows players to enter games for more experiences into the world. In a narrow sense, yes, J.K. Rowling could have a subscription service where she introduces new stories to the world of Harry Potter and nothing stops Disney from creating a similar service for new their IPs. And yes, someone needs to write the story lines in World of Warcraft. However, games are much more than just a story line and with proper systems in place1 these games can generate infinite stories2.

Instead of focusing on features, my categorization of games is based on the business model differences:

  • Games as traditional products: Most if not all revenue comes from charging access to the game itself, recent example God of War.
  • Games as services: Revenue (also) comes from access to additional content (DLCs, microtransactions) or continuing access to content (subscriptions). Service model also enables free-to-play business model. Recent example Apex Legends3.
  • Games as platforms: Many would give Minecraft or Roblox as examples, but while user-generated content (UGC) is a necessity it’s not sufficient for game to be a platform. In a platform, the platform holder opens its monopoly to offer content and experiences to players.

GaaP is not therefore necessarily an evolution of GaaS, or an “improved” version of it. Just like multiplayer will not work with all games, platform will not be a fit for all services. As I said in my post on GaaS and GaaP,

The main difference is that in GaaP games the 1st party (game developer) does not have a monopoly on the content or experience creation and on capturing the value of that content. UGC or multiplayer are common in GaaS games but even though these are created by the players, they usually do not have a possibility to monetize from these.

Horse armor. This is where it all started.

The birth of service based games could be begged at around the introduction of Elder Scroll’s infamous Horse Armor. Similarly, Bethesda was a pioneer in GaaP with its Skyrim “paid mods” controversy4.

Open world games are a fertile ground to become platforms and it’s no surprise that MMORPGs were forerunners in service-based games and that it is Bethesda’s RPGs whose stumbles act as milestones in this business model evolution5. Reach is important for platforms and for this reason it is desirable for a game as a platform to be cross-platform. Games as platforms need to be destinations, just like Disneyland.

It would however to be a stretch to call a game like Assassins’ Creed: Odyssey a platform. The same city in the world of Odyssey can act as the backdrop for many missions, unlike say in Splinter Cell where levels need to be hand-crafted to provide the experience and can’t really be reused. It is not however impossible to make a level-based game into a more reusable service as the murder sandbox game Hitman has attempted6. Granted, AC: Odyssey very well might be a continuing story platform7 for Ubisoft but it is that only for Ubisoft.

In my opinion, to qualify for a platform, it must be possible for a third-party (player or otherwise) to create and possibly monetize content8. Therefore, GaaP means loss of control almost by definition9. It is a bit like Disneyland allowing someone else to run a ride in their theme park. All this starts quickly remind of Eric S. Raymond’s essay on open source, The Cathedral & The Bazaar.

Fortnite is an interesting example in this regard. It started as a service, just like all other Battle Royales10. However, by running concerts inside the game and other such partnerships it might be on a path to become a platform. Nothing says11 that content creation on a platform has to be free-for-all; curation and charging for access is a norm on platforms. The game recently added a Creative mode allowing players to create their own maps and game modes. Epic’s ambitions to create it into a platform are also visible in their statement that they consider the game more as a social network, and they are not alone: The Verge claimed Fortnite was the most important social network of 2018.

It is worth remembering many recent phenomenons in gaming have all started as player created mods: battle royales and MOBAs. Think what it would mean for Blizzard if Warcraft 3 didn’t just act as the incubation chamber for MOBAs but as the platform for them. What would it mean for Bohemia if Battle Royales were played on Arma? This is the temptation to build platforms, because if things become huge, you can start to charge admission or take a cut of all revenue.

  1. It will take time before this systemic story content is on par with human created ones, though. And maybe it will be possible to create a machine learning system that can generate Harry Potter stories on demand.

  2. Some might argue that the best games are the ones where players create their own stories instead, pointing to games like EVE Online and Elite: Dangerous.

  3. All aboard the hype train. No matter how many players the game has at launch, the true success of a service-based game is in how well it can engage and keep those players months on end.

  4. It is very difficult to start charging for things that used to be free, as Horse Armor showed before. However, today after well over a decade paying for cosmetic upgrades is almost fully accepted by players. Also in theory (or in practice in GaaP model) there is no difference in DLC and a paid mod other than that the first one comes from the original publisher of the game. It is unfortunate that the Horse Armor and “paid mods” stigma poisons the well for others trying to attempt similar things in the future. Sure, some might attribute these to greed but I would use Hanlon’s razor to argue that unpreparedness in a new frontier played at least as big role.

  5. Or as some players might say unfairly, greed.

  6. It is worth to note that the service-aspect of Hitman (2016) was not its episodic release schedule but its online features and systems.

  7. Its post-launch episodic DLC stucture no doubt based on the idea to keep players engaged in the Assassin’s Creed universe longer than earlier games have managed to.

  8. Notably fan fiction does exist for any bigger brand outside of the game. Allowing this content in-game would in sense legitimize or even “canonize” this content. It’s easy to see how this can go horribly wrong on the internet.

  9. Granted, my definition.

  10. Battles Royale? Battles Royales?

  11. Again, by my own definition.