Platform Thinking in Games

You’re using platforms of different kinds. I mean, you are reading this and this block is a platform of sorts. So, what are they?

Many of you are probably familiar with the concept, but for those who are not, I’ll give a simple explanation. Platforms are nothing new. There have been platforms around for millenia. The basic idea is that instead of having full control on the system (for example, a business), you let others contribute in different ways.

For example, a marketplace. Someone owns it and other people can rent space to offer their wares to which customers have access to. Airport is a bit more complicated platform. You have various service providers. A typical international airport will offer the airport itself to airlines, but it will also have various shops, restaurants, a hotel or few, and so forth.

More and more businesses have various platform-like functionality, while others are purely platforms. Amazon allows others to sell on their site, to get paid for linking to their site, while customers can publish wishlists, rate items and write reviews of them. Companies like Uber and AirBnB are purely platforms. Their own assets are very limited and they are just an app that connects customers to service providers, with various other functionality to facilitate this.

The traditional model is known as a pipe. There a product would move from the producer through a middleman to the customer and interaction would be very limited.

I’ve been reading a lot about them recently, so obviously I’ve been looking at various things and how they fit into this thinking. It didn’t take me long to arrive at games.

This change has been most visible in roleplaying games. I’ve been playing on-and-off since 1987. Back then it was a very pipelike process. The GM would present obstacles and the players would overcome them. Sure, there was interaction, but the scenarios were highly structured and combat-centered. Even role-playing products were often these scenarios (or “modules”), which were highly railroaded or lacked in actual player participation in decision making.

Over time, this model didn’t last. TSR went bankrupt and D&D had a lot of problems finding an audience. Their model shifted from churning out modules at a huge rate to concentrating on worlds.

Before that, however, there was Ars Magica. Now, I’m not completely familiar with the history of roleplaying games, but I feel I don’t give it the respect it’s due in this blog. Sure, it’s rules are in many ways very cumbersome, which I don’t really like, but I feel it introduced some very interesting concepts into RPGs.

There isn’t a dedicated GM, or Storyguide. That position shifts. Also, players don’t have a singular character, but instead they can create a troupe of characters and play with the one they feel is right for the situation. This is a way to allow all players to worldbuild. If a player creates a sadistic warrior as part of the group, than that immediately presents questions. Why does the more level-headed sergeant tolerate this person?

Over time, these ideas have evolved further. Players would be given more and more power, while the GM has become more and more of a facilitator. Now, these games encourage players to take more and more responsibility. It’s a communal experience, not just an author and an audience.

Not that this has only happened in RPGs. MtG revolutioned boardgaming in many ways. Here each player has a strong role, as each player makes a lot of decisions on what the game actually is. Different decks play very differently and offer different experiences. In that sense, it is a platform. Back in the day, before online sources were prominent, you actually had to trade for the cards you wanted. That meant a lot of player interaction and networking.

While boardgames are still in many ways quite traditional, this idea of player interaction has seeped into the genre in various ways. Or at least they feel like the players can contribute to them in some way.

The world is changing fast in this regard (as well as many others). Platforms and platform thinking are everywhere. We’ll see this happen more and more in gaming as well. Especially as crowdfunding has become more prominent in RPGs, we will probably be looking at more and more in-depth ways for the fans to take part. A cool innovation in this regard could be a basis for a very nice business.

Gamers are active. That’s why they play games instead of passive forms of entertainment. Allowing them to participate in various ways, whether that’s during a session or during design itself, could be great.

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