Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When games are platforms

I've been meaning to post about this great Penny Arcade column about SquawkBox, a plug-in for MS Flight Sim letting virtual pilots connect to virtual air traffic controllers. It's a good read, though not as thorough as the article on virtual air networks & MS Flight Sim that was (IIRC) in Wired a couple years back. Can't find a link to it online, unfortunately.

Fact is, there are multiple virtual airlines and virtual simulations of air traffic control and the like, all built on top of Flight Sim & the Web. Their significance should not be overlooked. These are essentially community created MMO's, built on top of open platforms, and have been going on for years. Squawkbox was built in 97. ProController (air traffic radar sim program) was built shortly thereafter. People strapped these together and on top of the Internet built Satco, VATSIM and IVAO. Ten years later, every day thousands of pilots jump into their deskchairs and shuttle passenger jets from Paris to NY, if thats their asigned route that day.

David Edery, a friend & co-worker, posted this (sorry Dave) ignorant post on the subject, arguing that FS is under-monetized because we allow third parties to develop aftermarket content and products rather than doing it ourselves. Furthermore, it's phrased as though the FS team does this out of ignorance, citing it as a lost opportunity and stating that 'the entertainment industry has so much to learn about tapping niche markets'.

I'll argue quite the opposite. I think the FS team understands this very well, and has for a long time. This third party development didn't happen unbeknownst to MS. Quite the opposite. Taking a page out of the MS playbook, the FS team deliberately opened the product to extension/enhancement by developing an SDK and making it publicly available. In doing so, they turned a game into a platform. It can also be argued that this was a key part of them capturing such a large part of the flight sim market (a genre that was fairly saturated with competitors when I first got into this business).

Flight Sim has been extended with products that do weather simulation, air traffic control, communications, ground scenery, weather simulation, vegetation, even baggage cart simulation. You can get detailed versions of most airports in the world, most commercial aircraft both current day and historical (including everything from a space shuttle sim to a hot air balloon sim). even ones that modify flight physics dynamics.

Like with other closed vertical markets - not only would MS not have been able to develop this range of product extensions had they chosen to do it themselves, they most likely could not even have conceived of them all.

This is not unlike the position some have taken on FPS games, saying "why release an editor and the ability to make mods? That's stuff you could make yourself and charge for". The case has been made time and time again that this is a core part of what has made Id, Epic and Valve as successful as they've been.

At it's heart, MS is very much a platform company. We do a lot of other things, and we have our 'closed vertical' areas as well, but the company's DNA was forged with DOS and tempered with Windows, and both of those were successful as platforms first and foremost. Fligth Sim is very much of the same bloodline.

By the way, I probably should have included FlightSim as part of that forging, as it's MS's longest running product franchise, as it predates Windows itself by three years.

For giggles, comparative screenshots:

(1) from FS 1.0 (I shudder to think how many hours I spent in this virtual cockpit - taxiing across the brooklyn bridge so I could drive right up to the Empire State's doorstep)

(2) from FS 2004, from the Imagine add-on with offering an accurate version of LaGuardia Airport in NY.


djedery said...

Don't be silly. You *know* I'm a fan of user created content and 3rd party aftermarket products. I wasn't claiming that MS should shut those down. I was claiming that MS should do more to benefit from the obvious aftermarket opportunities, even if that simply means finding ways to participate (in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way) in what others are creating, outside of the initial sales of the game. Flight Simulator is a truly niche product. The UGC and aftermarket stuff only helps MS sales so much, so MS needs to find more ways to participate.

I'd call it "ignorant" to assume that the only monetization strategy here is, as always, "open things up and sit back." Or maybe not "ignorant", but "intellectually lazy." :P

Darius Kazemi said...

"taxiing across the brooklyn bridge so I could drive right up to the Empire State"

I totally did that, too.