Platforms Triumphed While Content Wasn’t Even Looking

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Editor’s note: David Baszucki is CEO of ROBLOX

Microsoft is buying Mojang (makers of Minecraft) for 2.5 billion dollars. That’s really impressive when you consider that Mojang has been around for only a few years. The deal is one more step in a recent triumph of platform companies – a triumph of recognizing that what people really want is to contribute and participate, not merely consume. YouTube. Twitter. Facebook. Now Minecraft. All platforms. All worth billions. And what better way to put this platform triumph into perspective than to show that it’s a trend that has emerged (across more than interactive media) over more than forty years.

Roll back the clock to the 1960s when a little company called LEGO imagined a “platform” toy based on the LEGO brick.  There were other platform toys in existence, including Erector sets and Lincoln Logs. But the LEGO platform was superior in many ways. It capitalized on the new technology of plastic and injection molding. The LEGO brick (and more importantly, the LEGO snap and form factor) ultimately provided a platform that allowed a much broader range of play and modeling, and endless possibilities for creativity. You could construct characters, buildings, ships, vehicles, and trees. Erector and other building toys could not match the breadth. And when LEGO eventually introduced LEGO Technic, they also captured highly technical and mechanical types of modeling.

Compare the growth of LEGO to that of other toy companies, such as Hasbro and Mattel. Their business is based on a wide variety of toys. In effect, they are content publishers and franchise owners – not platforms. Within their businesses, there are “platforms” (really franchises) such as Barbie, Hot Wheels, and licenses such as Transformers. But none of these is as broad as the LEGO platform. Every year, LEGO tunes and improves its platform while other toy companies try to figure out new and exciting hits. LEGO manufactures its own hits like Ninjago; it has become its own cultural phenomenon with The LEGO Movie. And on top of it all, 15 years ago LEGO embraced outside licenses, strengthening their platform with hits like Star Wars and Harry Potter.

Fast forward to last week, and we now see how the emergence and dominance of platforms has triumphed in the toy industry. LEGO is now the largest toy manufacturer in the world based on revenue and profitability. And it shows no sign of slowing down.

We are at the beginning of this platform explosion in the gaming space. Minecraft is really a platform. The first time user gets a great crafting/zombie/survival game. But ultimately all Minecraft players migrate to become creators and engineers of the Minecraft platform. They play user-created mods on user-hosted servers. They use the platform to build their own content. The Minecraft platform is their medium and they are the artists, creating and sharing. This platform play is what has given Minecraft such enormous stickiness and viral growth.  Like LEGO, or ROBLOX – the primary work at Mojang is to improve the platform, not to come up with a new and exciting game (or extend the franchise for yet one more season). And unlike the traditional gaming market, this improvement is continuous and measured in the scale of weeks and months.

Franchises have long been dominant in the gaming world. EA’s Madden Football has generated more than $4 billion in revenue over its 25-year run. Activision’s Call of Duty has reaped more than $5 billion. Both those franchises require constant effort and enormous investment to keep their momentum. Witness the recent launch of Activision’s anticipated Destiny. Sure, its launch sales were somewhere around $500 million… and so were the costs of developing and marketing it. (And it’s far too early to say whether Destiny will even rise to franchise status.)

By comparison, once a platform is in motion, the effort invested continuously accelerates quality, and as a result, growth. There is enormous technical leverage in a platform – you are constantly increasing the quality and performance of a single product rather than inventing and reinventing a new game with each iteration of a franchise. And market leverage? Even more enormous. Neither Minecraft nor ROBLOX invests hundreds (or even tens) of millions of dollars in marketing; when you have a platform, your participants become the engine of your growth – word of mouth is more powerful than anything a franchise company can create for itself.

Further, consider the position of a Mojang or ROBLOX to Zynga or Take Two Interactive. Zynga tries to have some aspects of a platform with their “Ville” brand. But they are a publisher just like Mattel or Hasbro is in the toy business. And every new “Ville” game may leverage some brand affinity to FarmVille.  But Zynga users are not putting together their own Ville games. And Zynga users are not using pieces from FarmVille in CastleVille.  And Zynga users are definitely not pasting versions of their personal Clumsy Ninja into their FarmVille world. Investors realize this, and this is why, even with a lot more revenue, Zynga is also valued at roughly $2.5 billion – the same as Mojang.

And Take Two Interactive, publishers of Grand Theft Auto? It’s a lucrative – albeit expensive to maintain — franchise. GTA V, released to great fanfare recently, took in $800 million on its first day. And yet, the market values Take Two Interactive at LESS than the value of Mojang ($1.9 billion).

LEGO was an early platform play in an industry that has grown slowly over decades. We will of course see more and more platforms emerging as entertainment moves from the physical to internet world. It’s already happening, and much faster than with the world of traditional toys. Facebook, iTunes, eBay, Google, and Amazon are all examples of emergent internet platform plays… and none of them is more than a couple of decades old (and most are far younger).

In the gaming space, we are VERY early in the platform explosion. Think about the size of the Minecraft platform relative to the fidelity of what users are building in Minecraft. With some simple one-sized voxels, Mojang was able to create a $2.5B platform with tens of millions of participants. Compare this to what will eventually be possible, and you can see the boundless future available to game platform plays.

To understand the beauty and scope of gaming platforms that will emerge over the next five to ten years, just watch a PIXAR movie. Gaming platforms will ultimately look and feel like today’s top CGI feature films.

Ultimately, we expect top gaming platforms to command market valuations on par with other mega-platforms like Facebook. Minecraft is only the first shot – the platform wars have officially begun.