Picking a Platform: Bottom-up vs Top-down Thinking

This is a series of articles I'm writing as an extended postmortem of lessons drawn from working on my game, Stacks On Stacks (on Stacks). You can wishlist the game on Steam here.

A chart outlining choosing a target platform, bottom-up vs top-down

With our last two games, I have approached choosing platforms as "bottom-up". I start with a prototype of a game I want to make and use the game's design to choose a target platform:
  • "A 2 player board game? Lay a tablet or phone down and the touch screen becomes a digital board. Put this game on iOS and Android" [Sature]
  • "A bright colored game that families can play together? This makes sense on multiple controllers and a large TV screen. Focus on consoles." [Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks)]
Bottom-up thinking considers your game's ideal interface (method of input, display, etc.) then finds the best platform for matching that interface.

As I become more experienced, I find myself more often considering platforms "top-down". Where are the spaces that I, as a creator, desire to make games in? What kinds of expectations do people in those spaces have for games and am I able to meet them? Top-down thinking involves considering the culture of players on platforms, the methods of distribution used by platforms, your obligations to said platforms, and the game genres and styles those audiences respond to.

Here are some imaginary top-down examples:
  • "Steam users enjoy games with high complexity. These market examples show that they responded positively to these 3 strategy games with less-than-impressive art. I am interested in opening my development more, and I would like to do this through Steam Early Access and have a consistent update schedule. Releasing on Steam, I can cut some of my time on art polish and focus in on my game's mechanical systems which are what I excel at. Steam users can be brutally negative and judgmental, so I need to be wary about how I present my game and emotionally prepared for the possibility of toxic reactions to my game."
  • "The console market is expanding quickly. Indie teams are getting bigger and bigger and the level of polish of featured games on the stores is escalating. There are opportunities here to be an indie darling and have a high level of respect from other developers, but it will take a lot of work to submit to festivals and show at events. Multi-console support requires a ton of time porting and doing QA on each platform. I probably need to form a team to be able to create games in this space so I can reach a high level of polish and finish ports efficiently."
  • "The mobile space is highly competitive, but smaller games are acceptable here. My game can have a shorter dev cycle which reduces some risk, but I also need to be aware that entering this space requires a high investment in test devices and a willingness to keep my apps updating to meet constantly changing platform standards. I should expect my games to exist as a service, and have mechanics for encouraging indefinite play. If I enter this space, I should expect to be here a while, and I should expect to make a higher volume of games to try to get some to stick."
You may disagree with the above assessments, but surely you have some of your own. If you don't you should do more research before picking a platform!

What interests me is that these examples do not end with, "I should make this exact kind of game." Instead, top-down thinking often results in identifying what processes you should use to thrive on a given platform. Bottom-up thinking says, "Can I make this game?" By contrast, top-down gets you thinking, "How do I want to be making games?" I am hopeful that approaching choosing a platform with more top-down considerations will lead to a better quality of life fit for me as a developer.

Your game does not need to be an exact fit of the player culture and market of the platform, but it is good to identify exactly how your game is a disruptor on a given platform and what benefits and risks come from that. Being a niche game in a genre or style that does not get much attention on a platform may be a benefit, but you could also be working against a culture of players that do not like games of your type.

Choosing a platform has far-reaching repercussions on how your development process will operate that is entirely independent of what your game idea is. Knowing what those repercussions are should be a large part of your platform picking process.

I have not thrown out thinking bottom-up entirely. I still have a notebook full of game ideas and I muse about where these ideas best fit. However, when I first started Stacks, I was far too ignorant about the games industry for top-down thinking to be part of how I picked a platform.

I now believe picking a platform is about choosing the development space you want to operate in, not just finding the best fit for a specific game.