Open and Shut

Open platforms aren't the Holy Grail their proponents claim - it's time to let go of this pointless ideology

Stirred by comments from Valve boss Gabe Newell and no doubt inspired by the high degree of focus being afforded to iOS products this week, the question of "openness" is once again at the forefront in many conversations and commentaries around the games business. We are, according to many of those with an opinion to offer, sliding inexorably into a morass of "closed" systems - a term which tends to be spat out with the sort of intense dislike usually reserved for war criminals, evangelical Christian politicians and Marmite.

I have to confess to being a bit baffled by the sheer strength of the knee-jerk reaction against supposedly closed platforms such as iOS - especially when they come from the mouth of the operator of a platform which is arguably every bit as closed off as Apple's own walled garden, namely Steam. I can't help but feel that the language of the largely ideological crusade against "closed" technology platforms led by the likes of Cory Doctorow or Richard Stallman has been co-opted and twisted to fit a rather different debate around business models, resulting in both confusion and a high level of polemic aggression.

The reality is that the "closed" systems against which so many people are eager to rail aren't actually all that closed at all - and that the so-called conventional wisdom which smugly states that open platforms will always defeat the closed alternative is not actually particularly conventional thinking, nor is it anything that remotely deserves the title of "wisdom".

Closed platforms are innately more secure; iOS and the home console platforms are not plagued with viruses, malware and piracy, as Windows and (increasingly) Android are.

First off, how are we to define a closed system or platform, precisely? In technological terms, it seems simple. A system is closed if you can't execute code of your own choosing on it - if you can't write or acquire any piece of code you want and run it on the system, it's a closed system. Of course, there are subtleties even in this definition - even the most open of operating systems applies limits to what code can do in order to create a secure environment for other code, but they remain "ideologically" open in that you can write or download code to do whatever you want.

Windows, then, is an open platform, as is OS X - and even more so the various flavours of Linux or Chrome OS, which actually allow you to modify the source code of the OS itself, should you so desire. Game consoles are fundamentally closed on a technological level, because they only execute code signed by the platform holder, and the same applies to iOS, which only executes code downloaded from the App Store and hence approved by Apple. Android meanwhile is open, because there's little or no approval process for the Android Market, and besides, side-loading of your own applications is officially supported. Steam, under this model, is distinctly a closed platform for the same reason as iOS.

That's the technological perspective on open-ness, and if we look past the ideological debate, there's one thing which should leap out at you from the consumer standpoint. Closed platforms are innately more secure; iOS and the home console platforms are not plagued with viruses, malware and piracy, as Windows and (increasingly) Android are. (OS X is arguably a more secure platform not because it is innately more secure, although its UNIX foundations no doubt help, but because its users tend to treat it as a closed platform - installing far fewer applications and plug-ins than their counterparts on Windows, and thus providing far fewer vectors for infection).

In fact, if we take the perspective of the "honest consumer" - someone who doesn't want to pirate their software, basically - then closed platforms are pretty much beneficial all the way. You get a trusted source for your software, a guarantee that it won't damage your hardware or data either by accident or by malicious design, and a single billing relationship with a trusted company rather than being asked to hand your credit card details over to everyone who's made a piece of software you like the look of. The downside may be a lack of customisation options - Android Market teems with complex applications for modifying the phone's user interface which would not be possible on iOS - but there's a major question mark over the extent to which the average user is willing to experiment with that level of customisation (especially since it's often a very buggy experience).

What, then, of the business side of things? This is where the question gets a little more murky. It's not so much that things are "open" or "shut" in this instance, rather that there are a variety of doors - some of which are harder to open than others.

The PC platform - like OS X and Linux - is wide open. Anyone can develop an application for them and distribute it over the web, accepting payment however they wish. However, if you're creating a game for Windows or OS X, distributing it through Steam is pretty much the only way to ensure any level of commercial success (the exceptional case of Minecraft notwithstanding). Steam's function on these platforms is to make them more "closed", delivering a somewhat curated selection of software which is vouched for, tested and wrapped up in DRM protection and a trusted payment system. (Hence why it's so odd to hear Gabe Newell bemoan the advancing success of closed platforms, since his company is presently in the business of selling a very successful tool for closing your Windows, as it were.)

It's odd to hear Gabe Newell bemoan the advancing success of closed platforms, since his company is presently in the business of selling a very successful tool for closing your Windows

Android is in a similar position. It's an open platform in that anyone can develop for it, but if you want to distribute that software widely, you'll need to sell it on the Android Market. That market is not notably curated, which is why it's so commonly stuffed to the gills with copyright infringing software and why the Android OS has to consistently warn its users about things like viruses and keylogging malware, but it does take a 30 per cent cut of revenue. That's the same cut which iOS' App Store takes, but in the case of iOS the market is also curated, with Apple insisting that applications conform to technical requirements as well as occasionally rejecting applications for content reasons (an area in which the giant firm regularly stumbles, unfortunately, although it's been getting the balance increasingly right as it goes on). It's worth noting that for all the carping about iOS being "closed", anyone can develop for it after spending only a few dollars on joining the developer programme - far less, in fact, than you'd pay for a commercial programming IDE for Windows.

At the other end of the spectrum are Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, which are quintessential closed platforms. Not only are they tightly curated by Sony and Microsoft, but these platforms demand an outlay in tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for development kits, QA, technical checklist certification and various other associated costs. Costs are high, the barriers to entry immense - these platforms are completely closed off, and only the lower costs of development itself make them any more attractive than developing a boxed console game would be.

Yet the debate around open and closed platforms simply doesn't reflect this situation in any realistic way. The ideological nature of the Doctorow/Stallman position has leaked over into what should be a more grounded economic and consumer-focused discussion on platform merits, so iOS is slammed alongside Xbox Live for being too "closed", while Android and Windows are lauded as "open" despite the fact that that very openness results in them being riddled with piracy and security problems - so much so that the only way to make money on Windows now (unless you're Blizzard) is to release your game through a closed platform that sits on top of the Windows OS.

Given the reality of the situation, I'm finding it increasingly hard to take seriously the claims of anyone who boldly announces that "open will always triumph over closed" - partially because that's a claim solely based in the experience of Microsoft's PC OS triumphs of the 80s and 90s, a market environment which simply doesn't bear any detailed comparison with today's situation, and mostly because the people saying this kind of thing often seem at a loss to accurately define what they mean by "open" and "closed", except that one of them is bad and the other good for a loosely understood set of reasons.

If "open" were the Holy Grail of platforms, Steam wouldn't exist; as it is, PC gaming today wouldn't exist without Steam. If "open" were the natural best choice, then the iPhone wouldn't be the most successful mobile phone in the world, and Android Market would have leveraged the larger Android installed base to outstrip the sales growth of App Store, rather than being an anaemic cousin in distant second place. For consumers and developers alike, a more nuanced approach to this debate is an absolute requirement; we have to step away from the polemic of ideology and acknowledge open brings with it pitfalls, while closed brings with it advantages. The best solution will be different for each market and each platform; those waiting around for the "inevitable triumph of openness" would do well not to hold their breath.

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Latest comments (21)

Sam Brown Programmer, Cool Games Ltd.5 years ago
"It's worth noting that for all the carping about iOS being "closed", anyone can develop for it after spending only a few dollars on joining the developer programme - far less, in fact, than you'd pay for a commercial programming IDE for Windows."

To be fair, the barrier for iOS entry is actually around £1000 if you don't already own a Mac of some description (and back in the day you could buy an original Xbox green debug kit for that). The price of a Mac is certainly the thing which stops me coding for iOS at home at the moment. :) I know PCs cost money as well, but they are a lot cheaper and easier to get started on for the bedroom coder.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 14th October 2011 10:11am

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 5 years ago
Great Article, but Steam is far from being the only way to have commercial success on the PC. Zynga and Popcap did not rely on Steam to make their sales. An army of f2p MMOs also exists outside of Steam.

I also reject the notion of an closed platform layer being necessary for commercial success. The real problem, imo, is the layer of promotion you need to have in order to supercharge your success. An open platform does not have money to promote itself, because it is open. A closed platform will cut into the revenue of the people selling products with the help of that closed platform. This "tax" is then spend partially on money to fight the open platforms using ads. That is not just how the game industry works, this is how every industry works. This is how retail chains fight farmer's markets.

The world did not make a subconscious decision to prefer closed platforms such as Apple. Advertising works, so the platforms being advertised the most have a distinct advantage.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Klaus Preisinger on 14th October 2011 11:03am

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Shane Sweeney Academic 5 years ago
On the contrary I'm *fearful* that the closed system will triumph over the open. I fear I am on the losing side.

The Internet was built on these open foundations and we have seen an explosion of chaotic innovations from that. But if the Internet was a walled garden ran by Cable companies we would be living in a very different world. It's fine to have closed off systems, but the real trouble will happen if the *only* choice becomes closed off systems.

We need open systems not for the reasons we can think of, but more so for the reasons we CANT think of yet. The Internet and technology in general is a global flatterer. There has never been any distinction between user and developer/entrepreneur. People created their own opportunities, not just waited for vendors to provide pipe lines to opportunities. The Internet was a clean slate for anyone to do anything. As long as we never lose that ability, its worth protecting.

I compare it to free speech in a way. Most of us squander our free speech, but we all recognize it's vital to protect it, not as much for ourselves but because of the 1% of us who use it properly and can really make a difference. This is the same for closed systems, most people are fine with them and simply wouldn't care, but its for the 1% we must protect it for, and again, as long as there is consumer choice there is still freedom.

As soon as Steve Jobs passed away I worried his legacy would be to incite more thinking that will lead us to a world with not enough openness for the 1%. This is the first article I have seen from someone who matters that is verifying my pessimism.
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Show all comments (21)
Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 5 years ago
I'm still processing this article (which is very interesting btw), so just a few quick points for now.

Idealogically, I find Steam and Apple two very different closed systems. Perhaps this is because Steam has massively helped the industry which now relies on it (PC gaming), whilst Apple appear to drag their feet on certain issues, and have been quite tight-lipped about how their regulatory standards work, though it's hard for me to say (it might just be that I find the Cult of Steve questionable, when Steam has blatently done so much, but I digress).

In any event, I think people's problems with closed systems is that when they're a success, they become effective monopolies, and that it doesn't take much to force the consumer along a path when a monopoly has a grip. It is also a knee-jerk reflex to assume monopolies are bad, but I would argue that when it comes to technology, monopolies (and thus, closed systems) are needed. They most certainly do make things easier for the consumer - the ease of use of Steam is far greater than that of even Amazon. The paranoia regarding monopolies is only appreciable if the company in question starts to do questionable things - the Iron Hand of the Apple standard authority dictating content, for example.
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Derek Ahmedzai Web Development 5 years ago
I think the essential difference is that you don't have to use Steam to get games for the PC (although it's by far the easiest and most pleasant system), but that there's no alternative to Apple's store if you're on an iOS device.
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Bjorn Larsson CEO & Executive Producer, Legendo Entertainment5 years ago
Well articulated and to the point; perhaps it could be said that Apple offers a closed system but its content is curated by its users whereas Steam offers a closed system with its content curated and controlled by its owner. With that in mind, using an analogy of America vs China would not be entirely inappropriate.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 5 years ago
Thumbs up for Sam Brown, our first poster. That is the real cost of entering iOS development, and his reason is the same as mine. I cannot afford to get a proper development mac machine, so I won't go into developing on that platform. If by any means the middlewares I use will allow me to port my app to iOS, then I'll find a way, but for now that platform is closed for me.
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Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Advanced 5 years ago
While "open" is absolutely essential from the standpoint of helping expand technology, setting standards that reflect more than just a way to make money, etc., we have to also have "closed." We wouldn't have had great gaming experiences like those given to us by the Xbox or iOS unless we had "closed". But as others have mentioned, much of the foundation of computing and the Internet is built on "open".

The problem, which is unfortunately the case in not only computing technology but also religion, politics, and more, is that some think we should only have one or the other. We need both. That some people love their Android phones proves that "open" works, or that many people choose to use Linux at home or in their enterprise. But Windows, Playstation, Xbox, etc., are all great in their own ways and because of them many people make a lot of money, and I'm not talking about just the platform holders.

"Open" is essential to keep technology moving, and it fuels "closed", but I think it goes both ways. "Closed" is often a catalyst for those who create "open" systems, and helps them to improve and expand the pool of ideas and motivates those who donate their time and efforts to creating great "open" systems.

Like any platform holder, Gabe Newell is postering, trying to appeal to a certain group of people, those who might look at Steam as a haven for "open" and "indie" and all that is good about gaming on computers versus consoles. That is all well and good. But in the end his rhetoric is no more important than what any other platform holder might say to promote their offering over everyone elses.
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Rob Jessop R&D Programmer, Crytek5 years ago
"At the other end of the spectrum are Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, which are quintessential closed platforms. Not only are they tightly curated by Sony and Microsoft, but these platforms demand an outlay in tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for development kits, QA, technical checklist certification and various other associated costs. Costs are high, the barriers to entry immense - these platforms are completely closed off, and only the lower costs of development itself make them any more attractive than developing a boxed console game would be."

It isn't just the downloadable titles on these platforms that incur these costs. Boxed titles also need everything you've listed, though the subset of technical requirements are slightly different. I'd suggest that the advantage of a downloadable title on PSN and Live! is in the lower cost of distribution, rather than development which would normally cost the same. Crysis 2 is both a boxed and downloadable title as I write this.
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Doug Baker Graphic Designer 5 years ago
Comparing evangelical Christian politicians to war criminals is ridiculous. I know that you are going for a joke here, but the great majority of southern states in the U.S. are conservative and typically Christian. Barack Obama claims to be a Christian, as is George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Like their politics or not, comparing these men to war criminals makes you look absurd and naive. Also, you run the risk of insulting a very large number of people who live below the Mason-Dixon line.
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Jeffrey Bacon Director of Mobile Strategy, bitHeads Inc5 years ago
Putting aside my personal desires for open platforms as I am not a typical consumer and therefore my use cases are atypical, the entire games business was built upon closed systems: retail. Until the advent of broadband, the only way gamers were buying games was via retail stores who accepted a limited number of sources for content, curated the content and controlled pricing. At least closed digital stores don't control the pricing and are upfront about their margins (30%). Did you, as a developer, get 70% of the retail price of a game in your pocket from Best Buy or EB Games or the like? Not likely. Closed stores put a few barriers in the digital developer's way but until they are curating content to an extent that creativity is compromised, I don't think it's something to get too worked up about.
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief5 years ago
Oh dear. Rob may have offended a large number of evangelical Christians who live below the Mason-Dixon line.

Meanwhile, I think that the argument about open versus closed is indeed both ideoglical and badly stated. My view, however, is that closed systems can help create markets (by making life easier/safer for consumers) but they also tend to become monopolies (bad) and are likely to stultify innovation.

The key issue is how open and closed will still play out. iOS is semi-open. It is autocratic and fickle. I hope that Android will win. But iOS is currently better.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game5 years ago
It will be interesting how Windows 8 plays out. After researching and installing the developer preview yesterday, currently I am just trying to get the drivers to get it to work properly, so I need to explore properly over the weekend, but it seems as you flick between Metro and desktop, you are switching Windows between classic open to new fangled closed system.
I wonder if this also means that if a less computer literate person sticks purely to Metro, assuming it does all they need, this will give the added security usually associated with a closed platform.
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Taylan Kay Senior Game Desginer, Nerd Corps Entertainment5 years ago
I think even the closed systems need the open for long term survival. We need the open systems for low barrier to entry so that people are empowered to bring on new innovations. I think of them as the labs of crazy scientists, prone to explosion at any moment, but also churning out new ideas like nothing else.

Closed systems, while sluggish and bureaucratic, are needed to refine the quality of those ideas, make them more reliable and give us their full potential. Therefore there is an upstream/downstream relationship between open and closed. If people do not have access to open systems, few will become innovators and entrepreneurs, and closed systems at downstream will have fewer ideas to refine and sell. The dev talent that provides the content for XBL and PSN would not be of the same maturity today if they did not have the PC gaming market of past.
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Dave Hawes Project Manager coding, Eutechnyx5 years ago
Slightly worried that this argument far from being balanced seems to have thought of only the pro's of closed platforms (which it articulates well, and rightly justifies) yet plays down the quite serious downsides. Many of which have been mentioned by people commenting here (e.g. the actual cost of iOS dev being well over equivalent PC cost). Ideal for the consumer might be multiple competing closed platforms, but that has its issues as well (origin account and a steam account etc...). Lack of competition can mean that a closed platform becomes a place for artificially inflated prices and serious censorship issues, most consumers I don't think would see those as advantages.
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Gary Lucero QA Analyst, Advanced 5 years ago
I think of the cost of iOS development is being overstated by commentors, at least in terms of dollars and cents. I switched to Mac a couple of years ago, moving all my PC stuff to it, paided my $100 to be able to develop on OS X and iOS, and then begin learning Objective C and everything necessary to create apps.

I went cheap; I bought a Mac Mini. I used an existing LCD monitor, one that I shared with my Xbox 360 at the time. Total investment for the Mini, some books, and the dev sign-up was less than $1000. I don't have a lot of money, but I figured out how to afford it.

I then invested two months learning Cbjective C in my spare time. My background is almost exclusively in Windows using C++ and C#, with some Java thrown in for good measure. I learned the basics of Objective C, build a utility for OS X, and it worked. When I then tried to take that knowledge to iOS, they were different enough to confuse me, but more importantly, I just didn't gel with OS X. I was used to my keyboard shortcuts on Windows, and was just more used to how things worked there.

The Mac Mini is a decent computer, although not as powerful as what the Apple salesman claimed. I learned Objective C, but really, it's that hurdle and the costs of books, the time it takes to look for samples and help online, that's the real cost of iOS as far as I'm concerned.

I sold off the Mac Mini and unless I come into a fortune, I don't expect I'll go back.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
Until EVERY gamer has access to broadband, a completely closed system such as anything Apple offers that's tied to your credit card and personal info will be a no sale in areas where folks can't get a decent online connection, period. Also, those who don't use credit cards will be shut out as will gamers who still prefer to have a retail option and actually OWN a physical product they can go to should something go awry with whatever storage format is used.
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Ollie Miles Writer/Artist/Designer/Programmer 5 years ago
Open will always be the best development environment for those who are aware of the pitfalls of open environments. Closed is perhaps the best distribution platform when your audience is not aware of the dangers of an open platform. Piracy is not intrinsically evil, just as closed systems are not intrinsically the best method of distribution due to closed minded vetting procedures cutting innovative games, either by intention or economic limitation ('a few dollars' my ass), whilst encouraging massive propagation of cut'n'paste mobile games designs.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
Greg: broadband isn't necessary for all gaming systems. Look at all the iPhones out there that use only 3G and yet have owners who do all of their purchases on-line. Nor are those who use credit cards shut out of some systems: anybody can buy a PSN card at retail for example.

As far as physical media, while a system is supported, download offers better failure recovery characteristics. If one of my games on Blu-ray is damaged beyond readability, I might, with difficulty, be able to get a replacement. If it's stolen, no dice. On the other hand, if my PS3's hard drive dies, or it or my PSP is stolen, I simply buy a new one and download all my games again.

As far as "owning" your PS3 games, you're sadly deluded. Eventually Sony will drop support for it, and once your PS3 breaks (as it inevitably will), you'll lose everything. The PS3 is so complex and has so much DRM that you're never likely to see emulators as you do with old consoles up to the PS1. You should consider any console games you buy now a rental that expires around 2020.
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Craig Bamford Writer/Consultant 5 years ago
Waiiit a second.

So the only arguments against closed systems are "ideological", the only people who could possibly believe that an open system might be beneficial are "pirates", and nobody can possibly make money on an open platform?

(Besides Blizzard, Mojang, all the F2P MMO makers, CD Projekt, and everybody else Fahey forgot to mention?)

Can anybody else barely hear Fahey's argument over the din of marching strawmen?

Look, Rob: the problem with closed systems—and Steam on PC ain't it—is that you can end up with nasty monopolies. Steam users benefit from the open PC platform because Valve is constantly reminded that if they get too manipulative, alternatives like GamersGate, Impulse, and even Good Old Games can step in and scoop up the market for digital retail. Even digital retail isn't a monopoly: users can always choose indie games like Minecraft, flash gaming portals, or F2P titles if they want. There's competition on the hardware level, too: AMD and NVIDIA are constantly fighting it out, so that the capacity of a decent, affordable midrange card is being constantly driven downward.

That's not how it works with vertically-integrated closed systems. You know that, Rob. Capabilities rarely improve, because there's no competition. Presentation and marketing is whatever benefits the platform-owner instead of the developers, which leads to debacles like XBLIG. "Curation" leaves potentially interesting devs out with no recourse, even if users might want to try their titles. Prices get driven up: this is monopoly we're talking about. Users get a raw deal on customization—which Fahey arbitrarily rejects without proof or substance—and practically live in fear, since the platform-holder has the power to cut them off from everything they've bought. Cut them off on a whim.

(All that, and you STILL get piracy; ask Nintendo and Sony whether the DS's and PSP's status as closed systems deterred piracy. )

So, yeah, this is silly. At the very least, Fahey should have linked to Doctorow and Newell's actual arguments and addressed them. Since this is the Internet, maybe he still should; edit the piece to make it fairer and more representative. As it is, though, it comes across as the meanest sort of click-bait.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
But Craig, doesn't the competition between the Xbox 360 and the PS3 count as competition just as much as that between Steam and other PC distribution platforms?
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