In Search of Wisdom from the Crowd of Gamers

What did Rock Band gamers play most, after Rock Band? Jon Radoff wasn’t asked, officially, but he figured his company had enough data — from 400,000 gamers — to give an good answer. It’s Bioshock.

“That really surprised me,” said Radoff (pictured) the CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based GamerDNA, a startup that is literally a next-door neighbor to Harmonix, the Rock Band franchise dev. “The floating hypothesis we had was maybe Bioshock had more of a story, and that’s what’s more appealing to a mainstream audience. But the fact is it’s one of the statistics we observed, and I thought it was a neat one.”

When a company has information on nearly half a million gamers’ tendencies, its value proposition back to the publishing industry sounds pretty obvious. But, approaching the second year of its present incarnation, GamerDNA is showing signs that it can offer a similar value for gamers, too: it’s building up the “wisdom of the crowd,” to provide a gamer voice back to publishers that can speak louder than sales figures, and one that becomes a greater part of the conversation of game development.

“Our long term perspective, that’s absolutely where we want to be, and it certainly is a passion for us to help the industry make better games,” said Radoff, 37, an entrepreneur whose past efforts have included developing Legends of Future Past, the first commercial text-based MMO played on Compuserve and then the Internet.

While “that's not the stage of the business we’re at yet,” Radoff says GamerDNA numbers have shown that wisdom already being observed. An analysis of members’ uptake of Braid this summer, compared with other Xbox Live Marketplace titles like Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Galaga Legions, showed strong word-of-mouth support helping the indie title spread and become a hit.

Among other studies (these were ad-hoc, not commissioned by any developer, Radoff said) was Age of Conan’s decline following its launch. “Most people assumed players would leave Age of Conan for World of Warcraft,” Radoff said. Not so. They checked out of the MMO genre almost entirely, staying within multiplayer but turning to trusted shooters.

“When an MMO is disappointing, they don’t really go back to the obvious market leader; they might try different stuff instead,” Radoff said.

Both observations could conceivably offer some interesting talking points back to an industry still fixated on a top-down process of making games, where sales rather than length of gameplay or other concerns still drive most of the decisions. At least theoretically, one could see games being developed to compete with a completely different kind of title, reducing consumers’ fatigue with, say, an oversaturation of shooters, or sequels, or another category in a year. It also speaks well for independent studios with access to digital distribution, that good efforts can find recognition and become profitable enough to encourage more.

In Search of Wisdom from the Crowd of Gamers

But right now, GamerDNA’s a long way off from giving that kind of precise feedback. It always needs more members, of course. And while it has arrangements through some individual game servers, plus Steam, XFire and Xbox Live to link to members’ accounts, it has no such relationship with PlayStation Network yet. It means Sony users would have to manually enter their PlayStation activity, instead of things like titles played, length of gaming sessions, achievements earned and the like coming in from an automated stream. Radoff says getting PlayStation users integrated is a priority but the process is still in negotiations with Sony.

Of course, here it bears mentioning that GamerDNA does have a privacy policy and controls, so signing up doesn’t put your gaming experiences into some sort of exploitive data harvester. Nothing personally identifiable is sold or shared. For automated information coming from services like Xbox Live, members can restrict its viewing, allowing either no one, only friends made on the site, or everyone to see it. But if you want to broadcast it out beyond the site, you can do that through a number of microblogging services. These are, also, the people who brought you 360voice.com, whose blogging capabilities are built into the site.

Meantime, while studying and aggregating these gamer trends is an interesting aspect of what GamerDNA does, by no means is it the company’s sole focus. It’s business model, loosely speaking, is to recommend games to members based on their tendencies and their likes in other gameplay. Think Last.fm, or Pandora, who serve up songs based on ones you say you like. The monetization strategy of that resource is not hard to imagine, and GamerDNA will begin that part of its business model this year. It may be through the offering videos or game-associated content, or if a demo or the game itself is downloadable, taking members there. But the goal will be to start making those connections.

As of now, the recommendations are driven by the automated streams of info, five personality quizzes, and manually inputting titles you have (or anticipate) and listing the reasons why you like or want them. There’s a social network built into it, too, if in addition to finding games you like you want to find gamers like you. (GamerDNA’s origins go back to 2006, as the MMO social network Guild Cafe.)

But rather than be a Myspace for gamers, or another news-and-reviews portal pointing people to the AAA games they’ve probably already heard of, GamerDNA will seek its success in attempting to know gamers, collectively and individually, better than anyone else in the world. That’s going to be a tough claim to back up. But Radoff argues this industry isn’t so mature yet that it has the tools others use to reach out to customers, get their feedback, and efficiently measure how the market responds to a new product. Hence he’s betting on his company’s usefulness.

“We’re trying to create an awesome service that requires a lot of people to be present, and I think we’ve done a great job in getting 400,000,” Radoff said. “But the more people who are there, the more we can collectively create something that’s good. I would hope that, over the long term, GamerDNA can be of help, that more games and niche games can come out to address the big populations that are hard for the gaming industry to get its arms around.”