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.
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.