GamerDNA’s New Discovery Engine Helps Gamers Find More Games They’ll Love

12/8/08Follow @wroush

There’s a startup in Cambridge, MA, that’s quietly collecting gigabytes of data about the likes, dislikes, habits, and exploits of hard-core gamers. Given how lucrative console and online gaming have become—bringing in $1.3 billion for U.S. publishers in October alone, up 18 percent from the same month last year—you might guess that the startup intends to sell its insights to game companies, perhaps as a way of targeting gamers with advertisements and offers.

But that’s not the idea at all. The company, GamerDNA, was founded by and for gamers—and next week it will formally unveil the piece of software that’s making use of all of that data, a “discovery engine” designed to help gamers find new games they might like and connect with other gamers who have similar tastes.

“At GamerDNA the consumer is number one in everything we do,” says founder and CEO Jon Radoff, whom I’ve interviewed a couple of times before. “It’s all about helping you find other people like you, games you’ll enjoy, communities where you are going to feel at home, and tools for creating your identity as a gamer online.”

The discovery engine, which has been in a beta testing phase for several months, is a more sophisticated alternative to other automated game-recommendation systems, which are pretty much limited to the Amazon-style “customers who bought Final Fantasy XII also bought Kingdom Hearts 2″ genre. In other media, such as music, fans and developers are outgrowing the old-fashioned collaborative filtering technology inside most recommendation systems (including Amazon’s), and are looking for fresh information sources that cater to their unique personal tastes. That’s what GamerDNA’s system is designed to do for the console video game and online role-playing genres.

The GamerDNA discovery engine at workThe engine works in part by breaking down user feedback into categories: setting, tone, who the user plays as, who the user plays against, and how the game works. “For some people, it’s all about the world,” explains Radoff. “For others, it’s who you get to be in that world. People want to be able to search along those particular lines, because they’re going to get a result that’s more relevant to them.”

During a visit to GamerDNA’s groovy Central Square office last week—which must be right above an Indian restaurant, since I left with a huge craving for chicken makhani—Radoff walked me through the discovery engine’s process for plumbing what users like about various game, and then serving up informed suggestions about what other games they might like.

I started by entering the title Bioshock, one of my favorite Xbox 360 games, into the GamerDNA discovery engine’s search box—the same way a music fan might enter an artist or a song name into the search box at Pandora’s personalized streaming music service. Then the system asked me, “Why do you like Bioshock?” Well, to me, the coolest thing about the game is the world in which it takes place–a vast, crumbling, leaky underwater city in the Art Deco style, sort of like 1930s Manhattan redesigned by Ayn Rand and Esther Williams.

Under “Setting,” I was able to choose from tags or traits that other players have contributed regarding Bioshock, like “original,” “retro,” “sci-fi,” and “steampunk”—or add my own adjective. I chose “original.” I also chose “dark” and “immersive” under Tone, “unlikely hero” under Playing As, and “first person shooter” under Game Mechanics.

The discovery engine came back with recommendations for five other games I might like. I already own one of them—Gears of War—so I knew right away that the engine was on target. The other four—Halo 3, Fallout 3, Call of Duty 4, and Half-Life 2—sounded pretty cool as well. But the system didn’t just push those games at me: it told me why I might like them. Halo, Call of Duty, and Half-Life are first-person shooters; Gears of War is a shooter with a dark tone; Fallout 3 is dark, and has an unlikely hero.

The GamerDNA discovery engine -- resultsThere’s much more to the GamerDNA community site. Practically every game you can name, for example, has a page collecting stories that GamerDNA members themselves have written about their experiences playing them, so you can see what users liked and didn’t like in excruciating detail. And the company has many other ways of gauging and aggregating players’ attitudes about specific games, including quizzes and game-play statistics drawn straight from Xbox Live, the World of Warcraft Armory, and other Internet-based clearinghouses for gamer data.

The discovery engine incorporates all of these sources, and will become one of the main draws to the GamerDNA site, Radoff hopes. The site already has some 320,000 members and is growing every day as more gamers hear about it from their friends. (The company, which is funded entirely by Flybridge Capital Partners of Boston, hasn’t done any formal marketing.) And while the engine is already providing meaningful results to users, “it’s going to get better over time” as the community grows and more people add their own tags and reviews.

Radoff hasn’t spoken publicly about GamerDNA’s business model. But one revenue source, he says, could be affiliate commissions paid by e-retailers when members buy games that they’ve found through GamerDNA’s discovery engine. “We want to become the place that people come every time they are thinking about picking up a game,” he says.

And that means highlighting the bad games as well as the good ones. “By crowdsourcing the recommendations to our community, we know they’re based on what people really like,” says Radoff. “Gamers aren’t as trusting of professional reviews as they once were; there’s a perception that some journalists have been fired for writing negative reviews, because their publications were tied to advertising and they were incapable of separating the review from the revenue. We are not going to get into that. We will carry advertising, but it will be a secondary revenue stream. We simply want to provide people with information so they can pick up a game they’ll really enjoy—knowing that their decision was based on authentic recommendations.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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