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Earlier this month I got a telephone call from Unity. After blowing the dust off my phone and a brief struggle to remember how the thing worked I found myself talking to an articulate woman with a Danish accent who, after collecting all the usual data from me, wanted to discuss discoverability. Had I heard of "Made With Unity"?
Yes, yes, of course. It's a hashtag that comes round every Friday. I may be in my forties, but I'm down with the Twitters. Brief confusion follows and I learn that it's also a website. With my free hand I type madewithunity.com into my web browser and it turns out to be some terrible Christian site. Actually it might not be terrible, but God and I don't really get on. Turns out where I really want to be is madewith.unity.com - ah, good, discoverability is solved and we can all go home!
I spent about an hour looking around the site, but after the first thirty seconds I knew it wasn't going to be any help. The problem? It was showing me things, not asking me questions.
Discoverability seems to be a widely misunderstood problem. It's not about showing players a few games they might not have seen before at random. There are far too many games now for that to be helpful, if it ever was. At its heart discoverability is about matching players to games they might like.
The current state of the art seems to be "genre". And if that provokes an immediate rolling of the eyes I suggest taking a quick look at the world of books, in which genre is still the most widely used approach to finding things to read. Nonetheless, the problems are obvious. I recently added King Machine - my current game - to the vast repository of knowledge that is IndieDB. The "genre" field is mandatory and none of the options were even defensibly close to the game's actual content. I resisted the tempation to classify it as a Noire Car Combat game, because that's an actual option. So is Mafia MOBA. I mention this to make clear that it's hardly light on options and adding more really doesn't make genre work any better.
If books and films and music suffer from the same problem then there must have been serious attempts to make progress, right? Yes, indeed so. In 2006 Netflix offered a prize of $1M to anyone who could significantly improve their algorithm for recommending movies to users. Being something of an algorithms person I had a quick go myself and very quickly concluded the problems were too far from my field. The money was eventually claimed in 2009 by a team which only cleared the 10% improvement threshold by a whisker. Netflix remains, to this day, bad at recommending movies. But at least it's 10% less bad.
To be clear, the problem Netflix had wasn't ultimately algorithmic in nature. The problem was that the ratings data users provided didn't actually contain enough information to predict what they'd like with anything approaching reasonable accuracy. So if genre doesn't work and extrapolating from other preferences doesn't work then what does?
Another well known matching problem - and very extensively studied - is dating. At first glance it may seem radically different. After all, the most common version of the problem involves searching for only one partner. It seems to me there are a lot of similarities, though. In particular, people don't know what will make them happy. They think they do, but they're often wrong. The data from dating sites is incontrovertible in this respect, but for games it's equally obvious. Most players claim to want good gameplay, then assess what to play based on brief snatches of video.
The rise of "let's play" videos addresses this part of the problem. At the expense of a few spoilers, the viewer gets to see games as they really are. Not quite the same as playing yourself, but decently close. So is this a solution? Unfortunately not. Let me tell you a story...
Back in 2010 a game jam was held in Cambridge, UK. TIGJam UK 2 was primarily a meetup for members of the TIGsource game development community. I'm an early riser and grew up in Cambridge, so arrived early on the second day and headed upstairs in CB2, plugged in my laptop and got on with coding. Five minutes later someone else arrived, looking like he was probably a games person, and came over to introduce himself. We chatted briefly about his recent resignation from King.com and his game, Minecraft. He was surprised I'd heard of it and seemed quite pleased. Four years later he would buy a mansion in Beverly Hills with the proceeds from the same game, largely thanks to (by his assessment) YouTube videos. The point being this: let's plays are a great way to take your playerbase from thousands to hundreds of thousands, but by the time they're getting made your game has already been discovered. Even for Minecraft, that initial discovery was a hurdle.
Don't you only need one player to go viral? Well no, not really. Viral content is largely a myth. It exists, of course, it just doesn't spread in the way you might imagine. The graph of shares is actually very flat. Vast reach is achieved mainly via a very small number of nodes (people, sites) with individually vast reach. In other words, virality does not provide discoverability.
Before I talk about how we might improve discoverability, I should briefly address the "good game" myth. Every so often someone will try to claim that discoverability isn't an issue and that all you have to do is make a "good game". Sounds like sensible advice - after all, who wants bad games? - but unfortunately as well as being useless advice it doesn't work well. I recommend Alexander Bruce's outstanding GDC talk "Antichamber: An Overnight Success, Seven Years In The Making" for anyone who thinks this way. Although perhaps a simpler example still is J.K. Rowling's experience with her book "The Cuckoo's Calling". Written pseudonymously as Robert Galbraith, she hid her identity when approaching publishers and got the same dismissive rejection letters than any unknown author is familiar with. After publication the book sold only around 1500 copies... until her identity as the author was revealed and then suddenly it was Amazon's #1 bestseller. Was it a "good book"?
So how can we improve discoverability for games? From my perspective: better communities. Replacing bulletin boards (before you were born, kid) and forums with social media has a lot of upside, but the serious downside is that our conversations about games are hidden, or at best compartmentalised. I see a lot of creative people frantically accumulating Twitter followers, but for those who take it seriously it's thousands of hours of work for very little payoff.
If tens of thousands of players had access to the firehose of game releases that journalists are perpetually swamped by, we'd have the capacity to sort through it, to find our own ways of classifying things and getting them in front of people who want to see them. YouTube and Twitch handle presenting games fairly well, so that just leaves the finding part. And that's why you need a community of some kind, because when you find interesting things you need ways to share what you've learned. Even more so once you get as far as playing something.
There was a brief moment in 2012 when it looked as though major progress was being made in terms of distribution. I went to a meeting in London hosted by Steam, where they told us about their plans for their new Greenlight service. And last week when King Machine went up on Greenlight I got a glimpse of how things could work. Fifteen hundred potential players in two days! And they liked what they saw, with many positive comments and the all-important votes coming in thick and fast. Then, like every game on Greenlight, the traffic stops. Not because of anything I did. Not because of anything about the game. That's how the system works. Valve give you two days of traffic for free and then you're done.
Never mind games trying to get into Steam. What if we did something like this for all games? And what if it wasn't just for two days? Any time you felt like playing a new game you could just ask the site to show you one. And another. And another. Everyone's games, without limitation. And a place to discuss and share recommendations. Honestly, I'd build the site myself right now if not for one minor problem...
...nobody would know it existed, so they wouldn't use it. You know, discoverability.