Social networking tools are gaining more widespread adoption in the gaming space, led by Xbox Live's achievements. Now, a new company is launching an even more granular rank aggregator for gamers in an online community called GameStrata. And with today's announcement, several major publishers are getting on board.
Launching with EA's Battlefield 2, Capcom’s Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Activision’s Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, and Sega’s Universe at War, as well as its upcoming title, The Club, GameStrata lets players compare themselves against one another based on a broad array of statistics -- things like number of kills, performance in a particular character class or sports team, shot accuracy and more.
Gamasutra spoke to GameStrata CEO Lance Smith and co-founder and COO Barry Dorf to find out how it all works. Using any connected, next-gen console that communicates via XML with a server, they say, GameStrata can read detailed player performance and aggregate those statistics on its site.
From there, users can view their own performance, compare themselves against others, form clan sites and even community features are much more easily integrated into their games, and therefore we can provide them for the community that plays their games."
He adds, "Currently it is dependent on the backend of the consoles and the way they're set up right now - but the goal is definitely to get to one standard."
GameStrata is launching with some major publisher partners on board -- but do they feel the level of enthusiasm is high for this sort of service in the broader industry?
According to Dorf, publishers appreciate GameStrata's web-based background. "Every publisher we met with, whether they have zero community features or a growing community online, needs help in this area. It's just not their focus. They're not web guys. Even guys with community sites around games build video games, not websites. Any help, they are grateful for. So we try to be as accommodating as possible. It’s what they want, it’s what their users want."
Envisioning a possible future where community features are standardized for any game on any platform, however, raises some interesting implications. Microsoft's thriving Live community, for example, and its achievement system, is part of what distinguishes it from its next gen competitors. Would Microsoft, for example, support leveling the playing field in this fashion?
Smith is optimistic: "Absolutely," he says. "You have to look at the console guys – they want community within their capacity as well. We’re integrating Xbox Live achievement data now. We can couple that with their own data, and create some really interesting tools."
How Users Benefit
Smith also elaborated on how further granularity on achievement scores would benefit everyone. For example, two friends with vastly different gamerscores might find they match up much more evenly on individual game skill -- meaning players with less impressive scores may no longer avoid game-based social networking out of intimidation or embarrassment.
"An entire score is not fully indicative, but achievement data is," adds Smith. "And that exposes that there's a lot more going on in terms of raw statistics and other statistical information info. So would Microsoft embrace it? I think they would."
Smith admits, though, that there would be a big gain for Sony. "Sony desires to have a similar type of community to Xbox," he says. "From our discussions with some of the peripheral players in Sony's development environments, they're trying to move the needles there in that landscape to get the community interest and involvement in that landscape. So we're accumulating specific game data on a by-title basis, while also augmenting Xbox Live info."
He adds, "Everyone is all waiting to see what Sony turns up the notch on. We have some insight in terms of where some of their direction may go. We know there's some thought being put towards this, and we expect that Sony will come out with something publicly that will be pretty cool and pretty compelling. You expect that Sony is going to do something – it’s just a matter of when."
Reminds Dorf, "Remember the data is owned by the game publishers, not by Microsoft. Sega owns all their data – it’s about what Sega wants with the data, more than what Microsoft wants with Sega data."
In a nutshell, then, Dorf and Smith feel that offering added value back to the consumer may push the community features bar higher -- something that everyone would be on board with. "We've had discussions with Microsoft, specifically people working with the Xbox Live environment – these guys love the Xbox community. They want to participate in its growth and development."
What Else Can You Do With The Data?
We also asked Dorf and Smith about privacy, and what other issues might arise given that the service would essentially be "watching" gamer behavior continually. Could there be an opportunity there to glean market data, or to target ads?
"I've been in the internet ad space for 9 years," answers Smith, "Those are very good questions, and it's good you bring it up. I've seen the internet ad space morph more times than I wish to discuss since 1998 and '99, and I think what's transpiring in today's market -- if we were to look back in 2000, you'd be taken aback about privacy issues of what occurs today versus what occurred then. We’re really sensitive to that."
He continues, "The user info and user data is very sensitive info information. We will project out info that is not personally identifiable for a consumer. We’ll act upon it in accordance with marketplace best practices. We don’t intend to match up anything of that nature that is intrusive to our users."
In other words, Smith assures the company will only act on what data is "suitable." He concedes, however, "The core audience is mainly 18-35 year old males, and advertisers want to reach them. There's a sweet spot there. So we have to guard on what type of ads we slate to the users."
But, for example, GameStrata data feeds would allow them to see data associated with Battlefield 2 expansion packs, making it visible whether a user has purchased certain packs or not. "Then, there's an interesting proposition for the publisher," continues Smith, "in that we could potentially solicit discounted expansion packs to core people who play the base game. Is that using demographic targeting in a fair and straightforward manner? We think so -- but that will be up to the game's publisher as well. That's kind of where we draw the line -- but if we gave a discount to the user, that would be kind of cool, right?"
Smith stressed, "I don't want to give the perception that we'll use a lot of that information to solicit things. But we have gone down that road with [publishers] now. Again look, at the time frame of franchise releases. If we were supporting a title like Madden – they're on a 12-month release calendar. If you can turn around and offer a presale with a value back to the consumer, and you recognize how active the user is already – that’s a win-win for the user and EA, so certainly we'd like to facilitate that."
GameStrata has been in private beta since December of 2007, and the site is now officially public, though it maintains an invite-only private beta. Clearly, though, Dorf and Smith hope the GameStrata service will have a significant and broad-reaching impact on the industry. Community features have become essential in next-gen games, a broad userbase -- particularly that "sweet spot" hardcore market -- greatly desires them, and that trend can be expected to continue surging if more publishers continue to support this type of service.