GameSpy Technology's VP Todd Northcutt is excited about the web's ability to enable everyone to aggregate and shape data to their needs. In response, he pushed his team to develop GameSpy Open, a new outgrowth of the matchmaking company's technology.
It allows developers to mine for data in their own titles and the community for the games to harness that data how they see fit, via GameSpy's APIs. This, he hopes, should allow better community engagement and hooks into social media.
GameSpy, whose networking technology drives Mario Kart Wii
and games in the Battlefield
and Grand Theft Auto
series, among others, hopes that its new "pay-as-you-go" pricing structure and Open APIs will attract independent developers as well. "We're not a platform. We're out to help our developer partners succeed," says Northcutt.
Gamasutra spoke with Northcutt about the new initiative and what it means for developers who choose to engage with the company's toolset.
Tell me about GameSpy Open. What's your goal for this initiative?
Todd Northcutt: Our vision for GameSpy Open is to empower all games to become more social through open data access. We're taking the step of making our game data easier for developers to share with their communities -- be it gameplay statistics, or user-created content stored in our cloud. We believe this will ultimately fuel a wave of innovation in gaming on par with what we've seen happen on the web. This innovation is not possible as long as games rely solely on closed, proprietary systems to connect online.
What was your inspiration for Open?
As far as inspiration goes, we looked at the changing landscape of the game industry and saw a few major shifts.
First, almost every game now connects to the web -- to play between gamers, store and present player statistics, share user generated content or download new content. This happens on every platform, whether it be the DS or the iPhone or the PC and PS3. That said, it's a balkanized landscape. Each platform has its proprietary standards and rules for interaction.
Second, community is increasingly important to the success of a game. Highly successful games make great use of game-to-web interaction and offer players the tools to communicate and shape the community themselves. Doing so, though, can require significant time and investment on the publisher or developer's part.
Finally, a new breed of independent developers is emerging. It's now possible to make a high-quality game much less expensively and still reach a huge audience. These smaller independent developers are innovating to create many new types of games on new platforms. They don't, however, have a great way to connect to the web. They're forced to create their own infrastructure, pay fees that may be too high or lose data ownership to a third party.
So, GameSpy Open is both about helping our traditional customer base adapt to these trends and succeed in a new era, and also about making our services more accessible to this new level of developer.
How does it plug into your tools and services?
We want to put the wealth of amazing data that games can generate back into the hands of the community. They have seemingly infinite time and energy and are able to do so much more with open access to this data than either we or the developer can, given fixed resources.
Just look to EVE Online
to see the power that results from opening up an API to the community. There is an incredible iPhone app called Capsuleer that allows you to monitor and track your EVE
pilots from outside the game. I can't imagine any developer having the time or budget to develop a free iPhone app, but the community used the API to do it themselves.
Ultimately, our goal is to offer the same suite of services to every developer we work with, whether you're Nintendo making the next Mario Kart
for the Wii or an eight person shop creating the next Diablo
-killer on PC. Every game, big or small, on the DS or the PS3 or the iPad can take advantage of online play, statistics and leaderboards, user-gen content sharing and all of the other services we offer.
We've also integrated the toolkit with Facebook Connect to empower users to log in, access buddy lists and share gaming experiences with their Facebook networks. We'll integrate with more systems (like OpenID) in the near future to expand this flexibility. Again, it's about what makes gaming easiest and most fun for the user – which, we're discovering, only truly happens when you open up.
How much control do developers have over the information they choose to share?
Developers are fully in control of what information to share. Our upcoming release of ATLAS (our statistics and leaderboards service) will allow the developer to track hundreds of thousands of statistics per player and then literally check a box next to which elements they want to expose to the public.
All of this data is then made available to the game itself, the developer's official site or the community at large via our SDK or web services.
What's the advantage of sharing information?
This is a really common model on the web. The games industry has really missed this boat by keeping everything closed and proprietary. Would Twitter or Facebook be as successful as they are now if they'd been built on closed, proprietary standards? Absolutely not.
Once that data is out there, what sort of things do you expect to see people doing with it?
We expect that the results will slice along several different paths – game developers will use it in one way, while community members do so in others. But they're all part of the same ecosystem, mutually benefitting from one another's efforts.
One narrow example: for developers, doing something as simple as piping game play or usage data to their community members can result in some diverse and powerful visualizations of that data. It's easy to imagine some enterprising community members building widgets or website plug-ins that provide slick ways to analyze how people are playing (imagine players creating a widget that heatmaps specific statistics, like kills or heals or skirmishes).
In return, the developers get access to that visualization "for free" and can jump right to analysis. This is something that people normally pay big bucks for. The side benefit is an engaged, enervated, empowered community that now has a tangible stake in the long-term success of your game. An additional benefit will be all of the users who, by virtue of interacting with those ancillary apps, also extend their engagement with your game (and will stick around to buy virtual items, or DLC, or sequels).
Community members could and will go nuts with this stuff. I mentioned data visualization above, as a narrow example. But look at Google Maps as a broader example of the kinetic creative energy that's unleashed when you start opening up your APIs and data. Yelp uses it to help you easily find nearby restaurants and businesses. Other services use it to help you geographically plot apartment listings from Craigslist when you're looking for a new place to live.
Car manufacturers are using it in their in-dash navigation systems. A whole wealth of simple but incredibly valuable applications have sprung up and made people's lives easier and richer. We want to drive a similar event in gaming: simple, community-built apps that make players' gameplay experiences richer and more rewarding in ways that are flat-out impossible in a closed world.
What sort of licensing structure are you offering to indie developers that will make this attractive?
We know that this new class of independent developers often doesn't have the budget for a big, upfront license fee. With that in mind we're shifting to a "pay-as-you-go" model based on how much service the game consumes. This is very comparable to the model that cloud service providers use.
If a game has a small following then the developer will pay next to nothing for our services. For example, a game with only a few thousand players probably won't be consuming very much data by submitting / reporting statistics for those players, or storing user-created content like screenshots in our cloud. If it's a home run, though, we'll share in the game's success.
What kind of tools/site will you have as a backend for people to access the data?
For the community, it will start lean, in the form of read-only APIs and simple widgets that can be configured to populate with content (screenshots taken in game, user-generated levels, and the like). These will stem from our stats tracking and reporting and cloud data storage services to begin with. As we watch people consume, create and innovate, we'll respond by providing more and different interfaces that allow for a broader range of interaction.
For developers, we're currently working on various ways to enable them to better initiate and control the kinds of data that they share. That's all done via administrative websites that they use to interact with our products. We're also building out some essentials, such as service metering and consumption metrics to help power the "pay-as-you-go" model and also give developers more intelligence around how their games are being utilized.
Now that Apple has announced Game Center for iPhone OS 4.0, how does affect both GameSpy's iPhone tools, and Open?
We're excited to see Apple's gaming platform evolve and we'll continue to work with them -- much as we do Sony and Nintendo -- to make sure that our services are complimentary to the platform tools.