TOOL FOCUS: Gamespy

TOOL FOCUS: Gamespy

By Develop

August 18th 2008 at 11:04AM

From simple multiplayer tools, GameSpyâ??s technology now enables sophisticated features such as data mining and in-game commerceâ?¦

Product: ATLAS, Direct2Game, Team
Price: Available on request
Company: Gamespy
Contact: +01 310 280 7803
www.poweredbygamespy.com

A frustration for many middleware companies is the length of time between signing clients and being able to talk publicly about the titles their technology is being used in. When it comes to GameSpy’s range of online services though, this is less of a problem given that the company provides the backend and networking SDK for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which by definition powers all Wii and DS online functionality.

Even with that proviso, director of technology Todd Northcutt was still revelling in the reflected glory the company received for its involvement with three of the biggest games of the year so far: Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros Brawl and GTA IV.
“In the span of a month, our technology was being used in games that sold 20 million copies and was being used by around 10 million gamers. It’s been pretty amazing and proves online is just getting more and more important,” he says.

Of course, that’s hardly rocket science. Even single player-only games now require online features if only in terms of downloadable content. But what Northcutt is really enthused about is the way the online status of games is shaking up the entire process of development; even the entire process of managing a franchise.

“With GTA IV, in four weeks we’d collected stats on 12,000 man-years of gameplay,” he says. “In the past, publishers used these statistics purely for public consumption, so it was things like how many bullets you fired or how many races you won. Now however publishers are interested in data mining to see how people play the game and use that information to keep their audience happy, as well as applying them to expansion packs. These are tools to gather business intelligence about what your customers are doing.”

Of course, online games developers have been doing this sort of thing for years. Northcutt says he’s seeing the smartest traditional studios setting up dedicated teams to use this data.
“It definitely requires a new way of thinking,” he points out. “People have to take a franchise approach and look not just at the lifecycle of individual titles but entire lifecycles. The guys who are ahead of the curve have online groups, which aren’t focused on a specific title but the online experience in general. For example, Infinity Ward has an active community
manager who talks to their multiplayer audience and Relic has dedicated guys for its online audience.”

GameSpy enables this way of working with its ATLAS system, which received a major upgrade at the start of 2008. In conjunction with the Sake persistent database, it can track almost any in-game activity via a simple API. It encrypts data, which can then be processed in various ways using a web-based admin tool. It can also feed results into other packages such as GameSpy’s Arena competition platform to populate ladders and the like.

Other related technologies GameSpy is currently working on include the Team SDK solution, which will enable developers to extend the social aspects of gameplay, as well as gamers themselves to manage teams both in-game and via web sites.
“We’re less than a month away from having the SDK released. It ties in with all our other tech such as the buddy system, the status system and ATLAS,” Northcutt says. “It will also be integrated into Unreal Engine 3 so anyone with a license can access it as a free technology upgrade. I’d expect it to turn up in games shipping in spring 2009.”

Another piece of the puzzle will be revealed as the Direct2Game turnkey commerce tool can be used in-game. “That’s launching in August in a game from THQ and will let players buy all the different classes and races they would have only otherwise been able to get access to by buying all the expansion packs,” Northcutt says. “We’re really excited about seeing how the public react to that.”