Internet Trends - What beats a portal?

Discussion in 'Indie Business' started by Dan MacDonald, Mar 25, 2006.

  1. Dan MacDonald

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    I remember in the .com rush of the mid 90's yahoo hit the scene and everyone was so amazed at their portal content and their site directory. The conventional wisdom was, "Internet users don't want to find stuff they want one site where they can get all the information they need". Microsoft made MSN, various news portals popped up. Everyone was making portals, talking about things like stickyness and how to keep people on your pages longer. You saw things like real estate pages with web games for kids, people tried everything to get as much traffic as they could.

    Companies liked the idea so much they started creating intranet portals for their own employees and the portal business took off. Companies started making a killing making portals for other companies, development companies started making portal products that you could buy in a box and customize to your needs. Better late then never Microsoft even showed up with Sharepoint (it's own intranet portal product).

    Recently trends have been changing however, Google is the big dog in town. It's a little bit odd too, Google's default search page is so unobtrusive that you can see why the big portal players ignored it for so long. But google (like em or hate em) approached the internet with a different theory. The decided that instead of trying to bring all the information that a user might need to one site and have them stay there indefinatly, they decided to invest in making one of the best search engines online and allowing users to find whatever they want. Instead of being sticky they became a spring board. Google has taken this principle of connecting users with information and laughed all the way to wallstreet.

    Google may not be laughing so loud now however, they managed to awake the bear from hibernation and now Google's prior unwitting enemies are rallying against them. Microsoft is investing heavily in search and now sees Google as a direct competitor. There's a lot of interesting implications about whats happening currently with the two companies, but one thing is evident. The theory of providing one site with selected information has proven to be less compelling to online users then the site that allows them to find whatever they want.

    ----

    With that preface, the point I would like to make is that if you want to beat the portals, don't build an indie portal, build an indie search.

    One of the biggest flaws of a portal is that there's just no way to have everything a person possibly wants. The content they provide is what most people want because content is expensive and they only have so many resources. The need to focus on the content that gets them the most ROI.

    Right now that means that game portals are largely locked into casual games. If I was in a mind to enter their business (and believe me, i'm not) I would make a games search. It would find casual games on the portals, it would find flash and web games, it would find downloadable games from sites like blitwise, phelos, happy puppy and so on. It would find you any type of game you were interested in, with relevant results.

    By default it would be a search, like google, but you can see it growing to add value, like a game registry where once you found "Platypus" on real arcade and on reflexive you could look it up in the registry and see what people were saying about it. Maybe even wiki style reviews of games where users produce the content. Game players are a very lucrative market demographic and online advertising has matured to a viable business strategy. One could imagine selling google style adwords on the search.

    I'll let you imagine the possibilities.

    The point is you can't beat the portals at their own game, the have these things that make very string barriers to entry. Capital, Resources, Momentium, Critical Mass, Product Catalog, Brand Recognition and so on. If you want to beat the portals you have to do it by solving a different problem. A game search doesn't really solve the problem that most developers have, not being able to publish their games.

    With an indie game search developers would have to get their lazy asses in gear and actually set up some means of taking payment and put their game up on their website somewhere. The one thing it does do however is apply a democratizing affect to how users find games, it also as a much wider reach then a real arcade would because if the search is just as good at finding sci-fi games as it is at finding mach three, and just as good at finding shooters as it is at word games then you can have something that's relevant to many more people then females 18-35 and senior citizens.

    Because of that universal relevancy you allow the traffic to flow to where it should, allow people to find the games they want. Instead of having all the casual traffic sucked up by big portal magnets, and all the core traffic sucked up by bluesnews and 1up, you have a site that can be rel event to all of them and connect all of them to games.

    In conclusion the way to beat the portals is not to beat the portals but to be more relevant then the portals. The real problem is traffic not publishing, publishing is cheap, it costs almost nothing to publish online. What is expensive right now is traffic, if you solve the traffic problem you solve the portal problem.
     
  2. AlexN

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    Now that you mentioned it, I guess it's a good time to ask. How do we get unlimited bandwidth? Do we lease a dedicate line from an ISP? How much does it usually cost?
     
  3. Dan MacDonald

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    What I meant by that statement was getting eyeballs, and getting the right kind of qualified eyeballs that are interested in your product. You can get some high quality bandwidth fro $20 a month if you know where to look. Also some payment processers will host the downloads for you for a small fee. The distribution is the easy part, downloads, websites, credit card processing, all of the facets of distribution are readily and cheaply available online, even the bandwidth.

    The hard part is getting the right kind of people to come, that's why I say if you solve the traffic problem (getting potential customers to see your game) you'll sove the portal problem (portals taking all your money to show your game to customers).
     
  4. Tom Gilleland

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    Great Post!

    Tom
     
  5. AlexN

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    No, no. I'm not competing with casual portals, nor looking for a way to beat them. I'm really looking for a way to have unlimited bandwidth. Like Steam from Valve software, they must have a dedicated line of their own.
     
  6. soniCron

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    I vehmently disagree. Why would you want to put the burden of discovering new and exciting games on the visitor? Searches work really well for one thing: sifting through vast arrays of disorganized data. Or, put another way, finding a needle in a haystack. If you collect that hay into discrete and relevant bundles, then the user no longer needs to search -- they can browse. Searching is only preferable in limited cases in which every other approach fails.

    Portals carry only the most appealing titles to eliminate those huge amounts of disorganized data. Without these vast arrays of irrelevant data, portals can focus on presenting their wares to their visitors, rather than wait for the visitor to become enlightened to a game or genre and search/sift/sort/wade through muck for it. Excluding technical restraints, the only reason they hand-pick their selection is because otherwise they would be stuck with the inferior search-model. However, while their intentions are good, their method is not ideal.

    You talk about making portals relevant to users, but you seem to be looking past the most relevant method of feeding ideas: recommendations. Which is more valuable: a list of "action movies" or your friend mentioning a neat action movie he saw last weekend he thinks you'd like because it has those laser-wearing ninja dinosaurs you liked from that other movie? I think the answer is obvious, but it demonstrates the innate ability to feed relevancy through recommendation and the futile attempt to squeeze that out of a search. Portals are on the right track -- it would be a regression to change to a search method. They just need to take what they've got to the next step. Their hand-picked selections are a good start, but they only avoid the problem, not solve it.

    You're right that portals should allow the entire gamut of games in their doors. Portals really should cater to larger audiences and expand their horizons. After all, they managed to sell games to people who don't play games, so why not sell some to those who do? But I think your prejudice over popular portals' selections stems from the fact that they don't offer games you want to play, not because their system is inferior. I don't for a minute think casual + portals will be the end game. Eventually someone will wise up and start a hardcore portal, then someone will come along and combine the two and we'll have the Walmart of portals, etc...

    Point is, searching works for Google because the Internet is of almost limitless capacity and contains wildly varying data. Simply focusing on downloadable computer games eliminates most of the problems inherent with such a wide collection of data. If Google and Yahoo were competing circa 1993, Yahoo would win hands down. Why? Because they categorized what little information existed on the net at the time and made it possible to browse for and relate sites. These days, however, it's simply not possible to do that in a palettable way, so the search model defaults. But that doesn't make it superior with a limited data set as is found in the downloadable gaming world.

    The future of search is not to search. It's the semantic web. Ask and ye shall receive, not ye shall become innundated with inadequate results. The search actually understanding what you're looking for, not making lexical comparisons. This is what the recommendation system provides: understanding. It knows what you like, what others like, what you're willing to try, and what to suggest you try. Not a static, unfeeling list of seemingly relevant results that provide no insight to what you really desire: not to search, but to play.
     
  7. Artinum

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    I vaguely remember Ask Jeeves starting with the rather nice idea of inviting searchers to enter a question, which it then attempted to interpret. They have since abandoned this and gone the way of most search engines because people don't use it that way. If you ask "Where can I buy a woodwork plane?" you end up with travel agents.

    If searching becomes not having to search, this means the removal of choice. Want music? Welcome to iTunes. Want books? Here's Amazon. Want computer games? Here's [insert portal name here]. This is a frightening concept. Fortunately it is an unlikely concept because the people capable of doing this are not the ones who want it.

    The companies that innovate are those small enough to do so.

    But I digress. The future of the search engine is a better parser, not better search parameters. I want to go to Google or somewhere, type in exactly what I'm looking for and have it understand exactly what I mean, possibly with a list of alternatives I might also like, and preferably not a collection of irrelevant results concerned with something else I don't understand and have no interest in.

    That's the future I want. Intelligent searching.
     
  8. soniCron

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    When I say the future of search is not to search, I mean that in a very literal sense, not that there isn't a way to explore data. How you get to that relevant data is interface, and not really important. Could be a link in a bookstore site, could be a text box on Google. Doesn't matter. Point is, you're no longer "searching," you're asking -- requesting -- and then you're fed results that are specifically relevant to you; a recommendation.

    Actually, what you described is exactly what I'm talking about. I don't mean to confuse you with my poor vocabulary! ;)
     
  9. GameStudioD

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    The "search problem" with games is really 2 problems. How do you specify what kinds of games you want? And, How do you display the search results?

    I agree with this statement, but users must be allowed to customize their "bundles". The categories of arcade, puzzle, card, etc are not descriptive enough. A user should be able to verbalize, in general, what kind of game they want. But, even if this works, that is only half of the search problem.

    The portals do have a search mechanic, involving searching through lists of game names. Every portal category page comes down to a list of text links. And, if you ask your your average portal user, you will get an ear full on how frustrating and difficult those alphabetized lists are. The portals simply do not have advanced game search or browsing capabilities. So, the portals do not have a choice but to limit their stock of games. Its not that the portals do not want to carry more games, they cannot.
     
  10. Dan MacDonald

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    Since you are the resident contrarian I can't say I'm at all suprised by this. :)

    First of all you are taking issue with the implementation of search and not the idea of search being more relevant then a portal that publishes content.

    So lets approach this from an abstract point of view, purely talking about ideas and not implementation details. I actually don't care that much about the implementation details because I'm not going to be building any searches any time soon. I do have some ideas however.

    Abstract: Say there was a search engine where you could find and begin to download any game you wanted within 5 seconds? It wouldn't matter if you were joe hard core gamer, or betty casual game collector. How relevant would that be to you?

    Now compare that with the portal methodology, where they really only promote and publish the titles that give them the highest ROI. They target only the most lucrative market and with only the top 20 most lucrative games.

    If such a 5 second search were to exist it would break the hegemonic influence of the portals and allow targeted traffic to find exactly what it was looking for. As a developer you would get well qualified traffic to your product page as a result of this search.

    At an abstract level this makes rational sense, if you don't agree then our analytical processes are so different that we cannot continue to have a productive discussion. It's like a religious zealot and a atheist trying to talk about God, it just doesn't work

    Now where this whole idea tickles the contrarian in you is something that's glossed over in the original post because it only deals with big ideas and trends.

    Google works because webpages are composed of text and it's relatively straightforward to to apply an algorithm that determines the relevance of that page. With that you can sort pages by relevancy and give relevant results to the user. The more relevant the results, the better value the user gets from your search engine.

    Games are not so easy to scan for relevancy, so much of their evaluation is subjective and occurs in the mind of the user of the game. In the end the relevancy ranking of games in a game search would have to be done by humans. Something like newegg.com's product search where users rate and provide feedback on various title.

    The search would have to be able to identify games and then provide different links, say the user searched for platypus. They might get back the real version, the reflexive version, the arcadetown version etc. It would have to deal with this and display it to the user in a meaningful way and relate it to the entry in the game catalog.

    Ahh but how would someone search for something if they didn't know what was out there?

    There would have to be a taxonomy, I could even envision some sort of icon system. Where at the top you have some icons that represent puzzle, action, logic, casual.. blah blah blah.. as the user selected icons it would begin to filter results. Each selection would open up a set of sub category icons, vertical shooter, horizontal shooter, overhead shooter, with an iconic reference of the gameplay. Something like that could be pretty compelling, but what do I know, I'm not a taxonomist or Usability guy.

    What I do know, is that relevant search, something that helps people find exactly what they want is far more compelling then a single portal site trying to tell people what they want. Especially if those portals service a fairly narrow segment of the potential market. By nature of it's relevancy it appeals to all people who would buy a game online, casual or otherwise. I'm not saying it would be easy, no easier then starting an indie portal really. But if you could do it and make it relevant, it would be better then a portal.
     
  11. soniCron

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    This can be done naturally through the trying/buying process. The more the user does, the more relevant results you can give them. But, to begin with, you can start with your top sellers and a directory of games. You can also ask the user to explicity express their interests, but with a casual portal this is difficult or undesirable, because it's very possible the user hasn't played any/many games before.

    I don't believe the portals limit their stock because they "don't feel like" implimenting a search bar or sub-categorized lists. Why would they? The cost of implimenting either such system would be dramatically lower than having staff on hand to evaluate submissions.
     
  12. soniCron

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    *laughs* Incidentally, I removed a comment about nobody being surprised, shortly before I submitted my response. ;)

    It would be incredibly valuable, but it's simply not possible with a traditional search paradigm. You'd need something like, say, a recommendation system... ;)

    Like a recommendation system?

    But this is that "search" thing I'm saying is so bad. Instead of having the computer search, you've pushed the responsibility on to the player. Why have this at all, beyond, perhaps, a secondary backup system? This is a good starting place, until the system recognizes the user's interests, but after that, it's really only good for blind exploring -- and you don't even really need it to start with...

    I agree that the current paradigm isn't ideal, but I don't agree that charts should be eliminated, or even downplayed. These games perform well because they rose above the rest, and they offer a great jumping point for further exploration.
     
  13. soniCron

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    Okay. I'm having trouble discerning what it is you actually want. Do you want search? Or do you want portals to carry non-casual games as well? Or do you want them to carry all games? Because what you described is essentially Download.com. I'm having trouble following your thesis. What, exactly, is your thesis?
     
  14. Sillysoft

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    Searching is a powerful force, but if you were to create a game search engine you are still faced with the same original problem of getting traffic to it. If you want to harness the power of search traffic then you can already do that now, you just have to go through google or yahoo. I get the majority of my traffic from search engines, so I know that it can work. Long term success Goodsol has also said the same, that the existing search engines are what floats his boat. The trick is to find something that people are actually searching for and then make the best implementation of that.

    As well, I can offer another alternative to beating the portals: RSS. I get pretty much all my mac gaming information from the Apple Downloadable Games RSS feed. They provide some quality control I think, and link directly to the developers. I asked them to also make a version with screenshots inlined, which I would like, but it still works nicely for me right now. I have no need of a portal to fulfill my need to find new games, I get it in my RSS reader.
     
  15. Stu

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    Does this mean it only searches "indie" games and includes no games which are not "indie"? I'd think it would need to include all games and I'm guessing you do to.

    Great post.
     
  16. Dan MacDonald

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    Basically the problem with all my posts is that I try to make several points at once, I think it's because of the way I think, I like big wide reaching problems as opposed to nice discrete ones.

    So to list my hypothesises.

    A lot of indies don't like portals, they think they take too much money and they make indies develop casual games to make money.

    A lot of indies would prefer to make more interesting games if they thought they could sell them (reach customers)

    Portals are really bad at helping customers find what they are looking for. They tend to shove things down customers throats, and they only have resources and real estate to make a select few titles visible to customers.

    Portals (despite thier best efforts) are locked into casual games. Plenty of portals have tried to branch out and have had very limited success if any. In some ways they are running into the amazon problem. "Amazon's a book store right?". Even though the idea from day one with amazon.com was to sell everything. The portals have done such a good job capturing the casual audience that they really aren't equipped to sell to anything else.

    Portals ignore the long tail, that 99% of top 10,000 songs/movies/games can sell 1+ copies a week. The key here is that people need to be able to find what they are looking for in that top 10,000.

    Sure portals have catalogs, but all they have is a very juvenile taxonomy and they don't even follow it rigorously, so games sometimes end up in the strangest categories.

    Current search engines aren't really that well equipped to search for games, games are binary pieces of art, search engines are optimized to look for words not concepts. If you can tweak the web page that hosts your site just right and get just the right AdWords then you have a chance to increase your traffic. You can get by but it's not an efficient way to search for a type of game your interested in and see all the games that match that type?

    I'm not saying a game search would be easy, it would have to be innovative. I can almost guarantee you it wouldn't have anything to do with search words. You can see someone searching for "fun games", in their mind they have a very clear idea of what their looking for, and what a fun game is but it's not easily captured or requires an uncommon grasp of the English language to articulate to a traditional search engine properly. Even then the relevency of the results isn't paticularly good when compared to searching for other kinds of content, because people fudge the system for page rank etc etc.

    I played a game once, called 20 questions, it was this little ball with an LCD display, it would tell you to think of an noun and then it would ask a series of 20 questions to which you could press buttons yes, no, don't know. At the end of 20 questions it would guess your noun and it was almost always exactly right and if it wasn't exactly right it was VERY close.

    I figure it would take 3 to 5 questions to get a really tight fit on what type of game someone was looking for. The questions wouldn't even have to be verbal questions, they could just be a set of icons representing choices, moving from general to specific. Now this would require that games be added to this taxonomy in the correct areas. As far as i can tell this would be a human process of categorization, labor intensive yes, but fortunately there aren't THAT many games (at least compared to web pages) on the internet.

    This is just one way, something I would try first it may not be where it would end up. I'm just trying to make the point that if you want to do better then the portals, investing in a way to categorize and search games efficiently in a way that produces incredibly relevant results would be a much better investment then trying to compete directly with portals and their business model. As far as I know there's nothing on the web that allows you to search for games in a way that is really efficient and accessible.

    As far as the critical mass, if you create a new and substantially better way to give people access to the information they want, they will find it. It spreads in a grassroots kind of way, starts with the techies and then propigates to their wives and families and parents and relatives etc... If you make a system that is too difficult or technical for those people to use then you are lost, if you can make it so even a child could use it easly, then you've found something.
     
    #16 Dan MacDonald, Mar 26, 2006
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2006
  17. Dan MacDonald

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    Great Question.

    I would search for everything, FPS, RTS, you name it. Retail or otherwise, the only constraint I would put on it is that the game or the demo be downloadable. The reason for this is that even some hardcore gamer searching for Unreal Tournament 2007 is a potential customer. If he finds relevancy and is able to find the UT 2007 demo then he keeps coming back when he's looking for games, embedded in his searches will be indie games as well.

    Retail games don't typically become downloadable until they are past their prime, largely do to retail distribution contracts. That's changing but still the norm. There's plenty of opportunity for indie developers to insert their own games in that space, they can move quicker and fill a specific need in a market faster then the traditional retail developers and publisher can.

    So you make a system that can find any game for anyone, in this way it's extremely relevant to a lot of people. In doing so you provide a means for a lot of people to find you, if you happen to be what they are looking for.

    It moves people away from collecting around certain community and news sites that cater to their particular interest and provides a platform to redirect those people anywhere on the web, as long as it's what their looking for, retail or othewise.

    I would take a traffic of 2 page views if it was from two people who were looking for something almost exactly like I was selling over 3000 random drive by page views by people who were really looking for something else.
     
  18. Stu

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    My brothers and I have kicked around the concept of intelligent niche item/product surfing in the past. It seems like a natural evolution to follow Google. Search for games in Google and you get 2.6 billion results in .06 seconds. What good does that really do anyone? Add up every game contained in the top 20 results and you get an odd mix of a mere fraction of what is really out there.

    Yes, there would have to be an initial exhaustive cataloging of most known games of all kinds and this would have to be done by a human being. Didn't IMDB begin this way? This is really the stumbling block. I can imagine one or two full-timers spending many months on this. After it's "done" maintaining it would probably be a full time job, especially if the search must ultimatley lead to a working download link.

    Still, I like the idea.
     
  19. electronicStar

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    I don't think this is a good idea.
    People aren't going to come looking for games. People want to be entertained.
    Entertainement works by showing new and interesting things to the consumer. The consumer doesn't know what he is coming for , he wants YOU to show him what the next trend will be. He wants to be shown what he will be having fun with.
    People using you game search engine, would end up encountering always the same list of games and would get bored or would miss other unknown games potentially relevant to their interests.
     
  20. Rainer Deyke

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    I don't know if a search engine for games makes business sense, but as a gamer, I am excited about the possibility of finding new interesting games without shuffling through heaps of crap. I don't bother with gaming sites or game portals because 99% of the games they feature (retail or downloadable, indie or corporate) are uninteresting to me, and I can't justify the investment of time involved in finding a game I like. Basically all of the games I own, I stumbled upon by accident.
     

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