Spend long enough rummaging through the densest troves of hardcore-gamer culture — the message board NeoGAF, the subreddit r/gaming, a handful of enthusiast website forums — and you’ll find a very particular kind of post. It’s a request for a game recommendation. But it doesn’t ask for anything so simple as, say, a great, overlooked first-person shooter or a buzzed-about indie adventure game. These posts are hyper-specific, often humorously so.
You might see a post asking for a recommendation for a third-person action game with cover mechanics set in a fantasy world. Or a first-person shooting game in an open world with role-playing elements. Or a sandbox game with an engrossing story and a campaign mode of at least 12 hours.
The point is: This kind of gamer knows to a connoisseur’s level of specificity what he or she wants, and yet he or she lacks an adequate discovery mechanism. There is no equivalent of the Netflix genre-keyword engine for games.
That may be changing. Earlier this month, the massive online game retailer Steam introduced user-created tags as a new way to filter content and recommend it to consumers. Here’s what the tags for the new Castlevania game, Lords of Shadow 2, look like:
As you can see, it’s a mix of the generic (“Action RPG”), the jokey (“What is a man?”), and the gamer-specific (“Metroidvania,” a term that is as clear in its connotations to gamers as it is opaque to non-gamers). Once Steam collects enough data about user behavior and the popularity of various tags, it’s of course quite easy to imagine a sophisticated recommendation system that solves the type of question from above. Such a system helps not just hyper-knowledgeable hardcore gamers, but also people who enjoy games but don’t follow the gaming press closely enough to know about most releases.
And there’s another, less obvious way in which I think this sort of category mixing and matching will prove useful: as a way to sort among the great undifferentiated mass of games that are neither famously terrific nor infamously awful. Take the new game Thief, which I’ve been playing for the past 10 days. As the reviews today have made clear, Thief has deep flaws that many gamers will find prohibitive. (Among many other problems, it’s hard to navigate and it has an incomprehensible plot.) But Thief, a resuscitation of a legendary game from 1998, also has undeniable strengths. As a stealth game (and one possessed of fundamental mechanics that have hardly changed in 16 years), I think it is still unsurpassed. And it looks terrific.
The games media narrative about Thief is going to be negative; the game was burdened with extremely high expectations and it doesn’t meet them. A game reviewer isn’t in a position to be able to recommend this game to a general gaming audience. But that doesn’t mean it’s a game without an audience. My point is, while a lot of gamers will be turned off by Thief, there is a group of people out there, united simply by their desire for a good sneaking game with a remarkable aesthetic and sense of atmosphere. And that’s where a recommendation engine could, and I think will, give the game a second life after the disappointed hue and cry fades. In a profound way, this kind of indexing opens up a whole universe of games — flawed but playable — to gamers looking to scratch a very particular itch.
Game developers are starting to get good at coming up with these sort of keyword-combination games on their own. Titanfall, the ballistically hyped new Xbox One game, is very much the Venn diagram overlap of “Military First-Person Shooter,” “Giant Robot Game,” and “Parkour Game.” They’re also, taking cues from the world of online gaming, getting extremely good at stripping off the chaff. Titanfall has no single player campaign; the game is singularly focused on delivery its microtargeted competency again and again. And millions of gamers, they think, will be looking for exactly that.
Of course, Titanfall relies on a very old-school method of player discovery, namely, an unavoidable, multiplatform ad campaign. Most games don’t have that luxury. And that’s why, as recommendation engines become better and more popular, developers will have the luxury of seeing exactly what kind of hybrids gamers are looking for. Maybe that means a Thief-style game that is simply a sneaking and stealing simulator, with no story. Certainly it means gamers will have a more organized place to go than Reddit when they want to find a Western-style role-playing games with action elements and an orchestral soundtrack.