Agora connects video game players to online communities

In ancient Greece, an “agora” was an open place of assembly, and sometimes a marketplace. In modern

In ancient Greece, an “agora” was an open place of assembly, and sometimes a marketplace. In modern times, players of video games like Guitar Hero III and Transformers assemble at Internet online communities designed and administered by Agora games.

The Troy company received the “rising star” Technology Award earlier this week from the Center for Economic Growth.

Without any venture capital money or angel investor cash, company officials said the small firm has grown from being a start-up in the Rensselaer Incubator Program to employing 22 people and designing online communities for major video game titles.

“This stuff is as new as it gets. Five years ago even, with the [release] of the original [Microsoft] Xbox, most of this wasn’t possible,” Agora games Vice President of Business Development Peter Ryan said. “It’s like the Wild West right now because [what we’re providing is this] whole undiscovered country [and] now everybody is clamoring to do it.”

Ryan said the company was originally founded as “Agora studios” and focused on creating Web portals. He said the company switched to video games when it created an official “mod,” or modification, of the game “Half Life 2,” which proved popular enough that 1 million gamers downloaded the free modification.

After that, they created an online community for “Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam,” working with Menands-based game-developer Vicarious Visions, a subsidiary of Activision, located in Santa Monica, Calif.

He said today Agora games works for game publishers like Activision, Konami and Nintendo to develop online communities which both enhance existing games and serve as a useful research tool for game developers.

This is how it works: players of Guitar Hero III, a game where users simulate playing songs on game controllers resembling guitars, can join the online communities Agora games creates for free, provided the player is over 13.

Once the player joins the community, Agora games absorbs data created by the player’s online game system and feeds that information into the community and back to the game publisher, if the player allows the publisher access to the information by checking that option when signing up for the community, Ryan said.

“Every time you play [your] score, that data, including a whole host of other kinds of data, come out of the game through a back-end network that we built,” Ryan said. “It’s then sorted, parsed and sent into a database and then sent out to the Web to your specific name account so that you can go online to our Web site and compare your score against those of anybody playing Guitar Hero around the world.”

The online communities Agora games designs also create “metagames,” which are like games within the game players buy from the publishers. Game achievements become status symbols for players who’ve joined the online communities.

Company officials said about 5 million Guitar Hero III players worldwide passively feed data to Agora games network, even if they don’t sign up for the online community, but not demographic data, which comes only from the 500,000 or so players who’ve joined the community.

Ryan said part of the success of Agora games is the desire game publishers have to obtain useful information about who players are and how they play the games.

“It is very powerful from a product development standpoint when you can cross-reference demographic material across game-usage material. [It can answer the question] how do people play the game,” Ryan said. “From a product development standpoint, [game publishers] can then calculate how often people use a specific type of character in a game [and] whether it’s worthwhile in the next version of the game to spend time and money to create that character again.”

The company anticipates growth and expects to expand to at least 30 employees by the end of the year.

“We’re just going to be taking on a lot more projects this year and growing rapidly, and we’re going to be hiring a lot more people. It’s all about growth this year and how to manage it,” Agora games Financial Operations Manager Scott DeMarco said. “We’re in a really niche market right now.”

Ryan said he foresees the next big innovation in online gaming will be enabling statistics from online communities to be connected to computer users’ Facebook and My Space Web pages.

“We want to make the communities as transparent and universally portable as possible,” he said. “There is only so much time during the day and if you’ve got to logon to 10 different sites in night, that’s kind of losing proposition. We want to make it as seamless as possible for you to keep your info with you and to know where it’s coming from.”

Categories: Business

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