With the rise of social media and the ability to connect with anyone at any time, it’s no surprise that the video games industry has felt the tectonic plates shift beneath its feet. There was a time when a game would be pushed out the door upon release, and it would be onto the next project. No more.
Now, developers are expected to work on a game post-launch, be it in the form of updates, patches, or additional content. All of this centres around one thing – the community. As the industry moves towards games as a service as a default model, the involvement of the community has never been more critical. A fickle beast if ever there was one, developers and publishers are increasingly focused on bringing people into their gaming ecosystem and keeping them there.
A thriving community can make a game; a dead community can kill a game. See Epic Games’ Fortnite as an example of this success in action, and see ex-Epic employee Cliff Bleszinski’s LawBreakers for the opposite. So how do you build and nurture that community?
Drawing the crowd
There’s no magic formula to fostering a community. Some exist on their own without any help from the developers. The Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda is a prime example; it has a strong modding community creating new content for games going as far back as The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which released in 2002.
They are the exception to the rule though; today, keeping a community together is a constant campaign that involves active participation from the developer. No doubt the role of community manager has never been more popular in the industry.
The key is constant engagement. More often seen in multiplayer games, a steady stream of new content gives players a reason to stay with the game. A prime example is Rare’s award-winning Sea of Thieves, which promised to keep the swash-buckling going well past launch and has plans to deliver well into the future. Fans are regularly rewarded with trailers to build up the hype. And it works; one of their most recent trailers are drawing in over 350,000 views, and their website is still pulling in 2 million visitors a month.
But trailers aren’t enough. Consistent communication is necessary. Rare host regular live streams and developer updates to keep the community in the loop with ongoing developments. Fortnite too. And on multiple platforms – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, their own blog, you name it.
Developers have to listen to their community. When Final Fantasy XIV first launched in 2010, it was met with derision from fans. It was deemed so inadequate that Square Enix had to publicly apologise. But they didn’t let it die; they listened to feedback and reworked the whole game, relaunching it in 2013. Interestingly, they stayed respectful of their loyal community, giving the old game an appropriate send-off. Today the game still receives regular updates and is one of the most popular MMORPGs.
Ups and downs
A novel, potentially underutilised method of engagement is through alternate reality games (ARGs). More common in the movie industry, they have been used with games before, most famously as part of Halo 2’s marketing campaign. ‘I Love Bees’, as it came to be known, was a pre-release mystery that tied into the wider Halo story. It created community engagement before the game even came out.
Others choose to leave vague mysteries in their games for players to solve. Rockstar Games left breadcrumbs in Grand Theft Auto V for players to follow. Dubbed the ‘Mt. Chiliad Mystery’, players were drip-fed new pieces of evidence through Grand Theft Auto Online, keeping them hooked for three years.
But for all the good of communities, there is a dark side you have to be wary of. Toxicity is rife and, if given the opportunity, any community can prove to be a pack of wolves. You wouldn’t want to be Activision Blizzard right now after the announcement of mobile game Diablo Immortal went down like a lead balloon – share prices have fallen drastically. Maybe when your audience boos you don’t say “do you guys not have phones?” in response.
As the industry shifts towards GaaS as a default model, the community is only going to become more important. It needs to be embraced by big-name developers and indies alike, and as we’ve seen, there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way.
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