When you’re building a multiplayer game, you’re actually building two big things of equal importance: a game that’s fun to play, and a community that’s fun to play it with. When you’re a tiny indie developer, the former is daunting enough, and it could be tempting to leave the latter to work itself out. But, after spending nearly four years building Super Animal Royale and its community, I’m confident that wouldn’t have worked for us. The success of Super Animal Royale is the success of our community.
While the gameplay has to be strong enough to attract them in the first place, we routinely hear from players that it’s the playful, supportive, non-toxic community that keeps them coming back to the island. Every game and community is unique, so while the specific challenges you face might end up being slightly different, it’s my hope that sharing our thought process and story will reinforce the importance of community building alongside game development, and help you think through your own approach and how to integrate the two.
Competitive games can be frustrating, and a critical mass of highly frustrated players is almost guaranteed to become the kind of aggressive, expletive-laden gaming environment we’ve become all too familiar with. That’s why we’ve tried to build respect for player health and emotions into Super Animal Royale’s DNA.
Every design decision contributes to whether a player becomes more or less frustrated, and while some negative feelings are inevitable in a genre in which you’re guaranteed to lose more than you win, we try to soften the edges of those bad feelings wherever we can. So, while a death animation in which your character explodes into a pile of spaghetti, followed by a message informing you that “You have been diskoalafied…” might seem like the devs just getting the sillies out (and, to be clear, it’s that too), the deeper intent is to subtly remind you that this is just a game. Every design decision in Super Animal Royale, from the short match length, to the cuddly character designs, goofy cosmetics and weapons and absurdist lore, is intended to blunt the agony of defeat, and to remind you that, while it offers genuinely intense action, you probably don’t want to take a fight that involves banana peels and armed monkeys too seriously.
Not every game can combat gamer rage with kittens and puns, of course, but every game can pay close attention to the key moments when players are going to be feeling frustration to soften the blow and also consider the player’s emotional health more broadly in their design. Every game can also seek to be respectful of a player’s time and attention, and to discourage unhealthy play habits. We’ve enlisted the advice of Ramin Shokrizade who has written extensively on the topic as it pertains to metagame design, and we try to assess every design decision through this lens.
Our new Animal Pass Archive system, for instance, is designed to reduce the unhealthy play times associated with many battle passes. Rather than expiring at the end of a season, players can continue working on their Animal Passes after each season is officially over, and can even purchase and complete prior Animal Passes at their own pace. While the FOMO-inspiring limited time battle passes do drive engagement, they also drive unhealthy habits, like marathon grinds to complete a pass before it expires. We don’t want players to skip out on studying for that final because they’re grinding to finish a pass, nor feel like they missed out because their pass expired while they were studying for that final. Games are ultimately just one of many ways to spend your leisure time, and while we’re thrilled if you want to spend time playing our game, we’re strong believers in shorter play sessions spread out over a longer period of time. We want you to go study for that final, go outside, take breaks, live a balanced life.
While it can be hard to quantify the overall impact of these design choices, we know qualitatively they are noticed and embraced by the community. How do we know what the community thinks? Because we’re part of it.
Build the community you want to live in
The wall between the development team and the broader SAR community is intentionally porous. You’ll frequently find purple names (denoting dev team members) in SAR matches and on our Discord server, where we’re reading and responding to #sar-feedback, riffing about our process in #sar-general, and marveling at the incredible #sar-art. We don’t just read feedback, we respond to it, both in Discord chat, and in the way those conversations inform future designs. If you make a valuable suggestion, it will be considered.
We’re committed to keeping our community healthy, because we’re part of it. We play the game too, and we want it to be a fun, lighthearted, and relaxing place to hang out. We’ve made genuine connections with many of the players who’ve become the pillars of the community, enforcing good conduct informally by setting an example, and formally by joining our moderation team. Some of these relationships even stretch back to the game’s closed alpha days. We’ve grown our team alongside the player base, often quite directly: about a quarter of our current team was hired from the SAR player community, and all of our moderators were active community members first. We are a part of the community, and over time, the community has become part of us.
The result is that a large percentage of our most active players treat the game and its Discord channel with a kind of civic pride. They helped build the community, so they feel protective of it, and determined to maintain the friendly, small-town feel of the early days on the island, when everybody knew everybody. This pride is contagious, and as our player base has grown, the culture of positivity has (so far) spread to new players. So, yes, we have to moderate the game, deal with trolls, and settle disputes, just like everyone else. But every new player is joining a culture of openness, creativity, and low tolerance for toxicity, established by the community members who’ve been here from the beginning. The positivity of these influential players generally overwhelms the negativity that occasionally drifts in.
It’s thanks to these pillar members that we can have nice things here in Super Animal World. But, how did we attract and retain those community pillars in the first place? Because we invested in them.
Invest in your community, and they’ll invest in you
When you’re an active member of your own community it’s far easier to recognize the best aspects of the community that are naturally arising and reward and nurture them so they snowball over time. We do this through roles and programs for community ambassadors/moderators, prolific fan artists, and content creators, but one of our biggest initiatives that applies to every player is our animated YouTube series, Super Animal Royale Tonight.
SAR Tonight began life as a trailer concept for our Steam Early Access debut. We wanted a trailer to showcase exciting gameplay, and our play tests with our (at that time tiny) beta community consistently produced amazingly skilled plays and hilarious moments that we knew we wanted to shine the spotlight on.
So we made a two-and-a-half-minute announcement video that presented the top user clip submissions in an ESPN-style highlight show, complete with Super Animal hosts and light storytelling meant to fill in details about the game’s world. It worked. By showcasing user-submitted videos, and including their Twitch stream commentary, the community was seen and celebrated, and the wall between the players and the dev team eroded further.
We quickly decided to make it an ongoing series, expanding the storytelling and production value, and getting your clip selected for the show has come to hold real prestige. We’ve been careful not to limit our selections to the most impressive play, including bloopers and playful, creative play to showcase a broader swath of the community. We’ve even added a fan art contest to the show to showcase our incredible artists (we also added an in-game museum where you can see the winners hanging in a gallery while you wait for the next match). Super Animal Royale Tonight YouTube premieres have become big events for our most engaged players, a time when the community gathers to celebrate itself (and engage in dizzying live chats full of banana emojis).
SAR Tonight has become such a staple of life in Super Animal World, it’s easy to forget that the whole endeavor was a big risk. An indie team has limited time and resources, and the process of curating hundreds of clip and art submissions alone, not to mention animating a full show, presents a huge, time consuming challenge that competes with other priorities for our attention. The theory is that by investing this kind of energy into engaging with and celebrating the community, in particular the positive and creative members of that community, we’ll reinforce that we’re all building something together. As our flagship community engagement initiative, SAR Tonight symbolizes our belief that community building is just as important as game building.
We’d love to start a dialogue with more developers about how to approach community building, and would be happy to answer questions and share more about what we’ve learned. If you’d like to chat, feel free to send us a tweet at @PixileStudios, or join us in our Discord Server.