Welcome to Quick Dev Insights. A series of bite-sized interviews with people who work in and around the games industry, from indie to AAA. A full list of these interviews can be found here and you can follow my Twitter to find out when new ones are released!
Building A Community with Dan Walters
Screenshot from Carrier Command 2
I'm Dan, I'm the owner of Geometa, and lead developer on Stormworks and Carrier Command 2. I have a background in design, but spend most of my time programming. Over the past 6 years we have built Stormworks from a Steam Early Access launch to one of the biggest vehicle building games on Steam.
What do you think the major differences are between initially acquiring and then nurturing a community in regards to how you interact with them?
Firstly, I will point that that there are a thousand paths to success, and discovering a new path is often the best way. We have been very lucky in that the product has struck a chord, and one element can carry the rest. There is an old business adage that says that 90% of your productivity comes from 10% of your effort. My preference is to focus as much as possible on the most productive aspect (developing the core game) and there is a lot we don't do.
It is all integrated, so the actual game and the players have a big role in what the community is about. For Stormworks, it is often a social thing, sharing what they have built in the game and getting reactions from other players. As a game developer, I see our role as a service provider, adding the social and communication tools and framework for players to easily express themselves and discuss with others. In practical terms, this is a Discord server, issue tracker, blog, etc.
Communication is important, and we post an announcement at the same time every week. This is the developers voice in the community, but it isn't the only voice, and it's important to accept that the players shape the community to the greatest extent. Little is within control of the developer and it's important to embrace this.
As the community for Stormworks has matured, there haven't been major changes to how we have managed the community from our side, other than trying to smooth out some friction points. We are lucky because certain players have seen and understood what players need better than ourselves, and provide their own service. This can be helping players with the in-game programming, or making tutorial videos or videos that explain the new updates. They are not doing this to help the developers, but to help the players, because they care about their community. I can't speak highly enough of these people who see value in helping others.
In your experience what do you think is a good frequency for contact and does it always require a dedicated community person?
The only downside in speaking to your players is potential fatigue - where a player could feel they are being spammed, and disengage. Otherwise, if the info in your communications is valuable and informative to players, then keeping it regular and frequent solves a lot of problems. Players want to know what is going on, be reminded that they are not forgotten about, and be entertained. We find that once a week works well for Stormworks because we have loads to talk about, and the engagement has continued to grow.
Interestingly, we recently had an issue on Carrier Command 2, where we had been releasing updates every 2 weeks, but posting the update info as "patch notes" on Steam. A technical detail here is that Steam doesn't post "patch notes" type announcements on the store page, just on the news page for the game, and in some other places deeper in the UI. The result of this is that some players started to claim we had stopped updating the game for months. A simple communication change to start posting the update info to the store page to make it difficult for players to miss. It can be hard to remember that not everyone is full time involved in the game, and you need to make the info easy to digest and hard to miss for casual players.
In terms of a 'community person', this is not a straightforward topic. The reality is, that there are no simple questions, and only a person who is actively and absolutely engaged with all aspects can give accurate information. Someone who doesn't work in the office with the developers just can't have the insight, no matter how well they know the game. Quality of content is really important to keeping your communications high value, so the person writing the content must understand the design goals, the technical limitations, the history, the development capabilities, etc. Otherwise it is just marketing fluff, and players can tell the difference.
Which methods have you found work best in terms of interactions with your community?
A weekly announcement on Steam is the backbone of our communication strategy. This is the official word of the developers, it appears on the store page, and it is regular to encourage habitual engagement. The other one is the issue tracker, where players can go to easily communicate directly with the developers. Customer support is important, and players must have a voice and be able to make their point, otherwise you risk pushing an otherwise well-wishing player away and forcing them to use their review to have their voice heard.
Now for the controversial part - you will hear from any marketer how important Discord, Facebook, Twitter, etc. is to your "strategy", but the reality is, if you actually measure the impact, you are going to find that a lot of it is a waste of your time. Is Discord worth the effort? We have the in-game link so players can chat with others with a single click, but it is a lot of work. It is a good service for players, but I would rather focus more on actual development.
We occasionally do Q&A videos every few months, and this is good to cover a bit more detail than you can in a short weekly announcement. It makes it clear that you want to engage with players, and giving the company a human voice does make players consider you more as a real person and less of a faceless punching bag. I enjoy them, it isn't too much work, and some sub-group of players really appreciate them.
Some key players run their own competitions, other community events, and one even runs an annual awards ceremony. This stuff can be great for the community, but it is these community members who are best at making this kind of stuff happen. Personally, I don't think the developer is the best person to do these activities, and it's a big distraction from where the focus should be - product development.
The Steam Workshop seems to be an active part of Stormworks. Do you think it has helped in building a community?
Steam Workshop and UGC is all there is. It is the social engine that powers the game and has allowed the game to consistently and sustainably keep selling for years. It is the social aspect of sharing your creations and looking at other players creations that feeds back into the gameplay loop and gives the game the feeling of real meaning. This can't be emphasized enough. The players author part of the game, and it becomes their game.
Many players have 10's of thousands of subscriptions of their creations. There is an ecosystem within Stormworks where you can grow your own following and audience. The fact that these incredible creations are created by players is that bit more magical, compared to a developer or artist creating it.
It's hard to please everyone and it's likely that someone will always be unhappy with a game development change. How do you approach handling disagreements?
There is a lot to cover here.
Stormworks has a review score of 92% so the vast majority of players feel positive about the game and we have no problem being held to account when we get it wrong (which is often). However, some players are easier to please than others and I would recommend against trying to please 100%. Some players have impossible expectations, while others will move the goal posts when you get close. Instead, we focus on helping where we practically can.
Any time we make a development change that replaces or adjusts an existing feature, there is a backlash, even if the change is an improvement in every objective viewpoint. Players do not want to re-learn a mechanic, they don't want a learn a new location for some UI, but they do want the game to be better. This puts the developer between a rock and a hard place, and each time we change an existing mechanic, the backlash is so exhausting that we regret the effort we put into improving the game. This means that if we implement something, then later decide we could have done it in a better way, it is too late. This is one of the biggest flaws in "games as a service".
In terms of disagreements, we only really have two official communication streams - the weekly announcement, and the issue tracker. Players can and will get a response straight from the developers, and while it isn't always the ideal response in the affirmative, we at least try to explain our reasoning, as well as explaining that we are only game developers and not everything is within our control. The majority of players accept our response, but with almost half a million players, sometimes there are aggressive, argumentative, or confrontational reactions. In these cases, I think we have given a response in the best way we can, but there is no need to engage in discussion or argument. Follow the rules of "treat everyone equally, help where you can, but you are only a game developer".
One last thing to point out is that these two communication streams are both on our terms. Most of the content on forums, Discord, reviews, comments, etc. are players discussing between themselves. As your game grows, reading all of this would become a full time job, and at some point we stopped reading it to focus on responding only to stuff addressed directly to us on the issue tracker. This may read like we ignore some feedback, and are detached from our players - but it is a question of scale and productivity. Our viewpoint is that we read everything addressed and sent directly to us, and the issue tracker encourages constructive and detailed dialogue, and gives us more than enough to work on.
Where to find more about you / things you're working on?