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Building Social Communities For Your Game: A Primer

How do you create game ecosystems? Guitar Hero community creator Ryan references Halo 3 and Spore to show how data-rich websites and social features make games successful.

[Trying to create a roadmap to delivering an engaging community experience within your game? Here, Peter Ryan, VP at community site creators Agora Games -- responsible for Activision's Guitar Hero community site, among others -- takes apart these complex web and crossmedia experiences, examining in detail not only the benefit they bring to your games, but what considerations must be examined when approaching, creating, and maintaining them.]

The state of the art in community sites

The current state-of-the-art community website built specifically for a game can be seen at Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 2 and Bungie's Halo 3 community sites. Each site provides an experience that is an extension of the game through the clever use of in-game data and the provision of a framework to support social interaction around a shared set of active goals.

The Forza 2 trading system enables users to swap cars they've made in game for in-game currency. Trading systems are not new to gaming, but a publisher providing a marketplace which empowers users with rights to their in-game assets in relation to others is.

This externalization of the game experience enables individuals to connect around their common in-game experience, and provides a framework around which a culture and community can thrive.

Bungie.net is a technical marvel. The developers on this project clearly worked very closely with the game code early on during the development cycle. The depth and richness of data is truly stunning, the presentation of data is outstanding and the overall experience is good.

The user has very deep access to their entire Halo 3 play history for both campaign and multiplayer modes. The user can drill down to specific weapons, maps and match types, enabling a level of analysis and comparison previously not possible. 

The real commonality between these two sites is the clearly visible depth of planning and coordination that existed between the game developers and the web developers to produce the synergies between the game and the web. 

What is the community experience for the user?

The majority of web users today expect a lot from a website. Facebook and MySpace have fostered the standards of social networking to a level difficult to duplicate by most. The requirements for a social site are based on the size of the network, the functionality of the features available, and the externalization capabilities of the network.

Facebook allows developers to create applications which connect to elements external to Facebook. This is critical to the growth and success of Facebook and in line with the expectations of Metcalf's Law.

In order for a specialized and closed community like Bungie.net to succeed, the user must have a reason to go to Bungie.net instead of Facebook. The value proposition of the online game community is the expertise of the player network, the shared interest and passion of the core community members, and the game data.

Of those three elements, the game data is far and away the most valuable and the most difficult to duplicate, and understanding what elements of data has value is critical to building compelling data-driven features.

Looking again at Bungie.net, the user has access to a wealth of information about the game, about their gameplay history and about their characteristics as a player. Heat maps enable the user to view their historical kill and death by geography.

Weapon statistics enable the user to see which weapon they use most effectively and which weapons the community uses most efficiently. Users desire in-depth gameplay analysis in order to study their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses as individual players. As game competition increases with time the level of analysis will deepen and at some point will match that of professional sports analysis.

In addition to requiring substantial amounts of data, users require sophisticated filtration of data down to their specific interests. Each user has a different element of the game that they want to track, and each user has different set of reasons why they want to track those elements. In the case of both cooperative and competitive players, the desired data is based on the need to know ranking in relation to others. 

The difference, though subtle, comes down to ranking in relation to what others. To one player it may be compelling to know they have moved from 10,675 to 10,215 in the global ranking.

However, to another player it may be better to know that out of their group of friends they have moved from fifth to second, out of a small group of 10 players. Enabling customization of data display is important to fostering a broad level of user interest in following leaderboards.

Assuming that you have some interesting features based on your game data, you need to ask whether you have linked those features together in a way that the community site is engaging enough to compel a user to spend time on the site instead of in the game, or on a larger social networking site (again, Facebook).

The opportunity costs for any user to spend time on your highly-focused and product-based community site are very high. What are you giving them that keeps them around? Data alone doesn't make a compelling site.

You need to provide a socially interactive experience that is based on the gameplay data, yet which is self-contained and self-sustaining. In order to do so the community needs its own game mechanic.


Why is a gaming community valuable to users?

Now, assuming that you have identified the critical elements of gameplay that will drive the features your site will support, and you have a robust social mechanic in place, you are ready to ask yourself "what is this worth?" This is the million dollar question and the answer is not going to be as concrete as you may like.

It is possible to value the community site you have developed by forecasting the site traffic and determining based on a Cost per Click method, the value of each user based on advertising revenue. This is a simple and easily understood model which defines the site as an independent revenue-generating entity. 

However, what if you wanted to evaluate your community in relation to your game? What value does the site add to your game? It is difficult to evaluate your community based on the complementary value of the community site because you may not have any baseline information to use to estimate the delta that your community adds.

The baseline information required are the unit sales, product lifecycle and average player lifespan, all absent of the influence of a game community. Sequels and franchises are usually easier to evaluate because you have baseline data, but the data is usually biased by changing external factors such as marketing and macro-level events. 

Why is this valuable to a publisher or developer?

If publishers are able to adequately plan and execute a portfolio-wide community strategy, they stand to strengthen their brand, expand their customer relationships greatly and form a community with identifiable cultural and behavioral traits. 

Real-time customer feedback is guaranteed, though it must be filtered through a community management staff able to usably distill the data. Your product, though thoroughly tested and debugged will have every possible flaw exposed in the first few days of sales. In addition to game bugs there will also be networking issues, account issues, and platform issues.

With the proper tools and communication protocols in place you will know very quickly what elements of your game need to be patched, which features of the game are successful (or unsuccessful), and what to start thinking about for your next title.

In the weeks following the launch of your game, the community site will keep your customers engaged with your product, its community, and your company.

Interacting with your customers will enable you to better understand their needs, and apply incremental product development releases (such as DLC) which provide a lot of customer satisfaction for a marginal amount of budget and time. 

Community design as a critical element of game design

Designing a community is a process requiring the input and participation of any and all stakeholders in the game.

Planning for the community should begin during the initial design stages of the game to allow for adequate consideration of the data that you will plan to track, the design of game elements to support web features, the technical requirements and the overall interactivity between the web and the game. 

Networking as game design

The fundamental elements required for an online community site necessitate planning and design well in advance of beta phase of game development. It is important to consider how your site will function during the implementation of data collection hooks in the game.  Furthermore, it is important to consider the social aspects of the community while you design elements of your game. 

Have you included features into your game which support socially-oriented activity on our community site? These would be features that enable users to compare and contrast one another, features that enable cooperation or competition, features that provide two-way interaction between the game and the web. The answer is probably no.

The integration of the game and the web has only recently begun and the full potential of that integration only scratches the full potential of both games and the web. The paradigm of multiplayer cooperative/competitive play is firmly established. The paradigm of community-based game shaping is emerging.

In a few years games will be shipped in one state, played and manipulated by the community, and over a matter of a few short weeks metamorphose to another form shaped through the collective efforts and creativity of the community.


Linking game consoles to the web

If you ever get a chance to meet anyone who works in the Xbox Live team, PlayStation Network team, or the Nintendo Wii network team, give them a pat on the back and thank them for all that they have done and all they do each day. Console networks are very large, complex and challenging to work with.

Gamers take for granted that games are networked together completely seamlessly today. They are unaware of all the work that goes on behind the scenes maintaining the fragile network of servers that supports all the online gameplay that has become a standard feature of a huge number of games sold today.

Linking any game to the web is difficult. In addition to the difficulty of developing web services and libraries that will support the communication between the closed console platforms, developers of online communities need to worry about the complexities of large scale web development and maintenance. 

Blockbuster games like Halo 3 are a web community developer's dream and nightmare. It's a dream because you know that you are building a community site for the most devoted and rabid fan base around. It is a nightmare because you are developing for the most devoted and rabid fan base around.

Halo 3 players bought the game, played for 12 straight hours and then, after a brief coma, did it all over again. Assuming each player created 100 matches worth of game data, and one million players played, you are dealing with 100 million data sets, all of which need to be parsed, stored, and cached for web delivery. 

Assuming you have the appropriate database structures and network infrastructure in place, you must still contend with the costly nature of getting your game data on web close to real-time. This is especially true of any blockbuster game.

Big games require substantial investment in the planning and implementation of web integration. You cannot bolt web services onto a potential blockbuster and achieve the same quality of execution achieved with a pre-alpha planned web service implementation.

Authentication and account considerations

In addition to the design and planning required to export the data from the game to your web service, you must concern yourself with the method of user authentication very early in the process. Each platform has unique authentication methods requiring careful integration to your web site. 

Additionally you must concern yourself with your own community log-in and authentication process. How can you assure your users that their game account won't be hijacked by someone else?

The authentication method will be driven by the format of platform authentication, format of data output from the game to web services, and the method you employ to arrive at some state of data parity.

Handheld platform integration

The process for building a web community with support for handheld platforms is in some ways similar to that of a console or PC community. Both the DS and the PSP connect to the internet very well through the use of their pre-existing network infrastructures. These allow you to network the handhelds and create server-based persistence for your handheld games. 

In the context of this article the assumption is that you are interested in integrating your handheld SKUs to your console community, however, don't overlook the power and value of web-based community for your strictly handheld users.

There is a lot of camaraderie and dedication among the handheld user base, and they deserve a place to call their own. Plan to provide an experience that is unique to the handheld users, and you will be rewarded with tremendous gratitude, loyalty and game replay longevity.

Cross-platform integration

In addition to creating stand-alone communities for your handheld SKUs, you can integrate them with your console and PC SKU's to create a hybrid community. The degree of integration depends on your creativity and imagination. It can be assumed that since game designers have no lack of imagination, the only limiting factor will be your resource and organizational constraints to implement networking needs early in the development cycle.

The beauty of centralizing your game community on the web is the mitigation of the barriers imposed by the consoles. If you are able to get substantial data out of all three major consoles the lines of separation between them blur, leaving you with a community of game players focused on the content, not the method of delivery. 

Since most major third party titles are multi-platform releases, and since the 360 and PS3 versions are almost always nearly identical (thanks to porting the initial game development from one platform or another during development) and the Wii implementations vary only slightly, you can develop a community which allows for bi-directional data flow to and from the game, from your web community. 

The game data moves to the community, where users interact with the data through your meta features and meta-services, and then through the data created through the in-community manipulation and experience, new data is shipped back up to the game.

This iterative loop is very scalable and limited by the capacity of your back-end infrastructure to deliver content. As a wise politician recently stated, "The internet is a series of tubes, and when you send too much information you can clog them up." So opt for the copper plumbing when building your community.


User-created content

In the world of buzzwords and catchphrases, none seem to be as bandied about lately as "user-generated content". In fact, the console and third party folks are in a race to deliver the ultimate user generated content experience in a game, and they want to deliver it to you very soon. 

Take Sony's LittleBigPlanet, for example. Users are able to play in environments created by other users. This is not an add-on feature of the game, nor the kind of modding that was popularized on PC games, but a planned major feature of the game. The game depends on the creativity and virally mobile interests of gamers to create a world which the aggregated community shapes over time. 

Furthering upon this concept is EA's Spore, which may be as game-changing as Will Wright's first major project, SimCity. The user's choices impact the entire ecosystem of gameplay, creating a game in which selective evolution occurs among digital actors.

Though the concept of user-generated content is hot, it is definitely not new. Users have been modding games for years, and among the elite who have been doing so on their PCs and cracked game consoles, these concepts are somewhat passé.

What EA and Sony are attempting is a shift away from the grassroots of the gaming elite as the primary creators of viral content to the common masses that only operate within the framework of their boxed gaming experience. 

With that said, and with some real thoughtful introspection, do you believe that your community will ever stop creating content that is outside of the framework that you designed? Definitely and unequivocally they will not. The assumption is that the collective consciousness will always seek to build upon creativity.

You should focus on fostering a platform for people to communicate with each other about what they are doing, and not on creating a framework in which they must operate. Your online community should be the place where you provide an open framework for the sharing of content in web formats open to any user to share.

Using an online community with standards applicable to any of the console platforms and console platforms will enable users to create content on the web and see it spread into the game environment across the platform lines. This supports the sense of community dedication to the game content, and not the method of content delivery.

The evolution of leaderboards

Leaderboards are becoming ever more complex as game developers begin to employ tools to track just about every conceivable user action. In addition to scores, users want detailed information about everything they do in the game. How many times have they played, how long, how many times have they played a specific level, as a specific class, what is their current item inventory, how many kills have they earned et cetera and ad infinitum.

With enough of a budget and enough time you may find that your game is exporting more stats than a user may be able to consume in any digestible fashion. This leads us to the advent of user customizable leaderboards.

Customized leaderboards

Each user has a unique set of stats they are interested in tracking. Granted there are certain stats in each game that are critical to evaluating performance, but there are many stats which are not critical yet very compelling.

Providing users with leaderboards they can customize to their personal preference is an excellent way to foster a personalized experience for each user.

Not only should users be empowered to track what they want, but who they want. To many players it is irrelevant how they rank compared to all players. Rather it is compelling to know how they rank relative to their friends, clan members and nearest group of peers. A good leaderboard design should account for proximity and relevance of grouping. 

In addition to using the leaderboard to analyze performance, many players want to display their stats to the community. The stats that are displayed should be customizable, enabling a playersplayer's profile to show their strengths and hide their weaknesses, if desired.


Your Community Management Plan

The CDD (Community Design Document) and CMP (Community Management Plan) are documents used to frame and guide you through community and game development process.

Community websites are typically developed in tandem with the game, making a firm document critical to a successful multi-team collaboration. The CDD and CMP are as critical to the success of the community as the Game Design Document is to the success of the game. 

Using a CDD and CMP helps to stimulate the development team to recognize the scale, scope and importance of treating the community development process no differently than they treat the game development process. It also serves as a valuable roadmap reminding all parties involved of the end goal of the development cycle and how all the pieces fit together.

The Community Design Document is a blue print for features in your community site. Any and all features should be very accurately described with as much granular detail possible. The feature interaction with the game data and with other features in the community should be clearly described.

The CDD should describe the processes of interaction the user will undertake from a very holistic view. Will the users profile be altered by their choices in the game? Will affiliation with a particular clan or guild impact the users access to certain areas of the community?

What mechanisms for user recognition will you put in place, how will users learn about them? What impact does community growth have on the game? What level of time commitment will be required of users to reach various depths of the community?

The CDD is also a political roadmap for your community management team. What mechanisms will be deployed to enable public order and civility? Community managers need to have the tools in place to warn, admonish and ban users from a community.

Essential to the process of punitive action is a set of rules that are clearly defined and available to all users. The mechanisms for punitive actions must be transparent and in the event of an appeal, be able to be reversible.

Community management and moderation -- reactive vs. proactive

Managing a community requires two distinct types of moderation, reactive and proactive.  Reactive moderation is the act of monitoring user posts and ensuring that the conversations in forums and content uploaded is appropriate to the community.

Profanity and questionable content are constant in all communities; it is up to the community managers to determine what fits within the community, and what is appropriate for the culture.

Proactive moderation is the creation of and fostering of conversation and user activity that is engaging and entertaining. A good moderator will be able to create a new topic of dialogue which draws a lot of user interest and discussion.

Contests and tournaments are also very proactive in nature, and foster a lot of user interaction. Good proactive moderation doesn't require too much moderator time, but generates lots of user activity.

What does the future look like?

Publishers and developers will continue to realize the inherent value of online game communities and will develop more complex and robust communities. Online communities will become standard features that gamers will expect to see included with the game. This will drive competition in the space and foster innovation and improvements in the user experience both in-game and in the community.

Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all begun to embrace the power of community and have deployed features and platforms to foster community. The recent announcement of Xbox Avatars and improvements to the Live service speak to a strategic initiative with community as a key component for the Xbox platform. 

Community sites and services will merge so that your game data is as portable and universally accessible as a common web-based email service. Users will be able to interact with community members on any platform they choose, mobile, PC, or their home console. 

The community will be as critical to the overall experience of a game as the game itself. We are inherently social beings and though multiplayer emulates well much of the social competition that we seek as individuals, only a community site can provide the true sense of social belonging that a social structure can provide.

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