When we set up Amplitude Studios, it was based on a lot of experience as both gamers and game developers. We had lived on the studio side of the fence, learning all the difficulties of developing a game when you’re faced with the classic trade-offs of budget, quality, and time. On the other hand, as gamers we were sometimes perplexed, knowing what we knew as developers, when we saw how some studios developed games and dealt with their community.
Given that we are small (flexible) and self-funded (independent), when we do anything – design, development, community programs – we get to do it the way that we always wanted to see it done. In particular, when looking at the development/studio side of the fence, and then at the player/community side of the fence, we stopped and thought, “Huh. Why is there a fence?”
With Endless Space we set out to create a game that was, for a start-up, very big. When you develop a game like that, it is important – and kind of a no-brainer – that you need to have as little fence as possible between the community and the developers. After all, they will play the game for millions of hours more than we will and discover subtleties that we would never have thought of. In order to understand what the community wants and integrate that as early as possible into the dev cycle, we created Games2Gether (G2G) which is a fundamentally different way of organizing how a community works with a developer. What we wanted was for the community to become an extension of our team.
G2G is not a marketing system; it’s more an acknowledgement that the dev team is not the only good source for game ideas. In fact, as it becomes easier for interested players to create their own games, and as the Internet sets the expectation that a game studio – like any other business -- should be ever more open to customer input and guidance, G2G seemed to be an obvious (and inevitable) next step in lowering the barriers between developer and community. The end result is to integrate the community into the dev team.
The power of the community
That was our starting point: A fundamental belief game development in the 21st century had to be done in close cooperation and coordination with the members of the community. We were all fortunate to have had experiences with communities that helped us refine our games, but that always tended to happen once the game was already finished. Isn't that great? You suddenly learn all the things that you wish you had known during dev time.
We had noticed often in the past on titles, such as Heroes of Might & Magic, that some community members are truly gifted as thinkers and designers as well as being very engaged in the game. It’s criminal to let this energy go to waste, and it’s no secret that a lot of great games came to life thanks to their community (Counter Strike, Natural Selection, Day Z, DotA, Day of Defeat, …).
It’s even better when developing the 4X genre, as the average player tends to be more mature, relatively sophisticated in terms of design and gameplay knowledge, and very engaged with the titles and studios that they respect. With players like that, what’s the point of starting to communicate after the game has shipped?
So the decision to do it was easy; the tough question was how to make it happen. After all, there is a great difference between setting up moderated public forums – the easy way out – and actually tracking, responding to, and prioritizing the community's suggestions. We wanted to come up with a way that was open and transparent. And fun, of course, because that’s what this industry is all about.
G2G in a nutshell
The cornerstone is the idea of transparency: Giving the community a look into the design and development process, and providing them with a two-way communication channel to express their views. But given that there would be both casual and hard-core players involved, we knew that we had to create a two-stream system to integrate both sides of the community into the effort.
The first stream consists of the game design documents and on-going development plans which are posted on our website and completely open to the community so they can read, discuss, and give their opinions. This was the most direct and efficient way we could think of to start a communication loop between the developers and the community.
The second piece of it is more or less a "light" option, given that a lot of people don’t have the time to spend reading the documents and digging into the details of the game design, or simply aren't looking for that level of involvement. This piece consists of a voting system on the Endless Space website, where we post a series of votes every two weeks (starting during the alpha development phase) to let community members help guide our design choices.
Note: Why not Kickstarter?
Journalists and others in the business often ask why did we did not choose to use Kickstarter for our first game. There are a number of reasons for which we feel Kickstarter would not have been an appropriate resource for a project like Endless Space:
- Generally speaking, it is oriented towards supporting and funding a single project rather than creating an on-going, long-term conversation.
- The community management tools are limited, and tied to the Kickstarter site and service. Given our convictions about the future of the industry, it was critical that we had control over these elements.
- Bluntly put, Kickstarter is created to raise funds, while GAMES2GETHER has been created to maximize interaction with the players and community -- and make it fun and interesting for them.
- It seems unfair to gamble with a fan’s money. Kickstarter isn’t really an investment; you don’t get a share of the profits. It’s a blank check pre-order with no refund if things don’t work out, and that isn’t our mentality.
The risks we had to watch out for
Of course, laying everything bare to the community entails some risk, and we understand why almost no other development studio has decided to take this plunge. While we were setting up G2G, we had the following potential problems in mind:
Would the community understand what was and was not reasonably possible? Given some of the chat sessions you hear on console AAA shooters, “reasonable” is not always a term that comes to mind with the word “gamer”. However, in our case we assumed (hoped) that the relative maturity of a 4X strategy gamer and science fiction fan would be the preponderant factor.
Along with that, a lot of players use game forums to complain about what they don’t like, so your forums turn into some sort of after-sales-service nightmare. While we wanted the forums to be open, and to not try to hide bugs and problems, we also didn’t want complaining to dominate over the discussions of game content and design.
Would the players feel rewarded for the time they invested in the forum, in G2G, and in the game? That’s never an easy question. But we felt that if the system of G2G wasn’t well done and interesting in and of itself, the whole thing would collapse down to a bunch of needy developers hanging out on the street corner, cap in hand, asking passers-by for design ideas.
Could we manage to convert visits into discussions? Would people pop in for the easy and fun part – the vote – but not stay and weigh advice and expertise on game development issues? We realized that a key goal of G2G would be to give players several reasons to visit the forums.
Was sharing the Game Design Documents a mistake? Would exposing the fundamental decisions of the team make players more loyal and interested, or just give them more reasons to yell and gripe?
The mechanics of G2G
With those worries in mind, here is a look at some of the mechanics we used to provide the G2G service to the community:
Weekly Votes. On a regular basis we put up a new vote on the G2G website for Endless Space or one of our upcoming titles. Anybody who is a member (free sign-up, of course) can come and vote as they wish on the artwork, feature, design decision, etc. being chosen.
Progress Bar. We put a progress bar on the Endless Space site when the game was under development so anybody could see how far along we were with Programming, Art, Design, Debugging, etc. The fundamental idea is that if we have a schedule problem, the players and community should know it as soon as we do. Where’s the business sense in lying or hiding the truth from your most interested customers?
Constant Communication. Similar to the idea of the Progress Bar, when the recommendations started flowing in, we set up a series of web pages to help track and prioritize community requests. And when something couldn’t be done or wouldn’t be done, we told them so.
Rewarding Activity. Posting, tagging, commenting, voting… everything you do on the forum adds G2G points to your ‘account.’ We know some people out there – like some of us in here – are absolute suckers for achievements, so we wanted to have a graduated reward system. They earn points, and as they gain more points their opinion counts for correspondingly more in the G2G votes.
Account Permanence. The points don’t get used up. We don’t have a Skinner system of "make points-spend points-go make more points." As your account grows in value, your point total grows and the importance of your decision grows with it.
Purchase Incentive. One element was purely pecuniary – you got more G2G points if you pre-ordered the game. But not hugely more; the important thing for us is to maintain the openness and get that diversity and depth of opinion. And, after all, we aren’t a not-for-profit.
Future-proof. The G2G points are only used for Endless Space today, but as we grow and develop more games we hope to continue using the system.
VIPs. Our dirty little secret: There is an inner cabal of dedicated, interested players who have special privileges. They see early releases, early documents, and are a direct sounding board for dev team questions. They not only help us correct our aim, but they are voices that help the community understand our decision. We are fortunate to have a NASA engineer, a particle physicist, and lots of very experienced modders in the group.
Real Life Rewards. We want to meet our fans and we hope they want to meet us. We have had "Beers2Gether" events at our office, Gamescom events, etc., and hope to continue 'rewarding' our community with these kinds of get-togethers. When we can, we try to offer t-shirts and other swag to community members who got their ideas, factions, heroes etc. in the game -- it's the least we can do!
How G2G impacted our development process
So the community members came and saw and voted. We then had a responsibility to make things happen, and in a way that showed we were serious about rewarding their efforts.
Schedule Gaps. G2G only works if we plan gaps into the project workflow for the inclusion of community requests. If we have a fully packed schedule, and then solicit ideas for what to add or change, it isn’t being entirely honest either with the community or with our poor, overworked programmers.
Game Vision. A risk with this high a level of community involvement is that the design decisions swing to the most vocal community members or groups. It is fundamental, however, that the dev team keeps control of the overall vision of the game and its contents. Otherwise, we’d be adding bits and bobs piecemeal all the time and the game would never ship.
Flexibility. We had to keep the team small and reactive in order to be able to honor the community’s requests. The decisions that the community takes are not just fluff; when we have a choice of how to go with a design element or a piece of art we let them take the final decision. When that happens, we have to be able to execute on it. A flexible team is necessary to adapt to these changes in the initial scope and design.
Priority List. The G2G platform is of incredible value to help us determine the priority of our work. In-house developers often have a particular, limited view of the game; the players and community have a much more objective opinion and are invaluable in helping the dev team prioritize project tasks. If there is ever a doubt as to what to do next, we simply create a vote and let the players tell us.
Where did it work? Where did it faceplant?
We were quite nervous initially with the risk of complaints and negative comments on the forum. Internet anonymity certainly allows that, but we were very positively surprised. I’ll quote one of the community members: “I'm very impressed with the level of maturity in the forum, the respect we treat each other with, … The community is diverse, we come from different parts of the world, have played different games, have different opinions”.
The G2G effort was so successful that during the beta phase of the development cycle the forums had over 20,000 members, with hundreds on-line at any time, and they broke the 30,000 barrier just before launch. One faceplant? We didn’t realize we would need to hire a full-time community developer into our tiny team until Max drowned trying to track forum updates while doing all the marketing and PR work. We were lucky to bring in Stéphanie before the bomb went off… The community now numbers over 60,000.
Even better, a handful of truly, epically awesome members volunteered to help Max Von Knorring and Stéphanie Yath moderate the forums when it became clear that it was beyond our capacity. At any possible occasion, we like to send out our deepest and most heartfelt thanks to Alderbranch, DannyD, Davea, Nosferatiel, Raptor, Sharidann, VieuxChat, KnightHawk, Ail, Eysteinh, Iblise, Adder, Znork, InFlamesWeTrust, DMT, etc. In fact, Alderbranch and Sharidann and a third member, Znork, were so intent that they figured out the web address and signed into the forums a couple days before they were announced… For them we created a special G2G medal, the Space Ninja: .
One of the things that we did was put the Alpha version of the game up for sale on Steam; we did an Early Access even before the “Steam Early Access” program existed. Sure, we were paid for it, but we discounted the game at 25% because first and foremost we wanted to get it into gamers’ hands and hear their opinions of it. The comments on the forums and the votes that occurred in May and June 2012 had a very formative impact on the final version of the game, released in July 2012.
To us the pre-release was a true expression of the mentality behind G2G – players don’t just look at features lists, they have their hands on the game. And unlike Kickstarter, they pay for something that exists. On the other hand, kudos to Indiegogo and Kickstarter and similar sites as they are helping people understand that early access to simplified versions is actually a good thing.
We did take some shots for the lack of content and polish, but it was an alpha. In fact, it was a rock-solid alpha and numerous previews pointed out that it was stabler than a lot of shipped titles.
Finally, one other great thing from the Alpha was a great morale boost for the team. The feedback was good, and that helped us over the last couple months of high stress.
First Expansion Pack. Unfortunately, we didn’t handle the community aspect well with the announcement of the first expansion pack in autumn 2012. We failed to realize that our player base had changed since the beginning of our adventure, and we took for granted the relationship we had and the players’ comprehension of the GAMES2GETHER process.
However, since we had promised to keep our players informed of our designs and plans so we could take their opinion into account, we posted a lot of documents about the expansion pack on the web site. The response was overwhelmingly negative. The members didn’t see: “Help us with the design of the expansion pack, which will come out in the next 6 to 12 months.” They saw: “Thanks for buying our game, here’s some ideas for more stuff you can pay for.”
In fact, we’ve already put out four free add-ons to the game with tons of new features and new content as well as balancing and some bug fixes. But we didn’t communicate our plans well, and that came back and bit us.
Technical process complexity. We overlooked the fact that tying all the pieces together was not actually all that simple. Acknowledging the game version, the Steam key, the forum log-in, and forum activity required a lot of programming between a lot of different platforms and languages. We had a few hiccups on the road to having a stable service, and we certainly hadn’t planned the necessary capacity for the site and its support.
What are the key lessons?
Don’t Underestimate Interest. The community’s response was more than we had imagined. After the release of the Alpha, the community grew at a pace far beyond our expectations. In brief, we didn’t plan for success.
Transparency Rules. We have tried to be as transparent as possible with the members that proposed ideas. We highlighted the requests that were tracked by the dev team for future updates, but didn’t pull punches if we felt that some of those proposals wouldn’t fit in-game (generally technical issues or because they didn't fit the general game flow). The community is mature, and they can accept this.
Iteration Also Rules. Test early, test often, iterate, and then test again. Because we are used to an iterative SCRUM-ish dev process, it’s easier for us now (compared to past projects) to accept, integrate, and ship community ideas.
Dev Schedule Gaps. Make sure that if you solicit ideas, you come through on their release. Nobody likes to feel that their good ideas have been ignored. The best way we found to do this was to pre-plan gaps in the development project plan for community-requested features.
The future of G2G
As you can tell, we’re pretty excited about this. There are a lot of places to go with G2G, and a lot of things that we can do to improve many aspects of it – technical platform, community accessibility, dev team integration, etc. We are planning a new version of G2G – cleverly named G2G 2 – for the end of the year. It will be bigger, better, easier to use, and a lot prettier.
The G2G process has even been noticed as we have been nominated for community and marketing awards – Game Connection Europe Marketing Award (Best Social Media Strategy nominee) and the Unity Community Choice Award (winner!).
We have tons of ideas for the future; we’re just crossing our fingers that Endless Space, Dungeons of the Endless, Endless Legend and our future games allow us to continue our philosophy. So far, it seems to be a huge win-win for the devs and the community, and we hope that the future evolutions we are considering continue the trend.