There's value in building a strong audience for your game, but, as Beautiful Glitch creative director Julian Quijano explains in his GDC Showcase talk "Fandom-Ready: Creating Fiction in the Age of Fan Consumption", the right level of attention can cultivate an audience into a dedicated fanbase that weaves itself into the worlds and characters powering the games you create.
That sort of engagement manifests as a community that actively feels like they're intertwined with the fiction of your franchise, creating fan art, cosplays, fanfiction, their own original characters, and following your franchise every step of the way. And, Quijano explains, that can have a quantifiable impact on your IP.
Using Beautiful Glitch's own Monster Prom series as an example, Quijano says that an engaged fandom has helped its reach on social media, led to a 50 percent conversion rate driven by fan loyalty for Monster Prom's DLC, and led to a Kickstarter campaign where the average pledge is well above the base price of the game simply because the fandom is invested in the fiction.
There's no magic formula to capture this level of personal investment, but Quijano says there are a number of things developers can pay attention to in order to create a franchise that entices players into becoming more than just players and instead fall in love with the world, themes, and characters present in your creation.
Any fandom-in-the-making should make sure it covers different layers of engagement and give its players plenty of opportunities to creatively interact with the property.
Are you building spaces for debate like a discord server? Do you have at least one character that's easy to cosplay so people without high-level skills can still feel comfortable cosplaying a character? Are you caring for your community spaces so your fandom is an enjoyable space to find people that love the same fiction? Is your theme open for things like '-sonas' or fanmade characters immersed in the fandom's themes?
Quijano argues that it's important to reflect on if your fiction has space for these things.
Once all the layers are in place, it's a matter of getting folks to interact with what you've built. There are a number of tips for achieving briefly mentioned in the full talk, but taking things step by step, Quijano offers a deeper dive into one useful piece of advice for each of the three steps of content consumption.
A First Big Choice
The first bite is all about getting a stranger to interact with your fandom. For that introduction, Quijano dives into one hook of the many developers can use to draw a potential player into their world: "a first big choice."
You can always ask people the yes or no question of if they're interested in something, but that first interaction already writes off anyone who would answer no right away. Instead, Quijano suggests overriding that question and instead offering people a "first big choice" that gives them an opportunity to see themselves in the content.
Fire Emblem Three Houses captured this phenomenon last year by getting players that previously hadn't bitten on a Fire Emblem game--including Quijano himself-- to suddenly pick favorites and decide which of the game's titular three houses best aligned with their own interests.
"Human beings tend to organize information in categories and groups because that makes the information more easily digestible," says Quijano. "These create shortcuts and make it easier to understand complex structures like the fiction you're trying to sell. We're also appealed and attracted to these kinds of informational categories! When we see them, we want to decode them! There's a power in that."
Monster Prom frames this in its six datable characters; they have clear school tropes, clear monster types, and are clearly coded with colors that are very present in the character design like a bad boy red demon, a mean girl green gorgon, a party animal blue ghost, and a hipster purple vampire.
Another avenue is to link known themes--affectionately described as "sexy themes" for the purposes of the Zodiac Thirst concept Beautiful Glitch is currently exploring--to characters that immediately make them somehow relatable to players: things like Zodiac Signs, elements, planets, major arcana, and other easily recognizable universal categories. Even people that don't put stock in astrology, for instance, can still be drawn to a character built around a shared astrological sign.
All About Immersion
Developers have a number of tools in their grasp when it comes to fostering immersion, but Quijano zeroes in on The Power of the Relatable as one that can ground your fiction in something recognizable that can immediately resonate with players. Even in fantastical games and worlds, there's a value to marrying the mundane within the fantastic.
As an example, he points to scenes in movies like Reservoir Dogs where a band of rough and tumble characters sit down at a diner and have a relatable chat about the tipping system. It doesn't further some heavy handed plot point, but instead grounds and humanizes the characters.
"Many fictions benefit from having fantastic setups…but no matter how epic your story is, people connect with the mundane and what's relatable."
Quijano argues for brainstorming exercises as a way to zero in on this balance between the fantastic and the relatable. Many franchises like the anime My Hero Academia or the TV show The Magicians ground their larger-than-life worlds in something inherently familiar: schools. Use this same formula to ground something fantastical in something mundane, and build out your characters, factions, and world from the tropes that emerge.
A law office for handling superhero lawsuits, a school for mythological deities, a cubicle-packed office where workers develop new worlds--it's not necessary that your Next Big Project comes from exploring one such formula, but Quijano argues that developers should pay attention to the relatable ideas and concepts that emerge when brainstorming through that lens.
When fleshing out the characters and ideas you've already created, Quijano points to two powerful avenues developers can start down: voices and values, or ship dynamics. Ship dynamics, or those lovely tropes that define romantic relationships in fiction, is often the fan-favorite but he argues that sculpting voices and values for individual characters is just as important for building a true connection with your fans.
Fleshing characters out seems like an obvious thing to do for any work of fiction, but Quijano notes that it's surprisingly overlooked quite often. Monster Prom, as touched on before, uses instantly recognizable tropes from both academic and monster lore to establish its characters. For each of those characters, Beautiful Glitch expands into particular themes that round out the voice and values beneath those surface-level tropes.
"You want to build some depth; you want to spend some time asking the right questions. What's the upbringing of the characters, who are their families, what are their backstories, why they are the way they are? Let's not just make them one way, but let's understand how they came to be that way."
Details can seem unimportant when dealing with bigger stories, but little details build a rapport with the audience. Quijano suggests coming up with small details that give texture to characters, even looking to popular fiction for ideas when it fits. On the broader side, Quijano advocates for creating characters that explore a variety of voices and values. Understand and establish the specific ways your characters understand the world that surrounds them.
"The main goal is to get a variety of voices that feel real and unique and different that help people to project and to identify with," he says. Capturing unique and different stories can feel like something that can make characters unrelatable to some, but Quijano argues it's important to embrace diverse stories and voices.
"Sometimes people worry because they think that telling diverse stories is too specific and can be niche, but I don't think so," says Quijano. "For one, no matter how niche and specific a story is I think there's still dashes of the universal. In many specific stories there are values and situations and experiences that we can all understand and relate to like finding our own truth or getting our voice heard."
"You can build specific stories answering to the universal details that can help other people relate to these stories. And of course, there will be parts to the specific experience of a character that maybe people can't relate to that easily, but there's no issue in that. I think there's a richness in listening to stories that are far from ours, and learning from experiences that diverge from that."