So today I'm going to be talking about Communities; Why you should be building one pre-launch, how to put together your brand, communication and content strategy in order to help build one, setting up your community hub and most importantly how to turn your community into an extension of your team.
I'll also explain why and how this can benefit your creative, marketing and business processes, help you raise additional funding and help you mitigate risk at launch.
I don't profess to be an expert in the field of community management or marketing and some of you may already be going through the processes of building your communities and working through your marketing plans, but no matter your level of experience hopefully you'll get some use out of this.
Who Am I?
Before I get started I should probably tell you a bit about myself - I'm Justin French, founder and CEO of Dream Harvest.
Previous to starting Dream Harvest I worked in both AAA and Indie as a sound designer, composer, project manager and consultant. I also used to teach game design and development at a local college as an industry specialist where I re-wrote the ICT Level 2 BTEC course, replacing the focus on app development using Visual Basic with games development using Unity and C#, giving 16 - 19-year-olds a real taste of industry-relevant skills. I also used to work as a game and tech recruiter for a recruitment agency. Previous to the games industry I worked in the music industry as a freelance recording and mix engineer at studios across the country as well as a business adviser to musicians.
As a studio, we're developing NeuroSlicers, a cyberpunk real-time strategy game that combines solo, co-op and competitive PVP gameplay into a seamless narrative-driven experience.
Our community is central to our business strategy, we started building ours before we even had a playable and is especially important due to our attempts to really innovate the genre's core mechanics and expand the potential audience beyond the traditional hardcore / competitive gamer player types associated with RTS games.
Why You Should Be Building A Pre-Launch Community
When we develop games, we often start by focusing on ourselves, trying to create an experience or experiences that we'd want to play and enjoy, but in reality, we're really building experiences for them:
The millions of players out there in the world. I mean, we are businesses, and we need to sell our games to continue to be businesses.
The games industry is incredibly risky - Time and time again we're seeing games launch and fail due to a wide variety of reasons such as:
- No pre-launch marketing and community building so no one knows about the game
- Launching at the wrong time so everyone is pre-occupied with something else
- The game doesn't look/feel polished enough
- The game is something no one wants to play due to visuals/mechanics/narrative not hitting a chord / resonate with anyone (Lack of market research)
- The Pricing strategy is wrong
- The game is riddled with technical issues on launch
- The game is overhyped pre-launch leading to high level of overly critical/negative reception
- Developers are un-responsive to their player base or respond to negative criticism in an ineffective way causing a loss of trust.
The list could probably go on, but the important thing to note is that most, if not all of these points can be mitigated by effectively building and communicating with your community as early as possible.
A community is a sounding board, both pre and post-release. It's a place where you as developers can seek player validation, sanity check your decisions from a design, usability and business standpoint while also giving players a chance to see the inner-workings of the games development process, where you can show them the reality that games dev is hard and expensive!
Most importantly, this can and will lead to "player buy-in" and build faith between developers and their audience and also helps minimise the likelihood of toxicity within a growing community.
Seth Godin - Famous Marketing Guru
"Your smallest viable audience holds you to account. It forces a focus and gives you nowhere to hide."
We've seen the effects of not listening to your audience over the past year within the AAA space with games such as:
- Fallout 76 - Stripped out all the content that people loved about Fallout and left just a hollow shell of the worst parts.
- Darksiders 3 - Rather than improving upon the innovation that DS2 made over DS1 it went back to basics, creating a linear slog with terrible combat which ultimately disappointing fans of the franchise.
- Metal Gear Survive - Konami building a MGS game in name only, no one wanted this game, especially with Hideo Kojima out of the picture. A Cash grab.
There is a multitude of other examples that I'm sure all of you could list.
Studios that treat their audience as cash cows rather than listening to and making informed decisions based on what their audience wants will eventually be lost and forgotten, shunned by their community for not listening.
It's essential that we build our studios on a foundation of player trust and open communication. Making the players part of the development process, making us accountable for our decisions.
Many of us are in a unique position compared to studios working on established franchises with established communities with pre-conceived expectations and this means we can start with a relatively clean slate that allows us to control the message we want to give to our players. We hold all the cards and can influence and shape our community before it has a chance to grow to a point where it's autonomous - but this also means that its essential that the right kind of seeds are sown so that when the community does grow, it flourishes, growing into something wonderful instead of something out of our control.
So, hopefully, I've convinced you of the importance of creating a pre-launch community, but how exactly do you go about building it.
When we first started working on NeuroSlicers, we didn't do this, we started building our community through a lot of trial and error, feeling our way through the process and we made a lot of mistakes along the way - I mean, try running a Kickstarter campaign with a game called Failure.....what NeuroSlicers used to be called!
I wish I'd known this stuff 3 years ago, but I'm also glad we learnt the hard way and built upon our experience which has helped us define who we are now.
We can now, hopefully, share a better way to go about doing things.
Brand, Communication And Content Strategy
Well, the first step is to make sure you have a good brand and communication strategy in place that can be used by your whole team and which defines how you'll attract and talk with your community, acting as a set of guidelines that will give the team direction and motivation. There is a multitude of other benefits and elements that make up the process of branding (ie, the Logo) that could be a whole another talk in itself, but here I'm just going to cover the key elements you'll want in the documents specific to the communication side of things, rather than visual identity:
The Brand Strategy
You'll want to put together a document with the following:
The Game Elevator Pitch
You want the whole team to be able to memorise this; its a summary of everything that is your game and should be enough to get people excited
Our one, for NeuroSlicers, is possibly a bit too long, but I've been using it for the past 3 years of pitching so it's kinda stuck:
NeuroSlicers is a highly tactical cyberpunk RTS that turns the genre on its head by focusing on fast, macro and total information gameplay, short 8-12 min matches, epic global objectives and a dark cyberpunk narrative campaign that seamlessly blends competitive PVP, Co-Op and singleplayer into a truly unified gaming experience.
Control clever AI-powered units, use powerful hacking abilities that allow you to manipulate the levels and spawn advanced weaponry and buildings that allow you to take over the network one data node at a time.
The Game's Core Identity
This is all about how you want your game to be perceived, what it is aspiring to be.
A deeply immersive, narrative-rich and highly tactical experience that is loved and enjoyed by both hardcore strategy fans as well as the wider mainstream. An unparalleled strategic gameplay experience that puts the player at the centre of the story and lets them be in control of their own destiny.
This is usually put before vision and is used to define what your company currently is, but for games, I like to swap Vision and Mission around and use mission as a statement that explains how you will reach your vision.
Focus on higher level tactical play, shorter matches, high intensity battles and exciting memorable “edge of your seat” moments and wrap it in a deep narrative-driven campaign that combines solo, co-op and pvp and which modernises the genre and brings strategy games into the mainstream while offering lovers of the genre a brand new experience and set of challenges.
These are all about common goals, what defines the experience you are creating. You generally should stick to 5 or less otherwise it's hard for your team to memorise.
- Deep Tactical Play
- Easy Learning Curve
- Exciting and Rich Narrative
- Highly Immersive
Your brand position is how your game/brand differs from other similar games on the market. There might be several things, but for here, just choose what you feel is the strongest, ie your game is the only game that.......
NeuroSlicers is the only strategy game that combines PVE, co-op and PVP gameplay into a unified narrative-driven experience with the player and their journey at the centre
This section is all about why players will be attracted to your game. What exactly will the game give them in exchange for their time? Why exactly should they purchase and play your game?
NeuroSlicers lets player’s play through the content they want to engage with while progressing the core narrative, we make the experience accessible while retaining the depth that the core audience expects. And finally, we modernise the genre by bonding together PVE, Co-Op, PVP and narrative gameplay and progression into a seamless whole.
Your tagline is a phrase, "hook" or call to action that encompasses everything that is your game. For NeuroSlicers, we're still trying to work out exactly what we want ours to be, but currently use the following:
Determine Your Reality
This encompasses both our narrative - the battle over two realities, the real world and the digital AR layer that hides the real world that everyone in our game is forced to live in, and, how player choice and customization is central to our experience as players embody the role of a "Slicer", a hacker who is able to see beyond the digital veil and, through their choices, determine their reality and future reality for humanity.
Message architecture is a vital component of any content strategy because, without it, you do not have a framework for creating your content.
As Content Marketing Institute puts it:
Creating content without a message architecture is like building a house without a floor plan.
To build your messaging architecture it's suggested that you take a workshop approach with your team. You want to put together cue cards with at least 75 descriptive Adjectives (though more can be useful) and then as a team, filter them into 3 piles consisting of
- "What the game is",
- "What we want the game to be"
- "What the game is not".
You also want to make sure they're ordered by what you and your team feel is the most important ones.
Once you've done this, there might be team members that disagree with the placement of certain cards - discuss this among everyone to determine if the placement is correct. Once you've done this, choose the top 3-5 from the What the Game is and What we want the game to be piles and discuss what these Adjectives really mean to you and your game.
For us, we had the following:
What NeuroSlicers Is
- We push the boundaries and preconceptions of the genre
- We aren't satisfied with the traditions of the genre
- We carefully review other games in the genre and their failings in order to improve and attempt to avoid the same pitfalls
As NeuroSlicers is still in development, not everything is in game yet, on that note, this is What We'd Like NeuroSlicers To Be:
- We place the player in the shoes of the character
- We use 4th Wall breaking techniques to get the player to embody this character
- We use an evolving narrative with real player decisions and consequences
- We carefully craft the onboarding experience for new players
- We allow players to play the content they’re most interested in
- We culture a community that’s driven to support each other
- We look at UX best practices across all genres and use and/or attempt to improve upon them
With these defined it now becomes much easier for the team to know what kind of content and message you want to push with your social media and community outreach. But how exactly do you want to communicate this message?
Your Brand Voice
Traditionally Your brand voice requires that you define a consistent and unchanging way of communicating with your audience. It's usually defined by your company's personality combined with a tone that dictates an adjustable emotional inflexion applied to your voice depending on the particular message or piece you are sharing
In other words, if your brand was a person, how would it talk?
My personal issue with this is that, firstly, if you are still working on your first product, you will likely still be trying to work out what your vision, mission statement and core values are as a studio or these are likely product based rather than company based and you don't currently have any customers....I mean, you might have a community who are potential customers, but they've not bought your game yet. Secondly, it hides the individual personalities of your team members behind a company / corporate face and doesn't allow your community to really get to know the people making the game.
Games are made through the harvesting of great ideas, the dreams you could say, of a combination of people (unless your a solo dev) - Its the hard work and creativity of the individuals on your teams that should be praised and celebrated by your community and I think there is ample room for the community to really get to know your team better, not just the company.
However, some lines do need to be drawn regarding what can and can't be discussed and there does need to be a shared vision and way of describing things.
I suggest you put together, as part of all the other documentation you're doing for your branding and communication planning, another document that outlines the following:
Communicating Planned Game Features
1. A description that defines key talking points for each feature
2. Key Words to use when describing each feature
3. Key Words to avoid when describing each feature
4. A Label to signify whether it can be talked about now, later or never
5. Any helpful notes.
6. A link to a dropbox folder with assets to share that are associated with this feature.
With this and the other branding documentation in place, your team should be in a good position to be able to talk about the game while still being able to put across their own personalities. But where exactly should they be talking about the game and what kind of content works where?
Communication Strategy Plan
Many of us don't have dedicated social media managers, community managers or marketing people on the team, so it's important that the whole team works together to help grow your community. It's especially helpful if you have team members that speak more than 1 language and can translate your social media and community hub posts.
However, one very very important note - You'll want to try and keep the place where you have meaningful conversations to a single place. Based on conversations I've had with community managers and senior marketing people, It becomes very very hard to manage a community split across multiple locations, ie Steam Forums, your Forums and Discord. Pick one, syphon people there and stick with it, at least until you have a dedicated community person on the team.
Also, get into automating your social media; use tools like Crowdfire or Hootsuite, it makes things much much easier to manage and means you'll be spending more time building your game and content and less time managing the social media side of things.
Anyway, here are a few sites to get started:
This is a great place to have the main community hub where you interact with your fans on a daily basis and share timed exclusive content before tweeting this content or including it in a newsletter; ultimately you want people to be funneled here from all other places. With the recent changes to the Discord store, there are also some cool new features you can make use of which I'll talk about a bit later.
You should be tweeting on a daily basis and preferably with images, gifs and videos. Always make use of hashtags, but never more than 2 or 3 max and one of them should be a custom one for your game, i.e. for us we have #NeuroSlicers.
The other hashtag should be either #gamedev, #indiedev or on Wednesday at 6PM BST #indiedevhour, on Friday's (if you're using Unity) #madewithunity and on Saturday's #screenshotsaturday. It's important you research the best hashtags to use for your particular genre and theme. We make use of #cyberpunk quite a bit for instance.
Always try to link to your Discord and/or Newsletter within every tweet to push people to your main community hub. Track engagement on the Twitter analytics page and work out why certain tweets maybe work better than others (time, visual content, word content, hashtag use, etc). Also. make sure you get other team members, or your other accounts to retweet using a different set of 2 hashtags and try to retweet your own posts every 3 - 4 hours in order to hit other time zones with your content. Content with images are a good, Gifs and videos are even better and you'll see much more engagement with these.
We've seen some of the highest engagement over on Instagram compared to other social platforms. Its a great place to share photos of your working environment, the team and your day to day experience as developers and offers a great way to share the personality of your studio and game. The only downside to Instagram is that links don't work on normal posts, only paid posts. We personally tried posting 1 image a day for a few weeks and saw good growth and engagement over that time.
On Instagram its essential you make use of as many hashtags as possible (Up to 30) to reach as many different topic based feeds - research the most popular hashtags for your genre and use all of them - though do be careful, there is a character limit on Instagram (2200), but they don't show this on the app...instead you'll just find that half your text has been cut-off when you post.
This can be hosted directly on your site or somewhere like Tumblr if your doing it in a written form, however, we've personally started doing video dev blogs instead as they're faster to produce and allow you to put a face to the game that I believe people appreciate.
Blogs should be done on a monthly or bi-weekly basis as well as part of your newsletter. Repost these blogs across other sites such as IndieDB, Facebook, Medium or anywhere else where you think might be worthwhile and also be sure to tweet about them.
Try to find a single topic to cover in a blog in detail while also giving a general update on the progress of development. Once again, always remember to include a link to your Discord, funnel readers there by saying something like "If you'd like to discuss any of the topics covered in this month's blog then head over to blah blah blah......"
This should be a bi-weekly/monthly thing where you summarize all the marketing content you've created that month and where you link to this content. Keep newsletters short and sweet with interesting headlines and a paragraph or two for each section before linking to the bulk of the content held on your Blog, YouTube, Twitch, etc - once again, push people to your Discord so they can discuss the topics.
MailChimp is a good product for this and has pretty good analytics that allows you to track opens, the location of people opening your newsletter and more including A/B testing Newsletter headers, splitting send outs with different content to check for the responses, etc.
On your YouTube channel, you should be posting your video dev blogs, gameplay snippets, trailers, interviews with your team where they discuss their role on the project, videos of your time at events, recordings of live streams, game feature deep dives and anything else you can think of.
Make sure you organize your YouTube channel into categories so it's easy for people to find the content they're most interested in. Make new video uploads unlisted and share them first via your Discord so your Community gets a first look, then maybe a week later make them public and tweet about them. Make sure you emphasize that your Discord community is getting a first look at everything you create on here.
Try to live stream at least once or twice a month, ideally more. You can hold special live stream events where you giveaway other games (It's super handy having a Humble Monthly subscription and also buying some of the Humble Bundles to have a big catalogue of game keys to give away for competitions).
You can live stream your team programming, your artists doing art, new gameplay features, an internal competition, anything really. Try to live stream at a variety of different hours throughout the week and weekend so that you can be sure that people from across the globe can attend at least some of them. Once a stream is over, upload the video to your YouTube Channel for those members of your community that couldn't attend the live stream.
Be sure to create some good visual assets for your channel and Streaming overlay.
Always be sure to promote your Discord throughout your stream.
Personally not a big fan of IndieDB, I think the interface and UX needs a massive overhaul as it's incredibly archaic, but it's still a good place to re-post your blogs and get them featured on the IndieDB homepage.
You need to make sure you stick to their rules when posting content on your pages here though (something like at least 5 new images or a video) otherwise they'll archive the post and it will only be visible on your pe