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Stardock producer and former Civilization lead designer Jon Shafer shares his insight on why developers need to respect and trust their players if they want their games to succeed.

Jon Shafer, Blogger

April 20, 2012

6 Min Read

[In this piece reprinted with permission from Stardock producer Jon Shafer's blog, the former Civilization lead designer explains why developers need to respect and trust their players if they want their games to succeed.] While no one would argue that respecting the people who play your game isn't a nice, commendable thing to do, there are also tangible benefits to taking this approach – which over the long haul result in better sales and stronger brands. If you treat the people who buy your games as nothing more than consumers they'll catch on quickly. Once that happens they'll stop giving you the benefit of the doubt and start looking for reasons to complain about you. If players continue to feel slighted they'll just get fed up and leave unless you make really good games. And while putting out games that always get a 96 or above on Metacritic is a nice strategy… well… good luck with that one. What you really want are true fans. People who know your work, are the first in line to buy the games you make and tell all their friends they have to play your latest release. If you make an effort, it's really not all that hard to build up a loyal following of this sort. Here are a few tips. Pre-Release Demos In my previous article I talked about how demos are a great way to introduce players to your game. They also serve a lesser-known role: acting as a "seal of quality." After all, if a developer is willing to let players try out their game for free they must be confident that it's actually good. When you don't put out a demo, some people will start asking questions… is it because the game isn't any good and the developer is afraid people will find out? Did they run out of time and the lack of a demo is a sign that the game is sloppy and unfinished? You don't want players asking those questions -- you want them trying out your awesome game and telling everyone they know about it. Some of the more jaded gamers feel that a game released without a demo is simply hoping to cash in before people realize how bad the game is. While this might sound like conspiracy theory territory, think about how many bad games come out with a ton of hype which then vanish from sight within a month of release. Reality or not, this is a practice that's become so common that it rightfully draws suspicion. So extend your hand and offer the player a free taste. Much of the time they'll reach back to meet you halfway. Interact With Your Players I know many developers who avoid online communities like the plague, and not without good reason. No surprise to anyone reading this article, there are quite a few people who prowl the internet for no reason other than to stir up trouble. While most developers work on games because it's what they love, and others do it for a paycheck, neither group signed up for dealing with angry, entitled mobs (except for community managers and tech support -- my thoughts are with you!). As developers working on the oft-mundane, daily tasks required in making a piece of software, we often lose sight of the fact that there are also many players who love our work. For them the opportunity to talk with someone that worked on their favorite game is incredibly exciting (something we are occasionally reminded of when we get to meet the creators of our favorite games!). I've seen very similar communities go in completely opposite directions following the announcement of bad news, or the release of a game that didn't meet their expectations -- some became very hostile, while others remained loyal and dedicated to the developer. What was the difference? Nothing more than whether or not the developers regularly posted in the forums. Share Your Game With Fans Players like having ownership. It's one of the reasons why they're playing games (an active form of entertainment) rather than experiencing a self-contained work in another medium. The absolute best way to hand over the keys to your game is to make it moddable. Many of the most beloved and long-lasting games of all time are also highly moddable, and their communities live on long after the last official update. Why? Because the players took ownership and had a vested interest in the longevity and overall success of the game. This sort of relationship between player and game is only possible when the players have the power to reshape the game to their liking. While allowing for modding in games on consoles and other closed platforms is obviously a slight challenge, there are still other ways to give players ownership. Avatar customization, naming locations on the map, even something as simple as being able to pick the UI color -- all of these help the player feel like they are helping to craft the game. Search high and low for places where the player can leave their mark. As long as the customization opportunities aren't obtrusive no one will ever say "man, I really wish they hadn't given me the ability to change X!" Don't be afraid when people play (and enjoy) your game in a way that you didn't anticipate. I've heard from a few developers who were upset because a large portion of their players cheat while in single player, or otherwise don't "follow the rules." My answer is: so what? If that's how someone wants to have fun with a game they've bought, then there's no problem (just, uh, please don't carry that over into multiplayer, guys!). The Specter Of Piracy Ah, the elephant in the room. I’ll just put it this way: if the CIA can get hacked, you’re not going to be able to prevent your game from being cracked. Sorry. You can't stop piracy. Focus on building up a fanbase and higher sales through goodwill instead of trying to bend the internet to your will. If you're spending a ton of effort trying to "win the war" on piracy, then you're wasting resources you could have been used to make better games. The reason why studios like Blizzard and Valve are so successful and beloved is because they focus on delivering the best games possible, time and money be damned. Don't make enemies of paying customers by making them jump through hoops. As history shows us, in most wars there are no winners -- only losers. [For more thoughts from Jon Shafer, you can follow him on Twitter at @_jon_shafer_.]

About the Author(s)

Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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