Let’s Play Together: Building Games Communities
Sharing Is Like Alchemy
One of the biggest pleasures of my career has been the chance to be part of the passionate dedicated fan communities which surround games. Whilst there has been huge change in what channels and techniques people use I think there remain some essential Human elements to understanding what makes an engaging community experience and sadly it’s not (just) the game.
There is a kind of alchemy which happens when we have a game that the players want to talk about. The game itself has to command their attention beyond the first few plays and have some intrinsic quality, such as ‘Frustration’, ‘Creativity’ or ‘Competition’, where players stand to gain from interaction with others, even if that is only to gain social points from being seen to declare their passion. Of course most people won’t want to be the first person to post. Worst still, the vast majority of a community will always be silent observers.
The Internet is a wonderful thing but unless the community can be accessed via the game itself there is always some friction inherent in the process of loading up the web-page or finding the right #Tag.
Great game design will think about these social connections, perhaps integrating Facebook or Twitter, maybe even using Image capture or video replay sharing tools like Everyplay. But we need to think of these tools as more than just the method to share. Developing a sustainable experience requires us to understand that the social behaviour of a game community is separate to playing; perhaps similar to watching the DVD extras. You have to be truly engaged with the experience to feel the need to extend it.
Communities take time to get established and Players need to be able to gain confidence that not only will they be accepted but they will be heard. Sustaining the community requires scale, authenticity and consistency. We can’t just put up a couple of posts and get millions of players talking.
The Star Wars Factor
It helps to consider an idea called Social Identity Theory discussed by psychologists such as Henri Tajfel and Michael A. Hogg. This looks at how our self-conception is integrated in the groups or tribes we feel we belong to. This attempts to understand a range of interesting phenomena like prejudice, conformity and organisational behaviour but for me the best example for games comes down one vitally important statement.
‘Han Shot First’
If you know that phrase then it’s pretty likely that you will understand; you might even smile wryly with me. And you’ll know why it really matters. And why Star Wars as a movie falls apart if this didn’t happen. If you get this you are one of us. One of the ‘in-Crowd’.
If you don’t. Don’t worry. It’s a crazy reference to an obscure event early in the original version of Star Wars: A New Hope which George Lucas changed in the Special Edition that really annoyed a large number of hardcore fans. But unless it matters to you, it really doesn’t matter. You can safely forget about it.
That’s the thing about Social identification. The people who are fashionable, those who dress up as Harley Quinn at Comicon, those who know who scored for their team in that epic game in 1978, those who know the difference with a Real-Ale. They are self-selecting for their own communities or Tribes and it’s ok if you don’t get it, but then you can’t join in.
Building game communities isn’t just about how you build the game, but how your players consume it and the shared experiences it represents for them. That’s why it has to be about authenticity. You can’t just create a website and find people will come. You have to find ways to connect people and to make express their emotions about your game as easy as possible.
This is core to what we have been doing with Everyplay. By capturing the whole playing experience including the gameplay and the face of the player and providing the means to share that we have removed as much of the friction as we can between the game and the community. In the recent update to our community experience we have expanded on this idea to make it easier to create discussions, threads and reply with video experiences of your own dedicated to your game.
However, to get the most out of these free tools as developers we need to invest our time into the experience at the same time as surrendering our control.
Community services naturally allow us to identify potential thought leaders who we should encourage, even inspire, them to engage, but there are challenges we have to accept in that players sometime don’t do what we want, poor behaviour is common place and you can’t expect players to be ‘On message’. You have to moderate and have the option to Ignore, Block or Ban players. If you are lucky, and pay consistent attention, you will end up with a community which establishes its own rules of appropriate behaviour; but depending on the subject matter of the game they may or may not be acceptable to the wider world. On the other hand, the more you try to control a community the more you strangle its potential.
We need to identify and nurture our most engaged community players and find ways to reward them; after all they are helping build retention, providing useful insight and often additional compelling content. I’m not suggesting paying them (that would damage the authenticity), but let them stand out. Give them a chance to shine and perhaps in this YouTube age perhaps even find a way that would enable them to turn their passion into a way to generate their audience of followers.
What is interesting about this is that the community strategies we used to use back in the old dial-up modem days is surprisingly similar. We learned that we needed to create ways to help our most prominent community players able to support their own interest groups. In Wireplay (British Telecom’s original Online Gaming service) we had a Community Manager as a full-time employee who identified a number of volunteer Community Liaisons who in turn each looked after a number of different Club Captains, each of whom had Club Deputies. This creates a kind of pyramid allowing the community to crystallise around the most engaged players.
What was fascinating was how this social pyramid helped unengaged users desire to become more engaged and with the potential to rise through the social hierarchy. Of course. That model isn’t scalable to millions of players. However, the ability to measure my popularity by seeing how many ‘likes’ my uploads & comments are getting, as well as building up followers provides a similar sense of purpose and progression without the community.
None of that happens without creating an experience which players want to check into many times a day and it’s extremely hard for any one game to have the critical mass to make that happen. Our focus at Everyplay has always been to leverage the social values of sharing video experiences based on games you love. As we continue to develop our community features we are looking to empower each of our developers to be better able to build their own communities within our platform and to make it easier for players to deeply engage with those games. This way every developer can benefit directly from a shared platform, driving more users to return to all of the games they follow. The more games the player loves the more games they will discover and return to.