Community, in this Web 2.0 buzzword age, is on everyone's lips. Of course, with Xbox Live an integral part of the Xbox 360 game experience (and online gaming being the core of the PC's appeal to the hardcore for so many years) it's also something that has to be crucially addressed.
Therefore, at a GameFest panel in Seattle on Monday run by Microsoft's popular blogger Major Nelson - aka Larry Hryb - the panel discussion on the topic proved fruitful. The first question posed to the panel by Hryb was "How do we harness this YouTube generation for our own good?"
At this point, the panel was introduced. It consisted of David Weller, XNA Community Manager; Elizabeth Loverso, Director of Product Development, Red Storm Entertainment; Robert Bowling, Community Manager at Infinity Ward; and Jeff Pobst, Founder and Chief Executive Officer Hidden Path Entertainment, a new developer, which Jeff set up by mentioning, "We're focusing on some new titles that will be very community-focused."
Jousting With The Community?
Everyone agreed that staying engaged with the community is key. Weller opened up with, "One of of the big challenges we have on our site is being reactive and responsive to developers and how they're doing things. The thing that we've learned the most is really providing good, rich content for people on a pretty consistent basis is what our developers in our community value most."
"I think the most important thing we've found is that we have a very hyperactive community. They're constantly speaking, talking, helping each other as well as bashing us when we do something they don't like." Speed and attention is the key, according to Loverso. "Instant updates have allowed me to update and more quickly meet new people," added Bowling. "We're catching it before it becomes a marketing or PR issue."
Empowering the community is also important, according to Pobst. "What's more important is that people who are part of the community want to have a relationship with other people in the community... they want that prestige or status among other people. The more that you allow them to do themselves, the happier they are."
Of course, Hryb recognized working with the community can sometimes put you at odds with marketing and PR. How to avoid that? According to Bowling, "I typically piss them off a lot... an example is that we do weekly perk videos on our website, which is something they would love to have, but I earmarked it" as something the community would have first and exclusively. "They're not getting it just on Team Xbox or some consumer news site." The key, then, is to find a way to synergize with the departments while still offering special content to the fans.
Loverso takes an even more involved approach. "We keep our marketing and PR people involved right there in it. We try to make sure they understand the importance of keeping our community involved..." In a similar vein to Bowling, Weller "...spent a lot of time learning how to ask for forgiveness... we have a really good relationship internally with our PR and marketing teams and there are going to be times I know we are going to do something controversial." When that happens, they circle together with PR before communicating it. Recognizing who needs to sign off on what info is the key here.
Community Without The PR Spin
But if you work closely with marketing or PR, how do you get the message out without sounding like a PR shill? Weller continued, "First, react quickly. If some contentious issue comes up, react quickly." Build your relationship with both the PR team and the blog community. Get advice on what you're going to say before you say it. "It's gotten to the point now that I understand how to react quickly, and how to do it in such a way that I don't have four or five people pounding on my door after I press 'send'."
Of course, the community doesn't necessarily represent the entire audience. Hryb asked, "How do you draw the line and say this is the vocal minority and this isn't the vocal minority?" Coming from a developer of a very hardcore (yet popular) shooter franchise, Bowling had a lot to say. "That's a tough balance. It's something the development team and I argue back and forth about. Going to your roots of, 'we're also gamers and we know what's fun' and remembering that the non-vocal side is still there... if your consumer guy is going to like it, the hardcore guys are going to like it." Find "where the hardcore guys will really love it..." but the feature won't affect the purchasing decision of the general audience.
Pobst noted, "If you get ideas off the forums that match with your vision, then you can take ideas from the forum and say 'hey, that's a great idea' and put that in your game." Basically, he said, ideas that fit, fit, and those that don't, simply won't. Hryb agreed, "If you're been doing community for so long you can feel it inside - that it's a good decision." Loverso added, "We listen to them and see if the ideas are not something good for the community at large, or the larger gamer group."
This is a self-correcting problem, argued Weller. "You'll see some people raise some issues and you'll scratch your head and wonder if it's really important - and you'll see the community react to that." If the ideas suck, the community will say so. According to Pobst, "The community will police itself. You don't want to be heavy-handed."
Starting a forum or blog can be daunting. How to start? Weller has sound advice. "When you start blogging you get the simple things, be transparent and be honest." Also, "blog about what you know - you don't want to be the echo chamber guy who repeats what he heard in another room but it really isn't true, or you go on a rant about something you think you know about but don't really know about... that's the kind of thing that's going to build the trust relationship between you and your readers." Hryb agreed, "You need to earn the turst of your community - because if you earn that you can reap wonderful benefits of that, but you can burn it really quickly." Loverso noted that you don't want to argue with the fans, and you don't want to slam them, even if they're posting incorrect info.
Bowling agreed that "being truthful and being honest with your community is the best thing you can do, even when it's not what they're going to hear and you're going to get a negative response - put it out there and give a truthful reason... they're not going to like it, and deal with the backlash the best you can." He also noted that "The hardcore community is not just reading the personal forums, they're also reading your personal blog, Twitter, MySpace." Find out "...what they like, what they don't like, know who the influencers are." That is, who's taking this info and putting it in other places.
Explaining Pay-To-Play Content?
Paid digital content (such as map packs), of course, is controversial. "My experience is that they understand the difference," offered Pobst. Hryb said you have to set expectations - and you have to let people know the community might know that it will be free down the road. According to Bowling, "as long as you are putting out something that is worth the price, they're going to understand. Let them know what's in it, let them know how that came about. Let them know 'your feedback created this map pack.'"
Loverso added, "Internally, we fought over how we're going to price the content... developers want it to cost less, marketing wants it to be more." Switching from free to pay, "we really had to craft our messaging. You have to be very careful to give [the community] the information up front." Let them know it might be free down the road because "...your hardcore players want it anyway. They're not going to wait." According to Weller, the important thing is to "make sure they know you're listening." Don't just discuss it internally, but make sure you go back to them. "The most important thing for us is happy customers are using our product."
Of course, community brings fanboys. What should you tell them? "Basically, what I think any developer wants in that relationship with the fans is the understanding of the craft. How long it takes us to do what we do, how much something needs to be balanced before you give it to someone... there is a process to create that magic that you want," suggested Pobst. Given the audience for Call of Duty, Bowling has no shortage of eager acolytes. "I like to keep it on the topic of my favorite things. Fanboys already love your game. No matter what you say they will agree with you and bash everyone who disagrees with you." Without being cynical, tell them the best parts of the game and they'll "eat it up. He'll go out and he'll evangelize that to death."
According to Lovenzo, "we don't like pissing off the community, so we'll put the test lab on [playing on Xbox Live with real gamers] and listen. We will Title Update if we have to." Weller wanted to know one thing: "We're glad you're happy but what is going to take you to the next level?"
Joining The Community, PR, Marketing Dots
So you're sure you want to engage the community. How do you sell it to your PR and marketing department? According to Loverso, "From an Ubisoft standpoint we had to gather all of the data to prove to the higher-ups that there's a big opportunity here... we've got them to buy into the fact that it's the developer's voice that the community wants to hear. That's what excites them. You'll get them behind the game and they'll get other people to buy it. It really came down to, we had to get the raw data together and show [Ubisoft]."
Bowling agreed, adding, "Selling it internally was really about just results, just showing them what it could do firsthand. When I first came on, we didn't have a forum on our site. Really what it took was just setting up the infrastructure and letting them see the results firsthand -- launching an official forum and seeing the fans on there." You can take that data and use it. Sending out emails with quotes from the forums helps people understand what's going on, and why it's useful. "You take it step by step with getting the development team more involved. Set up the lines of communication so that the feedback you're getting is going somewhere... getting to the appropriate people and the game is getting better."
As the panel discussion drew to a close, Hryb asked the panelists to come up with the nugget of wisdom they wanted the attendees to leave with. According to Pobst, "Community can make your game better," but that "It can be a trap... you have to trust your instincts... having that relationship and understanding what to do with those inputs." If you don't have a community presence, Bowling insists that it's crucial now. "Convince your company to get someone who's involved." Make sure they always respond to the fans.
An audience member asked how you can keep people involved in the community with a product that's far out - keeping people engaged while keeping control on the information about the product. "What you share is real and truthful and not just where you think something's going to go. The earlier you are, the more things can change," according to Pobst. Weller adds, "We've been trickling information out to see the buzz." But Loverso countered that: "You have to be very careful about your timing because it's very difficult to maintain buzz for a really long period of time.You want the biggest amount of buzz around your launch." Pobst circled back: "They'll automatically love you if they love the product... over time, you'll build a relationship."