...and How to Avoid Them
Community is vital to Early Access. It’s what keeps your customers interested through a long dev cycle, provides a way for them to give feedback and makes them more likely to recommend your game to a friend. If you have a problem build or make an unpopular change, your community is the place to communicate with your fans and help to patch things up.
Even veteran developers like Damon Slye have made the mistake of underestimating the importance of community. The Kickstarter for a remake of his hugely popular flight-sim Red Baron underperformed despite a large potential audience. Slye himself attributes this to a lack of community:
Early access success isn’t just about early sales, it’s about maintaining momentum up until launch. If you’re going to bring players back time and again for new builds to keep giving help and feedback, you’ll need to make them feel like a community rather than customers.
This can be easier said than done. Building a great community is a tricky business. There are common traps that even astute developers fall into in the rush of putting together community strategy:
Mistake 1: Keeping Community in the Wrong Place
Contemporary community management is frequently fractious. Gamers expect to be able to talk about your game on their medium of choice, whether that’s Reddit, Facebook, Twitter or your own community forum. It’s great when your players start making community content (eg subreddits, wikis, fan sites) of their own volition. The mistake is in thinking that this has done all the community work for you.
It’s impossible to control the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and very difficult to do so on Reddit. Trying to keep track of all these different streams is a nightmare, and you’ll never have full agency in them. Think of your community forum as the focal point of your community; a town square surrounded by various satellite towns. It’s the easiest place for you to have a voice in the conversation.
This doesn’t mean that you should delete or otherwise censor negative feedback. All this will do is push players to venues that are more open. What you should be aiming to do is ensuring that you’re always a primary stakeholder in the community, rather than relying on fan-controlled mediums.
Mistake 2: Your Community Isn’t Up to Date
Early access games change fast. That’s part of the point! You’ll always be pushing out new features, fixing bugs and making balance changes. This can make things tough on new players who search for community content. If they’re looking for a little help getting started, or want some information on how the game plays, they’re likely to run up against outdated community-generated content. Sometimes these problems will be minor, but others can cause real headaches. Players need a consistently updated knowledge base that they can be certain is up to date with the latest changes.
Dedicating part of your forum to a knowledge base is a tried-and-tested tactic. It gives players a one-stop shop for the best community guides, and also provides diligent wiki editors with a credible source for information on gameplay mechanics. You can categorize content in the knowledge base by update, so that players reading a particular guide will know that the information in a 0.3 guide might not be true of their new build.
Community members make some brilliant content, but a little curation goes a long way. Helping to support their efforts improves the information that’s available to players and creates an enormous amount of goodwill.
Mistake 3: Failure to Communicate
If the only conversation in your community is between your players, you’re leaving money on the table. While players are there to speak with each other, they also want to speak to you. They’ve put a lot of faith in your product by buying it in early access, and that road can be a rocky one. The key to a health customer relationship is the same as any other kind of relationship; communication.
Failure to communicate leaves a vacuum where your conversation should be. If you don’t fill this, your community will invent their own narrative and attribute it to you. Press releases and blogs aren’t enough, you should be engaging directly with your customers and answering their questions and concerns on a personal level. See what they’re saying, what their concerns about the game are and what counter opinions exist. Ask for more information and clarifications to see if those concerns are valid or if they’re just complaining to complain.
There will always be some customers who become unhappy with the direction of a game’s development. That’ s a natural part of the product lifecycle. The best way to mollify those customers is to explain why and how these decisions are being reached. If an update has been delayed due to the whole office catching swine flu, your community will understand. You just need to tell them. The most common cry in the communities of a failing game is “Why don’t the developers listen to us?” Don’t let that happen to you.