In May 2012, Polish studio CD Projekt Red announced Cyberpunk 2077, a dystopian RPG set in the futuristic Night City. Following the success of their 2011 title, Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, expectations were enormous. When they launched a trailer in January 2013, it reached 12 million views within the first week.
After that, however, fans were starved of updates until the June 2018 E3 expo. But there’s still no launch date, and we’re being told not to get our hopes up for a 2019 launch date, either. Following the immense success of 2015’s superb Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and its expansions, expectations are still astronomical – but players are quickly running out of faith and patience.
This troubled development of Cyberpunk 2077 serves as a textbook example of how not to do things. And it shows that when it comes to announcing the launch of an AAA title made by one of the most respected names in the industry, even the biggest studios don’t always get it right.
The most poignant issue is that the game was announced far too early. While the success of Witcher 3 diverted players’ attention for a little while, the near-complete lack of updates over the following years saw all the hype fizzle into nothingness. After that, the studio fell victim to a major theft of pre-release design plans combined with a lofty ransom demand, thereby forcing a change of direction during development. And still, we wait.
To give another high-profile example, early access title ARK: Survival Evolved, also met with a barrage of controversy for releasing a paid expansion of their game when it was still in development. This was a direct result of a costly court case, that at one point even threatened to close down developer Studio Wildcard.
Eventually, ARK left early access in August 2017, following a substantial price hike that angered players even more. Although the dinosaur-themed survival game has proven to be highly successful, many reviewers claim that it’s still incomplete, laden with bugs and poorly optimized.
The above examples exhibit poor marketing practices combined with a lack of transparency, internal and external issues plus development and staffing problems. What it all comes down to is that having a great game – or at least, a great concept – isn’t necessarily enough. It’s about knowing how and when to announce the launch of your title so you can build a strong community of fans that will support you.
Preparing Your Community for the Big Day
Some of the greatest games of all time are hidden gems that barely made the light of day. Not because of the games themselves, but because they lacked robust pre-launch strategy. That might sound like something that only indie studios with relatively limited budgets need to worry about, but as we’ve seen, AAA studios don’t always get it right, either.
Far from being the predominantly solo affair it used to be, the success of any modern video game hinges on the reach and nature of its fan community. That’s something you need to start building as soon as you’re ready to announce the launch of your game. In fact, you should lay those foundations when you start developing your game. That way, you’ll have a space for testing and feedback, as well as a community of people to start discussing your upcoming title in anticipation of its launch. Your future players will likely have many questions, and they’re the ones who build hype and share your updates with the masses. If you don’t have an online community of your own, that’s not likely to happen.
The first thing to do is register your domain name as soon as your upcoming game has a title. From the moment you announce the launch, you’ll need a website and community forum where fans can share their excitement in what should become a thriving community both before and after launch. You should also use public social networks – but your most valuable asset will be your own forums.
Your community will serve as the go-to resource for players wanting game updates. That’s why regular involvement from your internal team is critical to any successful launch. If you’re not present, it won’t be long before your community becomes a liability and ends up having the opposite effect you intended. After all, the gaming sector has always attracted more than its fair share of trolling and other troublesome behavior. That’s clearly a reputation you don’t want attached to your game before it even sees the light of day.
What Does a Strong Pre-Launch Community Look Like?
A pre-launch gaming community is a place where fans are both acquired and nurtured. It’s a place where brand advocacy is born and hype is generated en-masse. It’s a thriving and exciting thing to be a part of. By giving yourself the opportunity to communicate directly with your future players, you’ll have access to a wealth of tribal knowledge that will help you build a better game and exceed all expectations.
For that to happen, you need to be active. You need a community infrastructure that enables engagement and peer-to-peer moderation through gamification. Implement forum ranks, badges, leaderboards and reputation points to build a competitive atmosphere that rewards your most valuable members and highlights their best posts.
However, while these tools will help streamline your community marketing efforts, it’s essential to remember that there’s no substitute for direct human involvement. Your community should also serve as a platform for regular updates, such as patch notes and development news. Silence is your worst enemy. It won’t take long before your fans get frustrated by a lack of updates and start thinking your project is dead.
That takes us to one of the most critical concerns of all – when to announce the launch of your game.
So, When Is the Best Time to Announce the Launch?
Deciding on the optimal time to announce the launch of your game can be difficult There will always be a fair amount of educated guesswork involved. If you wait too long, you won’t have enough time to build hype. On the other hand, announce it too early (as CD Projekt Red did with Cyberpunk 2077) and your fans will eventually run out of patience. Oftentimes – and particularly if your game has massive scope – it may be better not to give a launch date at all. Ultimately, missing your launch date, or worse, releasing your game before it’s ready, can prove disastrous.
Typical advice given on game-marketing blogs and forums is: start building your community (and thus announcing the launch) as soon as you start development. That sometimes works for smaller, less ambitious titles with a very clear development roadmap in place. However, with a game as expansive as your average open-world RPG (such as Cyberpunk 2077 or Witcher 3), that’s likely to be a risky strategy. Games of such magnitude require years of development, even with generous funding and hundreds of workers involved.
Perhaps a better piece of advice would be to announce the launch when you can clearly see the end result.
Whenever you decide to go public with your game, it’s always a good idea to have internal alpha testing to help you create a gameplay trailer that builds realistic expectations. If your concept trailer depicts a product completely different than the final result, your players will feel betrayed.
Soft Launches vs. Hard Launches vs. Alpha/Beta Launches
Bigger projects often come with multiple launch announcements -great for keeping the hype train running through extended periods of development. With a soft launch, you don’t have to give a final launch date, but you do need to have something to show your progress, such as a gameplay trailer based on an alpha version. More than ever, players want to see what’s going on behind the scenes of their favorite games. They appreciate being a part of a pre-launch community that demonstrates how developers welcome their feedback.
Soft launches are very common in video games, but hard launches are when the real fun begins. Once you give your fans a set launch date, your community will see an explosion of activity as people rush to pre-order your product. However, you need to be confident enough to be sure you’ll be releasing a complete game when the big day comes around. Depending on the scope of your project, it’s usually best to wait until the game is going through beta-testing before you announce a hard launch. The last thing you need is a situation where enthusiastic players are slighted by endless loading screens, game-breaking bugs and delayed login queues.
The third option is to get your players involved in the development of your game from the moment you have something playable to offer. Welcome to the controversial world of early access, a.k.a. alpha-funding. While early access has long be lauded as a way for cash-strapped indie developers to fund their projects, recent years have shown an increase of AAA publishers utilizing this practice. Even the largest studios capitalize on early access to help fine-tune their games, making the model particularly suitable for highly ambitious multiplayer titles, such as survival MMOs.
What’s Your Unique Value Proposition?
Every successful product has a unique value proposition (UVP) and video games are no exception. Your UVP is what defines your title and sets it apart from competitors. It’s the single most important thing to communicate to your target audience and build a community of engaged fans.
This statement will cause fans to either sigh from boredom, when they hear about yet another zombie apocalypse survival game, or clamor with excitement, when they hear about the release of a title that truly hits a sweet spot in the market. That’s not to say everyone’s sick of zombie apocalypse survival games – it’s a matter of presenting your project as something groundbreaking and unique (though you may have a harder time if you’re jumping on the bandwagon of a relatively saturated niche).
What Does a Strong UVP Look Like?
While it’s important that a UVP distinguishes your game from the rest, it’s just as crucial how you communicate it to your fans. For many of the world’s most successful games, the community itself is inextricably intertwined with the UVP.
For example, Bethesda’s sprawling open-world RPGs from the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series are best known for having the largest modding communities of any game. By releasing modding development kits for all their games, Bethesda empowered the most creative members of their community with the ability to develop and choose from thousands of mods that offer practically limitless replayability for what are still single-player games.
To give another example, Witcher 3’s number-one selling point was its hundreds of hours of quality play time, characterized by interesting side quests, which are comparatively simple and boring in many games of the same genre.
More beneficial value propositions for video games include faithfully remastered remakes of classic games and revivals of long-abandoned genres like real-time strategy. The possibilities are endless and vary greatly between developers and genres. Nonetheless, it’s essential that the entire development and marketing process are shaped by your UVP from the outset.
For the most part, it comes down to creativity and knowing how to communicate it to a clearly defined target audience. If you can do that, your game will have little trouble generating excitement well in advance of its launch.
The video game industry has come to expect launch problems for a long time now. Launch issues come in many different forms, like technical glitches, staffing issues and bad marketing practices. These problems are extremely frustrating to players and they have the potential to make or break a successful title.
Making it work requires thorough research into your target audience and keeping them informed through a strong community platform. Fans appreciate transparency and clear communication too, so build a community of player advocates as soon as you make your upcoming game known to the public.