If you’re anything at all like me, you’re completely and stupidly in love with the Megaman series. Obviously. So when Keiji Inafune started his own company and put a little title called Mighty No. 9 on Kickstarter last year you freaked out just a little bit. A spiritual successor to the incredible franchise made by the man himself? Sign me up!
I could spend this whole post just gushing about how excited I am for Mighty No.9 but that wouldn’t be valuable for anyone. Rather, I’d like to draw attention to something that the team at Comcept USA has done incredibly well throughout development- community management.
THE VALUE OF ENGAGING PLAYERS OUTSIDE OF THE GAME
Before I began studying and practicing game development, I always admired developers with an active community presence. I've been fascinated by different community management practices and seen the value that comes from having an active dialogue between player and developer. Community management provides the developer a platform to release news about their game and gather feedback from vocal players about the state of their game. An active online community keeps players talking about the game even when not actively playing it, and this can help extend the longevity of the title.
Not only are there tangible benefits to community management for us as developers, but fans are clearly appreciative of the efforts as well. One thing that's always stood out to me is the "blue tracker" that many fansites for Blizzard games will use. Everytime a Blizzard employee responds to a forum posts these "blue trackers" will find it and post it to this easy to find compilation. This speaks volumes to the weight and value that fans give to interactions with developers.
But I don't need to convince anyone that community management is valuable, today we'll look at things Mighty No.9 has done well to maximize the REACH of community management efforts.
IF A TREE FALLS IN THE FOREST...
In researching this topic I found some numbers that were unsettling to me. To dig into some data, let's take a look at a title we're all familiar with, World of Warcraft. Activision Blizzard's most recent shareholder document shows that there are approximately 7.8 million active subscribers to World of Warcraft, and with these 7.8 million WoW has an incredibly active forum community. The alarming thing to me however was their Twitter followers sits at around 476,000. This means that just over 6 percent of their users are engaged with their Twitter presence, which is alarming to me for a variety of reasons.
The foremost of these reasons is that as developers we're reluctant to spend time and money on content that a lot of players won't ever see. We know that most players don't finish games, so a lot of us don't want to spend time writing amazing endings that a minority of players will ever experience. Why should we feel any different towards online community content? We want to spend our time doing something that will be enjoyed by the greatest possible amount of players.
We can assume that it's someone's job at Blizzard to curate social media content and as such there is time and money being spent on their online presence. Someone at the Blizzard office is spending a good chunk of time curating a Twitter profile that's only reaching 6 percent of their players? How much more valuable would this community manager's time be if their Twitter presence reached 10 percent of their player base? 20 percent? 50 percent?
My point is, we can't just assume that our online efforts are "worth-it" if they're not reaching a large percentage of our player base. A lot of our players are completely oblivious to our online outreach efforts, and we should do everything we can to engage them on multiple platforms. Comcept USA has done some unique things that I think we can all learn from, so let's look into them for a moment.
THE TRANSPARENT DEVELOPMENT OF MIGHTY No.9
Mighty No.9 was successfully Kickstarted on October 1st of last year with about 66 thousand backers. Since almost all of these backers contributed enough to actually purchase a digital copy of the game Kickstarter backers is the closest thing I can think of to compare to the active subscribers of WoW. Mighty No.9 has a very active forum over at their official website that's available to Kickstarter backers, but their Twitter presence is what really wows me. For a game that's not even out for over a year to come, they currently have 24.3 thousand Twitter followers. This equates to 36 percent of their "players" (Kickstarter backers).
Let that sink in for a moment. A game that's doesn't even have a release date is engaging over a third of their player base in their online Twitter content, while one of the juggernauts of the industry is sitting at a measly 6 percent. Wow.
This is not a criticism of Blizzards community management practices, I think they've done a great job. But Comcept USA has done something with Mighty No.9 that Blizzard has not- they've given players incredible access to the development process. Comcept has hired a documentary team to track their progress and release content on their Youtube channel. They've given fans a great way to stay excited during a long development process. One of the key lessons I've taken from this is that they start community management early, a game does not need to be released to develop an active community around it.
But the really amazing thing Comcept has done is how they've integrated their online communities with their future project.
PROVIDE IN-GAME VALUE THROUGH COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION
The above image is from a contest of sorts that Comcept hosted on their forums. Kickstarter backers were given the image and told "This is a support character that will be in the game, he needs a name and a color scheme. Get to work."
Comcept is using the creativity of their community to drive forward certain aspects of design like this, and it's engaging their fans on an unprecedented level. Creatively inclined users can see this contest and submit their entries to an official thread in the forum. Their time spent on the forum has potential to have a very real impact on the game itself.
This is not the first time Comcept has used this strategy. I show this one because this image is available publicly on the website even to non-backers, but there are many other similar projects. There was a contest to name a different support character, and for one other auxilliary character in the game, Call, there was a contest to submit concept art upon which the character would ultimately be designed. Another contest had users submit ideas for the words that should display upon level start. Again, active members of the Mighty No.9 community have a very real chance to have their creativity included in the game.
This is the biggest point that I want to make. For so long, online communities have existed in a vacuum from the actual games they represent. Participation in a WoW forum might get a response from a developer, but nothing from that exchange will actually be reflected when you log in to play WoW at home. If you're active on the Mighty No.9 forums however, you have a real chance of shaping aspects of the game. Your time spent online has real, in-game applications.
IN-GAME VALUE FOR SHIPPED TITLES
Obviously, the changes a dev team can make to a work-in-progress and a shipped title are two completely different stories. Comcept can still change things in Mighty No.9 since it's not done, it would be much harder for Blizzard to have similar contests because they are operating on both a much larger scale and for a live product.
However, I think the principle of providing in-game value to those who participate in online communities is still important. If we can show users that by participating in our online communities they can have an impact on their time spent in-game I believe that we can greatly extend the impact of our community management efforts.
One possible way to do this could be through in-game titles for active online participation. A community manager could award active forum members a title, let's say "Pillar of Community", through use of a code that would be redeemable in-game. This would provide the recipient an in-game badge of honor to tell everyone around them that they are engaged in the game on multiple levels. We know that titles and acheivements are effective ways of motivating players, but only in-game. It's not nearly as effective to award a forum badge or title since it's so separate.
The change I'm suggesting is not a radical one. Existing community management practices are effective at engaging players and providing a platform for developer and player to have a dialogue, but unfortunately they do not have the wide reach we would like to see. If we can bridge the gap between online communities and our in-game worlds as Mighty No.9 has done, we can raise the perceived value of community participation to our user base. This in turn will encourage more participation, encouraging users to stay engaged and active online.
Thanks for reading and thinking about this issue with me! I'd love to hear your feedback and think through these concepts more and brainstorm new ways to connect communities and games. Talk to me on Twitter @tarvusthegreat and let's see what awesome things we can come up with!
*Note- both images linked from publicly available portions of the Mighty No.9 Website. Go check them out!