A strong community can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, even for a well-made game. From fan magazines like Nintendo Power to modern conceits like in-game chat and game-based forums, past and current developers and publishers have made at least some effort to foster communities based around their games. Community is becoming even more vital as social games, persistent multiplayer games, and mobile games enter the same space as traditional single player games.
There are a multitude of tried-and-true methods for fostering a game community. Many developers put years of work into maintaining a game, releasing new content to keep players coming back. Other developers add a multiplayer component, hosting matches between players or adding a social layer to encourage players to interact with each other. These and more tactics have been known to work as long as the developer in question keeps up with the community.
But what happens when a developer moves on? Multiplayer servers are shut down, updates cease, and developer-curated community websites fall into disuse. If a game is good enough, there will always be fans -- they can be found scattered across various websites and forums, still helping the occasional new player or praising their favorite game from their past.
But these stragglers are just a shadow of the former community. The core community has died, and even previously dedicated fans will spend more of their time elsewhere. It may take a while, perhaps even a few years, but most game communities dwindle away after the developer moves on.
There are a few exceptions to this pattern, though. Occasionally, with the right conditions, a game's community will significantly outlast its developer's involvement. No game proves this better or more succinctly than the classic Super Metroid -- not only does it have a robust community nearly 20 years after its release, but the community also formed organically long after the game's original release.
The community in question, which was once a subset of the more generic Metroid fan forum Metroid2002.com, now exists as a ROM hacking community. It chiefly revolves around Metroid Construction, a website, forum, and IRC channel created in early 2009 as a college project. Although ROM hacking isn't unique to Super Metroid, the Metroid Construction community is active, prolific, and accomplished, producing hacks that rival the source material in originality and complexity.
The community's daily activity far outstrips many more typical game communities, particularly when considering the age of the game itself and the relatively narrow focus of the community. There are no new players posting to ask about cheat codes and secrets, nor even are there speedrunning hopefuls discussing sequence-breaking tactics. The Metroid Construction forum does cover ROM hacking for other Metroid games -- plus, incidentally, The Legend of Zelda -- but the Super Metroid hacking sub-forum is by far the most active, with literally thousands more posts than any other game in the franchise.
As one may guess from this level of activity, the Super Metroid hacking community has created a multitude of new hacks -- nearly 100 complete, playable hacks are listed on the Metroid Construction website. These aren't 100 slight variations on the original game, with minor tweaks and cosmetic changes. Many of these hacks are radically different from their source material in terms of graphics, level design, and even gameplay mechanics.
Super Metroid: Redesign, pictured right, is one hack that drastically alters the layout from the original, pictured left.
So the Super Metroid hacking community is active, self-starting, and unique among Metroid games. The question is, then, how exactly does it sustain itself? How does it attract new members and daily activity? For answers, I asked members of the Metroid Construction forum to explain their reasons for joining the community. Their responses, while unique to each individual, shared key elements that pointed to the community's success.