While sophisticated Super Metroid hacks draw players into the hacking community, most new members won't become hackers without accessible tools and a way to learn the trade. In the case of Metroid Construction, the SMILE Editor is the core hacking tool for Super Metroid, allowing new hackers to safely explore the game's code using a graphical interface.
Several forum members cited this editor, as well as the ample documentation and help channels available to new hackers, as the reason they were able to learn hacking.
Although a modern developer might create and maintain its own game editor, SMILE is a collaborative effort -- when the fan who created SMILE could no longer dedicate the time to maintain it, other community members took on the responsibility to update and improve it.
Besides the SMILE Editor, the Metroid Construction community has another major piece of middleware -- a hack for community members to build on to create new hacks. Called Project Base and made by community member Grime, Base is a refurbishing of Super Metroid. It contains no changes to the critical path, but focuses on fixing bugs, optimizing the code, and updating the physics and graphics.
It even adds a few new moves, like a backflip, to make gameplay flow better. Because Grime encourages other hackers to use the hack as a starting point, Project Base makes complex and thorough hacks much easier to do.
The graphical updates in Project Base, pictured right, include everything from a new color palette to new room backgrounds. The original game is on the left.
The reason a hack like Project Base works, and the final piece of the puzzle for the Super Metroid hacking community's success, is the collaborative culture of the community. Hacks aren't created in a void and released when complete. Instead, the forum is abuzz with hackers old and new posting works in progress for testing and feedback.
In these threads, the creator discusses bugs, potential improvements, and ideas with other forum members. This contributes to the friendly culture, but more importantly, it means new members can become a meaningful part of the community before completing their first hack, and old members have a reason to keep coming back between projects. Forum members credited this with the rise in standards for new hacks -- frequent feedback helps keep hackers motivated to earn the respect of their peers, and that leads to better hacks, which in turn leads to more exposure, which finally leads to more members.
Although it's certainly not the only game with a loyal hacking community, the Super Metroid hacking community demonstrates how low-maintenance a game's community can get. Because its growth was wholly organic, there's no set blueprint of rules that a modern developer can simply copy, but that doesn't mean developers can't learn from it.
First and most importantly, a game has to create fans. Fortunately, this is also key to creating a successful game, so it already has its own body of research. Super Metroid does this by encouraging exploration and mastery of the game. While simply hiding secret items in the game world may not work so well since the advent of wikis and FAQs, there is no real shortcut for the player mastering the core mechanics of a game.
Any type of game can encourage mastery -- some, like Monster Hunter, require the player to understand boss behavior to progress in the game, while others, like Street Fighter IV, encourage fans to hone their skills playing against other players. Even the three-star scoring system in Angry Birds encourages players to spend extra time flinging around the titular avians. Whatever the method, a game has to encourage a significant number of players to invest a lot of time in the game, garnering a more permanent interest in the game itself.
But even intense interest in a game can die out if it's not fed and encouraged. Developers can't force players to further explore a game, but they can encourage curious players -- or create roadblocks for them. Secrets hidden in the game, or "Easter eggs," can encourage fans to explore the game.
Even trivial secrets can have a significant impact on fans; Minecraft's developer spurred an intense flurry of interest by mentioning an Easter egg that turned out to be a trivial change in the title screen, while some merely suggestive text in Dark Souls (which its director later revealed was nothing more than a tease) did the same. And while Easter eggs can encourage players to explore, developers must also make sure not to create a system so closed to investigation that it discourages curious players. It's these players that were the seeds of the Super Metroid hacking community, and a game community would be hard-pressed to sustain itself without them.