[Trying to create a roadmap to delivering an engaging community experience within your game? Here, Peter Ryan, VP at community site creators Agora Games -- responsible for Activision's Guitar Hero community site, among others -- takes apart these complex web and crossmedia experiences, examining in detail not only the benefit they bring to your games, but what considerations must be examined when approaching, creating, and maintaining them.]
The current state-of-the-art community website built specifically for a game can be seen at Turn 10's Forza Motorsport 2 and Bungie's Halo 3 community sites. Each site provides an experience that is an extension of the game through the clever use of in-game data and the provision of a framework to support social interaction around a shared set of active goals.
The Forza 2 trading system enables users to swap cars they've made in game for in-game currency. Trading systems are not new to gaming, but a publisher providing a marketplace which empowers users with rights to their in-game assets in relation to others is.
This externalization of the game experience enables individuals to connect around their common in-game experience, and provides a framework around which a culture and community can thrive.
Bungie.net is a technical marvel. The developers on this project clearly worked very closely with the game code early on during the development cycle. The depth and richness of data is truly stunning, the presentation of data is outstanding and the overall experience is good.
The user has very deep access to their entire Halo 3 play history for both campaign and multiplayer modes. The user can drill down to specific weapons, maps and match types, enabling a level of analysis and comparison previously not possible.
The real commonality between these two sites is the clearly visible depth of planning and coordination that existed between the game developers and the web developers to produce the synergies between the game and the web.
The majority of web users today expect a lot from a website. Facebook and MySpace have fostered the standards of social networking to a level difficult to duplicate by most. The requirements for a social site are based on the size of the network, the functionality of the features available, and the externalization capabilities of the network.
Facebook allows developers to create applications which connect to elements external to Facebook. This is critical to the growth and success of Facebook and in line with the expectations of Metcalf's Law.
In order for a specialized and closed community like Bungie.net to succeed, the user must have a reason to go to Bungie.net instead of Facebook. The value proposition of the online game community is the expertise of the player network, the shared interest and passion of the core community members, and the game data.
Of those three elements, the game data is far and away the most valuable and the most difficult to duplicate, and understanding what elements of data has value is critical to building compelling data-driven features.
Looking again at Bungie.net, the user has access to a wealth of information about the game, about their gameplay history and about their characteristics as a player. Heat maps enable the user to view their historical kill and death by geography.
Weapon statistics enable the user to see which weapon they use most effectively and which weapons the community uses most efficiently. Users desire in-depth gameplay analysis in order to study their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses as individual players. As game competition increases with time the level of analysis will deepen and at some point will match that of professional sports analysis.
In addition to requiring substantial amounts of data, users require sophisticated filtration of data down to their specific interests. Each user has a different element of the game that they want to track, and each user has different set of reasons why they want to track those elements. In the case of both cooperative and competitive players, the desired data is based on the need to know ranking in relation to others.
The difference, though subtle, comes down to ranking in relation to what others. To one player it may be compelling to know they have moved from 10,675 to 10,215 in the global ranking.
However, to another player it may be better to know that out of their group of friends they have moved from fifth to second, out of a small group of 10 players. Enabling customization of data display is important to fostering a broad level of user interest in following leaderboards.
Assuming that you have some interesting features based on your game data, you need to ask whether you have linked those features together in a way that the community site is engaging enough to compel a user to spend time on the site instead of in the game, or on a larger social networking site (again, Facebook).
The opportunity costs for any user to spend time on your highly-focused and product-based community site are very high. What are you giving them that keeps them around? Data alone doesn't make a compelling site.
You need to provide a socially interactive experience that is based on the gameplay data, yet which is self-contained and self-sustaining. In order to do so the community needs its own game mechanic.