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How to gain loyal fans: Show your players some respect
How to gain loyal fans: Show your players some respect
April 20, 2012 | By Jon Shafer

April 20, 2012 | By Jon Shafer
More: Console/PC, Design

[In this piece reprinted with permission from Stardock producer Jon Shafer's blog, the former Civilization lead designer explains why developers need to respect and trust their players if they want their games to succeed.]

While no one would argue that respecting the people who play your game isn't a nice, commendable thing to do, there are also tangible benefits to taking this approach – which over the long haul result in better sales and stronger brands.

If you treat the people who buy your games as nothing more than consumers they'll catch on quickly. Once that happens they'll stop giving you the benefit of the doubt and start looking for reasons to complain about you. If players continue to feel slighted they'll just get fed up and leave unless you make really good games. And while putting out games that always get a 96 or above on Metacritic is a nice strategy… well… good luck with that one.

What you really want are true fans. People who know your work, are the first in line to buy the games you make and tell all their friends they have to play your latest release. If you make an effort, it's really not all that hard to build up a loyal following of this sort. Here are a few tips.

Pre-Release Demos

In my previous article I talked about how demos are a great way to introduce players to your game. They also serve a lesser-known role: acting as a "seal of quality." After all, if a developer is willing to let players try out their game for free they must be confident that it's actually good.

When you don't put out a demo, some people will start asking questions… is it because the game isn't any good and the developer is afraid people will find out? Did they run out of time and the lack of a demo is a sign that the game is sloppy and unfinished? You don't want players asking those questions -- you want them trying out your awesome game and telling everyone they know about it.

Some of the more jaded gamers feel that a game released without a demo is simply hoping to cash in before people realize how bad the game is. While this might sound like conspiracy theory territory, think about how many bad games come out with a ton of hype which then vanish from sight within a month of release. Reality or not, this is a practice that's become so common that it rightfully draws suspicion.

So extend your hand and offer the player a free taste. Much of the time they'll reach back to meet you halfway.

Interact With Your Players

I know many developers who avoid online communities like the plague, and not without good reason. No surprise to anyone reading this article, there are quite a few people who prowl the internet for no reason other than to stir up trouble. While most developers work on games because it's what they love, and others do it for a paycheck, neither group signed up for dealing with angry, entitled mobs (except for community managers and tech support -- my thoughts are with you!).

As developers working on the oft-mundane, daily tasks required in making a piece of software, we often lose sight of the fact that there are also many players who love our work. For them the opportunity to talk with someone that worked on their favorite game is incredibly exciting (something we are occasionally reminded of when we get to meet the creators of our favorite games!).

I've seen very similar communities go in completely opposite directions following the announcement of bad news, or the release of a game that didn't meet their expectations -- some became very hostile, while others remained loyal and dedicated to the developer. What was the difference? Nothing more than whether or not the developers regularly posted in the forums.

Share Your Game With Fans

Players like having ownership. It's one of the reasons why they're playing games (an active form of entertainment) rather than experiencing a self-contained work in another medium. The absolute best way to hand over the keys to your game is to make it moddable. Many of the most beloved and long-lasting games of all time are also highly moddable, and their communities live on long after the last official update. Why? Because the players took ownership and had a vested interest in the longevity and overall success of the game. This sort of relationship between player and game is only possible when the players have the power to reshape the game to their liking.

While allowing for modding in games on consoles and other closed platforms is obviously a slight challenge, there are still other ways to give players ownership. Avatar customization, naming locations on the map, even something as simple as being able to pick the UI color -- all of these help the player feel like they are helping to craft the game. Search high and low for places where the player can leave their mark. As long as the customization opportunities aren't obtrusive no one will ever say "man, I really wish they hadn't given me the ability to change X!"

Don't be afraid when people play (and enjoy) your game in a way that you didn't anticipate. I've heard from a few developers who were upset because a large portion of their players cheat while in single player, or otherwise don't "follow the rules." My answer is: so what? If that's how someone wants to have fun with a game they've bought, then there's no problem (just, uh, please don't carry that over into multiplayer, guys!).

The Specter Of Piracy

Ah, the elephant in the room. I’ll just put it this way: if the CIA can get hacked, you’re not going to be able to prevent your game from being cracked. Sorry. You can't stop piracy. Focus on building up a fanbase and higher sales through goodwill instead of trying to bend the internet to your will. If you're spending a ton of effort trying to "win the war" on piracy, then you're wasting resources you could have been used to make better games. The reason why studios like Blizzard and Valve are so successful and beloved is because they focus on delivering the best games possible, time and money be damned. Don't make enemies of paying customers by making them jump through hoops. As history shows us, in most wars there are no winners -- only losers.

[For more thoughts from Jon Shafer, you can follow him on Twitter at @_jon_shafer_.]

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Alex Leighton
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I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've just said.

Chris Melby
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Good read. Thank you Mr. Jon.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Daniel Gooding
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Recently Skull girls casted all their voice talent from an amatuer voice acting forums VAA (A very large community at that), and after release the community was really excited to see their own friends being in such a well made, and highly rated game, and a lot of people were taken from thinking about it, to buying the game just to support that.

Aaron Haaf
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If I remember correctly, the voice actor for Cerebella is the voice actor for Noel from Blaze-Blue. After a quick search, I saw some of these people have had minor parts accredited for them.

I think it's very neat that they went to a community for VA work.

Aaron Haaf
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Bah! The realization that there is more to be said.

MikeZ was originally a big part of the fighting community on many forums and internet sites. Some of the pallet-swaps for the characters are community suggestions as well.

Terry Matthes
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Good article! I feel that there aren't enough companies out there who manage their communities properly. Epic Games comes to mind as a good example of someone who does. Capcom does a good job too, but there forums always seem to have a lot of "younger" people that make things difficult.

Joseph Anthony B. A. Tanimowo-Reyes
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This was quite the useful reminder for developers who didn't know already.

I did, but it's nice to have some further confirmation that these things are good practice.

wes bogdan
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Also keeping in mind new systems like vita and wii u have big screens creating extreme dificulty for the southpaw croud either adjust face button and d-pad functions with southpaw sticks or realize no matter how good : halo,metroid,mario,zelda or killzone are i and other southpaw gamers simply can't play them.

WHY BUY WHAT I CAN'T PLAY(while vita has rayman,disgaea and other playable games without a custom slot stardust would be useless as uncharted and unit 13 currently are) and home systems will have greater dual analog need than vita so no NEXT BOXES will be bought if i can't play them "out of the box"!

Paul Boyle
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Funny you mention Blizzard. After playing the Diablo III beta, I definitely felt like the 'constantly online' feature, despite their PR about it being justified anti-cheating and for social features, feels like an overkill anti-piracy feature. Certainly, the game could have included an online & offline mode.

It's funny how much money gets spent on PR, when a lot of that work ends up just 'sanitizing' the message to the point where I'd no longer trust the PR whatsoever. Most companies now-a-days do not trust and do not want their developers talking to their fans. They believe that having a developer say something off-message is worse than having their fans cut adrift. So often what you see from the big publishers and devs is very choreographed, and feels very fake. At least to me. I wonder if the fans feel the same way.

Jeremie Sinic
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Thank you for a good reference article that I can link to whenever I need to back up an argument on this topic (yeah, it's easier to persuade someone when you can say "The guy from Civilization said it").

But I also agree with @Paul Boyle above, that Diablo 3 could definitely have a single player offline mode like Diablo 2 had (with separate online and offline characters).
Maybe they did that to avoid cases where users complete the game and then realize they can't take their character online, but that's unlikely to be the main reason.
Even if it doesn't bother me personally too much, I know internet connection speeds are not optimal everywhere in the world.
Hell, even my internet connection might break down sometimes. I guess I'll read a book instead of playing Diablo 3 then.