[Capcom says its Mega Man Legends 3 is being designed with significant input from the public. Is this possible -- or is it a marketing gambit? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell takes a look.]
Marketers talk a lot about social media "engagement" and "transparency" these days. In theory, this means using Facebook and Twitter to co-opt the fanbase's goodwill in order to generate cheap buzz. In practice you usually end up with some lame "Like Us to see a screenshot" campaign, and crappy tweets about the company picnic.
In the absence of imagination and daring, gimmickry is the preferred tactic.
Capcom, uniquely among games companies, actually does engagement and transparency, shaming its competitors with a vibrant, well-executed blog that's constantly feeding fans with new information, insights and fun. Capcom-Unity's traffic is higher than some well-known media outlets in the games biz.
Capcom-Unity became an internal inspiration that led to the company opening its doors fully for the 3DS game Mega Man Legends 3. Key components of the game's design and development are discussed openly with a special community and voted upon. There are updates every day, ranging in detail from design contests and development tutorials to sweet, intimate notes on the benefits of moving office furniture around in order to foster greater creativity.
Most games blogs are patronizing in tone, handing out information like a school-ma'am doling out candy to good little children. But Capcom's DevRoom treats its readers like adults and appears to be genuinely interested in feedback. It lacks the feverish clique-factor of so many forums.
I love this stuff. I work for a company that sells content to brands (we didn't work on Capcom-Unity). For me, companies are so obsessed with secrecy, so wedded to tired marketing techniques, that they fail to realize their most precious narrative assets -- their creative people, their fascinating processes and the possibilities of valuable relationships with the public. Alas, most social media campaigns cleave to the marketing techniques of the past.
When I first came across this Capcom campaign, I saw it as a smart piece of marketing, but carried some doubt that this would be a game in which the public would really "be part of the development team" [YouTube]. After all, game designers have used this tactic before, sometimes to iron out glitches or to enhance the gameplay experience in, for example, a big MMO. Usually though, it's a marketing gambit with limited impact on the actual game's design.
I visited Capcom's San Mateo office to meet with Joveth Gonzalez, Community Manager for Capcom-Unity in order to find out more, and came away deeply impressed with the company's active commitment to its stated aims.
Gonzalez says Capcom-Unity has been one of the most cost-effective marketing campaigns the company has created. In the simplest possible terms, he says, "we just put information out there for people and the amount of interest we get back is totally worth it." In the age of Facebook and Twitter, this gives people something tangible to share, a thing of value in the social-informational economy. "A lot of people are on Facebook all day and they see that we've updated a story so of course they're going to click on the link and visit our site, and share what they see."
Most companies have blogs and Facebook pages, but Capcom is creating traction by offering up great content that's actually worth sharing, not just a stream of marketing assets.
Gonzalez says the idea for a DevRoom that was completely dedicated to an open development strategy for Mega Man Legends 3 came from the developers in Japan, rather than a team of marketers. The game itself has not been green-lit, and much will depend on the public's reaction to a prototype due to be released when Nintendo opens its 3DS e-shop.
"We decided that there would be no walls, we would share as much information as possible, without any PR input. It's been rough, especially at the beginning because we weren't sure exactly how much to share but when we realized that they [the public] just wanted everything, that was surprising and refreshing. So it's all out there. Everything."
There are limits to this openness. Game designers and marketers will all have their opinions on how far a campaign like this can really have "no walls." For example, readers are asked to vote on their favorite enemy robots in the game, but the votes offer no realtime results. Capcom says this avoids people voting for whatever's popular, but it feels like the company is holding back, because ultimately it needs to be the one to make the final decision, even if the final decision is necessarily based heavily on consumer input.
A contest-winning entry to design a major asset in the game was re-realized by the team. Gonzalez calls this a "tweak" -- judge for yourself -- adding that any 2D contest-entry will go through changes before it can be inserted into a 3D world with a specific graphical look and feel.
Perhaps most interesting was a vote for the main character's suit-design. Given three options, the public not only voted for their favorites, but offered up loads of valuable feedback on each of the options' pros and cons, leading the designers to make some tweaks, and offer up a new vote.
This feels iterative, just like real design. The designers aren't merely following a pre-set marketing agenda, but engaging in an actual conversation They are showing a desire to make the best game possible based on what the public is saying.
Although creating a site like Capcom-Unity and the DevRoom is cost-effective, that doesn't mean it's cheap. The site includes excellent articles from people throughout Capcom, who must find the time to share their insights. It takes a corporate commitment at a cultural level to make this stuff happen, as any brand blogger will tell you.
The constant exchange of information between the U.S. site and the Japanese developers takes resources and hard work. And, of course, any direct exchange between a brand and the public carries risks, which must be avoided or at least mitigated.
But the benefits are real. Gonzalez adds, "We've found that people have rallied behind the game. They feel a part of the title. They want to fight for it. They come together to support us. For our marketing team that's the best thing you can ask for, a grassroots campaign promote a title, to be involved."
[Full Disclosure: As well as being business editor for Gamasutra, Colin Campbell works for a marketing agency that provides content and blogs to brands. You can follow him on Twitter @brandnarrative.]