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This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.
So today I'm going to be talking about Communities; Why you should be building one pre-launch, how to put together your brand, communication and content strategy in order to help build one, setting up your community hub and most importantly how to turn your community into an extension of your team.
I'll also explain why and how this can benefit your creative, marketing and business processes, help you raise additional funding and help you mitigate risk at launch.
I don't profess to be an expert in the field of community management or marketing and some of you may already be going through the processes of building your communities and working through your marketing plans, but no matter your level of experience hopefully you'll get some use out of this.
Before I get started I should probably tell you a bit about myself - I'm Justin French, founder and CEO of Dream Harvest.
Previous to starting Dream Harvest I worked in both AAA and Indie as a sound designer, composer, project manager and consultant. I also used to teach game design and development at a local college as an industry specialist where I re-wrote the ICT Level 2 BTEC course, replacing the focus on app development using Visual Basic with games development using Unity and C#, giving 16 - 19-year-olds a real taste of industry-relevant skills. I also used to work as a game and tech recruiter for a recruitment agency. Previous to the games industry I worked in the music industry as a freelance recording and mix engineer at studios across the country as well as a business adviser to musicians.
As a studio, we're developing NeuroSlicers, a cyberpunk real-time strategy game that combines solo, co-op and competitive PVP gameplay into a seamless narrative-driven experience.
Our community is central to our business strategy, we started building ours before we even had a playable and is especially important due to our attempts to really innovate the genre's core mechanics and expand the potential audience beyond the traditional hardcore / competitive gamer player types associated with RTS games.
When we develop games, we often start by focusing on ourselves, trying to create an experience or experiences that we'd want to play and enjoy, but in reality, we're really building experiences for them:
The millions of players out there in the world. I mean, we are businesses, and we need to sell our games to continue to be businesses.
The games industry is incredibly risky - Time and time again we're seeing games launch and fail due to a wide variety of reasons such as:
The list could probably go on, but the important thing to note is that most, if not all of these points can be mitigated by effectively building and communicating with your community as early as possible.
A community is a sounding board, both pre and post-release. It's a place where you as developers can seek player validation, sanity check your decisions from a design, usability and business standpoint while also giving players a chance to see the inner-workings of the games development process, where you can show them the reality that games dev is hard and expensive!
Most importantly, this can and will lead to "player buy-in" and build faith between developers and their audience and also helps minimise the likelihood of toxicity within a growing community.
Seth Godin - Famous Marketing Guru
"Your smallest viable audience holds you to account. It forces a focus and gives you nowhere to hide."
We've seen the effects of not listening to your audience over the past year within the AAA space with games such as:
There is a multitude of other examples that I'm sure all of you could list.
Studios that treat their audience as cash cows rather than listening to and making informed decisions based on what their audience wants will eventually be lost and forgotten, shunned by their community for not listening.
It's essential that we build our studios on a foundation of player trust and open communication. Making the players part of the development process, making us accountable for our decisions.
Many of us are in a unique position compared to studios working on established franchises with established communities with pre-conceived expectations and this means we can start with a relatively clean slate that allows us to control the message we want to give to our players. We hold all the cards and can influence and shape our community before it has a chance to grow to a point where it's autonomous - but this also means that its essential that the right kind of seeds are sown so that when the community does grow, it flourishes, growing into something wonderful instead of something out of our control.
So, hopefully, I've convinced you of the importance of creating a pre-launch community, but how exactly do you go about building it.
When we first started working on NeuroSlicers, we didn't do this, we started building our community through a lot of trial and error, feeling our way through the process and we made a lot of mistakes along the way - I mean, try running a Kickstarter campaign with a game called Failure.....what NeuroSlicers used to be called!
I wish I'd known this stuff 3 years ago, but I'm also glad we learnt the hard way and built upon our experience which has helped us define who we are now.
We can now, hopefully, share a better way to go about doing things.
Well, the first step is to make sure you have a good brand and communication strategy in place that can be used by your whole team and which defines how you'll attract and talk with your community, acting as a set of guidelines that will give the team direction and motivation. There is a multitude of other benefits and elements that make up the process of branding (ie, the Logo) that could be a whole another talk in itself, but here I'm just going to cover the key elements you'll want in the documents specific to the communication side of things, rather than visual identity:
You'll want to put together a document with the following:
The Game Elevator Pitch
You want the whole team to be able to memorise this; its a summary of everything that is your game and should be enough to get people excited
Our one, for NeuroSlicers, is possibly a bit too long, but I've been using it for the past 3 years of pitching so it's kinda stuck:
NeuroSlicers is a highly tactical cyberpunk RTS that turns the genre on its head by focusing on fast, macro and total information gameplay, short 8-12 min matches, epic global objectives and a dark cyberpunk narrative campaign that seamlessly blends competitive PVP, Co-Op and singleplayer into a truly unified gaming experience.
Control clever AI-powered units, use powerful hacking abilities that allow you to manipulate the levels and spawn advanced weaponry and buildings that allow you to take over the network one data node at a time.
This is all about how you want your game to be perceived, what it is aspiring to be.
A deeply immersive, narrative-rich and highly tactical experience that is loved and enjoyed by both hardcore strategy fans as well as the wider mainstream. An unparalleled strategic gameplay experience that puts the player at the centre of the story and lets them be in control of their own destiny.
This is usually put before vision and is used to define what your company currently is, but for games, I like to swap Vision and Mission around and use mission as a statement that explains how you will reach your vision.
Focus on higher level tactical play, shorter matches, high intensity battles and exciting memorable “edge of your seat” moments and wrap it in a deep narrative-driven campaign that combines solo, co-op and pvp and which modernises the genre and brings strategy games into the mainstream while offering lovers of the genre a brand new experience and set of challenges.
These are all about common goals, what defines the experience you are creating. You generally should stick to 5 or less otherwise it's hard for your team to memorise.
- Deep Tactical Play
- Easy Learning Curve
- Exciting and Rich Narrative
- Highly Immersive
Your brand position is how your game/brand differs from other similar games on the market. There might be several things, but for here, just choose what you feel is the strongest, ie your game is the only game that.......
NeuroSlicers is the only strategy game that combines PVE, co-op and PVP gameplay into a unified narrative-driven experience with the player and their journey at the centre
This section is all about why players will be attracted to your game. What exactly will the game give them in exchange for their time? Why exactly should they purchase and play your game?
NeuroSlicers lets player’s play through the content they want to engage with while progressing the core narrative, we make the experience accessible while retaining the depth that the core audience expects. And finally, we modernise the genre by bonding together PVE, Co-Op, PVP and narrative gameplay and progression into a seamless whole.
Your tagline is a phrase, "hook" or call to action that encompasses everything that is your game. For NeuroSlicers, we're still trying to work out exactly what we want ours to be, but currently use the following:
Determine Your Reality
This encompasses both our narrative - the battle over two realities, the real world and the digital AR layer that hides the real world that everyone in our game is forced to live in, and, how player choice and customization is central to our experience as players embody the role of a "Slicer", a hacker who is able to see beyond the digital veil and, through their choices, determine their reality and future reality for humanity.
Message architecture is a vital component of any content strategy because, without it, you do not have a framework for creating your content.
As Content Marketing Institute puts it:
Creating content without a message architecture is like building a house without a floor plan.
To build your messaging architecture it's suggested that you take a workshop approach with your team. You want to put together cue cards with at least 75 descriptive Adjectives (though more can be useful) and then as a team, filter them into 3 piles consisting of
You also want to make sure they're ordered by what you and your team feel is the most important ones.
Once you've done this, there might be team members that disagree with the placement of certain cards - discuss this among everyone to determine if the placement is correct. Once you've done this, choose the top 3-5 from the What the Game is and What we want the game to be piles and discuss what these Adjectives really mean to you and your game.
For us, we had the following:
What NeuroSlicers Is
As NeuroSlicers is still in development, not everything is in game yet, on that note, this is What We'd Like NeuroSlicers To Be:
With these defined it now becomes much easier for the team to know what kind of content and message you want to push with your social media and community outreach. But how exactly do you want to communicate this message?
Traditionally Your brand voice requires that you define a consistent and unchanging way of communicating with your audience. It's usually defined by your company's personality combined with a tone that dictates an adjustable emotional inflexion applied to your voice depending on the particular message or piece you are sharing
In other words, if your brand was a person, how would it talk?
My personal issue with this is that, firstly, if you are still working on your first product, you will likely still be trying to work out what your vision, mission statement and core values are as a studio or these are likely product based rather than company based and you don't currently have any customers....I mean, you might have a community who are potential customers, but they've not bought your game yet. Secondly, it hides the individual personalities of your team members behind a company / corporate face and doesn't allow your community to really get to know the people making the game.
Games are made through the harvesting of great ideas, the dreams you could say, of a combination of people (unless your a solo dev) - Its the hard work and creativity of the individuals on your teams that should be praised and celebrated by your community and I think there is ample room for the community to really get to know your team better, not just the company.
However, some lines do need to be drawn regarding what can and can't be discussed and there does need to be a shared vision and way of describing things.
I suggest you put together, as part of all the other documentation you're doing for your branding and communication planning, another document that outlines the following:
Communicating Planned Game Features
1. A description that defines key talking points for each feature
2. Key Words to use when describing each feature
3. Key Words to avoid when describing each feature
4. A Label to signify whether it can be talked about now, later or never
5. Any helpful notes.
6. A link to a dropbox folder with assets to share that are associated with this feature.
With this and the other branding documentation in place, your team should be in a good position to be able to talk about the game while still being able to put across their own personalities. But where exactly should they be talking about the game and what kind of content works where?
Many of us don't have dedicated social media managers, community managers or marketing people on the team, so it's important that the whole team works together to help grow your community. It's especially helpful if you have team members that speak more than 1 language and can translate your social media and community hub posts.
However, one very very important note - You'll want to try and keep the place where you have meaningful conversations to a single place. Based on conversations I've had with community managers and senior marketing people, It becomes very very hard to manage a community split across multiple locations, ie Steam Forums, your Forums and Discord. Pick one, syphon people there and stick with it, at least until you have a dedicated community person on the team.
Also, get into automating your social media; use tools like Crowdfire or Hootsuite, it makes things much much easier to manage and means you'll be spending more time building your game and content and less time managing the social media side of things.
Anyway, here are a few sites to get started:
This is a great place to have the main community hub where you interact with your fans on a daily basis and share timed exclusive content before tweeting this content or including it in a newsletter; ultimately you want people to be funneled here from all other places. With the recent changes to the Discord store, there are also some cool new features you can make use of which I'll talk about a bit later.
You should be tweeting on a daily basis and preferably with images, gifs and videos. Always make use of hashtags, but never more than 2 or 3 max and one of them should be a custom one for your game, i.e. for us we have #NeuroSlicers.
The other hashtag should be either #gamedev, #indiedev or on Wednesday at 6PM BST #indiedevhour, on Friday's (if you're using Unity) #madewithunity and on Saturday's #screenshotsaturday. It's important you research the best hashtags to use for your particular genre and theme. We make use of #cyberpunk quite a bit for instance.
Always try to link to your Discord and/or Newsletter within every tweet to push people to your main community hub. Track engagement on the Twitter analytics page and work out why certain tweets maybe work better than others (time, visual content, word content, hashtag use, etc). Also. make sure you get other team members, or your other accounts to retweet using a different set of 2 hashtags and try to retweet your own posts every 3 - 4 hours in order to hit other time zones with your content. Content with images are a good, Gifs and videos are even better and you'll see much more engagement with these.
We've seen some of the highest engagement over on Instagram compared to other social platforms. Its a great place to share photos of your working environment, the team and your day to day experience as developers and offers a great way to share the personality of your studio and game. The only downside to Instagram is that links don't work on normal posts, only paid posts. We personally tried posting 1 image a day for a few weeks and saw good growth and engagement over that time.
On Instagram its essential you make use of as many hashtags as possible (Up to 30) to reach as many different topic based feeds - research the most popular hashtags for your genre and use all of them - though do be careful, there is a character limit on Instagram (2200), but they don't show this on the app...instead you'll just find that half your text has been cut-off when you post.
This can be hosted directly on your site or somewhere like Tumblr if your doing it in a written form, however, we've personally started doing video dev blogs instead as they're faster to produce and allow you to put a face to the game that I believe people appreciate.
Blogs should be done on a monthly or bi-weekly basis as well as part of your newsletter. Repost these blogs across other sites such as IndieDB, Facebook, Medium or anywhere else where you think might be worthwhile and also be sure to tweet about them.
Try to find a single topic to cover in a blog in detail while also giving a general update on the progress of development. Once again, always remember to include a link to your Discord, funnel readers there by saying something like "If you'd like to discuss any of the topics covered in this month's blog then head over to blah blah blah......"
This should be a bi-weekly/monthly thing where you summarize all the marketing content you've created that month and where you link to this content. Keep newsletters short and sweet with interesting headlines and a paragraph or two for each section before linking to the bulk of the content held on your Blog, YouTube, Twitch, etc - once again, push people to your Discord so they can discuss the topics.
MailChimp is a good product for this and has pretty good analytics that allows you to track opens, the location of people opening your newsletter and more including A/B testing Newsletter headers, splitting send outs with different content to check for the responses, etc.
On your YouTube channel, you should be posting your video dev blogs, gameplay snippets, trailers, interviews with your team where they discuss their role on the project, videos of your time at events, recordings of live streams, game feature deep dives and anything else you can think of.
Make sure you organize your YouTube channel into categories so it's easy for people to find the content they're most interested in. Make new video uploads unlisted and share them first via your Discord so your Community gets a first look, then maybe a week later make them public and tweet about them. Make sure you emphasize that your Discord community is getting a first look at everything you create on here.
Try to live stream at least once or twice a month, ideally more. You can hold special live stream events where you giveaway other games (It's super handy having a Humble Monthly subscription and also buying some of the Humble Bundles to have a big catalogue of game keys to give away for competitions).
You can live stream your team programming, your artists doing art, new gameplay features, an internal competition, anything really. Try to live stream at a variety of different hours throughout the week and weekend so that you can be sure that people from across the globe can attend at least some of them. Once a stream is over, upload the video to your YouTube Channel for those members of your community that couldn't attend the live stream.
Be sure to create some good visual assets for your channel and Streaming overlay.
Always be sure to promote your Discord throughout your stream.
Personally not a big fan of IndieDB, I think the interface and UX needs a massive overhaul as it's incredibly archaic, but it's still a good place to re-post your blogs and get them featured on the IndieDB homepage.
You need to make sure you stick to their rules when posting content on your pages here though (something like at least 5 new images or a video) otherwise they'll archive the post and it will only be visible on your personal game page.
There are a lot of game dev and gaming community Facebook groups out there; join as many of them and feel free to spam posts to your other content; you'll get a few hits this way - though, Facebook has become less business-friendly over the past year or so and less effective for marketing efforts due to changes in their algorithms.
Studios with existing large communities have fewer issues, but it's harder now than ever to build a community on Facebook due to how the algorithm only shares your posts to a small segment of your followers initially and then based on engagement it might share it with more people.
VK is a platform similar to Facebook predominantly used by Russian and Eastern European users. We only began using this during our Closed Pre-Alpha and saw lots of interest. Its probably worthwhile having a translated version of your Facebook page on here and cross-posting stuff you post on Facebook to your official game page here.
This is something you should have set up around 6 - 8 months before release, but only if you have all your key art and a solid video and screenshots ready. At this point it's recommended that you make your store page live with the tag "Coming Soon" so people can start Wish Listing your game. This is much better than allowing pre-orders in order to get as many day 1 sales as possible. In addition, making your store page live will open up your steam community pages to the public, here you'll want to pin a post that tries to push people to your Discord.
Now that you have a list of key places to post your content you'll want to put your actual plan together. In a new document, put together a couple of tables that outline the following:
Objectives For Each Phase Of Development
Your phases might be
Phase 1: Pre-Alpha / Alpha / Development
Phase 2: Beta Testing
Phase 3: Launch
Under each heading, you'll want to list the key talking points and content that you want to focus on during that phase. For instance:
1. Share the Development Journey - Showing the evolution of the game
2. Spotlight Features on the team and their backgrounds
3. Story Introduction/Tease
4. Community Foundations - Start building the community
1. Mechanics - Locking down gameplay mechanics
2. Building world narrative - Feature focus
3. Background story for the season launch
4. Community excitement - Build up to launch. Game Feature lockdown
1. Product, features and content lockdown - Price points and versions
2. Story Reveal
3. Key Character Profiles
4. Community profiling - Identifying and rewarding early adopters
Here's what the table will look like once built:
This is used as a springboard to generate discussion and ideas regarding the content you'll be sharing with your community and should be continuously expanded upon throughout development and beyond to support your post-launch communication planning.
Next up is a table for laying out your Channel Structure, ie where you're going to be posting content, when you're going to be posting it, what the core messages/content types are and who is the key owner responsible for posting on each channel is. Here's a screenshot of ours:
Based on this table you can now start to build a roadmap/calendar of your content marketing plan and align it to your development roadmap and the objectives for each phase of the development plan. Make sure your whole team is subscribed to the calendar/roadmap and set some time aside each week to prepare the content with your team.
Discord has quickly become the go-to platform for community building over the last couple of years and continues to grow in popularity.
Replacing the traditional forum as a place to discuss and engage with your audience in a more direct way, Discord is an amazing platform that seems to be going from strength to strength.
Some of the key features include:
So how do you get started using Discord as your community hub?
You'll want to set up a number of things starting with your...
Your Welcome page is the starting point of any good community. It should contain everything a new member should know about your community to get settled in. It should be broken down into the following sections which I'll go into more detail after:
This should be the first thing that your users see and it's a good idea to get this to appear via Mee6 when they join your Discord server. Keep it short and sweet while directing your users to the channels where discussion topics are happening. Here's ours as an example:
It's important that with any new community you start on the right foot and have some robust rules in place for new users. Make sure you direct new users to where your rules are, such as a welcome page when they join. Here are some rules to get you started:
It's also a good idea to gain "buy in" from your early community members in regards to your rules - discuss this topic with them and go through each rule in detail explaining why you feel this will help create a more positive community space.
You want your community to know who your team members are and what their role on the project is. This will help to connect your community with your team and allow the community to ask specific questions to the right people.
In addition to this, having some mods (in our case our selected community member testers, something we'll talk about in a bit) that help out with your community is a good idea. I talk more about this in the last section of the guide. Finally, make sure that your team and mods have a strict naming convention in terms of their username on Discord and be sure to assign the correct roles and colours so that your community can easily identify your team and mods.
Setting up a variety of Channels for particular topics is a good idea, but start with a small number of them. As your community grows you'll naturally start to need new ones. Start with the following:
Roles are a good way to separate out your community and channel access. You'll want to spend a bit of time sorting out and setting these up correctly with the right types of server and channel permissions.....on that note, Role permissions can be overridden on a per channel basis so be careful with this. You can have as many as you want but a good rule of thumb is to start with the following:
Its a good idea to separate out the content creators from the general community members on your server and maybe even give them their own channel where you can share exclusive content for them to use for videos.
So you've started to get people to sign up to your discord but your struggling to think of how to engage with them in an effective way. Here are a number of things you can start doing:
So you have your brand plan, communication plan and content plan in place and you've started to build a community on something like Discord, but who exactly are you trying to attract to your community?
I'm sure most of you have gone through the process of defining who your key audience is but I think it's important to have a little refresher as part of this process leads into how to make the most from your community once you've started building it.
In branding, the process of building Persona's is a key part of understanding the types of people that are potentially your customers. It allows us to paint a picture regarding the types of habits, character traits, lifestyles, ages and more in order to better target our marketing efforts towards different segmentation's within our community.
However, gathering this information isn't always straightforward. Where do you find these people and how exactly do you go about speaking with enough of them to define your brand's Personas?
The first step - you'll need to start with looking at comparable products and the communities built around them. Where do the developers of these games engage with their communities?
Well, they're more than likely spread across a number of the following:
Embed yourself into these communities, try to understand what people are discussing, what they like and dislike about the game and the genre in general. Take a look at who are the most vocal community members and how they interact with the wider community and most importantly, review how the Developer / Publisher handles the management of the community and how people respond to their interactions.
You'll want to do this for as many games within the genre you're working with as possible. Also take note of how the games themselves link back to their support forums, discord, newsletter, etc - how the developers/publisher syphon their player base to their community hub.
Talking with people and developers in the communities for a few days is generally a good idea before doing the next step as you'll want to try and build a bit of a repertoire - be honest and open about why you are there and you'll likely get a better response with.....
The survey serves a few purposes:
Just posting a survey expecting people to fill it out will lead to a tepid response, this is why I suggested you spend a week or two talking and sharing things on each community first. Also, if it's another developer's or publisher's Discord, be sure to ask them if its ok to post the survey first.
So what kind of questions do you want to be asking? Here's a rundown of the types of things we asked for our Persona building survey, broken into a number of key sections:
This set of questions helps to build a general idea of your core demographics and the backgrounds of your potential players.
Helpful for getting a good idea of the types of systems your players will be playing your game on and what you should be attempting to target in terms of minimum specs.
This is where some of the fun stuff is. Some of these questions can really help with determining where your marketing efforts should be focused, the types of people and places your community go to get their information about games they enjoy playing and also more business orientated things like knowing whether your potential community spends money on gaming merchandise and how much they spend in general on gaming.
Anyway, here are the questions we asked:
You'll then want to have a section with questions that are specific to your genre.
Questions that cover mechanics and features that are maybe common in games similar to yours, what players like and dislike about each of these, the modes of play they enjoy most and how their time is split between online and offline play in different modes.
Being as thorough as possible in this section is important, but you might end up with a super long list of questions and the longer the survey the less likely people that will complete it. You can always run further surveys down the line, so maybe stick with questions that are key to your development plan.
Also, super important, but make all the questions optional otherwise people might get to a question they don't know how to answer and give up.
Leave the survey running for as long as possible, you want to collect data from a good cross section of players and the more people that fill it out the more accurate that data will be.
Wow, so we're almost there. You've put together a Brand plan, comms plan, content plan, started building your community on Discord and now have a load of data that hopefully gives you an idea of who your audience is, but how exactly do you now make the most of your community, ie, make them an extension of your team?
well, the great thing about an early stage community is that you'll potentially start to find that community members are happy to help with all sorts of things.....
But where a community becomes massively powerful is feedback and testing.
Early stage, regular testing with people outside of your core team is amazingly helpful. It allows you to not only catch bugs early and often but the feedback regarding usability, playability and fun will help you make better games.
We run a program at Dream Harvest called The Sentries.
The Sentry program was designed to help us get a constant stream of feedback from as wide a variety of player types within our audience demographic.
For us its made up of 10 members of our community, from all around the world with player types ranging from super hardcore competitive gamers all the way to much more casual players and allows us to get a good breadth of feedback and makes sure we are always working towards what we defined within our branding plan for NeuroSlicers.
But the sentries are so much more than testers. We use them as a test bed when planning our other communication and announcements, they act as our first port of call when discussing things such as monetization strategy, release plans, design decisions......we are brutally honest with them and they are brutally honest with us back. They're a true cross-section of our players and get a real look through the looking glass.
I'm of the opinion that doing a number of Alpha and Beta phases is much more worthwhile than risking early access - especially if you're looking for a publisher or additional funding. There are a few reasons for this:
This is why I suggest that you instead have a number of limited time closed alpha/beta phases, only accessible to your community.
With the latest update to Discord, you can now do a couple of super cool things. Firstly, you can now make use of a special channel type, the Store. What's super cool about store pages on your Discord is you can have multiple and access to them is controlled via your Role preferences - this means you can give and remove access to a build just by giving or removing a role. Community members can have multiple roles. Removing the role that gives a community member access to the game will stop them from being able to play it, even if it's installed.
With that in mind, here are a few ideas for running a closed Alpha/Beta or even running a smaller test with your community:
Anyway, that's about it.
Hopefully, with some of this info, you'll become Community Ninja's or at least start to find your own path to solidifying your brand, communication and content planning as well as building the community of your dreams and making the most from it.
Thanks for reading!
If you have any questions/thoughts/additions to any of the above please comment below or feel free to reach out to me on the following:
Discord: discord.neuroslicers.game or DM me via Justin#1979