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Today at GDC some of the folks from Wizards of the Coast gave a brief talk about how to build and support vibrant player communities around your game, using examples from their work stewarding long-lived games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons.
Together, Wizards of the Coast’s Aland Failde (VP of user acquisition and digital marketing) and Michelle Sutterfield (community manager) tried to share useful advice specifically for small- to mid-size devs (and influencers) who want community-building tips.
“From the beginning we’ve been about community and fellowship,” said Failde. “Historically, our big products have brought people around a table to play a game together.”
He reminded folks in the audience that while Wizards has been managing Magic for 25+ years and D&D for over 20, the company just last year released a big, free-to-play video game: Magic: The Gathering Arena.
The meat of the talk was how Wizards has expanded its community by growing the number of streamers and other influencers playing Arena, but Failde first took a minute to hype the company's history of trying to support unique playstyles and communities.
“From the very beginning, we had a sort of homebrew culture develop among our players,” he said. “Homebrew has been around in the PC world for a long time, with modding cultures, and with our physical card game we saw that very early on.”
Failde thinks one of WotC’s smart community-building moves early on was to invest in tournaments and pro leagues, as well as more casual community events like Friday Night Magic, a formalized system for novice-to-intermediate players to play together at local game shops or other spaces.
Physical game shops have always been key to Wizards’ success, and Failde thinks that’s because they create unique “hubs” where players can check out new games, participate in special events, and (hopefully) offer unique cultures and vibes that make players feel welcome.
"A lot of the things that make game shops successful make influencers successful"
Now, he suggests that big Twitch streamers and YouTubers can offer something similar to their audiences, albeit at a distance: the feeling of being part of a community, and of sharing your passion for a game and its systems with a bunch of other people.
“A lot of the things that make game shops successful make influencers successful," said Failde. "Having a variety of programming, having programming of different skill levels...and this sense of homebrew culture.”
Sutterfield then took the stage to talk a bit about how she chooses which influencers to work with on a game like Arena, and what other devs can learn from Wizards' experience.
“When we look for influencers, we don’t just look for people with the most views on Twitch,” she said. “Those things are great and we still look for them, but...our deciding factor is, which influencers can we work with that will influence our community to be a better place? And to be more involved?”
"You need to care more about your streamers"
She says they look for passionate players, who are passionate not just about the game but about the brand and the community around it. Often this means working with what she calls "micro-influencers" -- basically just up-and-coming streamers or other content creators who haven't built a big audience yet.
“When we use micro-influencers, we get so much more than just using top-tier influencers alone,” Sutterfield said, noting that a good mix of such “micro-influencers” can bring you just as much (if not more) attention as if you’d just talked to the people with big audiences -- and the smaller streamers can often inject their own beneficial mix of personality and community.
According to Sutterfield, these smaller influencers can also be a boon for small- to mid-size developers because they're often more invested in your game than a big-time streamer, so much so they may even (if you're comfortable with it) be willing to stream it without being paid.
“I work with like thousands of streamers, you know, and building those relationships is very important because we can get so much more out of [our events],” Sutterfield added. “We had 400 streamers be part of [a recent early access event to promote new content], and none of them were paid. They did it because they love the game, they love the event, and they love the community.”
Sutterfield said she was able to create a Discord for these streamers and let them loose to share stories, network, and get excited about the game -- and that in turn led to more excited streams.
Above all, Sutterfield’s advice for devs looking to build healthy relationships with streamers and influencers is to treat them like human beings, rather than paid marketing megaphones.
“If there's one thing you should take away from this talk, it's this: You need to care more about your streamers,” she said. “When you have happy streamers, you have those happy relationships, you will get so much more than you could ever imagine.”
But just to be thorough, she summed up her advice for fellow game makers in five points
“The data shows it works,” she said, in closing. “We grew [Arena] over 400 percent in a year, in terms of unique streamers, and they grew with us.”