For Nicole Thompson, executive producer for Disney's kid-friendly virtual world Club Penguin, the importance of fostering an online game's community cannot be stressed enough.
"There are so many different kinds of communities," she said at GDC Online in Austin, TX on Thursday. "What we're going to be talking about today is online communities, but a lot of the same [traits] of a [real-world] community have to do with an online community," she said. "We're all here, we're a community."
Disney's Club Penguin recently announced that it has 150 million registered users. Maintaining that audience comes down to understanding the needs of the community. To Thompson, a "community" is a group of people with shared values, interests and beliefs - not a group of customers.
"A community is not a customer," she stressed. "They are customers but we can't keep that in mind. [If we do] it will muddy the waters and probably... lead to bad choices."
Thompson said people want to feel comfortable to be themselves -- to be authentic -- and a community should facilitate that feeling. "If you're here at GDC, you want to be fully who you are ... you want to be with people who feel the same way and want to be themselves." If that's not provided, "You can't be in a community," she said.
Thompson ran down high-level needs of a community: "People want to connect, they want to participate in events that are happening [and] people want to have fun. ... People want to have impact and influence on their world. ... We have to provide a venue that will let people impact or change the world in some way."
Those running online worlds must think of the needs of their community. For Club Penguin, an online world for children, safety is a top concern. But a community's needs will be different for everyone.
And online developers can't simply say that they want to be community-focused - they have to put their money where their mouth is, Thompson said. Half of the staff for Club Penguin is community support. "You cannot support a community if you do not commit the resources to do that," she said.
Fostering a strong community also involves being truthful, Thompson said. Keeping your promises to the community is important. "If we say we are going to launch an event every month, or every week, or say to the kids we're going to respond to something, we deliver," she said.
An online world naturally means that connecting with the game's developers and with other players is crucial. "We are always looking at ways to facilitate that two-way conversation," said Thompson. "... We try to create 'collision' -- places or tools to bring people together." She added, "It's not only connecting with each other, but connecting it to us."
Online game developers need to go where the community leads them as well. Being online, there are many other places where player will congregate outside of the virtual world, such as YouTube and blogs. And these places of congregation can always change and evolve, as "where people go changes," said Thompson.
To Thompson, letting people know that they have the ability to impact the community is "the biggest thing." She said, "What we have in the online world -- which is a great, terrific thing -- is that people can impact the world ... so we listen and respond to their needs."