29 Dec 2016

Developer Interaction By Design

I’ll start with a disclaimer: although we’ve never met in person, I’ve known Leithart since 2012 when we were both fans of the then-upcoming MMO WildStar. Since those early days, he went into game development (coincidentally for the studio behind that same game), and I moved into game journalism. We still ping each other tweets from time to time, but that’s about it.

Getting on to the meat of the article, I wanted to respond to Leithart’s question above. As a small indie studio, with limited resources for marketing and PR, it’s only logical for the development team to want to do some of the heavy lifting themselves. It drums up interest in the game, provides direct feedback from potential players, and removes any reliance on the fickle foibles of the gaming press. Sounds like a win-win for spending a few minutes on Twitter, right?

Only, not really. While I’m a big fan of developers interacting with fans on social media, producing blog posts about their work and sharing unique insight, there’s also a risk that it gets in the way of actually developing the game. Tangentially, there’s also a risk that the game’s marketing voice – how it wants to be perceived by the gaming public – can get fragmented and/or diluted. And what happens if one of the developers goes off-brand? Can the incident be isolated without contaminating the game’s brand as a whole?

So, with both of these in mind, answering Leithart’s question is going to be tricky, particularly as I’m eager to make sure that both gamers and developers get something from being on social media. Luckily, there’s a bit of a cheat-sheet.

Know Your Toolbox

So, what kinds of interaction do I want from developers? Surprising as it sounds, whether I’m asking as a gamer or a journalist, it boils down to three key aspects:

  1. Why should I play your game? Why does it deserve my attention, and why should I be interested in it? Out of all the other games I could be playing, why should I make time for this one?
  2. What unusual stories have been made on your development journey? What unique complications did you encounter, and how did you resolve them? Think GDC, but without the dry laughs and death-by-powerpoint.
  3. Who’s making it, and what skills they bring to the table. This might be a person’s background or published titles, professional history, or unique approach and insight

Likewise, the medium I’ll use will depend partly on the question, partly on how well I can target it, and partly on how much I’d like a response. As an example, a quick query might get fired over twitter to a game (or a particular developer if I know it’s in their area), but something lengthier might be an email, a forum topic, or a blogpost. A rough rule of thumb is:

  • Twitter: Quick question, quick answer, targeted to a specific developer
  • Facebook: longer question or comment on a post
  • Twitch: No reply expected as audience participation is a crapshoot
  • Email: Longer question, acknowledgement desired even if an answer is not possible
  • Forum post: No reply expected as developer participation is haphazard (despite using BLUE PLZ)

Each medium has its own nuances and etiquette; replying to a tweet with your favourite gif might be appropriate, but can be seen as unduly brief for an email reply. Also, it’s fine to say that you’ll address the question in an upcoming blogpost or article (shifting from one medium to another), as long as it actually happens and isn’t being used to dismiss the enquiry. Nothing leads to disillusioned fans more rapidly than the feeling of being ignored.

Sit Awhile, and Listen

Candidly, I’m a sucker for a good story. Tales about game development might not feature dragons and treasure, but they still contain heroes leading an army, demons routed, ingenious plans, and celebrated victories. It’s the stuff of conference presentations at GDC and the like, but has equal value to your fans. Get the details into the hands of a good wordsmith (or Communications Manager), and share valuable insight on how the studio builds games.

The snag is capturing these tales and building plans to share them on a regular basis, keeping the community interested in the game (and the team building it) while also feeding it into the overall communications plan. It feels somewhat agile in terms of having an activity stack that gets prioritised, implemented and delivered, but makes sense for longer-form content. And it’s great for sharing with news outlets looking for interesting content that’s a little different from the standard press release.

As I mentioned before, fans can be a great source of inspiration for reminding you about particular tales. Someone might ask a question about how the class framework was conceived, or what coding practices the studio uses. These can be useful prompts for finding people, recounting the tale, and getting it shared.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

While blogposts and similar are great for building a stack of interesting content for fans and press to refer to, they lack the interactivity of social media. But, while it’s great to be able to have a conversation with the person responsible for what you love (or hate) about a game, it can also become all-consuming for the developer concerned. Hit someone’s favourite class with the nerfbat, and your designer can go from hero to villain in an instant, with all the notification-inducing rage that entails.

It’s why I’m eager to encourage a healthy respect for developers on social media, so that they can get on with the important task of developing the game without fear of reprisal. Part of that is giving the team social media training to prepare them for what can happen and provide them with tools to mitigate risks. Part is for the studio itself to have a communications plan ready for social media blowouts, so they can be managed quickly but sensitively. And part of that is to provide us as players with an outlet for discussion with the studio, in a way that collects feedback and responds to it.

This effective method – kicking off a discussion, nurturing it, collecting feedback, and responding – was used heavily by Carbine Studios as it started to form WildStar’s community, and was deliberately planned with a new topic each week. Fortunately, Troy Hewitt, Loic Claveau and David Bass shared their approach when I interviewed them back in 2013. The great thing about this is that everyone can see the resultant conversation, and understand the developers’ thoughts in context.

Veteran gamers – particularly those with a blog, YouTube presence, or Twitch channel – also like to think of ourselves as armchair designers. By opening up particular topics, it invites crowdsourced design, giving the community a stake in how the game is shaped. Most design choices wouldn’t need to go through this route, but wider questions can solicit opinions before the studio even announces the game under development. This technique also provides a secondary benefit – developers getting pulled into a protracted conversation can suggest it as a topic for the next conversation, in order to free themselves without giving a fan the cold shoulder.

Hire a Pro

All of the above can be a significant burden, particularly when spread across a team of developers who are trying hard to make a fun, enjoyable and lasting game. It’s why, if the game has significant online, social or multi-player components, I would strongly recommend hiring someone who has responsibility for creating blogposts, running social media channels, and liaising with PR teams (and/or press). Not only will the person make sure that the heroic adventure of creating the game actually gets shared, but they will also liberate coders to code, artists to draw, and so on.

And, when the community starts to wobble and lose faith, they’ll be the one to turn to you, smile, and say ‘I got this.’ Even if everyone else has gone dark, crunching to hit that deadline, they’ll still be sharing news and updates and keeping the community in the loop.

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