You Are in the Wrong Business: Making the Community is Making the Game
You are best to think more broadly about your community and the critical role it plays in setting the path for success. Game developers can no longer survive just by making games. They also need to develop a fan base.
If I had a nickel for every time game studio founders told me all they really want to do is focus on making games, I’d be flush with enough cash to fund their game! Unapologetically, my instant reaction is to tell them they are in the wrong business.
Huh? What do you mean game developers are not in the business of making games? Exactly! I encourage entrepreneurial game developers to rethink their business as a fan-building business: attracting, engaging, and cultivating a rabid fan base for their work. Sure, you need to create awesome games as the primary means of winning the hearts and minds of that fan base, but reframing your business with a focus on fan engagement is a subtle, yet critical shift.
Listen, I fully support games as a medium of personal expression. Games are a powerful canvas for creation… and wonderful if that is your hobby, or side passion project, or again you won the lottery and can paint pixels to your heart’s content. However, if you are attempting to build a thriving (or even sustainable) business, you can NO longer just focus on making games. It’s as simple as that.
If you just want to focus on game making, then keep it as a hobby or just get a job with a neatly focused title such as senior eyebrow sculptor or level 3 graphics tightener.
Marketing Is More Than Promotion
If you are an independent game developer striving to succeed commercially, then you are a marketer. It is one and the same. Unfortunately, many developers equate marketing solely to promotion. Yet, promotion is just one element of marketing. As I explored in my previous article on the “Field of Dreams Syndrome”, classically, marketing consists of the four Ps: Promotion, Product, Price and Place.
As you start to develop and design a new game, you are also developing and designing its marketing. Even just deciding on what game genre to make (aka Product) is part of the marketing process. Debating price points and monetization models (aka Price) is marketing. Thinking about which platforms and stores on which to distribute (aka Place) is also marketing. The analysis conducted by Ryan Clark (of Crypt of the NecroDancer fame), as he pondered on these elements before deciding which game to make next, is a wonderful example of true marketing thinking at play.
Of course, planning the outreach to press and choosing which social media platforms to leverage as well as which festivals to exhibit at (aka Promotion) are all part of marketing as well.
Admit it. Accept it. Embrace it. If you are making a game, you are making marketing.
Fans Are Your Future
Now, place all that in the context of our attention economy, and you realize that all the marketing (and making of great games) needs to drive the creation of a fan base as the primary business priority. The bigger and more engaged your fan base is, the higher your probability of success will be. More fans give you increased leverage.
Talk to some of the most successful independent game studios and they refer constantly to their efforts to build their fan base and grow their communities around their games. Yacht Club., Klei. Supergiant. Rockfish. Kitfox. (Case in point, their existing fans surged past the Boyfriend Dungeon funding target on Kickstarter in just over 6 hours.) And so forth. Survivorship bias, perhaps. But, I’ve yet to discover a studio that failed despite a thriving community and committed fan base.
This takes focus. This takes vision. It’s hard to build fans if you are constantly switching genres or platforms (like making a VR racing game this year and making a console brawler next year). That means you have to commit to a roadmap, and each game is scaffolding that allows you to build momentum both in terms of development speed as well as reputation and fan base.
The recent announcement of Fellow Traveller as a publisher focused on serving fans of “unusual” narrative -driven games is a rare example of declaring this kind of specific fan focus. It will be interesting to see how that reputational momentum affects the success of the games they work with.
All that said, critically, generating awareness is NOT the same thing as capturing fans. You have a relationship with fans. And those relationships take work and deliberate effort to cultivate. Chris Zukowski did a wonderful job outlining some of these concepts in his post on sales funnels and driving players from awareness to interest and, ultimately, to fandom.
Furthermore, how you design the game has a direct impact on the extent to which you are able to build a community around it. Isolated linear single-player experiences have less hooks to drive community engagement, for example. Conversely, multiplayer/social or non-linear/variable experiences drive players to find one another in order to share strategies and experiences.
Alas, designing hooks for community engagement and discoverability is a very deep marketing topic that deserves its own distinct article…
So, please stop yourself any time you feel guilty that you are not developing your game because you are being “distracted” by sending a newsletter or thinking about how to make your game more engaging for streamers.
As Saralyn Smith, Blizzard’s senior director for global community, eloquently stated during her Devcom keynote speech: “Embrace the great fandom frontier. At Blizzard, we believe that game building is community build[ing] and community building makes our world a better place.”
So, go ahead and make the world a better place! After all, you’re in the fan building business.