Building your Community: The Overlooked Challenge of Indie Game Development
It’s easy for your game to get lost in the sea of games being released for any platform these days. As an indie developer, you probably don’t have the money for ads or spotlights that create the exposure you’d need to stand out. Having a solid community during development is a big part of getting the word out about your game. However, building and managing community tends to be a low priority until late in development or after release, if at all.
When your game releases, there should already be people out there heralding the event. When new and prospective player post questions about your game, you want your existing fans to be armed with the information they need to bring that person into your game’s community.
To that end, the goal of this article is to go over some great ways to build and support that awesome community.
ESTABLISH A HOME BASE
“One link to rule them all, one link to bind them…” — Lord of the Rings …-ish.
First and foremost, your community needs a central place to find you. By the time you release, you’re probably going to have up to a half dozen places people can get official info, but they all really should link back to one location. That location should have links to your other channels, especially if your primary two-way communication will be done in a channel other than your central one.
If the time, talent, or resources aren’t there to create a website or landing page, that’s understandable. Luckily, others have done much of the work for you on this front.
Sites such as IndieDB (www.indiedb.com), Mod DB(www.moddb.com ), and Itch.io (itch.io) put you right in the middle of the indie dev scene, with a community that is probably already looking for a game like yours. Plug in your game’s information and upload your assets. The hard part is now done.
Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr are some of the countless social media channels that cost nothing (or next to nothing) for you to set up and for your audience to discover, learn, and share the latest about your game.
The link to that home base goes everywhere. On your videos, in your devblogs, at the end of your news blasts –everywhere. You want press, fans, gaming sites, and everyone else to send people to the same place. Not only does that help build the community faster (they’re going to eventually spread out to other channels, and that’s fine) but it makes your life so much easier when it comes to gathering info on reach, traffic, and other useful data points.
REGULARLY UPDATE TO INCREASE ENGAGEMENT
“Write: And write… and write… and write.” — Nathaniel Hansen’s Ultimate Crowdfunding ToDo List
The more passion someone has for something and the more they want it, the more they want to be a part of it. That’s one of the reasons crowdfunding is even a thing. Let your game’s fans feel like they are part of the process. Where possible, let them be part of the process. Your game’s fans aren’t necessarily looking to take the reins of development. However, they do like to see what’s under the hood, how it got built, and what’s on the horizon.
Take them behind the scenes. In-development videos and showing how things are made is more interesting to your core community than some may realize. While programming or 3D modelling may be second nature to you, it’s fascinating to those interested in those fields and darn near magic to those unfamiliar with it.
Communicate at your audience’s level. This is one of those touch points where you can really connect with your community. If your audience is of a particular demographic, communicate in a voice that they can relate to. For example, a recent September newsletter to a game’s gradeschool-aged audience began with hoping the players had a fun summer, talked about the change of season, and announced the festivals ahead. Summer break, school starting, seasonal holidays… these are topics that someone in grade school can relate to. Identify what’s important to your fans, and make it part of the message. .
The more you update, and the more those updates show that you are in touch with what is important to your audience, the more loyal they will become and the louder the voices will be of your evangelists.
USE YOUR CHANNELS TO PROVIDE CONTENT FOR THEIRS
Setting up your social media accounts gives you the channels to spread the word, but what are your plans to help your community spread the word? Like fans of anything else, your game’s followers want ways to display that they are part of this amazing thing you are creating.
A fan kit is a great way to start. Include your logo, early concept art, and maybe a wallpaper or two. If you are to a point where you are comfortable with screenshots, get them in there. But that’s just a start.
Establish a regular schedule of messages or media that your community can share in their channels. This is especially important if you plan to do press releases and mail blasts to news sites.
Keep your fans in the loop. Your community may feel slighted if they’re hearing news on external channels before it’s relayed to them in the official ones. Even if they’re fine with it, you may lose some of them out of your regular messaging channels and into 3rd party ones. Obvious exceptions aside (exclusive articles, interviews, embargo’d content), try to keep your community on the same info release schedule as media and press.
THE *REAL* CHALLENGE: PULLING ANY OF THIS OFF DURING DEVELOPMENT
The two biggest hurdles here are time and talent.
Schedule TIME for community content and tasks. Devblogs, art assets, forum replies, fire dousing, QnAs, and all the other task that go into building and managing your community take time. If you don’t designate time for this, one of two things are going to happen.
- They go undone. The community notices when there’s less interaction. The community notices when communication “goes dark”. The more loyal fans become less loyal. The more casual fans start to drift to more active communities.
- They get done at the expense of dev time. If you don’t plan for community work, development work gets delayed (or worse, people get overworked) in order to get it done. Your devblog should be figured into dev time. For example, things like art assets for community and press should be figured into the time to develop your 3D models, maps, animations, etc.
Get someone with a TALENT for dealing with community to deal with community. “I’ll just reply to posts in my spare time,” isn’t a strong community strategy. Neither is having the wrong person at the helm of putting out fires or wrangling the inevitable forum troll.
Quality animations takes talent. Efficient code takes talent. Beautiful world design takes talent. Building and managing a healthy player community takes talent. Too many indie developers have ended up one meltdown too late to address that last one.
There are countless indie games released each month that almost no one ever hears of. If you’re developing a game, the time to start building your community is NOW. Don’t gamble on going viral or being discovered. Gather and connect with your fans. Give them the tools they need to shout from the rooftops about the amazing game you’re about to release.