What does a community developer do?
I sum up my role as “character development, but for communities.” Community developers, in a variety of ways, build up and direct the fan base in the direction we want it to grow. We design the places outside of the game that these communities will interact in, as well as the tone, the rules, and the experience they will have in these spaces. We create the systems that people use to interact with us, each other and, in some cases, the dev team.
Devs tend to know they want a community, but neglect considering what kind of belongingness they want from their communities. And then those who do consider it might decide they want “positive”, “healthy”, and “engaged” communities, which is a great goal, but doesn’t concretely describe what actions to take.
How do you get there? That’s where community developers come in.
To be clear here, kind community design doesn’t mean chanting positive affirmations into your community every single day. (I mean, you can if you want though?) It means creating a safe, low pressure, helpful, and encouraging interactive space among the players. So even when times of tension or anger come up (e.g. a troll), they still actively work together to help make the space a kind and accepting place.
*** Note: Our community strategies MAY only have been as successful as they are because we’re relatively small. We don’t really have experience with giant mega-communities that million-unit-selling games tend to have, which probably need different strategies. ***
So for a bit of background information, here’s what Kitfox’s community is like, at the time of writing this. We’ve been around for 6 years, have released 3 games, are currently developing 2, and publishing 4 more. Dwarf Fortress and Boyfriend Dungeon are our biggest communities right now.
- Twitter: 17.1k followers
- Discord: ~4000 members
- Newsletter: ~9000 subscribers
We’ve had people join specifically because they heard Kitfox was a nice place to be in, people who have used their preferred pronouns for the first time with us, and so on. Or, when someone comes in with a problem with the game, they all try to help each other and offer solutions.
This post is made assuming everyone is joining from a place of common goals and interests — that is, they’re joining because they love your game.
Community Ethos by Game Type
So what do you want your community to feel like and bond over? It’s influenced not only by your structures and rules, but also the kinds of games you make. It will attract certain kinds of people seeking a certain kind of experience. The audience will be influenced by a number of factors, including: studio culture/voice, game genre(s), game tone, and number of players. From this, you can judge where your primary community demographic will come from, and how you can design appropriately. (Check Tanya’s blog Designing for Coziness for more on the game aspect.)
Examples of the type of community ethos a certain game may attract:
Mastery — comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment
Example games: Dwarf Fortress, Darkest Dungeon, Cuphead, Monster Hunter
Competitiveness — having a strong desire to be more successful than others
Example games: Rocket League, Overwatch, Fortnite
Kindness — friendliness, coziness, generosity, trust, or inclusion dynamics
Example games: Boyfriend Dungeon, Ooblets, Animal Crossing, Slime Rancher
Of course, these are not exhaustive or exclusive— communities can be and usually are a mixture of many. But by knowing what type of community ethos you’re aiming for, you can appropriately plan for things such as:
- What kind of community design you want/how you will promote it
- Types of social platforms needed/their structure
- Amount of moderation needed
- What sorts of risks come with each community
- And more!
Designing for Kindness
I want people to be mindful of how they love and interact with our games, and not just what they love. So let’s talk about designing communities for (what I consider to be) kindness. Every community has different needs, but these are the ways I’ve encouraged kinder community growth.
Understanding social systems is key to understanding communities.
Social systems are the relationships between individuals, groups, and institutions. They can predict and shape how your behaviour is influenced by the institution or group someone is a part of. For example, the way you behave and interact at work are very different than how you would behave at home. The same goes whether you’re in a hospital, a library, school, etc. These systems have their own sets of rules that allows the group and institution as a whole to function smoothly. Breaking the rules causes chaos or “resistance”.
Game communities are the same!
In the book The Forest and the Trees by Allan G. Johnson, he uses the board game Monopoly as an example.
Monopoly is a mini-social system with rules. Following these rules offer the “path of least resistance” to playing the game, but following them also impacts player behaviour.
That is, players are led down one path — greed. If you’ve played Monopoly, you know the whole goal is to control the board and winning involves making sure your opponents lose all their money and property. It’s a rule set that not only encourages greed and all the attributes that come with that, but makes it a necessary part of the experience. The point isn’t about if the game is fun or not, but that the rules encourage a certain behaviour for participation, regardless of personal values.
And if you refuse to abide by them, like by cheating? The other players will probably get angry at you, or they’ll kick you out.
So, when we talk about social systems here, it’s important to consider what you, as a person privileged to be setting the rules, do with this. What outcomes are you looking for, with your ruleset? What is the path of least resistance for community members? In Monopoly, it’s greed.
For Kitfox? It’s kindness.
Especially for forums or Discord, where your community will probably be interacting with each other, you NEED to have rules for your community to clearly see so everyone is on the same page. And you NEED to enforce them in a timely, specific, and equal manner — mods can help with this. For reference, you can check the Kitfox Games Discord rules.
People will have different ideas of the rules and how they should be implemented. But, at the very least, these are the universal principles for the rule of law:
- Clearly defined — don’t mince words
- Publicized — easily to find and see
- Stable — don’t randomly change very frequently
- Just — seem reasonably fair
- Applied evenly and quickly to everyone
Don’t fear rule enforcement. It helps drive more productive conversations and weeds out those that are there under false pretenses. Often what I’ll do when I know we have a BIG announcement coming up — meaning our Discord will be flooded with new people — is warn the community that the censorbot will be hypersensitive to more words. This helps drive the tone of what I expect from new people entering, and once the initial boom is over, I go back to relaxing the rules.
Some people will be turned off by our community space, but that’s okay. Maybe while reading this, someone has thought “god the person writing this sounds insufferably sugary” and I mean, sure, fair. It’s impossible to please everyone!
And when rules are broken? Often what helps is a DM their way with an explanation or a warning before any action is taken, rather than an outright call out for everyone to see. Shame and embarrassment in public is usually more effective for making the person feel defensive, rather than receptive to change.
There are going to be times you can’t monitor social — you’re at a convention, vacation, busy, etc. A good community shouldn’t collapse because you’re not around. The better your rules, the better your community can sustain itself.
2. Mutual Understanding & Expectations
You are a person. Remind your community of this. You don’t have to be infallible, but they need to understand you are a living, breathing person with emotions and boundaries. If your community can’t respect YOUR boundaries, they probably won’t respect each others. On the flip side, remember: you are not their therapist. It’s okay to offer a sympathetic ear once in awhile, but there are boundaries for your mental well-being too.
Some of the most difficult things in community development are not the angry trolls. It’s the members who you know have your interests at heart, but cross some sort of personal boundary or seek a therapy-like relationship that you are not equipped to handle. These are hard to call out, and my tips for you here are difficult because it can’t be vague generalized advice. I will say that above all, it’s important to let them know that you DO care about their well-being and because of that, professional help is a better resource than you are. (And well. It probably actually is. Unless you’re a trained therapist??)
Early clarifications, consistent actions, not ignoring concerns, and following through on community needs are key here. Soon, they will trust that you are doing your best when you have time with them, and not that you’re neglecting or ignoring their needs. Just like how a community may expect you to act a certain way, you must also set expectations for them.
There are two kinds of norms — “mores”, which are norms that carry great importance (like laws, chat rules, etc.) and “folkways” which are norms about casual, daily interaction. “Mores” we understand well — rules should not be broken. Folkways distinguish what we think is rude or polite, and often in community development, this is overlooked but can plant the seed of unkindness when broken. That’s why, as a community dev, you have to mentally distinguish what you think is acceptable ways of your community will talk to you and each other. Rules are easily defined — politeness is not.
You will become the defacto leader for setting the folkways. Keep in mind how you interact and the jokes you make, because this will automatically be seen as the acceptable way to communicate. The more your community understands the norms of discourse — what is considered appropriate, or not — the better they interact with each other.
Other ways you can help foster a healthy environment include responding to nice comments or constructive criticism on your platforms. Identifying the core root of the problem helps guide how you respond (if at all) to the message. Slowly, people will see which questions warrant a response from the devs versus silence, and what kind of tone is appropriate for the community.
As you solidify your community pillars and uphold you community to standards you set, the better their reputation becomes. We’ve had people join Kitfox purely because people had heard it was a positive place to be in. Most newcomers see how people interact, see the reputation your community has, and naturally go along with this. It’s a pleasant (and beneficial) circle of events.
4. Sincerity & Trust
I don’t think I’m a perfect community developer. Far from it. I am a person — people make mistakes. What matters is that your community trusts that you are doing your best with the resources you have.
There are different ways you can show you’re sincere, but keep in mind these aren’t some sort of… “mind trick”. You have to uh, be sincere about being sincere, and the trust will build slowly overtime. Every positive interaction you have with the community builds this trust. Naturally, it can be REALLY difficult to show sincerity online so here are just some strategies to show it:
- Acknowledge the value and importance of the community.
- Celebrate people’s achievements, give genuine compliments, and encourage their positive events.
- Give your fans space: Don’t attempt to chain them to your community. They owe you 0 of their time and attention, and ideally, they’d have interests outside of your games. (And, related, they have no claim over you either.)
- Make an effort to keep track of the names and pictures you see frequently.
- Admit mistakes as they happen.
- Be aware how your tone may come across to a stranger, or someone who has just joined your community. For example, even proper capitalization and punctuation can actually make you sound quite strict in a casual chatting environment.
To be fair, I am one community dev. I am able to keep track of mainly everyone in the community, and they get to see it really is just one person answering them. This has disadvantages, but one solid advantage is that they know and understand it IS a person. It’s me!
Say it with me: SOFT! SKILLS! ARE! VALUABLE!
Especially online, when you’re missing most of the other non-verbal cues that give context to how a person is feeling, your soft skills are imperative to creating a warm, relaxing, safe place — a feeling of “home”, if you will.
Through more one-way communication, such as from Twitter, newsletters, or Facebook, you’re limited in your ability to establish “home”, but you can use the tone of content posts, captions, and replies. Little moments of “joy” are nice. Obviously, you are more than just a robot sent out to ban people for breaking the rules.
In forums and Discord, there is more flexibility and opportunities to create this feeling, but there’s greater difficulty in keeping it consistent, since it depends on the members interacting within it. Discords, just like mass conventions or crowds, can be an overwhelming place to be in. Eventually Discords seem to settle down to several main chatters, and it’s easy for quieter or more busy members to fade out. To foster more kindness in our Discord, for example, I put in“hideaway” spots to specifically create softer, warm chatter.
Cozier, more selective rooms allow for further similarities/goal orientation between members, encourages repeated interactions between members, and manages the density of the community from feeling too overwhelming.
Kitfox Discord uses pronoun roles and “cozy” channels — notably, “#cute-and-good”, “#food-and-noms”, a private Discord for Kickstarter backers, and a silly secret channel. (Can you find it?) These channels — other than the backer channel — don’t have any immediate value related to Kitfox. However, they bring a sense of humanity to the space, and/or a sense of refuge for when other channels are more chatty.
You may find other ways to foster a kinder place in your spaces. This is by no means the only way to create “home”-like feelings.
- Every community and studio is EXTREMELY different. Your culture may be different, the types of games you make can attract different people, you may be inclined to go for a different tone, etc. Kitfox mainly deals in single player, narrative-heavy games — MMOs, shooters, even larger communities, communities with predominantly children, etc. may need additional strategies.
- Bad upper management or studio culture can hinder a community dev’s ability to work properly. We cannot champion for your company if we are mistreated, micromanaged, or not trusted to do our best.
- These things will not automatically make your community kinder or safer. This takes time and continuous effort. You may not see an immediate pay off.
- Is this the most effective way to attract/keep fans in your Discord? Who knows. Probably not. I’m sure if I “gamified” the Discord with ranks and whatnot, it would be better at retention! But I try to keep our server low pressure and personally feel a little weird giving people a feeling of NEEDING to interact with us. I don’t know. Maybe that’s weird! You do what works for you!
- This post largely assumes that people are joining your community from a position of good faith or are casually being introduced to it. If people are joining from a place of negativity (hurling abuses or other reasons), then other/additional forms of mitigation will be needed.
Pay Offs & Wrap Up
Designing kinder communities and moderation is not just about risk management. Its lifetime value will reward you — people will want to interact and they’ll stick around for your future games to come, even if it’s not necessarily their thing.
Let me be clear though — this isn’t some mass strategy dreamed up to get user retention and ~hit KPIs~ and ~maximize the synergy~. Kindness is based on being genuine. You must actually want the best for the people in your community.
Maybe kindness isn’t talked about much anymore because either it’s become so ubiquitous in online spaces we take it for granted, OR we’ve become jaded by the very platforms we found solace in (and I mean… for good reason.) But the world can be a lonely place. Online, people can make genuine friends and form real connections they couldn’t otherwise. And I hope that connection helps them face the real world, too.
Of course, at its very core, regardless of the spaces we create, Kitfox — and any studio — exists to sell products: games, t-shirts, limited edition box sets, whatever. But while we’re at it, we might as well do our best to make the spaces we touch a little more positive.
The user experience in games is important, but combined with a warm, friendly user experience in the community? That’s good design.