Do you connect with your video game audience?

The relationship between games and their audience has changed over the years, thanks to the internet we’re now able to reach out and touch them directly. This relationship is precious and much more important than just “cutting out the middleman” to make more money. There’s something more valuable at stake. Do you know what it is?

I remember when all this was fields…

I’d like to start with a bit of history that the veterans can skip, it will hopefully give some background to how this all came about. Many years ago, the relationship between a developer and their game ended at the point it left your hands to go to the publisher and eventually make it’s way to the duplication plant. We were often making the next game before the last one we’d poured our heart and sole into hit the shelves. This was a one way trip for your relationship, like splitting up with a long time partner. If you worked on a PC then at a push updating, or patching, your game was only really done to repair some post-release problems. Why was money on supporting something old when there was something new and entirely different to make? Beyond PC games, this situation stayed the same for a long time and only recently changed with the advent of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 where the ability to patch your game enabled retail games to be updated post-launch. Initially this saw the data and stat updates in sports titles such as football team data being updated when a new season started.

The Game Is Just The Start

Savvy publishers and developers began to connect the idea that your “retail event” was just the start, it was the key to unlocking your relationship with their game. Everything you add to your game strengthens your emotional and cash investment and makes it harder to part with it. Imagine how much time & effort some of the community level designers have invested in Little Big Plant, it’s quite astounding and the other players get a constant stream of new content. It’s entirely possible you’ll pop it in your PS3 today and never touch the on disk content. Titles such as Burnout Paradise led the way in this field by offering large scale features for free that would previously have warranted a whole new version and you, the player, spending another load of cash. Of course if you owned it you were more likely to keep it. This has the implied effect of reducing trade-ins and secondary sales of your game. I’m sure you can think of many other examples of games just like this  and your audience expects new, updates for the life of the game. On a smaller scale, iPhone games that sell for £0.59 are constantly updated with free new content. All of which costs money to make but it broadens the audience and keeps people coming back for more. I’ve seen titles release updates that would easily be sold as another game. It can be hard to understand how developers do this but it’s the result of maintaining the relationship with your audience. You can plough your profits back in to make things better. Maybe music will take this notion up one day, imagine buying an artists  album and then receiving updates to it for months to come. Imagine buying a book and the story never ends, chapters get added, the characters roll on, all for the cost of a single book. In a digital world, both of these are entirely possible but haven’t happened, yet.

Keep your audience close

The iPhone hit the market at the right time and the most critical aspect was capitalising on iTunes with the App Store. This changed the traditional relationship between the phone manufacturer and the end user. The end user now had a direct relationship with the manufacturer and therefore had a consistent quality experience regardless of the mobile operator. The iPhone, iTunes and App Store were all Apple products, not O2, Verizon or Movistar. This was a polar opposite from the likes of Nokia, who had handed over their brand to the likes of Orange, O2 and Vodafone who re-branded their phones to mask the relationship. In this example, Nokia lost touch and they’re clambering to get it back. You can see echoes of this across various markets, manufacturers don’t want someone in between you and their brand. You can do this too, there are many routes straight to your valued audience and you can maintain that relationship. Think about your own interpretation of an App Store, think about ways to keep people playing your game with the promise (and delivery) of more content, connect with your audience.

Evolutionary Development

Many games are now adopting a strategy that found it’s early footings in agile development of web sites, the idea was to launch your site and iterate your design over time. This is all done live with changes being rolled out quickly and tested on a small number of connections. Portions of the site were split throw people in different directions to see how things worked. “A:B variants” became the norm and now spider out into further variants. When tens of thousands of people hit your site every hour, you only need to expose your feature to a small percentage to see if it works and people like it. Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Farmville, Mafia Wars and many others adopt this strategy on a large scale and it always results in a better experience for the end user as it’s effectively designed by them. Sound familiar? It’s the theory of evolution, the survival of the fittest where only the successful changes win. In a connect game, make small changes, test them, gain feedback, kill them, leave them alone or improve them.

MVP

Taking this one step further is the strategy of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), where you release just enough to make a compelling experience and then listen to what your audience wants and move on from there. The trick here is ensuring that this experience is enough to gain that initial commitment and that the core experience is still amazing. If it’s not then you’ll find out quickly and you can reverse out and find something more successful to put your effort into. Also, every update resets the boredom levels and gives your audience a good excuse to re-connect with you and talk about your game. Each update pushes you back to the top of awareness and in some cases gives press another reason to review your game. A side effect of this is that all of your brands (game/business/you) get more hits on the internet and therefore pushes you to the top of search results that can be critical to your success. A gaming form of Search Engine Optimisation.

Your biggest asset is?

In all of these cases your audience is your biggest asset, engage them early and listen. Also remember that your harshest critic should be your best friend as they care enough to critique your work and communicate it, work with them and you’ll get a better game out of it. If you can, get a community manager or someone experienced in communicating with an audience of real people, constantly. Once you’ve worked with a good community manager you can really understand why their expertise is required and they can make a tangible difference.

Change the game

Does this sound like an ideal, a garden of Eden, something that’s too far out of reach? Other games are doing it and it’s expected. If you’re not going to do it then you’ll lose.

** Change the game, literally. **

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