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Recent events in the video game business once again give the DeanBeat a wealth of material to analyze. And we see this lesson hit home again this week: The community matters. If you make games the community likes, if you deliver authenticity and transparency, you’ll win. If you fail to execute, the community will roast you alive. We visited this subject in October when the gamer social network Raptr shared its own analysis of the benefits of treating the community right in games such as League of Legends, Portal 2, and the ARMA II DayZ mod.
But it’s time to hammer the point home again.
A tale of two launches
With the launch of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard Entertainment teamed up with Twitch and delivered a live launch that treated the die-hard fans right with an in-person event and then let the large audience salivate over a live broadcast. Livestreaming of matches played by professional gamers showed fans just how exciting a Heart of the Swarm match could be. Fans had to log in and authenticate themselves on Battle.net. But if they owned StarCraft II already, they could immediately start playing Heart of the Swarm at the stroke of midnight.
With SimCity, EA witnessed the consequences of letting down the community and then angering it. EA launched a single-player game that required an always-on Internet connection. The megapublisher argued that it had to do it that way in order to give players the experience of creating a city amid a region full of cities belonging to friends. But EA failed to execute, as it didn’t have enough serves on hand to handle demand. Players who paid $60 — or more for special editions — couldn’t log in (sometimes at all) for days. EA endured ridicule and skepticism from people who believed the company had only wanted the always-on connection to defeat pirates. Fans believed that EA didn’t have their interests at heart. EA’s Lucy Bradshaw, the general manager of the Maxis Label (the developer of SimCity), admitted that underestimating demand was “dumb.” Bradshaw’s posts were perhaps the saving grace in preserving EA’s reputation.
Interpretation of good community and bad community
The lessons of these two launches are clear when it comes to the community. To interpret these events, I turned again to our game community expert, Dennis Fong [right], a former pro gamer and chief executive of Raptr.
“On the flip side, when you are not authentic, and you stumble, the community will be extremely vocal,” Fong said.
The problem for EA was that it didn’t seem to learn from server problems it had with the launches of Battlefield 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. SimCity was a very different kind of game, built by a different studio. But EA should have learned, as Blizzard appeared to do after the fiasco of the launch of last year’s always-connected game Diablo III.
“When you don’t provide a bunch of community tools that distract the users, and you have an always-on game where the servers get overloaded, that’s when the community goes crazy,” Fong said. “They clearly haven’t learned. EA is a big company and it is not easy to steer the company where the community wants it to be.”
(We do expect to hear more from EA about its own postmortem on SimCity, and we’ll update this piece as we do. EA has begun to do a good job of being more transparent with its SimCity blog, and it is offering a free game to SimCity purchases as penance). [Update: In a blog post today, Bradshaw said that the always-connected feature did not come as a mandate from corporate].
Fong is heartened to see the direct results Raptr’s own campaigns, where its targeting of rewards to like-minded fans helped the online game Rift achieve a 470 percent improvement in daily active users and 58 percent longer play sessions. It costs money to do that, and the traditional view of community support is as a cost center. But those additional players will help spread the word about the game, bring in more people, and effectively do the job of advertising without incurring the costs of advertising. In that way, the community gives a return on investment.
Livestreaming is authentic
We were pleased to see Sony, which Fong criticized as lacking in community support over the years, add a “share button” and livestreaming as built-in features of the upcoming PlayStation 4. PC gamers have long had access to such tools, but Fong said the inclusion in the consoles and the growing popularity of Twitch — which had 28 million unique viewers in February — is making livestreaming easier than ever. Twitch is also being built into online games made by Sony Online Entertainment, Activision, and EA.
It is becoming brain-dead simple to do livestreaming.
“What Twitch has done is made it more universal,” Fong said. “Having 600,000 people broadcasting their own content in a month is a big milestone. The fact that people know how to do that is new. I’m staggered at how quickly it has grown.”
What makes Twitch community-friendly is that it is authentic, Fong said. (For a view on authenticity, see our interview with gaming academic Jesse Schell). A livestream doesn’t lie. Gamers may get tired of reviews, trailers, interviews, and staged videos that are filtered views of games. But a livestream delivers what the unfiltered gameplay looks like, albeit when it is played by some of the best gamers in the world. When you watch a livestream, you get an authentic and transparent view of how the game really plays. If you recall the sexy, beautifully illustrated covers of comic books, you probably remember the disappointment you found when you opened them up to see the lower-quality paper and hurried art on the pages in the middle. A livestream is more like showing the gamer what is behind the cover — so you know exactly what you’re paying for.
This may help explain the growing popularity of e-sports. If you see a game being played the right way, you’ll have an easier experience as you play it yourself. Games are being designed for the e-sports community, making them more fun to watch as spectators. And the community’s feedback makes the games better, enabling the developers to improve the games on the fly. Livestreaming and e-sports are becoming part of the core strategy of games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, which draws players back over and over.
The other thing that makes a livestream more authentic is the “shoutcasting,” or play-by-play commentary by expert broadcasters. Those shoutcasters can convey the excitement of the game to the players, but those shoutcasters have to be authentic enough to know their stuff and describe the fast-action game play to the audience.
“They know the nuances in the game that the audience cares about,” Fong said. “They can convey it with fidelity and respect.”
The future of community
I’ve focused on this week’s events. We can applaud Blizzard and scold EA, but at least they are engaged closely with users. But there are other issues that matter to the community, as the game industry matures, moves on to new consoles, and moves deeper into the digital revolution.
Valve, which is reportedly working on a Linux-based Steam Box living room console, is carrying the flag for the community on openness. Open versus closed is a familiar debate, as we’ve seen with Android versus iOS in mobile devices. The community favors openness. But the advocates of closed cite a better user experience and security. You can close off your platform, but if you don’t deliver on that better user experience and you get hacked (ahem, PlayStation Network), then the community will once again show you no mercy — and maybe move on to a better platform.
As the console makers complete their designs and business practices, they would do well to remember this. Their machines should be designed to be community-friendly. You could build a console with no disc drive or discs, convincing gamers that they don’t need to own a physical copy of their digital games. But if the player’s downloads disappear from the account and the cloud access doesn’t work, people will be pissed. As social and mobile games become more focused on multiplayer experiences, the makers of those games should focus on community satisfaction and engagement. And this does not necessarily mean that game companies need to fleece consumers with microtransactions at every turn.
“Community should be part of the core strategy of a company,” Fong said. “In a year or two, we’ll be talking about that for mobile games.”
It would be great if someone could come up with a ranking of community-friendly game companies that also make the best games. I’d like to know which of those high-ranking, community-smart companies are making the best return on investment. That’s the company that I would bet on as a big winner in the future of games.