Developing Your Game's Community For Maximum Pre-Release Fans
From small acorns do great oaks grow.
So, I tend to be drawn to numbers and analysis. And I think you all appreciate it. But I’m starting to get a little concerned that I’m going to be stereotyped as the ‘Steam math(s) guy’, haha. So I’ll be breaking up the in-depth stat analysis here on Game Discoverability Now! with occasional larger advice columns.
This one is simple but important. It’s aimed more towards small/medium devs than publishers - sorry, publishers or higher-end strategy types who read this newsletter!
It’s about how you should develop a fanbase - and increase your game’s discoverability factor - before your game actually comes out. And it starts with two pithy statements:
You (almost certainly) can’t just announce your game with a trailer, do little else, and watch it surge to success on release.
Let me counterbalance it with a more positive-sounding statement:
The way to improve your game’s success on launch is to find the fans of your game, care for them, and nurture them as you develop it.
So yes, by the time you release your game, you’ll want to feel like you’re a treehouse standing proudly aloft a forest of carefully nurtured trees (supporters, roll with the metaphor here!) Don’t be like the underpants gnomes - who may have under-planned their release strategy somewhat.
Where are your evangelists? Five possible paths.
Who you’re looking for are the people who will be your greatest champions on the game’s release. They’ll buy your game in the first few hours it releases, hype others for it, and potentially even help test early versions of the game.
And all games can have them. Here’s some ways you can get them - you don’t have to do all of these, but please consider them all as options:
1. Make a Discord (or forums, or both!) as soon as you announce your game.
You need to make sure you keep people updated regularly and chat to them, showing them screenshots and GIFs of features in progress. You can also do Discord meta-games & all kinds of cool stuff if you want!
2. Try early crowdfunding (via Kickstarter) to get people hyped about your game.
Kickstarters are a mixed blessing - very high stress, complex deliverables, and you can’t raise much more than $50k USD easily nowadays. But they definitely make people band together and support your game… and you can move them onto Discord/forums while still updating the Kickstarter.
3. Do a private (off-Steam) alpha of the game to develop it within your community.
Labeling an early version of the game as ‘work in progress’, even before it hits Steam or Steam Early Access, selling keys via Itch or other methods only to community members, and then getting those players bought-in can really help build a fanbase. They may also be super helpful in early usability and QA issues, too!
4. Do a wider free ‘sign up with your email address’ private (Steam?) beta
Still a smart way of doing things. You can do it by using a separate Steam game id (so that people can still wishlist your game at the same time), asking for sign-up on a Google Form (accessed via the Discord, if you’re clever) and then asking for written feedback at the end of the beta.
You can get great early info and buy-in - and you can test the game’s initial market reaction, too. Here’s a great example of my buddies at No More Robots being transparent with the results:
5. Make a public demo or separate free ‘Prologue’ demo on Steam.
You can add a ‘demo’ link to your game’s page, even before the title comes out. And I’ve seen several examples of this working out in terms of wishlists! Or the separate ‘Prologue’ demo concept is the current big thing, and it seems to be working well for many.
As I noted in my previous newsletter dealing with the Prologue concept: “It’s a clever hack that can boost visibility for your game ahead of its release. It effectively gives you two chances to get on New & Trending (demo, then game) & nurture a Steam community while your game is still unreleased. And people do seem to click across and wishlist the main game.” And again, you can direct people to your Discord for technical support or community discussion.
(There’s also email lists, social media, blogs, YouTube, Twitch & a host of other possibilities for amplifying the message. But picking a very few things to do well seems better than going crazy on everything at once. And this newsletter focuses more on things that feed into an interactive community, rather than just push messaging.)
Three reasons people get confused about the ‘nurture’ step.
I’ve been thinking about why many developers don’t do some of the above. It seems important to me that devs spend a lot of time on nurturing their game community before launch. But many can’t or don’t. I’ve talked to some of them about it, and here are the three main reasons I see:
1. “I’m very unsure about my game at this point in its development - I don’t want to show it to anybody.”
2. “I don’t know how to build communities - I don’t necessarily have a ‘community-building’ penchant.”
3. “I’m too busy actually making the game to also do a lot of interaction with a community or keep updating them.”
Each of these points, while fair, probably need to be pushed back against:
Firstly, the secrecy/closed development angle. If you’re a ‘name’ developer or you’ve released an initial game trailer to rave reviews & loads of Steam wishlists, maybe you don’t have to practice open development. But if you want people, psychologically, ‘along for the ride’, I believe you should humanize the process of making the game. And a great way to do that is to be transparent.
Secondly, not knowing how to build communities. I agree it can seem overwhelming. But the nice thing about Discord (or forums, or Twitter, or Kickstarter, or Steam updates) is that they’re not technically complex to operate. There’s best practices, sure. But they can be taught or learned. You just need to be personable - or find someone to be personable on your behalf! (Ideally you are there too. The creators impart a genuineness that proxies sometimes cannot.)
Thirdly, being too busy to interact with a burgeoning community. I sympathize with this a lot. If you’re already wearing multiple hats, why wear another one? Especially one that might feel complex sometimes because you have to put your game out there for people to criticize and comment on? (This is obviously one of the reasons why people sign with game publishers or hire PR/promotion companies.)
I think having a steady hand with the community throughout a longer period leading up to a game’s release (not just the last 3 months) pays dividends, though. So even if it is not full-throated, try to make a community plan for your game for at least 6 months - and ideally a year+ - before release.
As for solutions for those who don’t want (or can’t get) a publisher, but have manpower issues making it all work - or even knowing WHAT to do… I’m still thinking about this, and more on it soon. But I hope this newsletter is a starting point.