The Fair Game - Part 3 : who ?

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I poked my way around the notion that times are a-changing for game development and especially "indie" studios, as self-funding/publishing is likely to become the norm rather than the exception for mid-to-biggish budget titles. I've rather haphazardly covered what is happening, and going to happen in the business (imnsho), why it is so, and what kind of gamedevs and studios will be able to make the best of these new circumstances.

I'd like to spend a bit more time on the matter of who, now, because that's where the real meat is : games really are made for people by people, and games are generally better when (some version) of the humanity involved gets to shine through.

First, and it's as long overdue as my poasting, let's put a few stakes in the ground and white line the field to bring things in sharper focus, as we enter the always fuzzy and blurry space of human affairs.

Working assumptions : 
[If you strongly disagree with any of the bulleted points below, please head to the comments section of part one or two and show me where I took a wrong turn back then, this chapter is for me to get it wrong in all new and different ways. Thanks.]

• Thanks to crowdfunding, early fans/consumers involvement, committed investors et al, it is now realistic for "indie" studios to develop and produce high production value games — which used to be the exclusive province of big publishers. Distribution and retail are already cheaper and more accessible than they've ever been, and no longer a hindrance to self-publishing of any kind. 

• No matter the odds of success at first, studios have little to lose by taking their chances as self-publishers, and it will become the new normal of the industry. Since few among the current crop of studios that would like to get out from under the heel of publishers to build AAA titles are prepared to deal with the extra workload and demands of being their own publishers, most will fail in horrific, predictable, yet hilarious ways. Others will take advantage of the availability of publishing consulting services and for-hire talent that are bound to appear in response.  It will not be pretty, for a while at least.

• The traditional publisher-centric business model hinges on the cost of failure being unbearable for client studios unless they get publisher backing, and on studios not turning enough profit to buy their ticket out of indentured servitude. Lowering the barrier to entry in funding, distribution and retail is not enough for indie studios to reliably take on heavy duty projects, they also need business models that don't make undertaking primetime projects sound like playing russian roulette with a minigun (hint: it's not easy, and it ends in tears).

• The first step towards turning a profit from making (good) games is to not saddle the business with the dead weight of PR and ad costs that are only really needed if products and company are an embarrassment : don't suck, and you've cut your incompressible overhead by more than half, which brings you that much closer to breaking even without depending so much on chance.

• Traditional marketing and promotion are made largely irrelevant by the global village grapevine, and the bang / buck return one can hope to get from  big advertising campaigns now requires hearing aids to be detected. Because of the new funding models and the predicted explosion in the number of contenders for players' monies and attention, the first order of business for a self-publishing studio is to build and cultivate its very own loyal community of fans, which are expected to provide relatively reliable sources of funding and/or revenue, and to evangelise for 'free'  — in exchange for shweet shweet lub from the devs and for the opportunity to buy games that don't suck.

…and we're back on track.

Factoring all of the above, it becomes patently obvious that in order to survive, endure and thrive as a self-publishing studio (SPS), what used to just be clever PR is to become the cornerstone of any successful venture : a studio's first, core, and locomotive product is the studio itself, and the primary mesure of equity is to be customer goodwill and brand loyalty.

Because the cheapest way to earn and grow customer goodwill is to do right by them and make sure they realize it (without pissing them off, that is), and since small SPS can't afford to buy their way into customer love or out of public humiliation with expensive PR campaigns (bound to backfire sooner than later), the smart thing to do is to go by the Fair Game model and be the good guys (or RP the part, if you're a pragmatic sociopath who needs a change from Zynga).

Let's get meta, girlfriend !

Regardless of what you're building, a social game or a solo CRPG, your studio's online presence will have to rally fans and manage the slow burn of building interest and goodwill around your products and brand for the long haul, which is a game in itself.
Accurately, it's a coop tactical FPS set in a MMORPG, with few saves, no replay, and precious little chance of respawn… on the plus side, you can get reinforcments (if you're good) and more importantly you get to study the map at length before you join the game.

Some gamedevs may cringe at the notion of having to hug and press the unwashed masses' (even virtual) flesh, and though the attitude is not helping, it's worth acknowledging : community relations aren't for everyone, and require both a taste for it, plus a spoon of skill and talent.
To sum up: if community relations should be deemed important in any consumer business, they are the life or death of a Fair Game studio, and it's something you should take seriously enough to be proactive about, and factor in your every move.

As a small company — it bears repeating — it's much easier to get it right and take advantage of many small opportunities to build goodwill at little extra cost, and to avoid the ruin of your reputation over silly or misguided moves. Conversely, it's much harder to cover up or fix a damaged image because you'll lack the marketing firepower and clout to silence critics or efficiently redirect attention.

Let's break down the let's make a name ! game to its core elements, and that which it really boils down to  : peeplz.

Hardcore fans : 
They're your first line of PR, CS and advertising outside of your official website/pages/boards …whether you like it or not ! They will take upon themselves to spread their interpretation of the gospel on your behalf, so you better make sure they don't misconstrue your plans, because people won't sourcecheck where the buzz is coming from when they start building entirely unrealistic expectations about your products or company.

Silent majority : 
Those are only a few lurkers at first, who subscribe to the newsletter and FB/g+/Twitter streams, and maybe come to check the website and devblogs once in a while, if you're proactive about teasing them the right way. They will/should steadily grow in numbers during open beta and after release, provided your evangelists do their job properly. 
You'll have a hard time telling if or when they break up with you in droves over some stunt you pulled off, unless you manage a paid-for subscription game, because they won't bother with the usual "You shits broke my heart, I quit forever, I hope you die of aids in a fire, bitches !". 
They're less obviously committed, but for most games they'll make a good chunk — at least a third — of your paying customer base. Those you want to monitor carefully, and survey whenever possible (again, without being obnoxious) to get a clue about what they think.

Pundits : 
Self-appointed leaders of opinion, they like to think they are influential enough to make or break you, and sometimes are right about that. 
Some may focus exclusively (or primarily) on your game/brand, and more likely than not have risen from the ranks of your hardcore fans, while some will be genre enthusiasts with an interest in your products directly related to how closely (or how far) they think you fall relative to their ideal for the genre. 
Tame those you can, ignore and casually dismiss the rest as haters, you can't win them all over. Since they typically live outside of your company's controlled ecosystem, on blogs, fansites and e-zines, they may have more bearing on prospective users than on your established userbase, unless they embraced punditry as a way to gain status inside the community and are soapboaxing inwards.

Caravans : 
They come to your game as a community, if there's anything to support their collective identity in or around your game and brand ID. 
You may or may not want them around, and you may, or (more likely) may not have a say in the matter. In any case, make up your mind about how you want to handle them. Properly charmed, they're a pre-heated PR machine working on your behalf that brings in an already cohesive sub-community to your userbase, and in turn can be a good recruitment tool and anchor for extra subgroups. If they turn on you, however, they will put the same amount of energy and coordination to hit you back with a vengeance, with a disruptive potential that shouldn't be overlooked.

The haters : 
Hardcore fans, pundits or caravans, turned sour, they are a lot of work to contain or flip over. The best way to handle them is to identify the leaders and coopt (or undo) them in some way while being politely neutral with the rest to avoid making things worse. If you manage to convert or mollify opinion leaders in your favor, you're halfway there. Even if they fail in turn to steer their infuriated sheeple herds back on the path of truth and justice, at least you'll have seeded the roots of discord among them, and the ensuing infighting is that much distracting them from messing with your stuff.

Community manager(s) : 
Start with one, and make sure it's a good one. It's better if your CM is closely related to CS, but if at all possible, try to avoid saddling the same poor soul with more than one lead role. CS is a great place to look for potential CM reps and even lead if you don't have one for your next project, but you should have someone in charge of community relations before even you need CS (pre-beta).

Mods : 
Your (hopefully) affable, tireless, incorruptible and thick-skinned bobbies, and your first "official" line of CS and damage control. They work under the supervision of the CM and they can either be CM staffers or (more likely) volunteers pulled form the hardcore fanbase pool.
Beyond keeping the tone of discussion reasonably civil on your public pages, they also should act as GMs of sorts in the community building game, and help people find their way around and get busy. Keep in mind if you decide to keep volunteers around during the commercial phase of a game, you may soon need to hire a dedicated lead mod to handle HR and operations, because your CM may not be able to do both. It may sometimes be at once cheaper and more advisable to promote two interns from CS to paid mod positions than pay an extra manager to herd a dozen volunteers.  

Project Face : 
In the case of the studio, it's likely to befall your CEO, while for any given game it may be the lead designer or producer, usually whoever is first to accidentally step in the limelight, or is the most outspoken. If your 'natural' candidate sucks at PR, have the CM vet everything they say before they open their trap, or find someone else with better dispositions, which you can curse with an Executive Producer title and send to the frontlines instead.

The team : 
Keep in mind whenever a team member speaks, it will be heard as the voice of god and contractually binding, even if said speech is clearly presented as personal opinion, or in jest. Whether you decide to allow anyone or no one to speak their mind (or stick to a script) is your call, but not having a clear policy on the matter is ruinous and will drive your CM that much closer to her already looming meltdown.

Griefers & Trolls : 
No listing of key players in the community game would be complete without a nod to the antisocial club, and as a small-ish company presumably catering to a niche market you're in a better position than most to mitigate the noxiousness of bullies and pissants to your users and community, for reasonable costs. This is a standard CM matter however, and going by the Fair Game party line doesn't significantly alter the in and outs of tackling this issue.

As should be obvious, your hardcore fans are to be your main marketing and customer acquisition force. Your official and concerted outreach and ad efforts may yield some results in awareness raising, yet fans can and should do more to drive interest and conversion rates up than anything else you do. 
What is up to you is how smart you are about attracting those few early apostles of your new cult, because they will contribute to set the tone of your player community and self-select kindred spirits, which will inform both the flavor and size of your potential customer base. Later on, hardcore fans management is mostly a matter of providing them with the right PR ammo to subtly train them towards the right targets, and let them loose, locusts upon the world …because you can't stop them, short of turning them into Haters.

You only get one chance…

Assuming you start without baggage as a debuting studio, the timeline of your coming out and starting to build your image and community relations is entirely in your hands. Obviously there are reasons to make noise early, because you need to raise funds, recruit talent, negotiate deals, all the exact things some brand recognition and a community network are supposed to help with, but… 
as previously hinted, once you get the ball rolling, you can't afford to stop. 

Slowing the pace of community outreach and communication will shortly curse you with the stink of death, something that's really tricky to recover from, and which is incredibly damaging to your staff morale, too. Gaming and gamemaking alike are fueled as much by enthusiasm as they are by money, and here, like in many places, riches beget riches.
Motivated staff and fans will feed on each other's enthusiasm, which can drive productivity, creativity and hopefully sales up, but this sort of euphoria is as close as it gets to collective hallucination, and can be dispelled by the slightest whiff of a faith crisis.

…All of which is not to say you should fake it, and behave like ever-smiling corporate drones living in plastic-y bliss, because a) it's creepy, b) nobody buys it for long, and c) you'll have to deal with some bad shit eventually. 
Rather I advocate the opposite : be open from the get go about the hurdles and the difficulty of the task ahead, and always show how you're going about solving problems. 
Never whine or complain, as it won't get you any sympathy ; don't brag, as it'll make you look like pricks, and come to bite you back eventually ; be upbeat and resolute, or be a prophet, whichever you reckon you can pull off for the duration and matches more closely your identity, that of your project, and the expectations of your fans. 

In any case, you need to be lucid and practical about how you want to present your company, team and project to the world, and who should be on the frontlines : don't try to pretend you're something you're not as individuals or as a team, and instead strive to behave like the best version of yourself you can muster — it may even rub off on you in a good way, over time.

Defining, projecting and maintaining a public image is like UI design and Quality Insurance : get it right and most people won't even realize that's why the product feels right. Screw up, and everything else you do is for naught. 
One person (at least) should be in charge of PR and CM (which are essentially the same in a Fair Game studio) from day 0, and be recognized as part of the core team, on par with your money guy, lawguy, lead producer, codewiz, designers and artists — and I mention those in pointed order because the last ones are those you weren't going to forget and credit as your core team. 

In essence, you want to go about your studio and project coming out into public view as you go about producing a game : see what assets you can realistically mobilize (your people, mainly), consider your acceptable timeframe, and within those constraints, put together a design document or a bible about your brand, community relations and PR, then implement it — amending as you go because plan, enemy, etc.
Think about launching your first website as public beta time, be mindful of how much or how little noise you want to make initially, and where you want to go from there.

The limits of virtue…

One massively cool thing about the Fair Game model is how, for once, it may genuinely pay off to do the obvious right thing, which in business matters has frequently proven to be a sucker's game. It's probably why the bittervet in me has a hard time believing myself, because it's just too good to be true.

The luxury of being a budding indie studio is it's entirely within your purview to not need any coverup of your abject business practices : you haven't screwed the pooch yet, and you just have to  keep it that way. 
Gamers are, as a rule, passionate people who're just looking for stuff to get excited about, and if you can earn their love and respect, work hard and smart and don't betray their loyalty in ways they can't forgive, they can in return grant you the opportunity to do the exact stuff you dreamed of when you signed up for this career : make games you really care about, for people who will appreciate your work, in good company, with decent-to-good pay and labor conditions. Getting rich and/or laid are also distant possibilities, but let's not get crazy, here…

As ridiculous as it may sound amidst the bright-eyed optimism of my previous arguments, it's important not to be naive about this game, however : you will not win by virtue alone, and your heroic stance in the face of greedy exploitationism is only worth anything to your audience insofar as they hear about it. 
While it may simply feel right to you individually to be the good guy and to play fair at all times (which I personally applaud), and while it's generally good policy under the Fair Game doctrine (because it's the intarwebs and you must assume everything worth mocking will find its way to youtube, eventually), the fact remains you will have to whore your goodness at least a little to make sure it registers. The best self-promoters have mastered the art of making sure everybody knows when they modestly refuse to take credit or brag, because nobody ever heard of the truly unsung heroes.


In next episode we'll talk some more about morale, and — shockingly — morals.

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