Since the dawn of gaming, there have been fan boys — deeply devoted members of the customer base that feel an emotional connection that extends beyond a mere appreciation of the product. Over time, I’ve also noticed an aggregation of sentiment around certain companies, institutions that are placed upon the altar of the hardcore gamer and worshiped for their benevolence in bestowing awesome unto the huddled masses. These companies are few.
Time to break down what makes companies like Blizzard, Riot, Valve, and Mojang so special. Be forewarned, I’m sick as hell whilst writing this, so it’s hard for me to determine whether I’m being profound or delirious. But the show must go on, I can’t keep our subscribers in suspense.
This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs to be said. In every instance, the company has contributed something endearing to the gaming community. Typically it’s in the form of original or creative content: Blizzard – Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft, Mojang – Minecraft, Riot – League of Legends, Valve – Halflife, Team Fortress. Games are the gateway drug, the soft words spoken to the willing ear at the mall, beckoning you deeper into the fold.
These games are excellent in terms of both depth and quality. I’d love to argue originality as well, but I don’t think that’s a particular requirement. Most of the games listed above are refined iterations upon preexisting themes. Warcraft, while awesome, has clear forebears in the RTS space, just as Halflife has in FPS and League of Legends in MOBA. Minecraft, a simulation, is of an almost entirely foreign species. While players may have an aversion to cloning, they do have an appreciation for familiarity in substance. The true assessment comes down to how deep the game is (how diverse, how much replayability, etc.) and how polished.
Each treasured company has brought some serious action to the table on each of these measurements. Diablo set the bar for replayability with its randomized dungeons. Minecraft might be the deepest game ever created – any time someone can create a frickin’ computer or the USS Enterprise in the middle of a game, I’m impressed. Yeah. Team Fortress 2 is extraordinary in terms of balance and depth of interaction – they manage to nail almost every style of play associated with FPS in a single game. We’ll not get into League of Legends, the love of which I’ve extensively documented in these pages. These games are all truly magnificent time sinks.
However, there are any number of companies that create great games, so why aren’t all of them enjoying the ardor of gamers? Ardor. Wow. My brain comes up with some strange crap when feverish.
Contribution to Gaming Writ Large
It’s not enough to make great games. I mean, it’s a serious start in the right direction, but people won’t be outside your door guzzling the Kool Aid if you stop there. In each case, the companies have provided a broader benefit to the gamers. Blizzard gave us involved lore and Battle.net (which was one of the few legitimate multiplayer experiences in its day). League of Legends popularized browser-based free2play and opened up an underutilized genre. Valve gave us the deeply adored Steam digital distribution platform. Mojang brings us Notch, the man of the people and vanguard of the indie movement.
Perhaps the games would have been enough, but content is exhaustible. Contributions like these extend beyond the life of the game and keep the companies in the mind of the players even after they cease playing every day.
A Commune with the Community
In all cases, the interaction between the company and the community is characterized by civility and camaraderie. Each of these companies boasts a core of community leaders that are viewed as kindred gamers. I can’t stress this enough. It goes a long way when the face of the company is one that truly cares about the same things the customers do. This means a willingness to depart from the impersonal corporate approach characterized by outsourced customer service and response scripts. A user is a lot more likely to forgive the initial problem if it’s resolution is met with a heartfelt smile and banter. It builds relationships.
Each of these companies have spent a tremendous amount of time and money building community. Blizzard hosts Blizzcon, an in-person gathering for the faithful – certainly not a big money maker for the company. Valve has the Steam Community, which it supports with things like its recent holiday gift bonanza. League of Legends has been a massive proponent of competitive esports, both in terms of funding and moral support. Notch, the founder of Mojang, spends an inordinate amount of time interacting with his players and providing them with updates and insights into his life and thoughts.
Few companies can create great games, and not taking advantage of that opportunity is a shame. Behind every great game design document should be a well thought out community execution plan. This extends beyond marketing and into considering how the company will actively foster the type of community that will build a sense of affinity between the players and the developer.
The Entire Package
It’s not enough to have one or two of these components, you need to have it all. There’s a reason why the players find a home with these companies. They may come for the game, but they stay for the broader contributions. Eventually, they develop friends within the vibrant communities and a fan boy/girl is born.
Too many companies create good games but fail to follow through. Many developers may believe they lack the wherewithal to contribute to games in a broader sense. I think Mojang is an example to the contrary. Often, it’s just a failure to truly consider the entire ecosystem attached to a game. To think about the feelings your game will create in a player and giving that person the opportunity to interact with others feeling the same things. To create positive experiences around the game, not just within it.
JM: Creating a game worthy of devotion, and then enabling that devotion is the one-two punch. The biggest challenge is the first. Designing is hard. Getting it right is much more rare than we think. We celebrate the success with so much ardor (yes, I’m going with it too) that we forget all the also-rans. To me it seems that if you get the first part the right, the rest is downhill from there.