Video games continue their trajectory towards increased complexity. We’ve watched the jump from 2D sprites, to rendered 3D objects, to next-gen shaders and high polygon models. We’ve seen games go from multiplayer on the same machine, to multiplayer over a modem, to entire server farms hosting persistent games millions of users strong. In the rush to improve the most surface aspect of games — the graphics — other important aspects like building community have been ignored.
Mario sits pretty in the third dimension — the community dimension — in this community created fan art piece
Community is the latest trend and buzzword to be sure, but an ironic one in that the community features we’re seeing now could have been present in games long ago (and many were, but were ahead of their time). In the same way that 3D graphics don’t merely escalate 2D graphics but add a dimension to them, adding community to games doesn’t merely escalate a multiplayer game but adds a new dimension to them. This blog post is not a theoretical one however, and will help give you ways to “communify” your game, offering you both practical tips and high-concept ideas. Though we ourselves have built a game community via The Great Games Experiment, and are now building a game portal with community features via InstantAction, these tips can be used by any developer for any platform. Use these tips to add the extra dimension of community to your game!
Community comes from a latin word meaning “common, public, shared by all or many,” whose word parts mean “together” and “performing services.” The implications of these roots to game design is significant. When millions were playing Super Mario Bros in 1985, they were having a common shared experience, but all individually! Sure there were fan clubs and magazines to print fan art, but you couldn’t say there was a Mario community — which is ironic because so many people were having the same shared experience. Taking the latin roots further, even if there was a small community, there were few services they could perform together outside of sharing cheat codes or high scores. That was 20 years ago — we can do it better.
Many people think making a game multiplayer adds community, but that isn’t always true. Don’t get the two confused, or you will never truly understand communifying a game. A single player game with community features could easily have a stronger community experience and community size than a multiplayer game with few community features or none. Making a game multiplayer does not automatically mean you are giving each players a “common, shared” experience, nor does it mean your players will be “performing services” for one another. In my own multiplayer game Shelled, players often select the offline game mode and think the AI bots chatting and doing battle with them are real people. That “fake multiplayer” — however real it may seem — is certainly not community. So why would AI replaced with real people be community? It’s not (at least not a very strong one).
As example, designing a door that can only be opened by four players each standing on separate switches does not build community. It only makes having more than just yourself in the room a prerequisite to opening the door. However, having that same door be opened only by a combination of four objects, each of which can be acquired only by a certain player class, forces you to interact with classes other than your own character to obtain the items, which builds community. Ironic because opening the door alone has more community behind it than opening it with others! As another example, though the ability to heal teammates is a multiplayer characteristic, something like a Life Bracelet that boosts HP is a community feature, as it can be traded in an auction or in the open market of the game.
So what is community? For one, it’s anything that adds to the depth or breadth of a common shared game experience. For another, it’s anything that supports players performing services for one another. This is an extremely important point — players are laterally interacting with one another on the same level, not merely interacting with the game itself! As another characteristic, it’s anything that allows you to imprint your identity and preferences onto the game to be shared with others. If you stop halfway through and only imprint identity but don’t have a way to share it, that’s a point towards customization, but not a point towards community.
So let’s get on with the master list of communification ideas, presented in no particular order:
• Blow out the character maker and allow people to really customize their character, car, ship, whatever it is they’re playing with, both in the beginning of play and throughout the course of play (through purchases and upgrades).
• Allow players to view each others customizations; not just visually through their avatar, but able to see what their inventory is, what their stats are, etc. They can then ask questions, for example “How did you upgrade your stamina so high?”
• Have certain upgrades that are rare and obviously so, that make people ask your player “How can I get THAT?”
• Allow players to create optional personal profiles within the game with information such as their country of origin, favorite game, etc. Have these profiles reflect their personality as it relates to your game, for example “favorite level in this game”, “my most memorable experience in this game,” “my favorite weapon in this game” etc.
• Show persistent player stats in their profile (accuracy, total bullets fired, most used weapon, etc).
• Make a player-created virtual space whether it’s a virtual house that they decorate, a virtual castle that they build the walls and defenses for, or a virtual space station where they build and customize it. This is much like custom player character creation, except for a place instead of a person.
• Allow the player to customize the pose of their character in a virtual diorama which is shown to their opponent prior to a battle. For example, you could move the limbs of your character so it appears to be in an aggressive attack pose to reflect your aggressive attitude and style, or you could have your character crossing its arms as if it doesn’t care to reflect your ability to not be intimidated by stronger opponents. Body language is just another way to customize your character and communicate to other players.
• In addition to a customizable player avatar, allow customized player display icons, either by customizing pre-made ones, uploading one, or even giving them a pixel editor to draw a new one right there.
• Display soundtrack information in their profile so other players can see what non-game MP3’s or CD’s they’re listening to while playing.
• Have special holiday events, or birthday message, or special themes, and allow players to suggest their own.
• Allow creation of photo-personalized game content, for example a photo of the player’s face over the face of their 3D character.
• See how player scores match up in a global ranking high score table. Have ability to sort by day, week, month, lifetime as well as by country, by player class, etc., giving multiple opportunities for players to make it to at least ONE high score table somewhere. Allow high score tables to be commented upon.
• Host tournaments and prominently display the ladders with the ability to view and interact with the players registered in them.
• In addition to hosting tournaments, allow players to create their own tournaments. Players can then create an elimination-based tournaments with a large number of CPU or human opponents then invite their friends into it as a “private tournament.”
• Have a word-based ranking system within the game. When a truly great player enters the game, it is announced, “A champion has entered the game.”
• Show the ranking from the single player mode in online play. The more of the single player game you complete, the higher your rank appears in the online mode, giving you status and incentive to complete the single player game. Plus, it ties the two modes together.
• Have a word-based ranking based on special events instead of linear progression of experience points. For example, a certain mission in a hidden part of the world must be completed to become a “Dark Master.” When you enter the game and it is announced that you have a rare ranking (not merely high ranking but rare), players will ask “How can I get THAT?”
• Allow players to rank each other based on conduct and helpfulness (like giving “kudos”).
• Publish a world map showing controlled areas of power to taunt players into fighting for control over disputed territories.
• Allow players to recruit other players into their crew and do battle with rival crews.
• Create special bosses or sequences that only appear with multiple players or with certain player classes and have that situation be known so that players must band together to make the special event happen.
• As mentioned in the intro, create a four player switch with class-specific items that requires you to find people of that class, with that item, forcing interaction.
• Design combo attacks that require a partner or multiple players.
• Win entitlement to be able to upgrade — you then have to interact with other players via multiplayer matches to be able to access all of the game content.
• Create player-formed allegiance factions. Players can give gifts to certain factions to get favor from them, and can receive gifts from factions too. Giving or receiving both changes your loyalty to all factions that are not that one, so accepting a smaller gift from a smaller faction would reduce your favor by all other factions. Having favor or allegiance to certain factions could affect gameplay (accessing certain areas, being able to purchase certain items) or could even affect what other players you are allowed to form friendships with or talk to (being seen playing with a member of a rival faction of your party could reduce your favor of your own belonging faction).
• Create community goals which are like achievements but for the entire community or sub-sets of that community. For example, as a player you might get an achievement at 100 battles won, but as a clan you might get an achievement at 1,000 battles won in your clan. You could even have entire community goals such as 100,000 games played, or 500 players online at the same time, or 1 million gold pieces donated to a magic well, any of which unlocks a new level for the whole community to play, giving them an incentive to collectively reach that goal.
• Have a captain/commander role that gives orders; players gain or lose points depending if orders are followed or not.
• Allow multiplayer matches to be watched and commented on by other players.
• Give spectating players watching games the ability to bet virtual currency or items on the outcome of matches.
• Create a multiplayer sandbox mode with the ability of the player community within that sandbox to publish the results of their play session.
• Have totally different gameplay for co-operative playing players; for example, have a separate pilot and gunner of an airship, and have each skill separately be ranked. Players can then seek out “the best pilot” or “the best gunner.”
• Allow players to not just take on different roles (like commander or pilot) but to play the game on a whole different LEVEL with other players. For example, playing as a general manager against other general managers, who are “managing” real players. The manager drafts a roster, makes decisions to make it the most popular or successful brand, hire/fire players, and schedules practices and events. Meanwhile, real players are the players being hired/fired who are playing the “real” game.
• Create persistent garbage within your world: bodies, discarded items, bullet shells, blast marks, causing players to ask “what happened HERE?”
• Co-operative play is a HUGE community feature, just in the general sense. Again, part of community is providing services for other players; when you play co-op, you are helping each other get through the game. When you play against each other, the only service you are providing is being an opponent, which is a more shallow service to provide.
• Level creation is a HUGE way to build community. Allow players to create their own stages or puzzles using the full variety of items from the game. Levels can then be shared with friends or the greater community where the best ones are rated.
• Create a decal maker for ships/cars with the ability to share and upload them.
• The spriting community on the internet is huge! Take advantage of this natural community to create a “community within a community” of artists within your community. Allow creation of player-created sprites in your game; this could mean new enemies, and backgrounds, the ability to paint pixels on in-game clothing, on in-game characters (like giving them tattoos), giving racecars a custom paint job, giving a skateboard deck a custom look, creating custom graffiti, etc.
• Allow players to write the history of the persistent world game they’re playing — the story changes depending on who wins and loses (history is written by the winners, and not always accurate).
• Add microphone support with the ability for sound effect recording. Let players share and upload sound effects or entire sound effect sets (like “audio mods“).
• Create an eBay-like auction system within the game that facilitates buying and trading items between players.
• Allow players to take snapshots at ANY point in the game, to be shared with friends or submitted to the community and rated.
• Allow players to upload game replays and watch other players best runs. Allow them to post commentary on their replay or on others replays.
• Play for pinks — you bet what you race in or with what weapon you fight with, and the winner takes all.
• In addition to playing for pinks, have the ability to lose or bet items or points in any player versus player match.
• Allow players to create personalized button configurations and share them or get the config a friend uses.
• Create not only hotkeys for character taunts but have a library of community-contributed taunts that players can add to or take from.
• Collection-driven games are always great for building community as it’s impossible to complete a collection without sharing/trading/buying collectibles with other players.
• Design gameplay where players must pool resources to create rare types of items. Force them to experiment, with some experiments creating nothing and destroying the items they used to try to create it. Give them a place to document which experiments worked and which didn’t and the ability to share that information.
• Create statues and stickers of in-game characters and objects that act as collectible trophies in the game. These trophies could give brief information about the object it shows. Assign various rarity to each statue and award a special item or prize for collecting them all. Make it impossible to do without trading with other players.
• Allow players to place their stickers and trophies onto virtual backgrounds (scenes and backgrounds from the game) and insert funny text and record snapshots of them, which can then be sent to other players or shared with the community and rated.
• Add CDs or music notes to the game as hidden or rare pick-ups, which when obtained will offer new music choices for playable stages, and can be shared or traded with other players.
• Allow friends to visit your virtual space, and leave messages there while you are away.
• Create real-world multiplatform interaction. For example, someone could send a letter from their cellphone or from an email address on a PC, and then the player “living” in a virtual world in the game could receive that letter, and vice versa. Even better than restricting this to only messages would be actual gameplay interaction.
• Support voice chat and webcams.
• Have dialog branches (not chat) with other players that affect both of your stats. For example, if someone warmly salutes you, and you have multiple options for your response, and you click the option that has you say “Leave me alone,” your charisma might go down, while their charisma goes up.
• Have dialog branches that affect not only you but all characters in your faction or class. For example, if you are a warrior and respond to even an NPC rudely, that NPC will start to treat all warriors rudely. The community of warriors then would have to come together to decide how they want to be perceived if they collectively wanted to change that.
• Tie into real world events or meetings, so that a clan playing online is a real life club in the real world.
• Allow players to create a “friends” list within the game.
• Allow players to create a “rivals” list that is similar to a friends list but without chat. You can then track your “rivals roster” to challenge rivals when they are online, who are not necessarily people you like but want to beat. Further, you could create rivals-only game mode(s) in your game, or promote spectating on hotly contested rivals.
• Create automatically created social ratings: the more time you spend with someone and the longer you chat, the more your friendship meter and tag with that person will increase (hundreds of hours = “superfriend”).
• Allow players to view a graphical representation of their network of friends, to view the network of their friends friends, and to view the networks of strangers friends, with the ability to zoom in and out, or see how you are connected to a stranger through a mutual friend through degrees of separation.
• Allow players to create “public” and “friends only” areas to their virtual space. For example, anyone might be able to enter your kingdom, but only friends can enter your castle (or only friends can enter your throne room). This gives players an incentive for knowing you and becoming your friend.
• Once you have built up a large number of levels from the community, offer a service where players automatically receive a daily level for your game.
• Make downloadable content for all aspects of your game, not just levels but scripted missions, entirely new environments, newly programmed game modes, new trophies/achievements, new weapons, new challenges. Allow downloadable content to be shared, rated, and commented on.
• Give players “download points” which can then be spent on purchasing movie clips, concept and game art, special items, custom parts, and more. Reward the player the first time they use the download system with a free item or free download points. Give the player an incentive to keep returning, such as giving them more download points each week that they return and access the menu of the latest offerings.
• Have players win a certain number of battles to obtain a special prize, such as a trophy or item.
• Keep your community interested by always providing the latest news about your game through a website, blog, or newsletter.
• Have an integrated online community at a dedicated game website; the site should include a blog that players can comment in, a forum for people to discuss things, a posting of tournaments, a game FAQ with ability to comment, and user and clan profiles and badges.
• Publish game data back to blogs and online communities. For example, you could automatically publish who conquered what territories that day and how many casualties each army sustained, along with a few sentences of personal human written commentary.
• Create customized player badges that can be displayed on MySpace, Facebook, websites, and personal blogs. The badge could display their custom character or empire, their skill level or ranking, a motto, and other basic stats. It should be something that the player is proud of and feels ownership over and wants to show off and share.
• Maintain a community-contributed wiki and/or make the manual for the game a player created electronic manual.
• Support fan art, publish it, run contests, aggregate and encourage it.
• Provide areas for players to share cheat codes, create and share FAQs, and share fan created wallpaper.
• Create buttons and banners for your game for players to decorate their website with and tell others about.
• Link to fan sites on your website to encourage the creation of them.
• Create a game purchase affiliate program to encourage players to tell and sell the game to others.
• Create community within your genre of game by linking to and promoting similar games that can also link back to you.
• Create a fun flash “widget” of some kind — like adding your face to dancing elf — that can be shared by people and go viral.
• Allow users who’ve purchased your game to create temporary unlock codes to give to friends to try the full version of the game for an extended time beyond the standard demo.
• Create a feature that allows players to invite a friend to the game from within game.
While it was stated in the intro the clear differences between multiplayer and community, and customization and community, obviously there is much overlap between these aspects, and topics often do not sit neatly in just one category. Some of the features may seem purely cosmetic, or purely marketing, and they are. In the end, there’s only one test for whether something is a community feature or not, and that’s whether it builds community or not. To do that, you must try it.
The above ideas are not exhaustive, but should give you a great starting point, and give you brainstorming ideas to try. A point not touched on is whether the community you are building is good or bad (quality or not, desirable or not). Yet another point is how to manage your community once it’s been created. This is nonetheless a great starting point.
As an indie you may not be able to leverage the latest shaders or highest tech graphics, but you can leverage these powerful, often simple community features. The most powerful among these features, like level creation and global ranking, are often the easiest to implement — you already have a level editor for your use, why not just fix it up to make it more accessible for the general public to use also? Community is no longer an “extra” or “bonus” feature in games, and it’s no longer so far on the horizon that it can keep being ignored. “As long as my game is fun” is no excuse for ignoring community. Not every game will utilize community in the same way, nor benefit from community in the same way, but all games will benefit from some kind of community forming around them. Afterall, it is more fun to play with others than it is to play alone — and we’ve only begun to explore the depth of what “playing with others” has the potential to truly mean.
Good luck and happy communifying!
Joshua Dallman, GG