Doubling Down on Community
So pretty much everybody is talking about this Indie Bubble thing and how it's going to eat all our faces. I really have nothing useful to add except to agree that yes, times are changing. Cliffski has access to inside information about upcoming changes at Valve and thinks everything will be fine. And Dan Cook has a deep-dive analysis of the whole situation based on Darwinian responses to changes in the environment.
I'm not sure who's right, but I know that when Defender's Quest II is finally released, it will face a much more competitive environment than Defender's Quest I did. Of course, we have more advantages this time around -- we're an established developer with a good reputation, we have a solid team, and most importantly, this time we actually have some dang capital.
There's a lot of things we're doing to adjust to the new environment, but lately I've been working on...
We can't control market forces, but we can control how we build a community. I can't guarantee that any journalists will cover our game when it's released. I can't guarantee that we'll get featured on platforms like Steam.
But I can encourage people to sign up for our newsletter, read my blog, post on our forum, and more. What about liking us on Facebook? About that...
1. Social media is fractured
A lot of people focus on driving traffic to their social media sites, like twitter, facebook, etc. We certainly did this with DQI:
Rebels who refused to Like Us(TM) got the prize
anyway, along with some extra jokes.
This got us a bunch of likes to our Facebook page, but it turns out Facebook charges a toll -- you have to pay for a "promoted post" to reach even a fraction of the group you built up.
I mean, the power of that platform can't be denied so it might still be valuable, but it rubs me the wrong way, especially when there's scattered evidence that Facebook "promoted posts" may not be as valuable as FB touts.
I haven't given up on FaceBook entirely, but I really wonder if it wouldn't have been a better idea to just direct players to our newsletter instead, since nobody can take that away from us.
Regardless of platform-holder shenanigans, the biggest issue with trying to maintain a presence on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc, is that I just can't keep up. And even if I could keep pace, our audience gets arbitrarily fractured into all these different silos. Now, I'm probably always going to be on twitter, and I'm committed to popping in to our Steam and GOG.com communities every once in a while no matter what, but there's areas where I can focus my efforts.
2. Get tools I will actually use
The core of our community is this blog and our forum, but I've been neglecting both a bit as of late. Why?
It was too much work.
I found the old phpbb forum cumbersome and flimsy, with lots of forced top-level organization and a never-ending battle against spambots. The old blog was okay, but formatting was a chore, often distracting me from the writing itself.
- Our community needs more information.
- That means I need to write more.
- That means I need tools that I will actually use.
Therefore, I recently replaced both our forum and our blog with some new, carefully chosen technology.
3. Discourse Forum
I've replaced our old phpbb forum with Discourse, and its new home is discourse.leveluplabs.com. Check it out!
Discourse is fairly new forum software, designed by (among others) Jeff Atwood of CodingHorror fame. I like how it takes forum design back to first principles to tackle issues like spam, scaling, usability, and more (And no, nobody paid me to say that).
One of my favorite things about it is that it has first-class support for markdown, and live post previews:
Even better, you can just drag & drop images right into the panel and it automagically does all the uploading and embedding. Great!
4. Ghost Blog
Next, I've switched this blog over to Ghost from our previous home with BlogSpot. Like Discourse, Ghost supports markdown, and it also has live previews. Have I mentioned how awesome live previews are?
They're really awesome:
But the best feature is yet to come.
Before, I could never decide whether a new idea qualified as a blog post or a forum post. Even having to make the decision in the first place often just made me give up on a potential post altogether.
5. Forum + Blog = WIN
Now, our discourse forum is also the comment engine for this blog. So every time I make a blog post, it automatically makes a forum post, and the comments on the forum post will show up at the bottom of the linked blog post.
Now I don't have to decide between making a blog post and a forum post, if I have some news to share I just write about it. There's no fiddling, no awkward single-line-with-a-link "hey over at the blog..." topics in the forum, just seamless integration.
The upshot of this is that I'm much more likely to write about stuff, which means people are much more likely to stick around, which in turn keeps our community from wilting away so that there's nobody left to get excited when Defender's Quest II eventually comes out.
This also means that I no longer feel obligated to reach a certain length just to "justify" a blog post -- short or long, anything I come up with is eligible for being an OmniPost(TM).
6. Testing and Focus
The last part of our new community initiative is to make it easier for people to give feedback on early builds of the game. I've just started making builds that are actually worth testing. Our previous testing solution was pretty awful -- a random web server where I dumped all the files, paired with a truly ancient instance of BugZilla.
Now, I can set up a hidden category in our forum where trusted contributors (alpha backers and testers) can not only access the latest builds but also talk about them in the same place.
I've also gone ahead and moved our bug-reporting to Github, specifically the public tdrpg-bugs repository, and I'm using waffle.io to manage all that.
Waffle lets me bring in bug reports from several different repos at once, so I can combine stuff I'm contributing back to the HaxeFlixel project with publicly submitted bugs and our own internal reports, and filter between them as necessary.
I find it a lot easier to use than Bugzilla, and I can instantly see what kind of stuff I need to deal with. Even better, it's all deeply integrated with Github, which is where all my code lives, and just to belabor a point, it lets me use MarkDown, complete with live preview!
7. The Point
The point of all this is now it should be much easier for me to focus on community maintenance and making it easier to follow what I'm doing with Defender's Quest II.
Back before we were on Steam, we were able to do pretty okay, relying mostly on direct sales channels and flash portals. We also were fortunate enough to have our day in the sun as one of the very last games picked for the service before they moved to Greenlight. Regardless of what Steam's future is, it's wise to prepare a business plan that doesn't depend on it, and that means investing in community.
Or in other words:
doing interesting things and remembering to actually tell people about them.
(Thoughts? Click the "discussion" link below to hop on over to our discourse forum.)