Consumers, audiences, even players aren’t what your game needs to be successful. To be truly successful a game needs a ‘community.’ The word is used constantly but it can still feel a little nebulous. As a quick example, which games would you consider yourself part of the community, and which ones (that you also play) are you not? And why is that?
If you’re looking for a best-practice example of how to build a game’s community, then Destiny and its sequel would certainly appear on many people’s shortlists. Quite literally, given Bungie won ‘Best Community Support’ at the Game Awards in December. And that’s despite having a busy recent past: departing Activision, moving the PC community over to Steam, and re-launching the game as free-to-play with Destiny 2: New Light.
So we met up with David ‘DeeJ’ Dague, communications director at Bungie, at a London-based fan event, to discuss how the company built its community, what that job entails today and how it has coped with those changes.
Dague responds to our query on the nature of community with Bungie’s driving philosophy for all its work: “We create worlds that inspire friendship.” And he explains: “So in our case, the community is the product. The game is what we create as a catalyst for that.”
A community-first approach isn’t a revolutionary concept today, but Bungie was thinking hard about the formula to achieve that before many, and its results are better than most. Dague explains Bungie’s thinking on achieving that in more detail:
“When the game becomes a venue where people can come together and have interactions with each other, it stops being an executable, it stops being even just a singular piece of entertainment. The game becomes a place, and people can go there to have interactions with other people who also enjoy it.
“This transcends fandom. It goes beyond being a member of a fan club where you have a common interest and there’s a conversation about that thing. People can come together in our game and interact with each other through their characters. They can share experiences with each other completely independently of anything that we have created.”
The power of shared virtual spaces is undeniable, but why then do some games feel full of life, passion and invention, while others become simply lifeless lobbies?
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME?
In order to look for the seeds of Destiny’s success you have to go right back to its very genesis. For a shooter, it took the unusual step of focusing on co-operative PvE content over competitive PvP. And in its world building it set up the players as Guardians, a legion that defends the earth against encroaching darkness.
Dague explains what those early days were like: “There were very specific design decisions that were made. Things that might seem obvious, but were actually things that we arrived at through much debate and much soul searching.
“The idea that there is no friendly fire in the game. The idea that you can’t hear someone’s voice in the game until you invite them into your party. These are all things to help keep toxicity at bay. And these are also things that contribute to the sensibility that every Guardian in the world is potentially on your side.
In Destiny’s lore, the PvP content is marked up as being mere training for the Guardians, to make them “a better warrior so that when you face the enemies of humanity, you’re ready to fight,” Dague explains.
“But if you’re out in the real world, and you see somebody wearing a Destiny shirt, you may think to yourself, I wonder if that person has ever saved my life in a public event? I wonder if that person has ever danced with me in the tower? I wonder if that person could ever take me along on a raid and help me get that one implement that evades me, that’s not part of my collection?
“If you think about some other multiplayer games, if those two players meet each other out in the world, they may see each other as opponents, but there’s this strong sense of community and solidarity that surrounds what it means to be a Guardian because we wanted to create a game where the players would celebrate each other, where the players would aspire to get onto each other’s level.”
While the game’s design and content provides the basis for everything that follows, Dague defines the community as those who take it beyond what is simply there to be consumed: “We see community as people creating their own action inside of the platform that we created for them.
“What we’re really trying to inspire is this sense of belonging, this idea that you are part of something that is larger than yourself, and sometimes they can cluster together into smaller groups that are more intimate than the overall community.
“And when a community can cluster together into clans or groups or just share a common forum, a Discord server, or the real estate that we provided them on Bungie.net, then they can start to really shape this hobby around their own interests and their own tastes.”
And those tastes range from raid speedrunners, lore-obsessed forumites, cosplay groups, fan-fiction authors and artists, to PvP clans.
“We’re there to appreciate what they’re doing and to say that this is exactly what Bungie had in mind. We want people to do these things and host gatherings like these where we can in person, express our appreciation to the community”
And all of those community niches bring more colour, more depth and more engagement to the player base as a whole. But with the definition of community being so broad, it naturally follows that the role of community management is similarly so.
SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER
“We serve a bunch of different purposes,” Dague concurs. “Obviously we’re there to represent the studio to the players, we’re there to educate, we’re there to inform, we’re there to celebrate the awesome things that they’re doing.
“At the same time, inside the studio, we are the advocates for the player, we can take their feedback, we can take their feelings about the game, and we can share that with the developers so that they can better create a product that is ideally suited to the people who love it the most.
“I’m constantly telling the community managers on our team that our role is to tell the truth. We tell the truth to the player about the game and our goals for their experience. We tell the truth to the creators about the players and how they feel. We try not to overly editorialise either argument, we’re just there to sort of keep this bridge of understanding open between the people who are making the game and the people who are playing the game. We represent that truth faithfully, and hope for the best. You know, we are both developers and players, and yet neither at the same time.”
As with any team involved in running a live game, Bungie must balance what its community says versus what its wider audience does.
“Whenever a creative decision is made at Bungie, we can take into account the anecdotal conversations among the most vocal hardcore players, the data that encapsulates every player in the community as a whole, as well as our own design inspirations, our own goals for the experience, as well as the experiences that we’re having at night as players of our own game.”
And all of that feedback comes together every fortnight at a meeting. “So there’s a very healthy debate that occurs all the time at Bungie, every other week, the community managers jump into a room with development stakeholders, analysts and data scientists, and we all try to identify what is the current mood in the game.
“And this is informed by data. It’s informed by conversation. It takes into account many different things. So it’s not just a matter of us mindlessly serving their every whim, but taking the things that they’re talking about, about how they feel about the game, and see if we can make a better experience for them. That really delivers on the type of emotions and experiences that we have in mind when we go to make it.
“We have, on numerous occasions, cancelled existing content plans to shift our strategy. And instead of being a company that’s trying to lead the conversation, we’re willing to react to their conversation, saying, ‘based on what you’re talking about, we’re going to plan the following steps to bring the game closer into alignment with what you’re expressing you want.’
However, he’s clear that community feedback can only direct the creative team to a certain extent: “That’s not necessarily meaning that we strap a saddle on our backs and let them ride us like a pony!
“We take cues from them, we take inspirations from them, where somebody says, ‘I want to take six of my friends to patrol a destination.’ We realise that they want larger forms of collaborative play and so then we can create an activity like The Sundial, or The Menagerie that will matchmake six players together with an interesting challenge and a compelling reward set, something much better than what they asked for, and delivers on that desire and that urge in ways that they hadn’t imagined yet.
“So it’s a collaboration. It’s a matter of us making the best game that we could possibly make as the people who invented this world, at the same time serving the players’ interests and their desires as well as their expressed preferences.”
SHOW DON’T TELL
Despite all that forward planning to create Destiny’s sense of community, all the huge work the community team has put in since to fan that flame, it still hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the high-profile game, especially as its every decision is analysed by the press and community alike. Which brings us to ask where the division lies between community management and PR?
“At its best, community management needs to coexist harmoniously with the same goal set as PR. The people that work in public relations at Bungie are my most valuable partners,” Dague tells us.
“We talk about the community every day, we talk about the state of the game every day. We can plan a content calendar, we can decide what we want to tell the community before content launches, we can decide how we want to ritualize the different things that go live in the game over time, calling the shots, giving them calls to action. But any time we plan too far out in advance, we’re depriving ourselves of the ability to be extemporaneous and improvisational, and react to the way they feel.”
Planning too far ahead is one cautionary tip then, but another sticky point is working out just how much you should tell your audience in advance. How do you engage a fanatical community without spoiling what’s coming next?
Dague is adamant about one thing: “The most meaningful moment as a player of our game should never be reading about it on Twitter.
“There are people in our community who have such a voracious appetite for Destiny, for any information about the game, that if we give it all to them, they will gladly consume it on the internet, and then go into the game and say: ‘You over marketed this, it didn’t have the capacity to surprise me.’ So sometimes, as community managers, we will endure scorn from the hardcore players who are saying to us ‘you’re not telling us enough about this game.’
“It’s depriving the players of the ability to make those discoveries in the game. And while I love the enthusiasm, and while I instinctively want to make people happy, my understanding is that the game is going to do a much better job of making the players happy then I am when publishing things to a blog.”
That said, players do need some guiding, and the content does need promoting, so finding the balance is “a constant conversation.”
“When we’re putting together the things that we want to say to introduce players to new content, there’s always sort of a no-go list. What do we want people to discover in the game for themselves? How can I illuminate the trailhead? ‘if you start taking your steps down this path, if you go to Mercury, and start engaging in this new activity that we’ve created for you, you will uncover new lore, you will earn weapons, you will earn new armour.’
“But we cannot, through our marketing campaign, fleece the player experience of all those wonderful eureka moments where people say ‘Oh my god, look what I got. Look what dropped!’”
Dague talks on how best to balance information that might be going out as trailers, longer-form documentaries, video snippets, social posts, blog posts and more. Each piece of content has its own answer, but the community team’s job is more than simply distributing information, it’s about reaching the most active members of the community and making sure they have “what they need to know in order to lead their own portion of the conversation.”
IN THE VANGUARD
“These are the Vanguards,” Dague says, borrowing an appropriate term from Destiny itself. “They are all, each of them, probably leading their own social movement inside the game. They are people who help involve players in something that is bigger than themselves but smaller than the overall community.
“We have people down there,” he gestures to the lively event below, “who are authorities on the lore and the backstory of the game. We have people out there who are authority figures on exactly how to get the most out of the player experience with the smallest amount of investment.
“They’re expert content creators. And that term, content creators, is really how we relate to them. They are creating content of their own, to provide their own service to the community. They’re not influencers, we cannot rely on them to sell our product for us.”
He explains that further: “If we refer to them as influencers, it’s like, we’re relying on them to sell the game for us, and then we put too much pressure on them. When you refer to someone as a content creator, you’re sort of making this agnostic designation of their value without expecting them to be on your side.
“Everybody has their own strategies for how to leverage the player voice. At Bungie, we’ve always seen [content creators] as partners. We’ve always seen them as people who need to have their own voice in this conversation and we need to provide them with an opportunity to simultaneously be both our cheerleaders and our critics.”
And as with many games, some content creators are highly critical of the decisions that the developers make.
“Yes. And we’re happy to listen to that. It’s valuable,” Dague replies. “A lot of times when a content creator is providing us with their opinion, they are almost a constituent representative, telling us what they know about the people in their audience.”
And those creators carry the weight of many. “So listening to a content creator is a great way of getting closer to that silent majority, because it might just be YouTube comments, or streaming chat, that we can’t digest on a regular basis. And they report up to us, ‘the people in my community, the people in my audience tell me this, and they want me to let you know that.’”
“The people who attend these events speak to large groups of players. And the stories that radiate out from this event can help create that sensibility that we love our community, that we’ll travel great distances to meet with them in small groups, where we have the chance to hear their voice and listen to their stories, and have them pass on to us the things that are meaningful about the game.
“People have told me stories here: ‘My clan is really excited that I’m at this party and they wanted me to tell you something important about how we all feel about the game.’ And we want to communicate the fact to this community that we want a relationship with the players, we want them to feel like their voices are heard. We want them to know that they have a voice in our creative process. We want them to know that we’re listening to their complaints and that we have a process to respond to the issues that they’re reporting.
“We’re problem solving. We are taking cues of inspiration from them, and we are creating moments where they can each have the spotlight shine on them, whether they’re creating amazing art or whether they are doing amazing things in the game.”
Dague is clear that Bungie must take every opportunity to “celebrate the player” and say “Bungie made this game hoping somebody like you would show up and do these sorts of things. So thank you for completing all the hard work we put into the creative process.”
Publishers, designers, artists and programmers don’t instinctually set out to make a game whose success is measured in cosplayers, YouTube videos and clan members. But it’s actually a better metric than many, and certainly one that can put a smile on your face.
And, as an independent studio, Bungie plans to go further, to become even more open in its thinking (without giving away those big secrets, of course) and even more engaged with the community that is its reason for existing.
“I think we are always trying to give people a sense of what the studio personality is all about. You know, we like to quote people in our blog, we like to bring people on to our live streams. The community was always Bungie’s to manage, and the game was always Bungie’s to develop.
“So we will continue to be transparent to the point where we’re not depriving the creators of their right to make the game they want to make, but we need to sustain that sensibility that there is a collaboration and there is an open channel for player input.”