Publisher 3.0: Listen to the banned

Mastertronic's Andy Payne discusses why you should always listen to your community – especially when you think they're wrong
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You can't hide the truth anymore. Just ask Sepp Blatter. Eventually the truth will come out and nowadays it spreads like wildfire across the world on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and even LinkedIn plays a small role in keeping people honest.

Amongst all communities, the truth will always out. And before you think that this is all a new thing, it isn't. T'was ever thus. Communities are as old as mankind itself and have always been connected entities.

As such, information and occurrences flow up and down, side to side. 'The truth' is actually a relative thing and really is what people believe it to be. Rumour, gossip and downright lies can become 'the truth' and that can be at best galling and in some cases can finish a reputation of a person, product or a company.

It is the same for games and their makers. To logical, able, talented, committed people such as games developers, this perversion of what the 'truth' is can be, well, a nuisance, an inconvenience and sometimes soul-destroying.

It is important to know, understand, appreciate and above all to be open to your game's community and all of the nuances, wrinkles and illogical twists it may have. Ignoring the community will rarely be the right course of action. Equally reacting to every single criticism or request may not be the right way forward either. You have to strike a balance, but you should try to remain open.

Only a very few games developers can and do follow the auteur model. Rockstar are brilliant at making games that they make. They keep things under wraps and are bold enough to make it, and you, the player, will come and play. There are others, of course, but they are in the minority. 

Ignoring the community will rarely be the right course of action. Equally reacting to every single criticism or request may not be the right way forward either. You have to strike a balance, but you should try to remain open.

THE STRUGGLE OF SHARED IDEAS

I believe the idea is just 'the idea'. It generally initiates from one or two creative people, but as soon as they share it, the idea is owned by more than just them. It becomes a collaborative concept. And that can be hard, especially for creative people and their egos, to accept.

Compromises have always been part of creating art, although less so for solo art like painting, sculpture, song writing and writing. Games are hard to make and great games even harder. They have to be fun and different to get noticed and most of all be loved. Trusting your co-creators is both essential and takes some getting used to.

I am working with a group of developers right now and none of them have worked together before as a team, but all of them have made games before. It is a risk, but to see the sheer energy and vitality of this team in action is humbling and inspiring. 'The idea' has taken a life of it's own: at its core, it is still what we wanted it be, but the journey and story are opening up daily. Because of the nature of the project, it's a narrative game, it is not suitable – or at least we don't think it is suitable – for collaborative input from players via Early Access or an open beta. That means we run the risk of anyone who plays it giving and sharing their opinion on what we have made pretty much immediately after launch. That is pretty scary stuff, but it is what it is. The genie is out of the bottle so to speak, and that mass crowd opinion soon becomes 'the truth'. 

LETTING OFF STEAM

For so many games nowadays and for the forseeable future, the games community really is the Steam community alongside the MOBA communities. The consoles are playing catch up, and they will grow fast of course, but Steam has an audience of 130m players and growing.

There may be a sort of community on the App Store, Amazon, Google Play and Windows Store, especially now that Apple have announced that their store will no longer be curated by algorithm. But community engagement on these platforms is way behind the PC games community right now. And PC gamers are probably the hardest to please, but when you have earned respect and your game is being played and enjoyed, a community will become what keeps you motivated, innovative and above all honest.

News that Steam were going to issue refunds to customers was met with mixed reaction. GOG have done this for a while too. But for me it is a really welcomed move simply because it encourages games developers to make games that players want to play and keep. Or at least play for more than two hours within 14 days of purchasing the game! It is a forward-thinking move in a digital age and yes, there will be plenty of people who try to abuse the system but that's human nature for you. It ultimately gives customers a choice and will further enhance the reputation of the world's biggest PC platform.

You have to listen to your fans, just like a band would do when trying out new tunes in front of a live audience. Customers are kings and queens, whether you like that or not. 

As a developer/publisher, you will have little choice in how this actually works, as Valve will adminster the refunds and enforce the rules, but I would recommend that you embrace this rather than fight it. The days of getting away with selling a game no matter what have thankfully been left behind in the aspic of the physical retail business, so you have no choice anymore. There is nowhere to hide. The truth will out.

But you have to go further. You have to listen to your fans, just like a band would do when trying out new tunes in front of a live audience. Customers are kings and queens, whether you like that or not. We all make the occasional slip of judgement and sometimes bigger mistakes, so be humble, say sorry, put it right. Improve, improve and improve your game. Engage, engage and keep on engaging with your game's players who will be fans. And guess what? Just as in other fan driven entertainment, your biggest fans are your greatest critics. It's normal. They are passionate and they have a voice and boy they are going to use it!

LISTEN TO THE BANNED

Don't hide. Don't blame. Don't get angry. Above all, don't ban your fans! You will not be able to keep all your fans happy all of the time, but fans of your game will pay your wages and don't forget that they really are the most important people in all of this publishing business.

Six months back, I was speaking to a friend who runs an independent games studio. They had been working on their game for some time and had launched their game at last. Sadly the critics and key YouTubers were not big fans to start with. My friend was distraught – indeed some in the team were clearly in denial about the technical shortfalls of the game. They didn't know what to do.

Don't hide. Don't blame. Don't get angry. Above all, don't ban your fans! They really are the most important people in all of this publishing business.

My advice was simple. Sit down as a team, figure out if you could improve the game and if you could offer refunds to the few who had bought it and were unhappy. Then apologise, be humble and commit to making the game better. Get the broken version off sale and communicate to the small band of fans that had trusted them and start again.

It wasn't easy to face the facts that all was not well, but as I said to my friend, what choice did they really have? The reviews on Steam were telling a version of the truth and as that grew, so the game would face an ever increasing up his struggle to success.

If you can get your game played and enjoyed by many, you can make a sustainable and enjoyable living from making games. Ultimately, the game is everything, but your attitude and approach to potential players will help to refine and define that success. Marketing is vital of course, but remember that whilst you can sprinkle glitter on a turd, you can never polish it. If you try, you will end up smelly. And that's the truth.

Andy Payne is CEO of Mastertronic. You can contact him via andy.payne@mastertronic.com or via TwitterRead the rest of Andy's Publisher 3.0 columns here.

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