Publisher 3.0: There is such a thing as community

Mastertronic CEO Andy Payne reflects on how to build a community behind your business and your games
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Community. Alongside ‘discoverability’, this is a word many people in games talk about often, but many don’t actually have the patience to fully appreciate what it means.

A community, a sense of community or just plain old community spirit is essential to life and therefore to your business – and if you are a games developer, to your game.

But how do you actually ‘have’ a community? In my experience, there is no guarantee that you get one and even if you do, sometimes it does not work out exactly as you envisaged.

In 1997, we set up a company called Just Flight, which is part of Mastertronic. Back then we published add-ons, or mods for Microsoft Flight Simulator. These mods were often made by single developers and were often given away for free via the internet. The Flight Sim community had been born, but crucially no one owned it or indeed could claim to have started it – least of all Microsoft who had developed and published Flight Simulator for 13 years previously!

Indeed, Microsoft were often simultaneously confused, challenged and conflicted by the community. Flight Sim enthusiasts had grown up everywhere, and because of the internet – which was back then a very different thing to what it is now – they had connected and exchanged all sorts of add on mod content, usually for free.

Crucially no one owned the Flight Simulator community or could claim to have started it – least of all Microsoft, who had developed and published Flight Simulator for 13 years previously!

It was free for two reasons. Firstly because the internet was, and to some degree still is, a different place to the real commercial world. And secondly, it was free because the developers had no real way of transacting old world money for their goods. Paypal did not exist and the credit card companies were so patronising and difficult to deal with, no one could actually get payments outside of direct transfers or indeed posting a piece of paper called a cheque!

Because we were also Flight Sim enthusiasts, we had become frustrated by the quality and delivery of this content which in turn affected its reliability. We decided to reach out to the community and see if there was an actual market need for us to help to put this content in front of people who may want it. This meant publishing it, and back then it meant getting the content in the right shape in order to present to retailers. The community had mixed views on this and rightly so. We were seen to be a mixture of nasty commercial publishers one moment, and then bringers of fine simulations and royalty payments the next. Clearly we needed to change that perception!

IF YOU BUILD IT

The reality was that we had become part of that community, but crucially we needed to prove our worth, earn our respect, become trusted and, above all, give back.

We needed to build trust with not only fellow creators, but the simmers who would want our published mods. Our retail partners were as crucial as they remain today, except that these partners are likely to be global digital distribution platforms, some with community and many without, rather than simply shops.

We invested in the content, we tested it, we localised it, and we packaged it up in a way that showed off the quality and the value. Man, we put our heart and soul into Just Flight. Late nights, weekends, early mornings – everything blurred into one. But we made things people wanted, and in return they paid us. We actually marketed our mods. We invested our time and money attending aviation shows all over the world. We showed the mods to the press; back then, it was magazines like PC Gamer and PC Zone, and because most of them were so disinterested, we even started our own magazine, PC Pilot which is still published today.

Building anything takes time. You cannot fake it, there are no short cuts and it often does not work out the way you expect. My advice is to be serious, put the hard yards in and go with the flow sometimes. Definitely don’t fight the community – no matter what you see or hear!

Try to take the negatives and turn them into positives. Trust in people and they will trust in you. Deliver interesting things for a fair price and most of the time you will find that this approach pays off. Often it will be slower than you think, but life is like that! Patience and persistence are virtues you need by the tonne in building a community. 

Back then, there were no smartphones and no social media. We used Bulletin Boards, email and even paper letters. But we always knew one thing was important above all else: people. Whether they were our customers, our development partners, or our team, people are the most important thing. They need a voice, they need to be heard and above all they want to be involved and see that their opinion, their work, their feedback all counts.

Building anything takes time. You cannot fake it, there are no short cuts and it often does not work out the way you expect. 

I can remember when we set up our first forum at Just Flight. The team – many of who are still with us today – were uncertain about whether it was a good idea to open ourselves up to feedback, both positive and negative! We decided to be bold and quickly realised that we needed a team to help the customers, naysayers, fans and trolls get what they wanted. Feedback is key and engagement a must. All of this takes resources and the internet is no respecter of time zones. You have to be on the case, all the time, every single time.

WORKING WITH FANS

It all started as a bit of a rant fest, but in time, we turned that negativity around and started to gain trust. We gave proper, professional support for our mods. We helped customers get the mods working properly and if they didn’t like what they got, we gave them their money back no questions asked.

Every few years Microsoft would release a new version of Flight Simulator and every single time, not just our mods, but everyone's mods would break. Rather than bleat about this or blame Microsoft, we took the view that we should do our best to fix these unforeseen problems and fix them at our cost. We would offer upgrades for existing owners of our mods and we would offer them for FREE.

Then we started to ask our fans what they wanted us to make, via a simple polling system in our forums. Over time, this worked. Fans began to see that there was a two-way relationship. We weren’t just a nasty, money-focused mega corporation. We were ordinary committed, passionate enthusiasts, just like our customer fans. We began to build our own content, rather than rely exclusively on external developers.

And then we decided around 2003, to build our own digital distribution system. Retailers began to find our mods ‘too niche’. We went back to the internet, the place where we had come from originally, and figured out how to deliver a digital file to a fan and how to securely handle the financial transaction around it. This was to be the ultimate trusting relationship. Very few companies were doing this and hardly anyone in games. It was impossible to deal with the traditional banking institutions. They just did not understand what we were doing and kept trying to bracket us as ‘mail order’ or some such arcane business sector!

But through determination, invention and sheer bloody mindedness, we sold our mods from our website www.justflight.com and got money every single day. It was and still is a thrill seeing the money come into our bank account at midnight GMT each day!

REWARDING THE COMMUNITY

We then decided to reward customers for loyalty and introduced our digital Just Rewards system, basically giving free mods away against points given every time a fan made a purchase. We were told this would never work. Those people were wrong. Yes, we had customers who gamed the system, but they were customers and they were entitled to their rewards no matter what the financial people said!

Over the years we have built a hugely loyal base of fans. Today we have 442,706 Facebook fans (bigger than UKIP I am proud to report) and an active customer database in excess of 150,000. We set up our own magazine and even set up our own Flight Sim show for the public, held each year at RAF Cosford. 

My proudest moment at Just Flight was when we launched The Dam Busters mod. We worked with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and Channel 4 who made a documentary about the raid using our software, and we organised an event at RAF Coningsby to launch to the press and our community. The RAF sent two Tornados along to join us alongside the AVRO Lancaster, which we were lucky enough to taxi in.

It has taken years to build our community but we have a viable business because of it. We respect and we support our community and guess what? Our community respects and supports us.

Both Tornado pilots joined us and our guest of honour Flt/Lt Bob Knights DFC who was a pilot in 617 Squadron in World War Two. We supped ale in the bar at the Petwood Hotel, the very bar that had been the Officers Mess where Wing Commander Guy Gibson’ leader of The Dam Busters had drunk in with his team before they went deep into Germany in May 1943 to deliver their Bouncing Bombs.

I was tasked with looking after Bob that night as he was pretty old and a tad frail. That made me laugh given as we both stood at the bar until 5am, the morning of the mod’s launch! We were the last men standing, having seen off the two young Tornado pilots, with Bob telling me casually how he had led the three raids on the Tirpitz, Germany’s premier battleship. 617 Squadron sank the Tirpitz on the third raid. And I was with that modest man, drinking beer until sunrise.

It has taken years to build our community but we have a viable business because of it. Our team is relatively small, but we all are committed, enthusiastic and above all open minded. We respect and we support our community and guess what? Our community respects and supports us. They keep us on our toes and they keep us honest.

I looked up ‘community’ and the definition I got was ‘a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals’. I think we have that at Mastertronic and Just Flight – indeed we have it by the plane load.

Read the rest of Andy's Publisher 3.0 columns here.

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