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Free for All: Lessons from the world of indie and free-to-play


I'm no expert at anything. I'm sort of like the Mario of gaming -- not an ace in one particular area, but relatively experienced in all. Luckily, this has worked out for me. Name a title; I either have played it or know about it. Name a developer, and I can probably tell you something about it that sticks out. Granted, this ability might not come in handy when Twitter is exploding in the usual "Hey, we all love football" Sunday chatter, but look where you're reading this now. On this turf, being a well-rounded gamer has its advantages.

Over the last 11 years, I've noticed quite a few trends and picked up on some unique ways that developers do business. I would never say that the information I have is 100 percent accurate, but it does come from a very open mind. I'll also not pretend that all these lessons will lead to massive piles of cash and free booze. Some of them are examples of what not to do.

In fact, stop listening to me. Go read the examples right now, after the jump.

1) Embrace your audience. Look no further than Aventurine for a company that seems to be listening to its audience. Of course, I cannot guarantee that companies are always hearing the correct things, but they seem to be trying. The real question is: Why would any developer in the world want to make a game for the meanest, craziest, and most foul-mouthed section of Nerddom? Because they like that type of game, and because they thought they could make it correctly. You know what? Aventurine ended up with Darkfall, a game and an audience that not only break stereotypes but raise the bar of quality. Even PvP-haters cannot deny the beauty of Agon and Aventurine's careful consideration in developing its game. The team knows its section of the gaming universe and owns it.

2) Be real. If you would like to pause now to leave your comments -- go ahead. Here, let me feed you the name: Derek Smart. There, got it written? Good, now let me explain. If there is one thing that gamers can do, it's dish it out. Take that same armchair designer, professional troll, or late-night troublemaker and talk to him one-tenth as roughly as he talked to you, and he will call you unprofessional. What I enjoy about the interactions on Alganon's forums is the simple honesty. Good or bad, it's there. If you take the time and read through some posts, you'll see that there are other players who feel the same way. I would love to see more developers use some degree of frankness with their playerbases. I am not saying that they should take it to the gutsy heights of Mr. Smart, but why save it all for your "personal Twitter"? C'mon, developers, you know you want to fire off the occasional rant -- it just might settle the nerves of other players when you tell that troll to buzz off. Now, how to get the Alganon Twitter master to take advantage of his account? Well, that's for the section below.

3) Use the free media. If you're part of a small game like Ryzom, on the lookout for more subscribers, give the free media a call. If there is one thing I noticed about small games that do pretty well and small games that struggle over the years, it's simple communication. You have a new patch coming out? Let the media (us here at Massively) know. So, you have a live event? Why not fire off an email? Just because your most hardcore fans know about the goings-on in your game does not mean anyone else does. Granted, these small games might be perfectly comfortable with their size here in the U.S., but I doubt that any of them would turn away new customers. Why not host Twitter or Facebook contests? How about recognizing bloggers who are obviously fans of your games and giving them special status or awards? Remember, the least expensive advertising (the lack of which could also end up costing you the most) is word or mouth.

4) Update your website. What's that? A cool new game to check out? Beau recommended it, so it must be amazing. Wait a second, this news section was last updated in 2009! Does this sound familiar? It should, because so many game websites are guilty of absolute website maintenance laziness. Now, I'm not a fan of that word -- that's a favorite of someone who might not know how much hard work an activity takes -- but I literally know 11-year-old fans of my wife's Wizard101 podcast who maintain blogs better than some developers. Alganon's website is a good example of what to do right, and so was Earth Eternal's (before it became dust in the Black Rock Desert). They both feature a real-time feed of character developments and updated notes. If you lack an awesome "web dude," host a blog. Your players want to know what's happening.

5) Protect your audience. Kingsisle, maker of Wizard101, cares about its audience. Of course, I'm putting that very mildly. I've visited the Kingsisle studios more than once now, and the fan-love is everywhere. The devs post scores of scribbled fan art on their walls and remain very conscious of how those same players will digest their content. While the game does have many older players, the younger members are always taken into consideration. If there's a particular audience your game is designed for, suited to, or inspired by, always remember those people. If you look at Faunasphere, you'll see a developer that recognizes its playerbase. The team will use words like "nurturing" and "emotional investment" in a way that excludes no one but still invites a particular type of player. This means that new players will know what to expect and might meet like-minded people in the game.

After all that, I can only hope that developers and audiences continue to learn from each other. Ours is a symbiotic relationship. They have to make the content; we have to ingest it. Without us, they would not be able make these wonderful worlds we explore. But we are not without responsibility. We always need to remember that developers are only human and need communication. Developers, remember that your players love communication and conversation, even if just about the mundane aspects of making their favorite virtual worlds.

Seriously: Your players would love to hear about designing a sword. It's interesting to them.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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