Dr. Geek: The Importance of Community to the Indie Games Uprising

As part of CBR’s 18 days of coverage of the XBLIG Uprising III, I thought I would take a look at how the organizers of this latest release extravaganza have been getting the word out about it.  I contacted the event’s coordinators, Michael Hicks of MichaelArts and Dave Voyles of Armless Octopus, for their thoughts about using the online media to market an online event.  In conversing with them — online, via email — what became clear was the centrality and importance of this idea of community to the marketing, and indeed the nature, of Uprising III.  Interwoven with the importance of community is the role of social media and the 21st Century cyberspace notion of branding oneself.

It is interesting but not at all surprising that online gaming events like Uprising are generated in part because of the online community of people involved in XBLIG.  As both Michael and Dave have described, after the first Uprising began as a cross-promotion event for Zeboyd Games and MagicalTimeBean, Uprisings II and III have been a result of XBLIG developers utilizing community message boards at App Hub (Microsoft’s XBLIG forums) to find like-minded individuals who would be interested in organizing a new Uprising, thereby propagating and maintaining the idea of the original.  As Dave described it:

In May of 2011, Kris Steele of Fun Infused Games resurrected a thread in the App Hub (Microsoft’s XBLIG forums) to begin organizing another Uprising. I quickly hopped on, as he would need assistance in leading and coordinating with all of these developers and shortly after we had nearly 100 submissions from developers within the first 24 hours of announcing the promotion.   That promotion went well, and we learned quite a few lessons along the way, but ultimately I was bit burnt out from all of the work.  Michael started a thread in similar fashion earlier this year, and that quickly blossomed into another Uprising.

The identity of Uprising as being an opportunity for indie developers to cross-promote their games has been maintained with each iteration.  What has changed has been who has done the organizing of the event; in a world where people can make a living off of organizing conventions, thus far Uprising has seen a far more decentralized organization process, where it builds organically out of community interaction.  This decentralization is a result of the ability for organizers to emerge from the community of game developers, lessening the possibility that any organizer would be burned out, and also promoting the possibility for innovation and different developers to be included in the event.  Such is the strength of capitalizing on the existent community.

Now, the XBLIG community is a specific niche community that resides within the entirety of the Xbox Live community of gamers of the Xbox, and specifically Xbox 360, gaming community, who are themselves just a subset of the entire spectrum of gamers that exist in the world.  Not all gamers play video games, or Xbox games, or XBLIG games, and there are even other subsets within the Xbox gaming community that look down or askance at the XBLIG community.

The Connections and Separations of the Communities

But the XBLIG community is in the interesting position that the shift into Web 2.0 has produced: you are probably more likely to see people who have the dual identity of gamers and developers in this community than other subsets of the Xbox gaming community, and perhaps the larger all-encompassing gaming community.  These are people who have grown up with and love video games so much that they learned the skills necessary to produce them.  What more, they are also active in getting word out about the games they make and the games they play, as a way to maintain and propagate the community they have been constructing since 2008.

This is a community of developers, writers, and gamers, with some members occupying all three identities at different times of the day.   If we look at these three identities (not groups of people, but the things people do) separately, I would argue that developers act as the primary community leaders, since in that position they create the games that constitute the focal object of the community.  Writers would occupy a secondary community leader position due to activity of  being a “middle man” or “medium” between developers and gamers in order to disseminate information about the games.

Because a developer and a writer can exist as identities within the same person, some developers take to social media to disseminate information about their games.  Michael and Dave told me about how they use social media to send out information, but they largely rely on other people acting as journalists and bloggers to be their medium to reach gamers with information about Uprising III:

Dave and myself have collected contacts over time, so we combined our lists together and sent out press releases to all the journalists that we know. … We have used both social media and journalists to get the word out. We’ve done an alright job on Twitter, but the major press coverage we received has generated a ton of traffic. Mainly online journalists have written about us… but I’ve seen a few really cool blog posts as well.

However, even in reaching out to journalists and bloggers, the community spirit shines through, as Michael indicates being more informal with others in his community.

Mass emailing press releases makes me feel a little awkward, so I’ve made some attempts to personally reach out to some journalists I respect and so on…

This desire to be respectful to other community members is also seen in how Dave and Michael organize the event.  In dealing with the other developers who submit titles for possible inclusion in Uprising III, Dave spoke about how important engaging in honest dialogue was.

I’ve found that the more open we are with the developers in the Uprisings, the smoother things go as well.  We try to have all of the games ready well before the release dates, and the only way to get that done is by constantly communicating.  As Michael and I do interviews we pass them along, in addition to any other work we may be doing. If they see we are working hard, then they continue to work just as hard, thereby making us all look better in the end.

And finally, this desire to be good-natured, and thus good community members, is also seen in the primary way Dave and Michael have been using social media, specifically Twitter and then Facebook.  Instead of seeing these tools as being primary for traditional broadcasting of marketing messages — a task that has been given to the writers — they see the social media as the means for responding to the community’s questions: questions from other developers, writers and, most importantly, gamers.  As Dave told me, they see the social media as being the interactive tools through which they can engage with the feedback they receive.

Both Michael and myself are on Twitter and try to make our time available to anyone who would like to ask questions, find our more, or get involved in future promotions. … We have a Facebook page, which has over 1,000 likes and often generates quite a bit of conversation.  It’s nice to have one location that everyone can not only discuss the promotion but also learn a bit about one another (through Facebook). …  It’s great to hear feedback from other gamers, both positive and critical.  If it wasn’t for Twitter then we would have a very difficult time spreading the news.

According to Dave, the social media are limited in how much information they can disseminate.  Not being able to send out quality information can hurt how well their message is sent and received, which could hurt the community in the long run.

We always update the Facebook page and post there pretty infrequently, although it’s sometimes difficult to get ALL of the information on there.  Same with Twitter because you are so limited by the number of characters. …  At least through the site we can distribute all of the information in a clear [and] concise [way], and then we use Facebook and Twitter as a means to supplement it, simply by tweeting out a link to something, in addition to a bit of background.

How these organizers relate to the entire XBLIG community was emphasized again in the advice both men gave on the ways to use online communication channels to reach out to communities.  Their advice was focused on community building and community maintenance that is brought about by being community-minded: by remembering that these are humans seeking connections with like-minded fellows and not simply gaping maws with money waiting to be filled with product.  For Michael, the key appears to be in how you present yourself: approaching people as equals and out of respect is as useful for making friends as it is for disseminating information.

Be personable and friendly. I approach people the same way I would like to be approached; I don’t want to be treated in a very strict professional way…you can be professional and friendly at the same time.

For Dave, how he relates and communicates with the community appears to come from a position of gratitude and humility.

I enjoy the sense of community, especially around XNA / XBLIG developers.  The gaming industry is much smaller than most people believe, and these niche communities make things seem even smaller.  For the most part, nearly all of the developers on the App Hub forums are friendly, dedicated to their craft, and always willing to lend a hand. XBLIG really helped me to get my career off the ground by offering me an opportunity to write about games, so serving as an evangelist for the platform was the least I could do to return the favor.

And he also suggests that people in a position like his as a co-organizer for Uprising III should remember the necessity to community with their respective communities via the social media tools that are available to them.

Communication is key. It seems so simple and obvious, but you’d be amazed by how many people have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but choose not to converse on there. Why join then? Those two tools open worlds for you, and grant you the ability to speak with nearly anyone, regardless of how large of a figure they are in an industry.

In the end, the success of this year’s Uprising is in part based on how well Michael and Dave have communicated to their community, via the middle-men of writers or the direct communication and interactive possible via social media.  As Dave told me, this is largely a “word-of-mouth” campaign, where they rely on both avenues of communication working to spread the information through the XBLIG community, and perhaps even beyond its boundaries.  After all, the main hope with such a campaign, as with viral marketing, is that the opinion leaders in a community will spread the information out to the community, where their position may influence the rest to participate, such as by attending the marketed event and by continuing to spread the message.

Journalists’ articles and bloggers’ posts can be shared via Facebook and Twitter, perhaps generating interest from those unfamiliar with the XBLIG community.  Perhaps through their direct interaction with Michael and Dave, XBLIG gamers will feel energized about the Uprising and spread the message.  Enthusiasm can be highly infectious, and thus a highly useful motivation to drive marketing campaigns, making viral marketing increasingly common in this era of social media and Web 2.0.  Only at the end of this Uprising will Micheal and Dave get a sense if their community communication efforts have worked.

But this article is another part of that attempt.  So get going, as it starts Monday, September 10th and runs through Thursday, September 20th.

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