What is a grassroots effort, in relation to gaming? They’re essentially methods of getting people to play your game by appealing to the community in a variety of ways. To me, grassroots efforts focus on one thing: the gaming community and treating them the way they deserve to be treated.

Working for an MMOG developer, communities are incredibly important to the longevity of our games, so we want to keep them happy. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to get new customers for any game, and players trust other players more than they do the company trying to sell them something.

During my time at SOE, we had a few really big community-centric wins. The most significant one had to be the SOE Fan Faire – a gathering of the members of online game communities from SOE games in the real world. That’s right, people actually met each other and socialized in person. Such events helped build a tight-knit community that transcended the bounds of a single game, strengthening not only the game’s brand, but the company’s.

In addition to the Fan Faire, we ran Community Summits. Influential members of the community were identified and flown out to speak one-on-one with developers, give feedback, receive feedback, get to know each other and generally have a good time. These small events are amazing for spreading the love from the top down – happy community leaders help lead to happy communities.

I’ve always made sure to keep in contact with key members of the fan base, whether it’s via email, instant messenger, phone, or any other medium. Being accessible is invaluable. I also wrote Letters from Blackguard monthly, sent via snail mail to community leaders, which included a personal message, a gift and even a signature from your’s truly.

Last summer, the community team at SOE came up with a great idea: an event during Comic-Con designed to draw fans closer together. Thus, the SOE Block Party was born, where hundreds of players came, drank, tossed baseballs at me in a dunk tank, played the games and hung out. It was a great way to foster a good community-developer relationship on minimal budget, which reflected well in the media as well as our players.

There’s no doubt that focusing your attention on community leaders will grant you big returns, but what about the everyman unconcerned by what happens on message boards and just wants to play your game? Despite the massive size of MMOG communities, it’s not that hard to reach out personally to hundreds or even thousands of people at one time.

On occasion, I would make an in-game appearance with my avatar, Blackguard.

Whether it was leading a snowball raid all the way from the gates of Freeport to the stone walls of Qeynos or doing battle with a famous dragon from the game, every time I appeared in the game, I got an amazing response. Sometimes I would simply log on and chat with people. I loved doing it, and players loved being part of it. What’s more, I probably spent all of one hour a week to make such a huge impact.

The way you treat your players when communicating with them is also very important. I’ve always made sure to be upfront and honest when communicating with players. They are intelligent. They see through the BS. Tell them the truth, and tell it to them as early as you can. I never made false promises I knew I couldn’t keep.

I also make sure to be fun and open with players. The post that went over better than any I can remember was “A Closer Look at SOE,” in which we played on a post made by a player and made fun of ourselves, complete with pictures.

But there’s no success without failure, and during my time at SOE, I definitely had a few. In one particular case, we got it in our heads that it would be a great idea to contact guild leaders from other games and offer them free access to EQII. Bad move. It backfired, earning us negative press and very little positive response (if any). Long story short, some guild leaders took great offense to us approaching them, and it engendered a lot of ill will toward SOE and the game. It took a whole lot of effort and returned badly, even though we never expected anyone to be insulted when we offered them free stuff.

For future reference, here are some general guidelines when you build your next community and want to take it further than the norm:

Do things that are genuinely kind. Give the military a discount on their subscription, give students a discount on their subscription, give seniors a discount on their subscription. Create family plans that allow for a certain number of accounts to fall under one blanket, making the per-account subscription cheaper. Donate a portion of the proceeds to charity. People know when you’re truly trying to be a helpful company, and that builds reputation.

Spread connectivity to your game further. Let people chat with players in-game from their cell phones via text messaging, email, etc. Keep everyone in touch, and they’ll want to keep playing and spreading the word.

Keep up with the trends. Blog, make podcasts, create videos for the game, make MySpace pages and simply make sure to take advantage of every free or cheap method you can use to get to players.

Don’t ever ignore your game’s community. They are the lifeblood of an online game and should be considered more than just customers. Stay in touch with the players, and treat them with respect. Be honest, and don’t be afraid to have fun – after all, that’s why we play games in the first place!

Ryan Shwayder has been named Community Relations Manager/Designer at GMG
and will be working to establish the company’s presence through the web and
other media. He volunteers his time for local IGDA chapters and is known for his game development blog at Nerfbat.com.

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