Marketing and building communities with Discord

Among several inspiring talks I attended during GDC 2018 last March, Mike Rose’s “Marketing on Zero Budget” left a lasting impression on my mind, and prompted me to take part in No More Robots’ most recent pre-launch experience on Discord. Here’s why…

In his talk (see below), Rose gives tips on how he turned his first published game – Descenders by video game studio RageSquid – into a massive hit, reaching more than 110k players on PC and Xbox, and $600k in revenue. A true lesson of marketing, community management and ingenuity.

In a context where more than 40 games are released on Steam each day, standing out can be extremely difficult. As a result, according to Rose’s estimates, about 82% of those games don’t even make minimum wage and only 7% enough money for their studio to survive. To increase his odds of success, Mike Rose uses a checklist of 6 elements, in addition to the basics (writing a press release, putting together a trailer, building a press list, building a social media presence…). In here, I will focus specifically on his use of Discord to build a growing community and keep it engaged throughout the life of the game.

Keeping people engaged with Discord

After the trailer: attract & retain interested people

The first element needed to grab people’s attention, and one of the most powerful video game marketing tools, is a trailer. Most people who see a trailer simply click away and forget about it. But there is another part who will like it and want more. These people are more likely to purchase the game and therefore need to be engaged with and kept interested.

Rose points out that many developers just announce their game and then disappear for a year to finish it, before resurfacing at launch to promote it again. Because of this, they lose the initial momentum they built and the original announcement is rendered pointless, as potential buyers probably forgot about the game by the time they hear about it again. He stresses the importance of having a plan to maintain people’s interest between announcement and launch.

“If you don’t have a way to bring together the people who like what they see in your game, then you’re basically just hoping that they see it again in the future and decide to buy it on a whim. Does that really sound like a good idea?”Mike Rose, No More Robots

For Descenders, and every other No More Robots’ games since, Rose set up a Discord server for interested people to join. They were further encouraged to join by the fact that the game’s beta was run exclusively through the platform. In other word, if you want to try the game for free and have a chance to give your feedback, you need to join the server.

Discord seems like the ideal place to build and engage with a community because of its interactivity and fast-growing audience. In just one year, from May 2017 to May 2018, the platform tripled its number of users, from 45 million to 130 million. “And they are all people who buy video games,” Rose adds.

Discord in numbers, May 2018

During development: “play” & interact with the community

An important element is that this Discord server shouldn’t be “just a cool place for people interested in the game to chill, says Rose. No one wants that.” With Descenders, No More Robots built an entire meta-game using bots. Before getting access to any channel on the server, people were immediately required to pick a team from the game – Enemy, Arboreal or Kinetic – thus starting to interact with the server right from the start. They were then given the team’s color and access to the corresponding private channels. This created an immediate immersion, sense of belonging and implication, and a tribal mentality. Then, all throughout the development, they received exclusive information about the game. They could also take part in events or challenges like creating elements to be implemented in the final game which, in return, rewarded them with launch discounts, special prizes and custom items before the game was even released. “The goal is that, by the time the game launches, people aren’t just thinking ‘Oh, that came out of the blue,’ they’ve actually been following along and are waiting for it”, Rose explains.

The three teams you can choose from in Descenders

This progressively strengthened people’s involvement with the game and the developing team, and created a virtuous cycle – the active community attracting new players, consequently making the community more vibrant and appealing. Some community members were doing fan art every single day, states Rose, showing their engagement and excitement for the game. Thus, by the time Descenders launched, people already had their heart in the game and Rose a pretty accurate idea of how many would buy it within 24 hours. These “early adopters” talk about the game, make videos about it, stream it and force it on their friends, which creates a positive momentum and generate more sales during the crucial first hours of launch.

“By building a basic text meta game in the Discord server, giving people teams to join and get invested in, and by offering beta access, Descenders hit a 91 per cent user review score on launch day, not to mention a few thousand instant sales.” – Mike Rose

Personal feedback on Not Tonight’s meta game

After No More Robots announced its second published game, PanicBarn’s Not Tonight, I decided to join the Discord server to experience community management done right. Not Tonight is a post-Brexit management game with a politically charged story where every decision matters, and very similar to Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please in terms of art style and gameplay, which I’m also a big fan of.

Just like with Descenders, you first need to pick a geographic region – North, Midlands or South – before getting access to the related channels. “Players then begin working for money towards becoming a landlord of one of the nine available pubs. They can then compete against each other to make their pub of choice the best in town, all through chat commands in Discord,” explains Rose.

Press conferences, elections and votes were held on several occasions to elect the new Prime Minister of the UK – with community members running against each other, making their own program and campaign posters –, identify Spies within the community, decide if they want to take part in a Revolution, and even the final price for the game in the UK through a referendum. People who joined the server had their name given to NPCs (Non-Player Characters) inside the beta, and the pub owners were the actual landlords from the Discord server. Finally, No More Robots also had the community translate the game in their native languages. This had initially been spontaneously proposed and done by the Descenders community to improve their enjoyment of the game and led to significant sales in targeted regions. The community was happy to participate for Not Tonight as well and was rewarded with a free copy of the game at launch and their name in the credits.

Marketing and building communities with Discord

This method of building and engaging with a community through Discord seems to prove effective and beneficial on many levels. The current context of the gaming industry – where more games are released every day than ever before and survival of the fittest is the only absolute rule – shows the importance of going through this process, instead of simply relying on luck.

Other developers also point out the importance of maintaining a connection with fans. It shows them, as former Boss Key Productions’ community manager, Rohan Rivas, explains, that devs are humans too, thus building rapport and creating a personal, human interaction with people. “It all comes down to transparency and direct engagement”, he adds. For companies like Ubisoft – that are working on rebuilding and improving their image specifically by putting forward the people behind the games, as I explained here –, this community building and management is an interesting tactic.

Although this process requires a lot of time and careful planning, the benefits it offers in return cannot be overlooked. Theses good practices are becoming the norm in the industry, especially for indie developers. It worked extremely well with Descenders and we shall now see if the results are the same with Not Tonight, which releases in just a few days, on August 17.

It is important to note, however, that the community building isn’t the only element behind any game’s success, and even in the case of the ones mentioned here, Discord was only the “central hub” of a larger strategy. Rivas insists on the need to “engage on as many platforms as possible” to make sure the audience is reached, and believes the secret lies in their combination (e.g., recruiting new members via a YouTube trailer/video, or a Twitch stream, and then pointing them towards the Discord, which itself branches off towards other means of interaction, participation and ways to build a community).

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