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This article is part of GamesBeat’s special issue, Gaming communities: Making connections and fighting toxicity.
Over the last decade, the live service model has changed the life cycle of games and franchises. Filled with infinite replayability, these games can only thrive when they have highly engaged audiences. It’s more vital than ever to build fandom.
The games that have successfully kept fans playing for years tend to be the ones that have fostered communities. While there are multiple strategies to support communities, all games can benefit from working with creators.
Why creators matter
Creators can solve a number of problems for game marketers, making them a valuable resource for publishers and developers.
While gaming is not exclusively for young consumers, the audience tends to skew towards Gen Z and Millennials, especially when compared to other forms of entertainment. This makes gamers an ideal demographic for brands to target, but their consumption habits make them harder to reach.
A study from creator agency Whalar found that this demographic is curating their own media experience and actively avoiding ads in the process. 54% of Gen Z and Millennials in the U.S. watch 0 hours of ad supported TV per week. Moreover, two out of three viewers reported always skipping ads when possible. Traditional marketing is becoming less effect so brands — including game publishers — must build audiences through fans’ curated content.
Young consumers are actively selecting creators to follow and support. The study shows that U.S. fans overwhelmingly (70%) feel a sense of loyalty towards content creators. Part of it is because they played a small part in that creator’s success. Further, 64% reported feeling connected to other people who like the same content creators, even though they don’t know them in real life.
This sense of belonging is the core of a strong community. Two out of every three of U.S. respondents said they trusted online communities to recommend products. As a result, creators play a major role in recommending products to fans. 61% reported buying something recommended by a creator while 62% said they trusted the recommendations of people who follow the same creators.
To reach Gen Z and stay on top of ever-changing trends, game publishers must incorporate creators into their marketing strategy. Per Whalar’s study, “Creators can help by serving as cultural diplomats for brands and providing access to their own gated communities.”
In order to be invited into a creator’s community, game publishers must find ways to authentically add value. While direct monetary support is always welcome, the most successful games will focus on enriching the audience’s experience.
Building on a movement
To ensure that a community can grow, brands must become more comfortable giving up total control over their IP. Creators must have confidence that their time and effort will not result in publisher interference. Setting clear boundaries will go a long way towards building trust between publishers and creators.
Of course, picking creators wisely is important. Publishers must exercise due diligence when forming a long-term partnership. Aligning your game’s values with a creator’s is essential for a lasting partnership.
But by relinquishing some control, the community has opportunities to remix and contribute their own creations to their chosen fandom. Encouraging these contributions is a powerful tool for publishers to build community. After all, it gives fans a way to be part of a growing movement and encourages them to take the leap into content creation.
Publishers can go further than simply not interfering. They can lower the barrier to entry and give fans tools to make content creation easier. For example, Niantic partnered with TikTok on the launch of its new IP Peridot to reduce friction for capturing gameplay.
For a less complex lift, look no further than EA challenging Sims fans to speak Simlish on TikTok. The challenge format, achievable ask and authenticity to the game itself catapulted the campaign to success.
Publishers can also encourage fans to contribute by directly rewarding contributions. Genshin Impact’s developer HoYoverse regularly holds fan art contests. These HoYoFairs have a theme, and fans can contribute art for a chance to win in-game currency, merchandise and cash prizes. Everything from digital art, music, cosplay, comics and more are eligible. Moreover, HoYoverse curates and features these creations, further acknowledging their fan’s contributions.
While a social media shoutout will always be appreciated, publishers can go further by promoting creators and community leaders in-game. This kind of support is critical because it highlights the influence the fan community has on a game.
This concept is not particularly new. Many titles add easter eggs to commemorate major events and players. For example, Valve has a long history of adding graffiti to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive maps that memorialize iconic esports plays and key community figures.
More recently, publishers have gone further and introduced revenue sharing options to support creators. This can be highly targeted such as creator-inspired skins or publishers can cast a wider net. Fortnite popularized both options with its Icons Series skins and its Support-A-Creator affiliate marketing program.
Supporting creators is important to keep a community engaged, but it can also be a strong launch strategy too. Omega Strikers partnered with 10 creators during the beta launch of its three-vs-three competitive title. Each creator served as a team captain and players picked a team to support. The three teams with the most wins earned a percentage of the title’s Season 1 revenue and an in-game skin.
These direct rewards help both creators and their audiences stay engaged in a game’s ecosystem. Games that give players opportunities to measurably contribute to their favorite creator’s success make every purchase feel like a contribution to the community.
Distribute content through creators
Just like games, creators’ success is measured through engagement. The popularity of a game on platforms like Twitch, YouTube and TikTok is critical to ongoing interest. Luckily, there are tools to drive engagement for both games and content creators.
It’s common practice for publishers to incentivize viewership for their games. By connecting an in-game account to popular streaming sites, players can unlock rewards by watching a certain number of hours.
All games and events can benefit, but this tactic is most often deployed for esports broadcasts. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Riot Games has used this strategy to great effect to also support its creators. For example, Riot distributes skin variants exclusively through its League Partner Program.
Riot also used this strategy to drive massive engagement during the release of Valorant. The only way players could access the title’s beta was to watch specific creators on Twitch. This drove Valorant to the top of Twitch’s directory, sparking massive engagement and interest in the title.
More recently, Blizzard has invested heavily into drops with the launch of Diablo IV. The title has cemented itself as the most popular game on Twitch for the first few weeks after it was released. While fans appreciated the multitude of rewards earned through viewership, fans were less enthusiastic about an exclusive mount skin that was unlocked by gifting two Twitch subscriptions across participating channels. Effectively, the Primal Instinct Mount would cost players $10 ($12 on mobile). While the strategy of unlocking content through gifted subscriptions could work especially if support for creators is emphasized, developers and publishers must ensure that they balance the value proposition for fans.
While games are an effective way to create online communities, they don’t need to stay that way. In-person events help fans and creators deepen their connection to the games they love and the people they play with.
Large games and publishers can effectively create standalone events that bring their community together. This is particularly straightforward for competitive titles where publishers can organize major offline tournaments or support smaller scale grassroots events.
That being said, publishers can also support non-competitive communities through events. For example, Niantic’s monthly Pokémon Go Community Days encourage players to go to parks and interact with other local players. These events offer increased rewards and exclusives, incentivizing participation.
For smaller publishers, it can be daunting or risky to invest in large scale events. Instead of organizing independently, some publishers would benefit from activations at other events. Large conventions like PAX, TwitchCon, DreamHack or events for adjacent communities (such as anime and comic books) could be an attractive option.
Of course, these in-person events are a prime opportunity to feature creators. Meet and greets, photo opportunities and panels are a good starting point, but creating memorable experiences is the ultimate goal. DreamHack San Diego gave fans had the opportunity to take on the Pyramid and compete against pros in a “King of the Hill” style competition.
Sow the seeds
Games that want to build thriving communities have two options: They can build something from scratch, or they can tap into existing communities by partnering with creators. In either scenario, publishers must focus on enriching the audience’s experience. Activations must add value for both streamers and their audiences.
By supporting creators, publishers create a valuable bridge between themselves and their desired audiences.
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