Mobile games like The Price is Right and Family Feud are often grouped under the "casual gaming" header, but there's nothing casual about the audience's passion. That's according to Ludia's Philippe Ha, who will share his experiences as community manager for those games at next month's Montreal International Game Summit, in a talk titled, "How to Manage a Million Screaming Fans: There's No App For That."
"Casual gamers are playing games they can find on their mobile device for free, it doesn't mean they're any less engaged or less fanatical about the brands."
"The general misconception of casual games is that the user base is less engaged than, let's say, with a core game, but that's really not the case," Ha told GamesIndustry.biz, adding, "Although casual gamers are playing games they can find on their mobile device for free, it doesn't mean they're any less engaged or less fanatical about the brands."
It was a misconception that Ludia might have shared once upon a time. When Ha was hired in 2011, he was supposed to be working on in-game content. But player response was overwhelming; Ha said the company's multiple Price is Right games have a larger Facebook fanbase than the show itself.
"These are people who expect a certain standard from the Price is Right brand, from the Family Feud brand. No matter how new your game is, they really expect to see content on a daily basis that will be immediately familiar to them. So that's really the challenge we have here in terms of creating content and generating user feedback."
When it became clear how engaged the player base was going to be, Ludia started using Facebook to create a dialog with users, giving them a place to give feedback that they would ideally see reflected in the game. The studio also spawned a community management team in response, and then a separate customer service team just to deal with the e-mails and social media feedback.
"We just hadn't realized how interactive these fans want to be," Ha said. "They're ready to not only talk about the show and the brand, but they're there to give suggestions as to how we can tailor our games back toward the original license, which is really interesting."
Even though the target audience is different from that of a AAA shooter, Ha said the interactions can be just as negative. The difference is that with casual games on Facebook and mobile platforms, there's often very little pre-release hype or community-building efforts before launch, so developers don't get a lot of time to gauge what fans want before it's time to react.
"Users will be heard whether the developer likes it or not. Just the data alone will show you a pretty clear drop-off if you're not attentive to users from the get-go."
"The work of the community management team, the bulk of it begins at the launch of the product so the tone of [the feedback] can be whatever the fans make of it," Ha said. "So it's really important to be able to respond transparently and not just move forward and bulldoze with your content strategy. It's important to take the time [to be] responsive and reactive to user feedback."
When community managers are working effectively, they act as a go-between for developers and players, Ha said. They pass the constructive criticism through to developers, and work with the developers to ensure it leads to something interesting for players. It's not enough to make sure players are heard; they need to see evidence of it reflected in the game.
"Users will be heard whether the developer likes it or not," Ha said. "Just the data alone will show you a pretty clear drop-off if you're not attentive to users from the get-go."
However, Ha said studios don't always make the most of community management.
"I think within the industry, we kind of assume that since the bulk of it comes later, we don't need to include community management as an early part of the process," Ha said. "This is something at Ludia we've worked very hard on, integrating all of our teams from the get go."
By bringing the two together at an earlier stage, Ha said the development and community management teams could learn from one another and get a better sense of the other's concerns and expectations. And if the community team is involved in the process earlier, they can do a better job managing expectations and building tools to understand exactly what's happening with users.
"Community management is often seen as just an afterthought of the marketing department, brought in to entertain the user outside the game."
"Community management is often seen as just an afterthought of the marketing department, brought in to entertain the user outside the game," Ha said. "Which is not false. But at the same time, it needs to better understand what the development team is looking to accomplish. And vice versa, it needs to understand how to communicate user feedback back to the developer as well. I think the language there sometimes is lost in translation."
For developers with a stable of licensed games like Ludia, starting community management efforts earlier also helps build and retain a fan base.
"Users aren't always looking for a game," Ha said. "They're looking to interact with a brand in some way or another. So I believe that community managers' responsibility is really to establish itself wherever the user base may be. That can happen well before a game is launched, in my opinion."
That ideal synergy of development and community management still isn't the norm in the industry, however. Ha said there's a lot of work to be done in establishing the various roles and responsibilities for community managers in those early days, not the least of which is being able to demonstrate the positive impact in a concrete way. Instead, all too often, Ha said the importance of the conduit between developer and player is taken for granted, and everyone suffers as a result.
"Unfortunately, there's still a lot of blatant advertising that isn't well integrated to either a brand or a particular product," Ha said. "And in that case, I think what happens it the user base gets turned off by this, and community managers are too often seen as one-way communicators for the user. And for the developer, it's really just seen as a complaint department."