Game Developers Say It Helps When Fans Realize They’re Human

A thriving Discord community has become an essential part of the game dev toolkit—especially for small independent games and busy community managers.
October 15, 2021, 1:03pm
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When Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed in October 2020, no one was more disappointed than the developers. Already working 100-hour weeks and crunching hard, the developers at CD Projekt Red were suddenly flooded with an internet-wide freakout topped off with death threats.

Gamers behaving badly online is a depressingly common and decades-old problem for game developers. A big source of the vitriol is the disconnect between creator and consumer: most gamers haven’t got the slightest clue how games are made, who makes delay decisions, or why.

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Now, some developers are using Discord in an effort to help protect themselves. Discord, a chat platform where more than 140 million people—mostly gamers—log in every month, is becoming an important channel for community building during development. Developers tell Motherboard that connecting with fans humanizes the game development process and can help shield dev teams from backlash and abuse. A motivated Discord community can also help report bugs, weigh in on ideas, and build momentum for a strong launch.

Wisdom of masses

"When we announced Descenders … I wanted a place where we could essentially collect feedback together, just generally get players' thoughts on it," Mike Rose, director of the game publisher No More Robots, told Motherboard. "Very quickly, it became clear to me what the benefits [of Discord] were. It's very easy to collect together a lot of people who cared about this thing."

Unlike other chat and video call platforms, Discord allows for permanent servers that function as chat rooms for members, who can then jump into calls with each other. This gives game developers a permanent chatroom to build a community around. For Descenders, a downhill mountain bike racing game, members of the Discord community provided bug reports, early feedback, and an immediate adoption of modding tools to build community levels and mods. After Rose saw how helpful the Descenders community was, he set up another server for the next game published by No More Robots, the Brexit simulator Not Tonight.

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"If someone has joined a Discord server for your game, it automatically already means that they're quite into it," Rose said. "It's very easy to like a tweet and never see that tweet again." Joining a Discord server, on the other hand, usually requires a few steps. Many Discord servers ask new members to click a button or type a phrase to confirm that they've read the chatroom rules. Just putting a few small hoops to jump through immediately weeds out people who aren't really interested. The result, Rose said, is a population that "probably gives a shit" about the game in a way that Twitter followers and Facebook fans may not.

As that population fills out with thousands or tens of thousands of people, the informal structure of the Discord universe starts to emerge. Different channels are set up to funnel ideas, fan art or players looking for groups to the right areas. Moderators—usually dedicated members of the game community—are empowered to make sure rules banning hate speech or pornography are followed. Crucially for developers in the early access stage of development, the community turns into an army of volunteer testers and bug reporters helping to make the game better.

This is especially important for any ongoing game, like a sandbox or open-world game, which will be supported by updates for a long time—exactly the kinds of games that are drawn to long periods of early access development. The squads of volunteer beta testers are less useful for a one-and-done story game.

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Humans work here

Speaking to Motherboard from offices in Sweden, Jace Varlet and Snutt Treptow are the community managers for Coffee Stain Studios. Coffee Stain's factory building game Satisfactory is a serious success enjoyed by a massive community—including 150,000 gamers on Discord.

But becoming a viral success in the video game world can come with a lot of new problems, namely: harassment and abuse of the developer team. According to Varlet and Treptow, the intimacy that comes with hanging out and chatting in Discord also helps humanize developers.

"I think having a human face or just maintaining a level of humanity in general … defuses a lot of [abuse], for sure," Varlet said. "We don't necessarily want to stick to, you know, well-crafted messages." ("Yeah, our messages are definitely not well-crafted," Treptow quips.) "We're just people and the dev team are just people. So if we need to delete things, or whatever, that's just how it is," Varlet said. "And that's OK! Right? We're doing our best. We try as much as we can to show people that we're just regular people, and [the Discord community] responds really well to that."

The idea of personalizing the development team is gaining a lot of ground in professional community management circles. For Joe Tirado, the communications and marketing lead for System Era, developer of the runaway hit Astroneer, building human connections with the development team was a top priority for exactly this reason. 

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"I was looking for any way to make sure that people understood, we are humans, we sometimes make mistakes, but we're trying our best to do the right thing," Tirado said. When mistakes did happen, Tirado said, he could go straight to Discord and apologize, give updates and answer questions. It's a communications strategy that works really well, "whereas, if I just post a tweet that says 'sorry for the inconvenience,' those are two completely different vibes."

After two years of early access development, Astroneer was finally scheduled for a full release at the end of 2018. Unfortunately, the team needed extra time and pushed the launch to the beginning of 2019: a common situation that frequently rains abuse and disappointment down on development teams. According to Gina Cowart, the community manager, the Astroneer Discord was a huge asset when System Era found itself delivering the bad news.

"The dev team was able to say, 'OK, this is what's happening, and here's why.'" Cowart said. "And then when other people from the community come into the Discord to complain, you would have other members of the community standing beside the dev team." 

The System Era team explained in a human way that they thought it was better to delay the game and deliver a finished game that they were proud of—rather than rush to meet their original deadline and hand gamers a buggy mess. "So you had the community pushing that same narrative alongside the dev team, and that was very helpful." Those same community members would then often go out into the rest of the online world and join conversations on Twitter and Facebook encouraging people to be patient and repeating the argument.

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All of the developers interviewed for this article mentioned that building relationships and demystifying the development process helped reduce abuse and harassment so common in online gaming circles. It certainly seems to work, but not because Discord is in itself an instant cure. It only works if developers actually build those human connections. 

"I don't think you can be a studio that is getting PR to write out all of your long-winded messages that are really corporate-feeling," Coffee Stain Studio's Jace Varlet said. "And then when something bad happens, well that's OK because you put a developer in the Discord! That's not just going to do it alone, right?"

One tool in the box

Discord can't do everything. Especially as Discord servers grow in population, large communities turn into a firehose of messages, and trying to keep up with specific individuals—like providing tech support—can be impossible. Instead, it's best understood as a way to build a trusted inner circle. If Facebook and Twitter are bullhorns for announcements on a public street, Discord can be an intimate dining room or a boisterous town hall. 

That makes some conversations best held one-on-one, like getting tech support or tracking bugs, really unpleasant on Discord. Several developers interviewed for this story agreed that these kinds of activities were just impossible on Discord and had to be spun out into standalone websites or forums so they could be tracked and solved by IT teams. 

The intimacy of an old-school chat room is key to Discord's appeal to game developers. That includes embracing a somewhat hands-off approach and letting them develop their own internal cultures. 

"The big strength of Discord is that it's our community that is driving it, more than us," Coffee Stain Studio's Snutt Treptow said. "We may facilitate it and make sure everything is nice, and our moderators make sure that everyone's happy and good. But then, it's really cool that the biggest part of our platform has a life of its own."

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This article was made with support from Discord. Waypoint maintains editorial control.