How Careful Cultivation of Fan Communities Has Taken Center Stage as a Primary Driver of Change in Indie Video Game Marketing
Sunday, January 20, 2017
Just two weeks after launching on digital distribution platform Steam on February 26, 2016, independently produced farming RPG, Stardew Valley, had already sold over 400,000 copies. Six weeks later, that number had reached one million. Nostalgia for pixel art style games like beloved classic, Harvest Moon, combined with the attractive price of $14.99 meant that many gamers were willing to take a chance on the cute indie title. Working entirely solo on the project, from coding to art to music production, Eric Barone, better known by his Reddit username, ConcernedApe, became a multi-millionaire almost overnight. Soon showered with accolade upon joyous accolade by prominent video game critics, Stardew Valley consistently topped sales charts throughout 2016, and has since earned the highest-ranking cumulative Steam review score possible, the coveted “Overwhelmingly Positive” rank. This means that 97% of the 47,520 Steam user reviews for this game are positive, which is quite remarkable. Additionally, in December 2016 the relaxing 16-bit farming game was nominated for two categories in the 2016 Steam Awards – an annual Steam event where members of the community vote for one winner per day with a new category announced each day. So, what’s the secret to Stardew Valley’s impressive success story? Community.
Community is king
Barone never misses a chance to express gratitude to the devoted Stardew Valley fan base, as this excerpt from an interview with Game Revolution demonstrates:
GR: As a Stardew Valley addict, thank you for making the game and for taking time to do this interview. Before we go, do you have anything you’d like say to the community?
EB: Thanks for being the kindest, most supportive, best community I’ve ever encountered in the world of gaming. And thanks so much for playing Stardew Valley!
Attaching words like “kind” and “supportive” to a community of gamers may seem quite ironic to some, as the vast majority of video games produced center around violence. Yet within this warm and welcoming online community is where Stardew Valley carved its unique niche. ConcernedApe’s first foray into community building began in the forums of Reddit, where he announced his initial plans to release a “Harvest Moon type of game.” By frequently keeping in touch with people interested in his game via social media outlets like Reddit and Twitter, and releasing developer diaries with updates, Barone planted, watered, grew, then harvested his own fertile garden of dedicated Stardew Valley fans! What guaranteed the success of this relaxing farming/family role-playing-game, however, were the “overwhelmingly positive” reviews from the greater Steam community.
Green means go!
Steam provides a possibility for indie game developers to launch and sell their games through their “Steam Greenlight” system. Basically, potential new, independently-produced games are submitted to the Steam Greenlight Workshop, and then voted on by the community. This provides an opportunity for small game companies and individuals like Barone to showcase their creations without breaking the bank. Many games on Steam are available to purchase as “Early Access Game” editions, so that individuals can try out the game before it is officially released – basically beta testing. Of course, the game could totally turn out to be terrible, or the developers could stop working on the title, and then you’re stuck with a game you don’t want that might not ever be finished. However, thanks to Steam’s large and incredibly active member base with detailed (sometimes fantastic, sometimes devastating) reviews, one can easily take a more calculated risk. In fact, many purchases of Stardew Valley were based on positive (hilarious) reviews like this one:
Another review illustrates the unanticipated therapeutic effect of the game, which has been praised by many critics as a relaxing, stress-free break from ordinary violent video game experiences:
In short, whether by intention or as a surprising side effect, Stardew Valley is an example of how creating and nurturing a compassionate community can become an amazing marketing strategy. Building a community is an incredibly potent driver of change in the realm of video games, especially PC games, which fell into a bit of decline in the mid-2000s as a result of console gaming juggernauts, Playstation and Xbox dominating the scene. Thanks to services like Steam and Humble Bundle, indie designers and developers have a change to break through the wall of video game marketing giants and reach a more finely-tuned and supportive audience. The ability for developers to communicate directly with fans and supporters that Steam provides is unparalleled.
And the crowd goes wild
Perhaps the most successful method of using community as a driver of change can be witnessed in crowdsourced independent titles. While Stardew Valley was not financed by Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or other crowdfunding sites, the list of games that have been funded through direct community contribution is enormous. Even larger independent studios like Obsidian Entertainment have taken this route as a way to test out viable new releases. One of their titles, Pillars of Eternity, released by independent Swedish developer, Paradox Interactive, was financed entirely by a Kickstarter campaign. A sequel to Pillars of Eternity was just announced on Fig last Thursday, January 26, 2017. The game was fully financed (a goal of $1,100,000) within 24 hours.
Crowdfunding is appealing to would-be game buyers because many campaigns offer unique in-game prizes that players can’t get otherwise, like having your name/character written into the final game, personalized artwork, and extra exclusive content. This makes the individual donor feel unique and special, and increases the likelihood of paying more than the base cost for a copy of the game. Crowdsourcing campaigns also allow developers to keep in contact with those who funded their projects via email updates featuring developer diaries, release dates, beta testing opportunities, and so on, which deepens and maintains the link between developer and player.
The “overwhelmingly positive” success story of Stardew Valley shows that for independent game developers, community is key. Connecting to fans and supporters in a personal way helps ensure a word-of-mouth marketing strategy that holds authenticity at its core, which is appealing to gamers who feel disenfranchised by larger gaming companies with limited or no customer support.
Personal note: Of course I bought and played Stardew Valley the moment it came out! I heard about it a few weeks before launch and added it to my Steam “Wishlist” immediately. Steam informs me that 75 hours of my life have been spent playing this adorable farming RPG.
11/10 would absolutely lose sleep and my entire social life again.