Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Sony takes the shotgun approach to online gaming community

Sony's down with web community. They think it's a good way to promote the video games they've developed for their PS3. Only one problem: they don't know what "community" is:
  • LittleBigPlanet - While they're "not decided yet" on exactly how to integrate the game into a community website, if any mechanic seems ripe for such a project, rankings and stats for LBP's user-generated content seem like a sure bet.
  • Killzone 2 - There already is a site for Killzone: Liberation, but adding "rankings and statistics" for Killzone 2 is the plan.
  • SOCOM: Confrontation - They plan on launching a community site - think "My SOCOM" - on There's nothing there now, and is taken.
  • Motorstorm: Pacific Rim - The Motorstorm representative wasn't very interested in providing any details, but she told us that they would have a "community website" as well.
  • Resistance 2 - Insomniac has perhaps the most ambitious plans for community content, dedicating an entire development team to the task. They're "overhauling", adding things along the lines of "facebook-like features."

Do you see Sony's overarching strategy for online community there? No? That's because, quite obviously, there is none. The reason these sites sound like the random shots in the dark is because they're treating "community" as a buzzword rather than a product.

I don't want to single Sony out for what is a common problem in the video game industry: they all want community websites, but they haven't actually defined community or how to develop it. Some things are easy, like forums: give people a way to talk to each other, and you have one style of community. And maybe statistical leaderboards will also promote community, on the premise that people will come to see their rankings and stay to brag about it to their online friends (presumably in the forums?). Finally, if you want to be ambitious, try to build some social networking into the site, because that's what Facebook enables and we all know that Facebook rocks (see previous post on the $50 billion valuation). But be prepared for disappointment, because quality web features are not easy to build, and the web designers you're working with probably don't have the skills or experience to do that well.

The bottom line in this market is we can count the number of truly great video game community websites on the fingers of one hand: there's, and then a bunch of sites that wish they were Building another isn't easy, as I'm sure Bungie will tell you; after all, that community has been many years in the making. Even if a developer managed to match's features, there's no guarantee that a passionate, engaged community would form around those features. Projects that require lots of money and time yet have uncertain outcomes are not easy to get approved, least of all in the gaming world where a title that was released six months ago is already yesterday's news. Hence the predictable outcome: Sony's new sites won't amount to much, and no one will really notice because by the time they've failed we'll all be playing different games anyway.

This is a situation that's ripe for improvement. If you build a site without a vision or a strategy, you're not likely to succeed (or know whether you've succeeded once you're done). But how many people truly have that vision? "Community" is an easy word to toss around, but a difficult reality to create.

So, here's my quick prescription for community:

  1. Start with a vision: "People will come to our site -- repeatedly -- because of X." Hash it out, print it out, hang it on the wall where everyone can see it.
  2. Add in features that clearly and explicitly support that vision: "Our site will enable community in the following way." Anything that doesn't support the vision should be left out of the site plan, lest it clutter up your UI with stuff that doesn't contribute to success.
  3. Plan for post-launch analytics: "We expect our community to do the following things, and this is when and how we'll measure those outcomes."
  4. Finally, assume that you won't get it right on the first try; after all, Bungie didn't.