Gather round, children, and I will tell you the tale of Daniel (yes, the Daniel of Black Shell Media!), a game developer on a quest to create one bitchin’ retro rogue-like RPG. I was but a boy when this fabled developer wandered into my small writing subreddit with his call to arms. “Any writer of able pen and sound mind,” he shouted to the onlookers gathered on the front page, “please hear me out! I can offer little in the way of currency, but I am in desperate need of your skills.” Together, we can forge a niche game that will bring joy to the people of the Internet!” Suffice it to say, I heeded that call.
The Full Frontal Disclosure
A few years ago, Daniel really did reach out to the people of /r/writersgroup asking for volunteer writers, and of the many who took him up on his request, I was one of the few who stuck around the longest. I ended up in the Lead Writer position and contributed my own brand of childish puns and dad jokes to the game. I also had the responsibility of herding the cats that are volunteer writers into turning in their projects on time. I could talk for ages about my experience as a writer on the team, but that’s a blog post for another time. What I want to talk about, specifically, is my experience interacting with the SanctuaryRPG Reddit community and how I feel the friendly exchange between developer and player contributed to the transformation of a volunteer-based ASCII game to a surprising development success story.
Roses Are Orange-red, Downvotes Are Blue
Well ok, downvotes are actually periwinkle, but there weren’t many of those around the SanctuaryRPG subreddit. Due to the randomization in the game, from backstories to weapon drops, the community had a lot of fun sharing the surprising combinations and hopping on the potato bandwagon of inside jokes. Indie games were picking up some serious steam at the time and one of the main draws for players, aside from indie devs’ ability to create niche games, was their interaction with the community and openness for player input. SanctuaryRPG (SRPG) was no exception, with everyone from QA testers and writers to composers (I say this as if SRPG needed any composer other than the amazingly talented Rafael Langoni Smith) and even Daniel himself contributing content and adding to the discussion within the community. In many instances, when players experienced game-breaking bugs that borked their characters, Daniel would take it upon himself to request the save file so he could personally fix it for the player.
Spit Shine and Elbow Grease
The approach the writing team took to the game was that we would brute force content. With a little elbow grease, we wrote hundreds of lines of dialog and backstory options, knowing full well that a single player would probably not experience them all. This kind of dedicated attention seemed to me to be the culture that Daniel and the other staff exuded. The culture wasn’t so much stressed as it was simply an atmosphere of excitement that energized everyone to share that excitement. Since SRPG was originally a free “donate if you want to” game, players strapped for cash would post about their love for the game and ask how they could contribute. The staff would chime in and the message would always be: “Share this game with your friends! Tell the world!”
The Climax: Black Edition
At around the time the community hit critical mass, SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition was released thanks to the Steam Greenlight process. While I was not an active part of the Black Edition team, tons of writing, music, balancing, monsters, quests, and content were added. The original SRPG stayed free, but for under ten bucks, players could have a wonderfully polished version of the game that took the gameplay to new heights. Along with a huge and successful push by the marketing team, the community did its part to spread the word about this awesome new Steam game. That culture of excitement encouraged players to tell their friends about SRPG. In many cases, key giveaways, reviews, and social media brought in new players to the excitement.
Two things: Enthusiasm is as contagious as laughter; and many people love being a part of something. Indie devs and startups have the unique opportunity—and dare I say responsibility—to put the happiness of their players above the interests of stockholders. It’s by an indie dev’s very nature of being small and often unfunded that word of mouth plays an incredibly important role in the final product. I think in the most successful of cases, word of mouth is treated as a way to share excitement rather than a marketing term to generate revenue. Genuine and enthusiastic developers share their love of gaming for the sake of sharing the love, and that authenticity becomes infectious and encourages players to shout from the rooftops, “Have you heard about this awesome game?”
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