One of the most successful live events I ever attended wasn’t planned or executed by the game studio. A group of players from a particular server got together and realized most of them lived within driving distance of a large city. One of the more enthusiastic people was an older woman – not “one foot in the grave” old, but mid-30s. (I realize that’s the same thing to many new MMO players, but let me tell you, an insane percentage of guild organizers ARE women in their 30s and older, and male or female they are people who are used to herding cats and coming up with last minute activities on rainy days and not being rewarded in any way for herculean efforts and being okay with all of that. But I digress.) She rented a banquet room at a centrally located restaurant, collected money for food and for the hire of a bartender, and finally, called the company that made the game.
Could the studio send over a t-shirt, or maybe a mug?
The studio did one better. They sent me and a coworker with a big box of loot. Yes, I had something to do with that (“please, I want to go, let me go, I found a ticket on Expedia for fifty bucks, pleeeeeeeease”), and yes, my much adored boss had something to do with that (“you don’t have to YELL, for crying out loud”). But it was an enormous benefit to the studio in terms of goodwill and relationship building, at absolutely no cost beyond a hotel room, two discount coach airfares, and a box of shirts and mugs that had been paid for out of a previous year’s budget.
The players did not appear to have measurably less fun than I’ve seen them having at official fan gatherings, sponsored parties, or cons. That’s because this gathering had everything that mattered: food, beverages, central location, a method of identifying each other, a critical mass of people with the same hobby, and no shame.
Official events are basically the same thing with more expensive signage and more devs pulling panel duty.
Whether we’re talking about legendary undertakings like Blizzcon and Sony’s Fan Faire, or the low key Player Luncheons from the Ultima Team that started it all, the differences are entirely relatively minor ones of cost and complexity. If you’ve ever planned an event, you could put one of these together. If you haven’t planned an event, here’s a look at what you need:
The political will to execute the event. Someone in control of the budget needs to believe that there is value in facilitating a celebration of the product. The person who writes the checks needs to believe that the emotional bonds forged at live events directly translate to longer subscriptions, multiple subscriptions, and subscriptions paid for long after the player has ceased logging in just because he wants to keep going to the gatherings. Finally, the purse holder has to be willing to choke up cash to put on an event that will help players see that the company is not a faceless monolith of corporate drones, but a group of passionate, devoted players. Unfortunately, very few companies have done the kind of data gathering to prove that live events have this impact, and even fewer employ people from other industries that have already done this research.
The backing of key developers within the company. The players can put together an awesome gathering without the game studio being involved. They DO put them together, and at considerably less expense to themselves. So why should players go to an official event? Access to developers, and inside information.
While a certain class of MMO player is satisfied with meeting ANYONE who works on the game, that class of player is also vaguely creepy, and will try to corner a developer to get him drunk so she can sleep with him. This is funny to watch, but not necessarily the kind of thing that wins over the guy in charge of next year’s budget.
Most players have social skills, and didn’t pay the fee to meet a newb whose job is wrangling spreadsheets. They want to hear from the people who have the power to make changes. They want to meet leads. The only acceptable substitute for a hands on lead is the guy who was there at the very beginning of the company’s founding, and can tell awesome stories.
But the players don’t want to meet anyone who had to be dragged there at gunpoint. If there aren’t enough high ranking devs who are capable of smiling for two days at the people who make careers in game development possible, then let the players put together their own gatherings.
A dedicated team to produce the event. If the developers don’t have developer tasks to do, something is badly wrong with the company. Someone has to book the room, hire the caterer, order the twelve foot banners, proofread the souvenir program, and run the badge making assembly line.
There also has to be someone who knows what the players are interested in learning, who the big guilds are, and what special topics are currently raging across the community. This is usually called “a community person,” but customer service people are equally well informed. No matter who it is, someone with this knowledge needs to be involved with planning, so player needs will be met and developers won’t be blindsided during the event.
This team can be augmented by developers right before the event –nothing says team building like stuffing two hundred goody bags on an empty stomach with a pitcher of something boozy nearby! – but the event planning team shouldn’t be all devs.
A sound system. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people are going to be attending. A guy with a loud voice is not going to cut it. Also, there needs to be some kind of bell to let people know that events are beginning, food is served, five minute warnings, whatever.
A method to let players find each other. A giant bulletin board will do.
Activities. These are MMO players. Their primary source of entertainment comes from logging into a virtual world and there being Something To Do. People shouldn’t have to do Live Quests, jousting matches, scavenger hunts, costume contests, movie contests, trivia games, puzzles, LAN duels, or roleplay story hours… but if you don’t offer those things, you might as well have saved the cost of the event and stayed home.
I planned a lot of activities in my time, with varying degrees of success. My favorite one was for an early DAOC gathering, and it cost virtually nothing. I thought it would be funny to have a “PVP battle.” We taped out a giant Camelot knot shape in masking tape on the floor. Then about a quarter of the dev team sat around blowing up balloons in the three realm-specific colors of blue, red, and green until we were all dizzy. Then we taped them to the floor.
I don’t remember how we chose the teams, but each “realm” got a pair of players. The object was to defend your own realm’s balloon color, and pop the others.
It was goofy. It was cheap. It was HILARIOUS. The crowd went wild. Total bedlam. The sight of one of the players clutching his realm’s last balloon while the other two realms stomped the rest of his… and then him picking off theirs while they tried to kill him… is burned into my memory.
My point is that it doesn’t need to be expensive if it captures something unique about the game and its players.
Appreciation. The event is to celebrate the game, and the people who play it – not the people who make it.
Sharing. Live webcam feeds. Twitter. Photo blogs. YouTube videos of key moments. We’re internet people: pics or it didn't happen!