In 2016, as the first high-end consumer VR headsets hit the market with Oculus Rift followed by HTC Vive, there was a strong belief that virtual reality would eventually change the way we play games. Fast forward to 2019 and we see that high-end VR headsets on console and PC are getting closer to a total install base of 10 million units worldwide. Exciting new hardware like the untethered, all-in-one Oculus Quest is set to launch this spring, expected to sell 1,3 million units in this year according to Superdata Research. However, VR gaming is still a relatively small market – especially when compared to the flat screen gaming industry where major companies like Electronic Arts can employ 9000 people and spend over $200M in marketing on a single title.
Currently at Fast Travel Games, we have 13 full time employees. When bringing our own debut VR title Apex Construct to market in 2018, we spent less than $50K. This is the reality for many studios in the VR games industry today: we create exciting and immersive titles, but have very little money to spend to get the message out and to convince our target groups to buy them. Combining this with a decreasing interest among gaming media outlets as the novelty of VR has worn off somewhat since 2016, the situation requires us to establish a different kind of approach.
This is where Community Management can play a crucial role for any VR games marketer like myself. By turning focus away from traditional advertising, with its hunt for clicks & conversion, we can instead steer our efforts towards the actual people in the VR games industry and leverage them to help our products sell and our studio reputation grow. Here, I’ll cover 3 key areas within Community Management for VR games that have potential to make real differences for your business.
Content Creators: Leveraging the Established Voices
One of the many struggles the VR games industry faces is the lack of interest from general gaming media. Gamespot, one of the oldest and most popular websites for games, had only reviewed a total of 39 VR games in December 2018 and have no dedicated VR games category on their site. And while there are VR specialist media outlets like UploadVR and VRFocus (with each site currently listing over 300 game reviews), their reach is relatively small and they also cover the whole spectrum of VR, not just games.
A Different way to Market
With Fast Travel Games being an unknown studio for the majority of gamers, when we brought new IP Apex Construct to market, our own studio voice had little weight and value at the time. This led us to define another opportunity in utilising the growing amount of VR specific content creators. These content creators are passionate people who live and breathe virtual reality, and who also dedicate videos to talking about the VR industry on their channels, primarily on YouTube. The most well-known VR content creator is Nathie, with his 450K followers on YouTube, but we found that there were hundreds of additional channels where VR games were being played and where developers were being interviewed.
If we compare this to the flat screen gaming industry, in which working with content creators can often be a costly business, the VR counterparts are still relatively up & coming, primarily looking for engaging content to grow their channels and excite their audiences. These audiences mostly consist of early adopters of VR games, many of whom are strong community voices themselves, actively engaging in forums and discussions online. By capturing their interest through the trusted voices of VR content creators, we saw a chance for nice ripple effects with potential for great additional reach.
The Success we Saw with Apex Construct:
As the major beat in our Apex Construct campaign, we decided to invite 10 of the most prominent VR content creators to Stockholm for a game preview event and a Meet & Greet with the studio team. While this initiative required more than half of our marketing budget, the outcome has been tremendous for us: short term, we achieved a lifetime view count of 800K on YouTube which is a far higher count than the actual launch trailer of the game.
Long term, we have established highly valuable long-term relationships that we hope to utilize for coming games as well. We have also seen over 200 videos of Apex Construct published on YouTube by other VR content creators – through careful selection, we made sure to provide these with codes for review, prizes to run contests with and found interview opportunities to jump on. This approach made us much less dependent on traditional gaming media and promotions in first party channels like Steam, Oculus Experiences and the PlayStation Store.
Trust Goes A Long Way
I have been in the games industry long enough to remember the old days of a “fire & forget” game release: you placed all bets on a massive launch, then you moved on to another project. This has obviously changed over the last few years, with the launch of a title having a diminished impact as many games now receive new content, fixes and features post launch.
Our studio has also applied this strategy, updating Apex Construct 5 times over the last 10 months. Almost all of these updates were made thanks to the feedback we received from the communities in places like Reddit, Facebook and dedicated forums. Engaging and responding to your community however, is often a question of balance. Let’s look to the PSVR subreddit, which has close to 100k subscribers, as a useful platform that must be navigated with a level of tact and a tone of transparency and sincerity. Understandably, some might see the subreddit as a “free ad platform” for self promotion but that approach not only risks getting you banned from the channel, but also fails to establish trust among the community members, trust you might never be able to regain.
Entering the channel with transparency about who you are is absolutely critical. If you have valuable updates on your game that the members should be informed of, feel free to go ahead and present them, but always make sure you are actively listening, answering questions and addressing concerns. Also, stay away from using a traditional “marketing tone”. In my experience, working in the VR games industry since 2017, core VR gamers highly appreciate the presence of an honest, transparent developer – even more so than in the big industry of flat screen blockbuster games.
Community Engagement Steers Future Plans
On that note, running AMA’s (“Ask Me Anything”) on Reddit is often a great tactic to establish this presence while collecting some valuable insights. As an example, we conducted an AMA in the Oculus subreddit following our launch, where we included a game code giveaway concept to fuel engagement. By doing this, we learned more about the preferences and expectations from core VR gamers. With this AMA taking place after Apex Construct was released, we used many of these insights to craft a plan for the long term support of the game in order to ensure engagement continued to thrive.
In creating a sense of activity and urgency around the product, it has a chance to surface even when it ultimately drops into the catalogue segment of the first party stores. Compared again to the flat screen gaming industry, where you often have a publisher continuously working on promoting your title through retail and in different marketing initiatives, if done correctly community management for a VR games studio can help achieve the same objectives at no cost – other than your precious time and focus of course!
Invaluable Insights To Make Better Games
In terms of game development, actively engaging in VR communities can also be of great help in the development stages of your game. Due to the fact that the VR games industry is still in a nascent and ever-evolving state, many studios have only released one game so far – some studios have released projects on multiple platforms simultaneously, like Fast Travel Games with Apex Construct. This is a major challenge, as the many headsets and their peripherals are entirely different in terms of layout. Also, while a console, flat screen first-person shooter has had virtually the same standardised controller layout for many years, the player preferences for how to move around and interact with things in a VR game vary massively from game to game.
How Community Engagement Influenced Game-Design for Apex Construct
Apex Construct was initially built for Teleportation-based movement only, as a way to mitigate the risk of players feeling nausea. After reaching out to the communities and gathering insights, we made a decision to also include what is called “Free Locomotion”, where the player can use the controller to move around freely in the game. A few months following the launch, a look at our data showed a clear support of that decision: 52% of the Apex Construct players used Teleportation when moving, compared to 48% using Free Locomotion. Without gathering these insights, our game would have risked being launched with a controller method that only half of the players enjoyed using.
The lack of standardisation in VR games goes even deeper though. Some players prefer HMD-driven Free Locomotion, some need a “Vignette” turned on when moving, some can only handle turning in 45 degree steps and so on. Even in the development stages, understanding the many different & ever-changing preferences of a VR gamer is a critical to make sure as many people as possible can play your game when launched.
Community Management can be the Solution to Budgetary Constraints:
In summary, with many VR games studios having little or no marketing budget, struggling with the lack of interest from general gaming media while also being heavily dependent on promotions through first party platforms, community management can be the solution to help achieve similar objectives. Being active, transparent, honest & responsive in VR communities is a cost-free way to gather invaluable insights for development, to make sure your studio reputation is well-respected, and the additional benefit is that your game is actively talked about and the community can work as a great foundation to build upon for when you are ready to release your next title.