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Do developers even want to talk to their customers?

By on June 25, 2009
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I’ve just returned from the GameHorizon Conference, which was very focused on online and self-publishing. (It was a great conference, thanks for asking, and congratulations to Carri and the team).

But it threw up some interesting issues, and these were mostly driven by the behaviour of the delegates. Herb Kim of Think Digital expressed it best when he twittered:

“Gamers way less into Twitter. Only 7 laptops open in the whole audience! It’s like 1999 in here 🙂 #tdc09”

Does this mean that developers are all anti-social programmers who prefer to beaver away in darkened rooms occasionally emerging, blinking and dazzled, to grab a Coke and a slice of pizza?

 I don’t think so, but developers are not, in my experience, a social networking breed. And I think that this has been beaten into them over two decades by overbearing publishers and over-protective PRs. They are not allowed to talk to the press without a minder. They can’t talk about what’s cool, or what their influences are unless it’s been pre-approved by their publisher. Which usually takes a week. In other words, publishers have conspired to keep developers away from the press, away from the limelight and above all away from their consumers.

Developers are changing, though. Paul Farley of Tag Games, Martyn Brown of Team 17 and Mark Morris of Introversion all talked about how important it was to engage with the community via forums, Twitter or Facebook. (I note in passing that all of these developers were focused on interacting with consumers wherever the consumers were already hanging out, whereas the true success of marketing is finding a way to create demand, to create community, to reach out and draw people into your brand’s web.)

The FT today has an article by John Gapper putting Apple’s success squarely on its ability to know when to work with other companies to create something great (like the AppStore) and when to be secretive and protective of his intellectual property. Gapper quotes Karim Lakhani, a Harvard professor who studies corporate networks. who says:

“There is an explosion of knowledge around the world, and companies have to embed themselves within networks to participate in the flow. The walls that used to separate the firm from the outside world have to be brought down”

For a developer, this is even more true than for a consumer technology company. Their product is entertainment and they need to be talking to the consumers of that entertainment. The problem is that for so many developers, being secretive has become embedded in the psyche by 20 years of legal and commercial restrictions.

Can they change quickly enough? Or are traditional developers destined to be sidelined by the new wave of flexible, social-media-savvy developers who will be the ones to reap the rewards of the self-publishing revolution?

– – –

Let me know what you think in the comments.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Kim_Blake

    So do I, for sure – perhaps I should have said 'third party developers' instead.

    Interestingly, Rare became a much more open, or rather visible, studio when Microsoft took them over.

  • Indeed Kim. But when Rare getting its own Twitter account merits a news story (and they owned by the most controlling of corporate), it seems to be that the tide is beginning to turn. So I hope that even more developers find a way of communicating in an honest and open way with their communities.

  • Kim_Blake

    Perhaps we were all paying attention to the presentations instead of twittering 😉

    In general I think developers themselves would be only too happy to be more open – as you mention, it is often related to what publishers will allow. Significantly, the 3 you mention (Paul, Martyn and Mark) are all selling and marketing their own IP.

  • Kim_Blake

    So do I, for sure – perhaps I should have said 'third party developers' instead.

    Interestingly, Rare became a much more open, or rather visible, studio when Microsoft took them over.

  • Indeed Kim. But when Rare getting its own Twitter account merits a news story (and they owned by the most controlling of corporate), it seems to be that the tide is beginning to turn. So I hope that even more developers find a way of communicating in an honest and open way with their communities.

  • Kim_Blake

    Perhaps we were all paying attention to the presentations instead of twittering 😉

    In general I think developers themselves would be only too happy to be more open – as you mention, it is often related to what publishers will allow. Significantly, the 3 you mention (Paul, Martyn and Mark) are all selling and marketing their own IP.

  • We’ve had a brilliant experience interacting with the community directly on Xi – personally,
    I’ve never really had that opportunity before (being sheltered from ‘the public’ by publishers/sales teams) but it’s genuinely invigorating. Admittedly, as an Alternate Reality Game, Xi was inherently more suitable for direct interaction, but I’m totally sold on the idea now and we’re now building Facebook and Twitter communities so we can talk to players of our games directly…

  • I think the industry as a whole is wising up to the possibilities of social networking. I’m a game designer on twitter (@mikebithell if you’re interested :D) and I’ve found it a great way to get feedback from players, and ask questions of the community about what they want to see in future games.

    Check out http://www.gameindustrytweet.com for listings of the many developers already on twitter.