The Art of LiveOps

Marketing Is Not a Dirty Word w/ Nick Clifford: The Art of LiveOps S2E12

October 29, 2020 James Gwertzman and Crystin Cox
The Art of LiveOps
Marketing Is Not a Dirty Word w/ Nick Clifford: The Art of LiveOps S2E12
Chapters
The Art of LiveOps
Marketing Is Not a Dirty Word w/ Nick Clifford: The Art of LiveOps S2E12
Oct 29, 2020
James Gwertzman and Crystin Cox

What do you think of when you hear the word marketing? If it isn’t excellent storytelling and bringing communities together through trust and transparency, you may want to give today’s episode a listen. Nick Clifford (@SuidmoX), Marketing Director for Phoenix Labs, will transform your thinking around what good games marketing is, what it isn’t, and how to make it work for your studio.

Support the show (http://microsoftgamestack.com)

Show Notes Transcript

What do you think of when you hear the word marketing? If it isn’t excellent storytelling and bringing communities together through trust and transparency, you may want to give today’s episode a listen. Nick Clifford (@SuidmoX), Marketing Director for Phoenix Labs, will transform your thinking around what good games marketing is, what it isn’t, and how to make it work for your studio.

Support the show (http://microsoftgamestack.com)

James Gwertzman (00:05):

Hello, I'm James Gwertzman.

Crystin Cox (00:06):

I'm Crystin Cox. Welcome to The Art of LiveOps Podcast.

James Gwertzman (00:15):

Hi, Crystin.

Crystin Cox (00:16):

Hey, James. So, today we're going to be talking to Nick Clifford.

Nick Clifford (00:20):

My name is Nick Clifford, I am the Director of Marketing at Phoenix Labs. And I've been at the company for almost five years now. Phoenix Labs is a video game developer, originally started in Vancouver, British Columbia, a little over six years ago, I think. And we've been developing our debut game, Dauntless, for the bulk of that time. It's an online, free-to-play, co-op action RPG, and we've got offices in British Columbia, Seattle, Washington, San Mateo, California. And then a handful of folks, myself included, are distributed Los Angeles, Portland, Toronto, couple other places as well.

James Gwertzman (00:55):

Right, right. They're a startup, but they've been around for a while now. So, I guess not really a startup anymore.

Crystin Cox (01:01):

Yeah, I mean, I think the studio's been there for six years, and Dauntless has actually been live for about a year. And it seems to be really awesome. I talked to Nick about the experience as a marketer of taking a game from alpha testing, they were in a long beta, and then all the way to live. And then running the game.

James Gwertzman (01:18):

Well, that's great because we haven't done much with marketing and community, and sort of the more people side of LiveOps. And that's important, that's a critical part of a successful operation. We talk a lot about games are becoming communities, and so it's going to be great to have someone who actually is directly responsible for building that community. That's going to be great.

Crystin Cox (01:39):

Yeah, let's get to it.

James Gwertzman (01:46):

And I actually know Phoenix really well, because Phoenix Labs was actually using PlayFab early on, when it first got started, for at least the first year or two of the development of Dauntless. So, I've been following you guys pretty closely for the whole time. So, it's great to see that you are now live, and you're out in the world, and its been super exciting to watch your team grow.

Nick Clifford (02:05):

Awesome, thank you. Yeah.

Crystin Cox (02:07):

Yeah, so Dauntless is live. And we were talking about this before we got started, but we've had a lot of people on who come from a design background, or an engineering background, or even a business background. What we haven't had is many people to come talk about marketing and community. So, can you just talk a little bit about what its been like for you, specifically, as Dauntless has gone out into the world?

Nick Clifford (02:34):

Yeah, absolutely. So, I've been in the games industry for over a decade now, and bulk of it was in marketing and publishing related efforts. And really, for me, marketing is all about building a connection with players. I know often people probably conjure these images of suits in a board room conniving to take people's money, and certainly there is an air of that in our industry. But for me, it's all about storytelling, and it's about finding like-minded folks, bringing everyone together. Community's obviously a huge part of that. And with Dauntless, and really with Phoenix Labs, before we knew what our debut title was going to be, we knew it was going to be an online game about bringing players together. Long before the genre, or even really the art style, we were like, "Okay, we want to build an online community of like-minded folks." So yeah, the marketing component of that is we obviously have a very talented development team who's very focused on building the game.

Nick Clifford (03:42):

And we also have a very talented marketing team of about 10 folks or so, internally. I joke around, I like to say we handle everything outside of Perforce. So, once everything gets checked in and compiled, and we have a build, and we submit it for release, that's when the marketing team really gets set in motion. And we handle making sure that existing players, and hopefully new players find out about the update. They get cool artwork, cool trailers, we're on Reddit, we're on Discord, we're on social, we love talking with our community as well. And we just do our best to get our story out there, really.

James Gwertzman (04:21):

Well, this is going to be fun, because I've got so many questions about community. And I guess the way I think of a community was really set by a comment that Mark Zuckerberg, of all people, said, I don't know, maybe 15 years ago, 10 years ago at some industry event I was at where some executive from Fox, or some TV station got up and said, "How do we create a community? We want to create a community." Or, "How do we get them to use our community site?" And he said, "Basically, you don't get it. You can't. You can't make someone be a community on your thing. The best you can do is find someone with an existing community and sort of tap into them, or get them to use your tools." And so, I guess it's sort of interesting [inaudible 00:04:58] how deliberate can you be to make a community versus do communities form by themselves, and then how do you embrace them and bring them onto your tools?

Nick Clifford (05:09):

Yeah, that's a awesome question, actually. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about a concept of tribes. Which I'm sure is a buzzword many of us have heard before. Seth Godin did a lot of really good theory crafting and thought-work around it couple years back. And I think there definitely is a degree of establishing new communities within existing ones. As we were developing Dauntless, we were thinking about who is this game for? And we specifically would design and develop features around that specific player. And very early on, a lot of folks drew comparisons to games like Monster Hunter to us, and what we found early on was yes, there was a lot of Monster Hunter players within our community. One thing we didn't expect early on was kind of the more broader, free-to-play community showing up as well.

Nick Clifford (06:04):

So, games like War Frame, games like Path of Exile, really games that share very little in common with Dauntless from the outside looking in. I mean, War Frame is third-person shooter, sci-fi, where you're a ninja flying around on wires, cutting everyone to ribbons. And Dauntless is a very high-fidelity, strategic, split-second dodges, very calculated combat experience set in the science fantasy world. And what that indicated to us was that genre, even art style really was important, but was not as important as having a free-to-play accessible experience that you can play with your friends. So, as Dauntless matured, I mean, we're now ... We've been out on console for over a year, and prior to that we've been ... We had a PC beta period for several years. As the product has matured, what we found is more and more players from free-to-play communities join us, more and more players are latching on to our cross-play offering, which is super cool as well.

Nick Clifford (07:10):

At the time we did it, there wasn't really a whole lot of games offering it, which that was a huge game changer for us because no longer were communities isolated. We were able to break down the walls between them, and unify much, much larger communities together. And I think what we found, to kind of bring it full circle, I think what we found was we did bring in a lot of existing communities into our fold, and I think Dauntless helped open the door for a lot of players who maybe not necessarily thought they would enjoy the type of high-fidelity, strategic combat experience because it was offered free-to-play, because it was offered cross-platform. Accessibility's super sacred to us because we want as many people as possible to be able to experience Dauntless. Yeah.

Crystin Cox (08:02):

Yeah. So, you're talking a lot about that experience of starting a brand new thing. Dauntless is a new IP, it's the first game from Phoenix Labs, what was it like to scale that? Because now Dauntless has, I don't know, something like 20 million players or something, right?

Nick Clifford (08:21):

Yep.

Crystin Cox (08:21):

There's a lot of players in there. What was that experience like going from ... Starting from the absolute seeds to big community?

Nick Clifford (08:30):

It is honestly one of the most professionally gratifying things I think I've ever worked on. Also terrifying.

James Gwertzman (08:37):

That's fantastic.

Nick Clifford (08:38):

Yeah. I mean, it's awesome. We were super fortunate early on in that we were able to really execute against the vision that we had for Dauntless. And really early on it was super important to us to get the game into the hands of players, really as early as we were comfortable with. So, I think we announced Dauntless back in 2016 at The Game Awards, which was also very exciting. And then by January, a month later we were at PAX South with a demo getting feedback from players. Three months after that, we had a closed technical alpha that we were inviting people to. And for us, rather than building a momentous launch moment where we try to move as many copies of the game through a channel, we've just continued to iterate. And with each patch, with each iteration we expand what Dauntless is, and ideally hopefully the market for it.

Nick Clifford (09:45):

So, we often joke, but Dauntless has been a live product for almost ... Since its inception. As soon as we had it compiling on a local machine, we started it compiling on a server so that we could play it from home, so that over holiday break we could invite friends and family to play-test it. And even in the technical alpha, we wanted players to play it as well and give us that feedback. So, there have definitely been those moments where we launched our beta, and then at that point we no longer could control access to the game, people could just sign up, buy a founders pack and play. That taught us a lot about scaling hardware, and a lot of our services very, very quickly. And then again, when we went into PC open beta, and the game was widely open. Again, it was another big learning moment because that ...

Nick Clifford (10:36):

The factor of growth was just so large, and there were a lot of long nights and frazzled weekends trying to figure out, okay ... Somehow we didn't think we needed a queue system for our game. We were just going to let everybody in as they logged in. And very, very quickly we realized oh man, we have too many people hitting our login service. We need to build a login queue, and we got that out within hours of launching. And it's moments like that, that are terrifying but at the same time it's like that's when we're at our best because we're learning in real time. And they're some of my fondest memories of working on the game.

Crystin Cox (11:15):

I'd love to dig in a little bit, too, around ... I feel like your kind of relationship with the development team, because I feel like markets, and community people are used to being out there in front of players and having pretty raw feedback. Developers are not always, sometimes they are if they've been really involved in LiveOps games, but I would love to hear about what its been like bridging that gap, and helping your developers get more comfortable. Because Dauntless is quite out there. I mean, I don't know if people know this, but you have a public bug database, you can see what your guys are working on at all times. So, it's very exposed.

Nick Clifford (11:58):

Yeah. I mean, you called it out wonderfully. We're super transparent, at least we aspire to be. And I was just talking to a member of the team this morning that basically as soon as a feature feels good internally, and we have high confidence that it's going to arrive in the live product, we want to get it out there. We want to get it on the roadmap, we want to get videos out there, we want to bet player feedback early. And kind of similarly, if we do have known issues with the build that we're actively working on, we want to call that out, too. And we do that because we want to foster trust. That's sacred to us. And we want to be honest and open with the community. And I think to your question around marketing, and development, and community, and how we unite that tri-force, there's really ...

Nick Clifford (12:53):

I'll be honest, there's no real secret sauce to it. Its taken a lot of work internally, we're super fortunate that we've had several amazing community people at the studio, and its been a lot of lunch-and-learns, its been a lot of riding shotgun at someone's desk. It's a lot of sentiment tracking, there isn't this panacea that just gets you community trust. And our community team works hard, harder than I think any community team I've ever worked with. Certainly maybe in the industry. And they're super proactive. We get it. On the marketing team and the community team, we get it. Folks are busy trying to develop features and get them into the game, and get them bug free, they may not default to hanging out on Discord, or hanging out on Reddit all the time. And that's totally okay.

Nick Clifford (13:44):

And we get out there for them, we try to find threads that are good feedback, good discussions, we host AMAs all the time. We try to provide training and guidance, and documentation to help folks along on their journey. Because again, we don't want it to be just the marketing team that's out there. And that also crosses over into live events as well. So, every PAX we've gone to, I think we've done eight or nine now, E3s, we've gone to a couple. We try to bring as many different disciplines with us as we can, so art, animation, design, couple marketing folks, PR folks as well, and different folks every time so that everyone can get exposure to the community. Because it is super invigorating to get face time, and to hear how people receive your work.

James Gwertzman (14:33):

I've got two questions related to that. So, one of them is you mentioned is now capturing videos, and putting videos out there for things that are in development. I think creating content, involving your development team is a really important part of that. I guess, do you ever get pushback from your development team, like, "Hey, I'm trying to get this feature out there, I don't have time to sit down and do a video with you"? How do you build that internal culture of sharing where engineers are comfortable doing video ... Webcam sessions, or putting themselves out there? To be really blunt, I think a lot of people go in engineering often because they don't necessarily want to be out there involving [inaudible 00:15:09]

Nick Clifford (15:09):

Yeah, totally. [crosstalk 00:15:10] And there's been a lot of push and pull with the public-facing roadmap. I'll admit I've shared stuff too early on the public-facing roadmap with our community, and I think it all starts with having a real conversation with folks. And again, as a publishing person I am always going to want to share content that excites me personally. Every two weeks we have a studio review, we've done it since the inception of the company, we're going six years strong on it now. And it's a chance for us to share our content with each other, because now we're over 120, I think almost 130 folks now. And oftentimes, when we have a team that big work gets siloed. And that's totally okay. Review is a time for us to break down that silo and share it widely with the studio.

Nick Clifford (16:03):

And that's an awesome time for the marketing team to see content that's in development, visual results of it and go like, "Oh, man. Let's get that concept art out on our Instagram page. Let's get that on the public-facing ... Oh man, we have to do a Reddit AMA on this new design system that we're working on." And it is a delicate balance, because ... I'll just call myself out on this one. We've shared content on the roadmap way ahead of schedule, and set expectations with the community that it might be coming soon, when in reality internally we're like, "Oh man, this feature isn't shipping for another six months to a year, maybe. Even if that." And it's just about having conversations, and we update our roadmap about every two weeks, or so. And then we try to keep it rich with content videos, concept art. And really, every item on there is a conversation with a developer who owns it.

Nick Clifford (17:00):

And we get a good read of their confidence interval, and their sensitivities to sharing this piece of content. But yeah, I mean, I have definitely had several conversations around we only want to share stuff when it's done, and polished, and looks at its best. And I totally hear that. And I love that we want to put our best foot forward. And sometimes we have to share stuff early to get that feedback to find out if it's going to be a feature that the community wants. And I think for us, a lot of us come from a live service background at the studio, and we're a bit customed to that. Several of us also come from Triple-A studios, like BioWare, and Blizzard. And Capcom. And oftentimes, again, that's very much you create this big moment in time to ship a big polished product, and then get it out there and kind of move on to the next one.

Nick Clifford (17:55):

And its been a big cultural movement for us to get into this iterative cycle of share the concept art, get on Reddit, get feedback, use that to improve your own understanding of this design, get the V1 of it out there, check to see if there's any bugs, and then iterate ... Don't forget your feature. You ship this feature, and you own its quality on live, and if you get feedback on where it can go in the future. And we've been super fortunate in that I would say pretty much everyone in the studio's really receptive to that.

James Gwertzman (18:27):

Two related questions to that. Pixar is actually really out there in terms of this notion of getting ... Encouraging others to share their work very early, because it's not a natural motion. People do want to "sit on it until it's done." And the critical nature of getting that feedback early. What's interesting is that Pixar, when they talk about it, they talk about getting that feedback from internally, it seems like dailies. And you're talking about getting it out there to the community, where the community is actually part of almost the design team with you, whether getting early feedback and both as gathering, creating buzz and excitement, but also presumably because you are able to get that input. How do you think about getting that voice of the player back into the design team?

James Gwertzman (19:06):

Do you put it out there and encourage your design team to sit and look at the Reddit posts, or the Discord posts? Or do you curate that and try to represent it, and say, "Hey, here's what we're hearing from our community"?

Nick Clifford (19:18):

Yeah, it's a little bit of both. And honestly it's really subject to the comfort level of the individual. We don't have a hard and fast rule that to work at Phoenix Labs you must post on Reddit. Because we embrace that some folks just aren't comfortable with that kind of communication medium. So, we institute a handful of tactics here. A lot of our design team, a lot of our art team, engineering, animation, all the disciplines, I would say there's at least one, if not several individuals on those teams who are pretty active within the community. And our community team also pulls together a weekly report that we share with the studio. And we also, we have several Slack channels dedicated to feedback, both internal and external as well. So, if you're the individual who's craving raw, unfiltered feedback from players, our community team can ride shotgun with you on Reddit, or doesn't have to if you feel comfortable doing it on your own.

Nick Clifford (20:21):

We also distill basically the weekly digest. We have a list of top issues that we review every morning as a leadership team as well. So, it's kind of a handful of tools that we roll out, and really it's all curated based on the individual's comfort level, and what works best for them.

James Gwertzman (20:38):

So, two more questions that are related to that, which is ... One is how do you avoid loud voices dominating the conversation? So, when you're getting that feedback, I think all communities have this problem where a couple people emerge early and they're very loud. And they're not always representative of the rest of the community. And so, I'm very curious as to how do you address that? And then a related issue is it used to be every game had their own forums, and that's where all the feedback was happening. But nowadays it seems that you've been mentioning Reddit, Discord, I haven't heard you mention your own forums. Do you have your own forums, or do you in fact rely entirely on these third-party forums? And if you do have multiple forums like Discord and Reddit, how do you ... Do you worry about fractured communities? Are there different communities on Reddit and Discord, for example? Or do you see people share it on both? Is one better for certain types of feedback than others?

Nick Clifford (21:27):

Yeah. So, I'll hop on the second question first because I think it sets up the former. So, we did have our own forums for quite some time. We eventually decided to sunset them, couple of reasons. First one being largely technical. We made a pretty big change to our website and to how login worked, a little over a year ago. And it fundamentally just broke our forums. Which introduced the question okay, do you we want to rebuild them? Is the community using them? Let's ask the community. And what we found was our own first-party ... Or, sorry. Our own owned forums were largely redundant with several other platforms that we already had. And we were asking players to come to us instead of going to where players naturally hang out.

Nick Clifford (22:14):

So, you are right, we are on several different platforms. And for us it's less about trying to be everywhere, for example, and more let's find out where Dauntless players hang out the most and let's go to them. So, that's why we're on Reddit, that's why we're on Discord, Twitter, Facebook, handful of other channels. It's because our players hang out there and prefer those platforms. So, we have a pretty strong stance of going to our players as opposed to expecting them to come to us. So, the first question about voices within the community, yes, absolutely. Any community's going to have its leaders, its advocates, loud voices, absolutely.

Nick Clifford (23:01):

I mean, the other thing to recognize too is if someone is posting on your sub-Reddit about a thing, chances are they care enough to post about it, whether it's positive or negative feedback. If they are posting about something, they really, really care about it, and that's worth listening to. And I think we certainly have a lot of voices within our community, and I think, again, our community team does a really good job of curating that feedback. But also very, very early on we set, what I think, we set some pretty good foundations and groundwork. And that was up to our community manager at the time, [Ian 00:23:42], who's now one of our producers at the studio.

Nick Clifford (23:46):

Just did a phenomenal job establishing expectations within the community, saying, "Hey, this is Dauntless, and this is what the Dauntless community is. It's open, it's honest, it's transparent, it's respectful. If you are toxic, if you are ... If you discriminate, if you're a bully we don't tolerate that behavior at all and we would be happy to remove you from the community. This is a safe space." And I think that built a lot of cultural alignment very, very early on with our community, and as a result those folks radiate that back out to new folks who come into our community. And that's not to say we don't have the occasional bad egg come through. But it's all about diligence and making sure that we don't allow that to kind of fester.

Crystin Cox (24:34):

Yeah. I mean, I'd love to sort of look at the flip side of that as well, because I spent a lot of time working with developers who really struggle with seeing a lot of the feedback that comes from players. A lot of teams I work with now struggle with coming from a Triple-A background where they're like, "I don't want anyone to see it till it's perfect, and then I'm really nervous. If they're upset then it's a disaster." But even when I was working at MMOs, I would have teammates who really struggled to see the passionate response from players. I guess, do you have any advice for how to deal with that? Or what developers can do to help get into a positive rhythm with ... Between themselves and their community.

Nick Clifford (25:26):

Yeah, it is certainly challenging. I'm sure we've all been exposed to the internet at some point, and it's ... Honestly, it takes a fair degree of grit. And it takes a fair degree of self confidence, to put yourself and to put your work out there. And I think there's a lot of more tactical level things that we try to do, like give yourself 10 minutes, 15 minutes a day on Reddit. Don't sit on it all day, same with Discord. Pop in, say hi, introduce yourself, ask a question or two. But by all means moderate your own ... Again, your own comfort zone. And if you feel yourself kind of getting pulled in a toxic direction, or in a negative attitude, just listen to your body and listen to yourself. It can be daunting, it can be overwhelming, especially when you see the sheer volume that can come through it sometimes.

Nick Clifford (26:32):

Something that I have found helps a ton is setting expectation on the type of feedback you're after. So, rather than just posting a concept art piece, or maybe a work-in-progress video and saying, "Here's the latest," say, "Hey, we're starting ..." I'll use Dauntless as an example. "We're starting concept art for our next new Behemoth. It's currently in the sculpting phase, we haven't done textures or a high-res version of it. But it's meant to evoke this feeling of mystery, and old world terror, and the space between. Do you feel that?" That way you set expectations there as opposed to getting feedback like, "Well, I don't like the colors of it." And it's like, "Okay, well I haven't even done an artwork pass on it." And then you're talking about well, why haven't you done artwork yet? Isn't this thing supposed to come out in two months? Just really, again, really, really trying to align on the expectations of the conversation and starting with why I think helps guide the conversation.

Crystin Cox (27:41):

Yeah, I think that's great advice. I mean, I used to tell my team when I was working with the monetization designers, one of the services we provide as a game is a safe thing to be angry about.

Nick Clifford (27:52):

Right. Yeah.

Crystin Cox (27:53):

And so, that can be nice to set an expectation that sometimes players are going to be angry. That doesn't necessarily always mean that they're angry at you, or that you are bad. But one of the reasons I found myself giving that advice so much is I was ... We had a monetization team, and they really lived in a space where the work they did was never going to ever get any praise. The only opportunity was for there to be negative feedback. And it's just the reality of the kind of work they were doing. Is that something that you guys deal with? Do you try to protect your developers from that and put a shield in front of them? Or do you have processes?

Nick Clifford (28:32):

I don't think we necessarily shield, or block the feedback process in any way. Something you say really resonates with me, which is evaluate the work not the individual. And that's something that we say even internally. When we're evaluating each other's work, we really try to keep it focused on the work that's being done as opposed to the person doing it. And yeah, sometimes it can hurt hearing that something you've worked on is not meeting expectations. But again, we constantly come back to judge the work, not the individual. And I think we try to, again, convey that through the community as well. We do have a truly awesome volunteer moderation team within our community who helps moderate our Discord, and who helps moderate our Reddit. And they do take care of any posts that are just outright negative, or abusive, or anything like that.

Nick Clifford (29:39):

Because again, we do try to keep it to be a relatively healthy community.

Crystin Cox (29:46):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

James Gwertzman (29:48):

One thing I heard some of my friends who have large community teams have to deal with sometimes is their own community team members become sort of rockstar status within the community. So, they have some employees who become put on a pedestal by the community, and to be really blunt sometimes it goes to their heads. And sometimes you have community members who suddenly have this following, and everything they say gets a lot of feedback and praise, and it ... That power corrupts. Sometimes that starts changing a little bit how they engage, and it can be a problem. In fact, I've had people who said they've had to let people go because they were hijacking the community for their own egos. And I guess I wonder do you encourage your community members ... And so, one way to deal with that is to not let the identities of your members get out there.

James Gwertzman (30:37):

They're always speaking with a sort of anonymous voice on behalf of the company, which doesn't seem like a great solution either, because then you don't actually allow your own personalities to shine through. Because I'm just very curious to hear your thoughts on that topic.

Nick Clifford (30:51):

Yeah. It's something that we've talked about a lot on the marketing team, which is personal brand versus corporate brand. And everyone on the publishing team, we all have experience either on Twitter, or streaming on Twitch, and we all ... We've aligned, I mean, very early on in the interview stages with each person who joins the team that it's not about your own brand. And in reality, if you do have a personal brand coming into this it's probably going to be sacrificed on the altar to the corporate brand. And that's not to say we can't be individuals. I mean, the whole reason why I wrote the article for Games Industry a couple weeks back is I wanted to get marketing back in front of people, and not in a dirty way.

Nick Clifford (31:42):

Marketing should not be a dirty word, community should be celebrated, marketing should be celebrated. And that was something I struck out and did on my own. And similarly we've got individuals on the team who have their own, I'd say brands, or identities within our community. But at the same time, we have a very hard rule that you can not, can not use the corporate brand to elevate yourself. Yes, you represent Phoenix Labs, yes, you represent Dauntless, but you can never use the ... And we have not done this, but you can never use the Phoenix Labs Twitch channel to redirect to your own personal one when you're streaming later at night. We completely don't do any of that. And again, I think it's about starting with why, and aligning philosophically with folks about that.

Crystin Cox (32:38):

You've talked a couple time about setting this expectation inside of your community, and shaping your community. And I'm also a big believer in I think developers have a lot more control than they think they do over creating cultural norms, and setting expectations in their community. And it seems like you're indicating you guys have had some success with that. You're pretty happy with the tone of the community, you're able to keep those norms in place even as you've grown. Do you have advice for developers who are starting out on how they can really take an active role in shaping their community

Nick Clifford (33:08):

Yeah. I know I mentioned it earlier, but I think just setting the groundwork early ... I mean, we obviously did a lot of work around reserving our social handles early. Basically as soon as we knew the name of the game was Dauntless, I went out and signed up play Dauntless on every channel under the sun. But then after that, start thinking about what type of community you want to have. And call that out. Say, "This is the game that the team is working on, we're introducing ourselves and this is the type of feedback and the type of community we'd love to build together." And I think the other thing too, is ... So, Jesse, Shaun, and Robin, the three co-founders of Phoenix brought me in very early on into the studio, as the first marketing person. And the first hire I made after that was a community person. And this was still all pre-announce, even.

Nick Clifford (34:11):

And I think as a new developer, a new studio, don't wait for your game to ship to start thinking about community. Community's something you should be thinking about in the runway leading up to your launch, and even really before you announce the game. So, I'd say that is probably the most important hire you can make on the marketing team. And take time to find the right person, too. Because remember, the community person is going to be a beacon and a window, and a mirror from your studio to the community. So, you want to make sure that you find someone who really aligns with your beliefs, your communication style, and who is aligned with your goals as well.

Crystin Cox (34:50):

That makes me think, just quickly, because it just makes me think you're talking about a lot of stuff that happens outside of the game. When I was at ArenaNet we had this really strong belief that the game design actually has a deep impact on the community. And the way that players interact with each other. I'm just curious to hear, especially saying hiring a community manager so early I have to imagine their input was there for a lot of the game design, even early concepting. And just generally your thoughts on that concept, that the way the game is actually structured, and the way that you implicitly encourage players to interact is going to affect your community's shape.

Nick Clifford (35:31):

Yeah. Absolutely. And I think the type of game, too, has a huge impact on that. One of the things we found very early on was because we were making a rather challenging, yet co-op game, it created this sense of banding together within the community. Quite literally folks had to go on Reddit to find other folks to play with in the early days. What that also created though was this sense of a welcoming, fostering sense within the community. Lots of new player tutorials, lots of new player guides, videos, like, "Hey, new to Dauntless. Check this out." Lots of players offer, like endgame players offering to come back and play with new players. And there was some really cool parallels that we saw between that and the Dark Souls community, which is another, I'm sure you know, very challenging game, more challenging than Dauntless by a lot. But that game has fostered this real collaborative effort within the community to overcome a lot of those challenges.

Nick Clifford (36:37):

So, yeah. I think just the nature of the game we have built. There's no PvP today, so players aren't challenging each other, which creates this own set of mental loops to go through. I think because it's co-operator, and because it's a bit more of a challenging game, it has created this more collaborative nature within our community.

James Gwertzman (37:03):

I want to extend on that. What other tools do you provide in-game to foster community? So, besides the game design itself, which obviously you're right, coming from a collaborative design, you're already giving that a boost. For example, do you have in-game chat? Do you have tools that enable players to engage with each other while they're playing? And if you do have chat, do you have, for example, translation tools? Do you think about global community and encouraging players to play together from around the world? Do you find that there are cultural differences that sometimes make that harder? Do you use your matchmaking to try to skew who you match together to try to skew your bands of players one way or another? Because I'm very curious about that angle of community fostering.

Nick Clifford (37:45):

Yeah. So, there's a lot there and I'll try to step through it as best through I can. So, Dauntless being an online game, we use a variety of cloud services to host game servers, to host chat, to host login, all that good stuff. Because of the way that we've architected our backend, players ... I mean, the marketing tagline is players join the best server for them based on their ping and latency, right?

James Gwertzman (38:11):

Yep.

Nick Clifford (38:12):

So, we have a set of workers that basically run around in the background and make sure that we're putting you on the most performance server for you, but also for everyone in your party so that you guys get ... The players get the lowest amount of latency possible. Sometimes that means crossing over geographic regions, so if I'm playing here in the states, and I'm playing with a friend who's in Germany, you can totally do that. But it probably means we're going to be in a server somewhere in the middle to try and optimize our best connection. That does create obviously some overlapping regions. We do have chat, we have whisper chat, we have party chat, we have [inaudible 00:38:51] chat, we have all kind of the essential chat services. We do have VOIP as well. Obviously VOIP presents a little bit more challenges when there's a language barrier. We also have, and I'd call it an expression wheel in the game.

Nick Clifford (39:08):

So, you have a variety of emotes you can equip to help indicate point over there if that's where the Behemoth is. We do have stickers as well to divorce ourselves of the language barrier, to convey emotion. And then we also have quick chat on the wheel as well, so let's say you don't ... If you're playing on console, going through the digital keyboard to say, "On my way," is kind of a pain in the butt. So, we do have common catchphrases that are used in the core game loop map to that as well. We are translated in a handful of languages, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Japaneses, and now Russian as of yesterday, which is super exciting. So, there are several languages within the game. But to your point, text chat's just one way to communicate with players, and what we want to do is create more systems that don't rely on language to communicate.

Nick Clifford (40:04):

And I think the expression wheel, and emotes, and emojis, and stickers are the first pass at that. And we do have an entire social team inside the studio dedicated to expanding those efforts as well.

Crystin Cox (40:18):

Very cool.

James Gwertzman (40:18):

I mean, it's funny I remember text chat in games back in the early MUD and MMO days, it was very basic. And I imagine that modern text chatting tools, like Messenger, and with all of the emojis, and the GIF images, and the graphics, and stickers, I imagine the modern expectations around social chatting are so high now that as a game you do have to match that. You do have to provide a lot of the same tools or else it feels very barren if you don't have the usual emoji type tool they're used to.

Nick Clifford (40:47):

Yeah, totally. And we've dabbled with trying to find ways to bring emojis and stickers out of our game into other chat platforms as well, just again to help expand players' ability to interact with Dauntless outside of the game. And we've got some really cool artwork too, that we're trying to get on other platforms as well.

James Gwertzman (41:08):

Do you have [crosstalk 00:41:09]

Nick Clifford (41:09):

Sorry, go ahead.

James Gwertzman (41:10):

I'll just ask do you have an advisory group of players? Have you gone out and picked a small number of representative players who you give special status to, or you invite to come visit, or otherwise bring into some inner loop to have as that recurring group you can track over time versus just the general community?

Nick Clifford (41:30):

Yeah, definitely. And it varies by team as well. So, we od have, as I mentioned earlier, our volunteer moderation team. That's a handful of folks who have been with us for a very long time, who donate their time very generously to us. We try to bring them into the trust circle as much as possible. So, they're in our company Slack with us, with everyone in the studio. They surface issues that are important to them directly to the studio, and just yesterday we had a really good conversation about a member of our community, and their status within the community. And what our collected thoughts around this individual and their contributions. And the challenges they're currently facing. And it was a really good conversation, and they bring a lot of that perspective, because they're so much closer to it than several of us at the studio.

Nick Clifford (42:24):

And we also generally run stuff by them very, very early on as well. Because they're also hardcore engaged in the game, so as we develop new features we like to use them as a sounding board for a lot of those features. The layer removed from that is we have ... I think we call them the Meta Squad, but we have a handful of really, really, really good players that our player combat designer, [Dibs 00:42:53] works with on a regular basis. As he's trying to fine-tune and balance weapons and abilities, and basically the general moment to moment of the game. These are the folks who tend to break it as quickly as possible, so he likes to talk to them early and often, and get early content into their hands. And the way that we actually deliver on that is we have several environments of the game available in any given time. So, we have production, which is the live game that most players play.

Nick Clifford (43:24):

We have a PTR that we ran basically from I think it was like June 1st all the way up until yesterday. Or Wednesday. And it was about a 10 day period where we invited a handful of players' closest partners into the game to test the new patch that went out yesterday before it goes live. [crosstalk 00:43:45]

James Gwertzman (43:45):

PTR is production test release?

Nick Clifford (43:48):

Public test realm.

James Gwertzman (43:48):

Public test release.

Nick Clifford (43:49):

Yeah. Yep. So, it's kind of as we're bringing a build together we push it into that environment, and we bring players into it to test a lot of our features, and our changes for feedback. And for balanced feedback as well. So, there's a handful of ways that we seek that feedback, whether it's Slack, or whether it's Discord, or whether it's Reddit. But yeah, we do have different groups of folks that we go to for different types of feedback.

Crystin Cox (44:18):

Yeah, you were bringing up earlier the languages that you guys are currently available in. I was curious, do you have a community in marketing support in all those languages? Or does almost all your feedback and community interaction come in English?

Nick Clifford (44:38):

So, we don't have any dedicated language support beyond English today. I mean, a handful of us are bilingual, or semi-lingual, but we do, again, have some volunteers who have helped us translate a lot of the ... All of the game, and most of our marketing material. And they generally have often provided feedback. And [Jarrett 00:45:04], our current community manager, is working with our Russian volunteers to help create a Russian community right now as well.

Crystin Cox (45:13):

That's great. So, the translations were done by the community?

Nick Clifford (45:17):

Yep.

Crystin Cox (45:18):

That's awesome.

James Gwertzman (45:19):

That's cool.

Nick Clifford (45:19):

Yeah.

Crystin Cox (45:20):

There is one question that we always really like to ask to every one of our guests, which is please can you share with us a LiveOps disaster that you have personally experienced?

Nick Clifford (45:33):

Oh man. Simon [Beaumont 00:45:39], who's our tech director back at the studio, his ears just perked up. Rather than I think label it as a disaster, I think something that we have struggled with more than once is scale. And the challenge with scale is it is so expensive, and so challenging to simulate without having it. Load testing is generally a bunch of workers, or a bunch of bots hitting a service as opposed to real players engaging how real players do. And that's not to say we haven't ever done it, we have done scale testing before every major launch. And specifically I'm thinking about our PC open data, and our console launch that there's just no way to simulate millions of players hitting your game until they actually do it. And there's no way to know what's going to fall down until stuff starts falling down.

Nick Clifford (46:40):

So, rather than try to plan for every possible outcome, we strive to make ourselves little A agile as much as possible, and set ourselves up for the followup. So, after every launch, or leading up to every launch, we've constructed a war room within the studio where our engineering team and our backend team is able to focus in quiet, they don't get distracted by everything else going on at the studio. And just basically prepare. Our backend partners have come out and sat with us through it, which has been super awesome to see. We've actually done a couple public retros on our war room process. And again, I'm hesitant to call it a disaster because I think it was actually a good success. But yeah, just when millions of players show up knocking on your door and watching systemic failure happen, and then having to rewrite things within a day that you had spent weeks writing prior. But it is a testament to our engineering team, and their vigor, and their grit to work through that.

Crystin Cox (47:57):

Nice. Yeah.

James Gwertzman (47:59):

Wow, what a great ... This has been one of the great sessions. I mean, just so much content there-

Nick Clifford (48:03):

Thank you.

James Gwertzman (48:05):

... and it's really been fun. Thank you so much.

Crystin Cox (48:07):

Yeah, it's been really wonderful-

Nick Clifford (48:07):

Of course.

Crystin Cox (48:08):

... having you, and great to get that marketing perspective.

Nick Clifford (48:12):

Yeah, of course. Again, I really want to help debunk a lot of the rumors and a lot of the myths with games marketing. And I think often overlooked are the heroes of the community team, and even thinking the trailer team. We have a killer video editor in our studio, he's the best guy I've ever worked with. And not a lot of folks get to hear his story, and I think I really want to get marketing back in front of people, and not in the negative connotation. So, I love doing stuff like this and I really appreciate you guys having me.

Crystin Cox (48:56):

Yeah, awesome.

James Gwertzman (48:58):

Yeah, thank you.

Crystin Cox (49:03):

Thanks for listening to The Art of LiveOps Podcast.

James Gwertzman (49:06):

If you liked what you heard, remember to rate, review, and subscribe so others can find us.

Crystin Cox (49:11):

And visit playfab.com for more information on solutions for all your LiveOps needs.

James Gwertzman (49:16):

Thanks for tuning in.