When I was 12 years old I had the coolest job in the world. Once a week, my mom would pick my little brother and I up from school and drive us up to Redwood Shores, CA, where we’d pull into a generic-looking office park. Once inside, we’d plop onto bean bag chairs, grab a handheld controller, and mash away at some yet-to-be-released video games for a couple hours. Afterwards, we’d sit with the developers and give our feedback on the gameplay, graphics, and experience.
I’d have gladly done that for free (in fact I logged hundreds of hours of video game play throughout middle and high school while earning exactly $0), but they even paid us a small stipend which supplemented my allowance. Even better, I earned massive street cred with my friends when I regaled them with details about unreleased games that they’d soon be reading about in GamePro magazine.
That experience paved the way for my career as an entrepreneur and investor, and it also heralded the widespread use of community-led development. Today, “Early Access” is an integral part of the game development process. Developers have realized that involving a community of passionate gamers early not only helps them improve the development process, sometimes it can take the games in entirely new directions. Some games are never truly finished. And some gamers are becoming quasi-developers themselves through the experiences they create in open-world games like Roblox.
This phenomenon is not unique to gaming. Across industries, community-involvement has become a valuable component of product development and the go-to-market process. I’ve experienced this firsthand, as a founder of Bleacher Report and investor in and advisor to community-centric startups.
In my experience, successful community-centric companies share a few important traits:
1. They have intensely passionate users who see the product as more than just a way to entertain themselves or get a job done, but as a reflection of their identity.
2. The company has found a way to tap into that passion and turn it into a self-sustaining flywheel that helps the company grow.
3. The company has an intense focus on learning from their community and feeding those insights back into the product.
What all this means is that, in order to build a successful community-centric company, you need to first find and nurture a group of intensely passionate users. Once you’ve found them, you need to give them a way to express their passion and help the company grow. And finally, you need to have a laser-like focus on leveraging community feedback to improve the user experience.
At Bleacher Report, community led our strategy in the early days. We set out to build a sports network that spoke from the voice of fans, to empower everyday fans to become sports pundits, and to become a proving ground for the next generation of sports writing talent. While our initial product consisted primarily of a CMS-based writing platform and a clean front-end reading experience, we soon realized that in order to achieve the above goals we needed to be more than just a place to write and read about sports. As with the communal sports experience itself, the real magic lies in sharing your passion with a community of fellow fans.
Leaning into community became the turning point that fueled Bleacher Report’s growth. One of our co-founders, Zander Freund, took on the role of Head of Community. Zander personally welcomed each and every new member of the Bleacher Report community. He also became their conduit to the rest of the Bleacher Report team, their advocate, their sounding board, and their biggest fan.
As Zander’s bandwidth to engage one-on-one with each member of the community stretched thin, he created leverage by appointing our most dedicated members as Community Leaders. Zander granted each of them responsibilities within their respective interest areas, and rewarded them with elevated status and influence across the community. This proved incredibly effective as the Bleacher Report member ranks grew and new sport- and team-based communities flourished.
This was a huge part of our success. We found that communities work best when their management is decentralized. We gave our Community Leaders broad leeway to manage their respective communities as they saw fit, trusting them to uphold the values of the Bleacher Report community at large.
The result was a self-policing, self-regulating, and tightly-knit network of sports communities that drove an intense level of stickiness and engagement on the platform. It also led to new content formats, collaborations, and ideas that bubbled up organically from the community. With Zander maintaining a loose but consistent two-way communication flow between the Community Leaders, himself, and the core B/R team, we then propagated the best of these community innovations across our broader user base. Our core team monitored these communications for insights that we could leverage to improve the product. This fueled our early growth, long before Bleacher Report became a household name.
What’s more, this community-driven approach to product development led to a virtuous circle of learning and growth that benefited not just the company, but the community members themselves. Our Community Leaders became de facto members of the product development team, gaining valuable experience and knowledge in the process. Some joined the company in staff roles across the editorial, product, and support teams. Many other members built larger audiences for their writing and established their own communities of followers. Some went on to sports journalism careers at other outlets such as ESPN, CBS Sports, and Fox Sports.
We were inventing the wheel back then; nowadays it’s a standard formula. Today, we see this community-centric approach to product development and go-to-market playing a huge role in the gaming world.
Some of the biggest benefits of early access in gaming for game developers are:
The ability to get constant feedback from a group of highly-engaged users during development. This can help to improve the quality of the final product and make it more polished and tailored to player preferences.
The ability to build a community of passionate gamers around the game early on. This can help to create buzz and excitement for the game before it is released, which can lead to better sales and more positive reviews.
The ability to tap into the collective community expertise of players to improve the game. Players often have great ideas for how to improve the game, and by involving them in the development process, developers can make the game better for everyone.
Early access can also help to generate revenue during development, which can be used to fund further development or marketing efforts.
An early pioneer of the early access movement in gaming was Facepunch Studio’s Rust. Rust leveraged a four-year Early Access period on Steam to build a passionate and engaged community around the game. This community became a key driver of the game’s development, providing constant feedback that helped to shape and improve the final product. The Rust early access community influenced everything from the gameplay—notably a shift from fighting zombies to mutant animals—to the graphics to even the game engine itself.
The game’s developers also used the Early Access period to build a strong marketing buzz for the game. When Rust finally launched in February 2018, it was one of the most hyped and anticipated games of the year, and it went on to become a commercial and critical success.
Rust is now one of the most popular games on Steam, with over 12 million players each month.
Since then, we’ve seen a number of other games find success with early access, most notably Epic’s Fortnite.
Regardless of its widespread use, community-driven development is still a work in progress. Early Access is not without its detractors. Some gamers have criticized the Early Access trend for giving developers an excuse to release unfinished, buggy games and then charge full price for them.
Some gamers also see Early Access as a marketing tool to generate buzz and excitement for a game, rather than a true development tool to gather feedback and improve the quality of the final product.
Occasionally, games have become stuck in an Early Access purgatory without ever actually releasing, leaving players who have invested time and money in the game feeling cheated.
Despite these concerns, Early Access is here to stay in the gaming world. And developers can get the most out of it by maintaining an open and honest line of communication with their community, empowering them to have a voice and reward them for their contributions, and continually improving on their product via the insights their community provides.