Six stages of game dev community development
During the last few years, I’ve found myself focused on community development in emergent territories around the world. Territory is loosely defined here: it can be a city, a province, a state or an entire country. Game development communities tend to develop along very similar lines, and at some point I’ve started to mentally organize these community growth thresholds into a model. Note that this model is not scientific in any way, and is mostly used by me personally to figure out how I can help a certain territory when I visit. Many people I mention the model to asked me to write things down, and many developers in emerging territories found it interesting to talk about where they fall on the scale. As such, here’s my six stages of community development.
The model is separated into six major stages that communities go through. Certain communities can skip steps through governmental or cultural support, or in some cases even thanks to one or several well-intended individuals throughout the community. There are historical moments in which certain territories have fallen back one, or even multiple stages.
Stage 1 is one of the less common stages around the world. In this stage, developers do exist in a territory, but are spread thin and often unaware of each other’s existence. No events exist, or the events that exist are extremely local. The goals of a territory in this stage are very utilitarian: the dream is to make money. Developers are commonly amateur developers without access to knowledge that is prevalent throughout the industry, and the games they make will very often be limited both in execution and cultural value. As such, games very often (closely) resemble ideas already prevalent in established territories.
Stage 2 is the most common stage around the world. Developers in the territory have found each other, established communication hubs and organized internal events for the full territory. In most territories, thought leaders emerge from these meetups, creating informal community leaders. Exchange of knowledge rapidly becomes prevalent in the territory, and with that a voice emerges for a territory. Since knowledge shared is mostly based on assumptions made by unestablished developers, the growth of such a territory is usually limited. In this stage there commonly is a noticeable lack of understanding of basic concepts as ‘polish’, ‘game feel’ and ‘context’, because such concepts evolved as jargon in established territories.
In Stage 3 the focus moves to international knowledge exchange. Either the territories events or community leaders invite external thought leaders or experts, or developers from the territory visit events in established territories, creating informal ambassadors. Existing knowledge in the community is validated or invalidated through this collision with the established territories. To create more reach, a territory joins international organizations such as the IGDA, or establishes local organizations or groups that speak on its behalf. Companies rapidly grow to adapt to the structure of the international games industry, learning to reach out to press and media. In this stage, a territory defines an identity, but not a cultural flavor. Commonly, the goal for developers is still ‘to make it big’ in ‘the West’, and as such games still overwhelmingly resemble existing popular games, often with a minor twist.
This is by far the most important stage. This stage begins when a hero emerges, and international knowledge exchange has been established. A hero is defined as any individual or company that has reached economical and critical acclaim in the established territories. These heroes bring in valuable money, contacts and knowledge, and often act as a bridge between the international industry and the local industry. More importantly, the hero validates the idea that game development can be lucrative, and presents a measurable point of success for other developers to look up to. Ironically, this stage often includes a lot of developers making games based on similar ideas as the hero game, even though the hero game is frequently highly similar to a game from an established territory. Developers in this territory frequently refer to the hero when asked about their work.
Stage 5 is the most common stage for Western Europe and large parts of the United States. Commonly, the visibility of the hero has created a huge influx of new studios and developers, and with that a huge new influx of ideas. Local developers stop looking up to the hero, and start rebelling against the hero. In this stage, the goal for many developers is to be like the hero developer, but “not that”. In stage 5, multiple heroes emerge rapidly, diminishing the value of a single hero. During this phase, a territory evolves a more cultural perspective on games as the goal shifts from trying to prove game development is a feasible expense of time to making interesting content. As the community grows more comfortable, games become more personal and less utilitarian.
In stage 5+, a territory is seen as a thought leader in the international games industry. Very few territories ever reach this stage, and it is my belief that there is no possibility for very many Stage 5+ territories to exist at once. Note that the existence of large international events in a location does not automatically create a Stage 5+ territory, but that it should be seen as a fleeting and temporary status as a thought leader. Many Stage 5+ territories float between Stage 5 and Stage 5+ continuously.
Ways of assisting a territory
I want to emphasize once again that these are simply my thoughts on how to best help a community in a given stage. None of this is scientific, and a lot of this has developed through personal preference and experience over the past few years. I don’t take these considerations as ‘formal’ myself, and will usually figure out what I’ll do after getting my bearings in a territory. In general, they fall within or near the parameters I discuss below.
- In stage 1, it is my belief that interacting on a community level is potentially damaging to evolving a local culture of game development. As such, I talk to individual developers, usually with the recommendation to start local meetups.
- In stage 2, the most useful thing is to share knowledge about basic design concepts and frameworks, how to give and receive feedback, and introduction-level ideas about marketing. If game jams aren’t prevalent in a territory, I recommend organizing game jams.
- In stage 3, the most useful thing is to focus squarely on specific developers. In the case you come across a game or a developer with potential, using your existing network to introduce them to parties that can help them out – whether those are platforms, media or publishers – can be critical.
- In stage 4, focusing back on community-wide issues is generally the best way of helping. Postmortems, business talks, talks that are specifically focused on dealing with platforms that aren’t prevalent but available in a territory and in-depth exploration of cultural concepts are useful here.
- In stage 5 or 5+, one can assume that a territory is aware of most trends, issues and ideas in the industry. Since at the start of stage 5, territories become more distinct from other territories, it’s impossible to say what will be useful in these territories.
The wonder of emergent territories is how much a slightly different perspective on history, culture, art or play can bring to our medium. Some of my favorite conversations of 2014 took place in countries like Uruguay, Argentina, India or Taiwan – places that you wouldn’t immediately think of when you think about games, but are rapidly growing to be a big part of our industries cultural output in the future. At the Games for Change conference in New York City next week, I’ll be presenting a curation of games from around the world that I feel express their territories culture in an interesting way.
Let me know if you recognize your own territory in the model, and what stage you think your territory is in currently and why.