Building Community: 6 Things you could learn from Xbox Live!

Special Post Disclaimer: My standard disclaimer applies, but also remember that I don’t work for the Xbox Live team.  Anything here is purely my opinion and examination based on what I see as a consumer of their outstanding service.  

My team owns delivering the vision document for the future (Orcas and beyond) of “Community Integration” within Visual Studio.  I’ll get to play a big part and I’m super excited about the opportunity.  One necessary step is to identify existing best practices from all around.  I’m on vacation so today I decided to look at the Xbox Live community for inspiration.  :-) 

1. Communities can’t save bad software: The worst Xbox games, with Xbox Live added, are still bad games that don’t succeed at being fun online.  I’ve bought some games that didn’t agree with me. Playing them online only introduced me to a group of people that I didn’t care to spend any more time with.  Just because there were more people playing didn’t mean the game stunk any less.  A community can only strengthen a user’s passion for software, not create strong passion around bad software. 

In fact, having the broad Xbox Live community can create a polarizing effect on success because word of mouth spreads faster.  While playing Project Gotham 2 with a group of people online I was drawn into a discussion about other good or bad Xbox games.  Another player was asking what everyone thought about Game X that had just been released.  Personally, I would have bought Game X the next day, but was compelled through the conversation not to. I’ve participated in and heard this pattern repeated again and again while playing games online.

To me this lesson means that enabling a rich community experience should always come second to making future Visual Studio a great development tool.  This, of course, only proves I’m not crazy.  It also strengthened my belief that existing versions of VS are already excellent pieces of software since large, healthy, communities have evolved around it naturally.  Kind of like Halo 1 being so good people built their own tunneling software communities just to connect to and play with each other. 

2. Enable “High Touch” Connections:   Some good multiplayer games become great games when played with the right group of people.  You might not enjoy my group and I might not enjoy your ideal group, but through Live we can both find the right group of friends for us to form a closer connection with.  The “friends list” connection allows me to make sure I play with them when I sign on.  The experience is powerful enough that sometimes I’m intending to play game Y and end up playing game X just to join my friends that were already online.

Some of the best standard Xbox Live features revolve around enabling me to put together my own friends list.  At all times I’m talking to a group of people and in the best implementations I can see who exactly I’m talking with.  I can see the unique names of everyone I’m playing with, just played with, and have previously been playing with.  This lets me say “wow, I really enjoyed virtually hanging out with that guy when playing Moto GP.  I should add him to my friends list so I can play the next cool racing game that comes out with him.”

I keep waiting for them to add “Extended Friends” by default on the assumption that I would probably enjoy a game with the friends of my friend, but I worry how much that would violate the “trust” principal that is the basis of the Friends list. 

To me this means that communities should: 1 Enable broad interactions and 2. Help people connect with and prioritize their reliable group resources.  Today the newsgroup experience and even most web forums make the second part difficult at best.

3. The power of “Always On” connections:   Project Gotham 2 broke new ground for Xbox Live because it didn’t require me to be playing on Xbox Live to feel connected to the community.  If I allowed it, I was signed into Live while playing the single player game.  The game enabled the following:

  • Keeping tabs on my friends in case I wanted to join them without having to shift context away from my single player game.
  • My best scores are always shown in context to scores from other players and my freinds.  (NOTE: If you are not competition focused, this can simply be frustrating. :-)
  • You can download “ghost car” recordings from the community and race against them.  Community empowered education from a video game!

The power here is that I’m always reminded that there is a larger community enjoying the game as much, if not more than I am.  It compels you to keep engaged with that community, to keep coming back, and to make your own contributions to the community.  Which leads me to…

4. The Power of the Draw:   Xbox live success has to lie in consistently drawing current and future subscribers to the community.  Sure, you can reap some short-term profits if everyone pays you a monthly fee and doesn’t use your bandwidth, but in the long run the people that aren’t enjoying your service also aren’t going to be convincing their friends to sign up.  The Live team seems to be hard at work creating new ways for subscribers to interact with the community and continually drawing them in. 

The MSN Messenger Xbox Live friend status allows me to link my MSN Messenger persona to my Xbox Live account and notifies me when my Xbox friends sign into a game.  This draws me into the service more frequently because I know I’ll be able to join my sub-community without having to go through the hassle of starting up a game to check.  I imagine that eventually I’ll be able to send messages to and from the people playing the games from my account to let them know when I can join them.  This ability would allow users to interact more freely with the community.

The second non-Xbox based draw is on the official Live web site that I can use to check stats, arrange tournaments, get new game notifications, talk with community members in forums and generally feel more connected.  The 3rd party gaming sites are also an important draw, but also help prove the next lesson. 

5. Supporting your Supporters: Despite being a closed community (you have to pay to participate) the Xbox Live team seems to have a good relationship with 3rd party gaming sites.  The sites are offered services that include exclusive interviews, and hands on time with games before they come out.  In exchange these sites help the team spread the word about Xbox live, add to the community feature set, and allow subscribers to interact in a less official environment with each other.  From an outsider perspective it feels like a win-win. 

6. The Strengths of Owning your Community:   The Live service is a community run by the Live team here at Microsoft.  It would have been cheaper to go the Playstation route, stick the network adapter in, and allow each publisher and game the freedom to create fragmented communities with disparate experiences.  Instead Microsoft controls the servers, decides on the basic feature set for games must implement, and maintain control over what is published to the community.  This is a good thing for a fledging community trying to ensure consumers have a consistently simple and fun experience.

As a consumer who has played PC and Playstation games online I can’t stress how awesome the user experience is on the Xbox side with the consistency and advanced features shared by every game on the service.  It just works.  Features like cross game notification, a shared friends list, and voice just aren’t there on the competing platforms. 

So far, maintaining tight control on the service has allowed for innovation beyond what would have been possible in a V1.0 community had the Live team tried to innovate and offer the same openness of the competition.  There is a trade off made between pushing the user experience envelope with community enabled features on Live and being a completely open service.  Obviously the Xbox team realized this as evidenced by recent EA games to foray into Xbox Live with their own servers who previously had protested over the level of control MS pursued. 

Being closed also allows them to follow the 12 principals of collaboration well.

There you have it… 6 of the many things you could learn from Xbox Live about building a community.  There are a ton of other things the Live team does right in the community space that I couldn’t fit into this post that was confined to the length of my battery on this cross country flight.  When I’m back I should probably go to the source and talk to some of these guys since they work down the road. 

Hmmm… I might have time.  Did I mention all the cool community building innovations Bungie is doing with Halo 2 that I had a chance to beta test?  Well, first they… ”Please save and close all documents and...” Oh well :-)