So you want to level up your game community. Perhaps you’re looking at financial metrics, and realizing that as many as 30% of your players are likely churning yearly due to toxicity, or that chat participation increases week-2 retention by 335%. Maybe you simply believe in the power of a positive player experience, and know that 83% of players experience harassment in online games and that 59% of women actively hide their identities online in the hopes of avoiding toxicity. Or perhaps you’re simply watching the growing “metaverse” and realizing how central social features will be to building those rich online spaces.
Whatever has brought you here, your mission is the same - provide a rich, authentic, and safe social platform for your players which keeps them engaged in the action. Further, in order to create close bonds and engage with each other empathetically, you’ll need to offer your players the opportunity to connect through voice, not merely text.
But voice chat requires more infrastructure than text, and many developers are much less familiar with it as a result. The goal of this post is to provide you with the context you need to decide on the right approach for introducing voice chat to your player community.
To start, we’ll talk about the different approaches which studios take to voice chat today:
- Level 0: The Wild West
- Level 1: The Community Center
- Level 2: The Restricted Channel or the Open World
We’ll define each in a moment, but first, let’s spoil the ending a bit: the Wild West is a bad choice, and while many platforms find value in having a Community Center, it’s never enough on its own. Truly top-class community management actually involves a careful combination of multiple of these factors:
- Level 3: (The Restricted Channel or the Open World) PLUS (The Community Center)
That’s not to say that the right answer is the same for every platform! In fact, each platform will have its own unique needs based on the experience it hopes to cultivate and the players it attracts. The most obvious of these choices is between the Restricted Channel and Open World solutions, but even within each of these categories, there’s a world of nuance which we hope to help you better understand.
But enough preamble. Let’s get started!
Level 0: The Wild West
The Wild West, as the name suggests, is utterly unregulated and unsponsored. This is the option that says you’ve thrown up your hands and taken no actions, and so left it entirely up to your community to figure out how to interact. Some of them will drift to Discord, and maybe create their own spaces. Others will find community within the Twitch chats of top streamers. Still others will stick to text-based groups like Reddit, or more private chat apps like Skype, Google Meet, or good old-fashioned phone calls. But each and every person’s experience will be different - which means you’ll lack an understanding of what your community actually means to them.
The most poignant way to discuss this would be to bring up predators like child groomers - how can you protect kids from these folks if you don’t even know how the kids are connecting with anyone? But while this is true, it dangerously suggests that the Wild West only harms that small fraction of your players who find themselves directly targeted. The deeper issue with the Wild West approach is that by definition, the purpose of an online game is to transport your user into a new world. Whether the end goal is for them to identify with a character, write their own story, discover something about themselves, or just unwind with friends, it never changes that the first step is for your player to immerse themselves into the experience. Immersion, though, requires consistency across all five of our senses - and a mystical quest through medieval times just doesn’t feel the same when you have to pause the game to pick up your phone and call your teammates just to coordinate with someone who is allegedly right next to you.
Level 1: The Community Center
The Community Center approach involves creating a customized, managed space for your players to socialize - but having it live anywhere except directly inside the game. Having your players connect through the official Discord, Reddit, TeamSpeak, or any other third-party channel is a prime example of this approach.
Now, Community Centers can be fantastic for a lot of things. They’re great places for sharing content, discussing fandoms around a competitive league or new DLC, or interacting with developers. In other words, they are perfect for talking about the game…but they are less well suited for talking within the game. When you need your ally to coordinate their timing with you down to a few milliseconds as you approach a raid, what happens when your separate chat client adds just enough latency to get you out of sync? As with the Wild West, how can you protect players when you don’t own the platform and don’t have any insight into what misbehavior is happening? And most fundamentally of all, as more and more games look to spatial audio or other ways to place players into the online world, how can a separate tool hope to match the flexibility you need to modify what players hear in a million subtle ways every second, every movement, and in every new situation?
Community Centers are a vital part of any community management approach. Use them to get the pulse from your players, provide more context about your vision for the game, and give everyone an opportunity to revel in each others’ enthusiasm and new ideas. But don’t put your players all in a room together, and then tell them they need to phone each other up in order to converse.
Level 2: The Restricted Channel and the Open World
The central notion for both a Restricted Channel and an Open World approach is a communication channel built directly into your game experience. Tools here typically look less like third-party applications and more like VoIP SDKs like those offered by Epic Online Services, Photon Voice, TeamSpeak, Vivox, Agora, or even through a homebrewed solution.
You might integrate these tools in a variety of configurations - utilizing 3-D or spatial sound, or keep all voices equally loud as a traditional comm link would do - the specifics don’t matter so much as the fact that you have the ability to build the full chat experience directly into the larger game, creating a feeling of consistency, richness, and ease of use that can’t be matched any other way.
The difference between these two options, then, is who you are permitted to connect with. In a Restricted Channel approach, you ask your players to jump through hoops to connect with others. The most common such restriction is simply that another player must be on your friends list or join your squad, though some games get more creative - for instance, Sky: Children of the Light experimented with only unlocking the ability to chat with another player after you’ve already been interacting with them in-game for a fixed amount of time. The reason for these restrictions, of course, is safety. Thus, many games which primarily serve children tend to use the Restricted Channel approach, since children are at high risk when interacting with strangers.
In contrast, an Open World strategy allows you to communicate with anyone, so long as you actually “encounter” that individual within the rules of the game. This is most commonly implemented with positional audio in genuinely open-world platforms like Rec Room, VRChat, or Fallout 76, but games which enable fully public random matchmaking also qualify as using the “Open World” strategy here. Basically, an Open World communication strategy means that you could always encounter basically anyone, depending on where you go in-game, who you get assigned, or other types of exploration you may undertake. This freedom can be hugely empowering to your end users, but of course it does come with risks, as the other players you meet may include trolls, bullies, or predators. Thus, it’s especially vital for any Open World games to employ sophisticated moderation tools to protect their players without restricting that freedom to explore.
Level 3 and Beyond
As mentioned earlier, the best (“Level 3”) approach actually combines the Community Center for out-of-game conversations with either the Restricted Channel or Open World approach for in-game communication. But simply implementing these communication channels doesn’t automatically bring a rich, vibrant, and inclusive community into existence. After all, players need to want to interact with each other - and feel safe in doing so.
Each game has its own reasons for players to connect and chat. Sometimes it’s purely for social reasons, but often involves team coordination, in-universe roleplay, or even good-natured competitive ribbing. Each case requires subtly but importantly different designs in order to give your players the best possible experience. But one commonality is that, regardless of the specific vision you’re shooting for, a small number of toxic or trollish incidents can permanently sour your players on the experience. In order to maintain that vibrant community you’ve worked so hard to build, you’ll need to provide tools to protect players from those kinds of misbehaviors.
This topic could be another blog post on its own, but briefly, your strategy here must have at least three prongs. The first is a clear and transparent Code of Conduct, giving your players an understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable. The second is tooling for players to report to you easily and quickly when others are misbehaving, to ensure your players feel ownership over the community. And finally, the third prong must be tools (yes, like ToxMod) which ensure you’ll notice bad behavior even if it *isn’t* reported. This last prong not only protects your most vulnerable players - for instance, the targets of child predators who may not know to submit a report - but also guarantees a consistent experience for your players. Nothing causes a community to lose faith in a platform like seeing the Code of Conduct rarely or selectively enforced.
So what are the takeaways here? Well, if you leave this post with only a few ideas, here are the most important ones:
- The first step to building a rich community is to take actual ownership over providing the right communication channels for your players.
- The second step is to tie those communication channels into the game experience, providing a level of immersion and ownership that keeps your players engaged.
- The third step, which takes you from comms to community, is to actually enforce a quality of trust, inclusivity, and supportiveness within your community.
Looking to learn more about leveling up your community approach, or share your stories around the transformative power of inclusive voice chat? We’d love to hear from you! Reach out anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.