How to break up with your international game community

Making a game is a risky venture; the failure rate is high. And even some of the most “successful” games (however that’s measured) have a finite lifespan. There are myriad factors influencing the decision to close down a game, mostly financial. If more money is going out than in for too long, if the intellectual property is aging or if it no longer fits with the overall strategy and direction of your brand, it’s time to call it quits.

However, the international community that you’ve worked hard to build up around your game will not necessarily be in lockstep with your decision to close the game. For your players, the game is about fun, accomplishment and connections they’ve forged with fellow fans in their home country and around the world. The decision to pull the plug is going to hit them hard. But with the right plan in place, you’ll be able to shape the conversation and minimize the negative fallout. You’ll be able to convince your community that it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.


Relationship respect

Just as building a community is about building a relationship, shutting down a game is like a breakup. If you’ve run a solid, strategic community effort, the relationship between the game and its users is a personal one. You’ve implemented a strategy that brought people closer to your game and to each other. You’ve connected people across cultures and languages and created a tight-knit yet welcoming group of fans.

Your players have invested time and possibly money into your game. You need to treat them with the respect they deserve, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because your brand is likely bigger than this one game. Full-out abandonment will result in a long-term bad taste in your community’s mouth. You still want to be friends after it’s over.

There may well have already been rumors about the game closing if your game has been in decline for a while. Perhaps you’ve had to combine servers for under-performing international communities or updates have started coming out at a noticeably lower cadence. But up until this point, you’ve put on a brave face and reassured your community that there are no plans to shut down the game. You’ve been all in but there’s just no way to make this work anymore.

Your community has come to love and support your game regardless of the fact that you’ve decided it’s time to say goodbye. You will receive negative feedback when you announce that you’re going to end it. Frustration is a natural and inevitable reaction to the feeling of loss that your community is experiencing. Be prepared for this reaction and implement a strategy that recognizes the pain yet actively moves the conversation away from anger and toward nostalgia. Provide avenues to celebrate what was rather than sitting idly by as the conversation devolves into a muddled pit of rants about the void that will remain.

As John Steinbeck warned, the best laid plans oft times go awry. That said, the more thoughtful prep you do, the better your chances are of achieving the desired outcome. Also, the more you tailor your plan to the individual needs of regional fan subsets of your community, the better served they will feel. Perhaps a better way to frame things is to say: prepare as much as you can but be poised to adapt.


Closure minus six months

Six months out is an ideal lead time to give your community a heads-up that the game will be closing. You may need to fast-track this process depending on your company’s and brand’s demands outside of this particular game, the in-real-life (IRL) events that need to be taken into consideration. A lead time of longer than six months is generally too much time for your community to sit and stew in their disappointment. You want to give players enough time to go out with a bang rather than a desperate cry (too little time) or a slow, festering whimper (too much time).

Specific company concerns you need to make sure you have covered include checking with your legal department. Do your terms and conditions include language that will be contradicted by actions in your timeline? Do any of these terms and conditions vary by country? Also, depending on the economy set up in your game, are you leaving reasonable time for players to use up the money they’ve already pumped into the game on in-game purchases? Ideally you want players to use up all of this including any saved credits or gift cards within the timeframe left to play the game. Do you have developer support for the entire length of time you are planning to keep the game alive? You don’t want bugs and missing features in the final months to become your game’s legacy.

Once you’ve weighed all of these factors, it’s time to craft your message about the closure itself. Be straight but sympathetic. Breaking up is hard to do, but when you offer your community some tenderness along with your honesty, it will help to soften the blow.

Your messaging should take place in a synchronized fashion across all of your community channels, both English and international, and all customer-facing stakeholders within your company need a heads-up about what is happening before you message publicly. Prior to releasing your message, the text itself should be fully vetted by your legal team. Representatives from public relations, marketing and customer service should be made fully aware of your complete plan. Don’t forget to loop in your international subsidiaries to make sure they are fully aware of the plan as well. Working inside a company it’s easy to forget that, often, the customer sees no difference between your departments. All of these entities are “you” and when you are saying one thing over here in response to customer service queries, and another over there on your community forums, you quickly lose credibility. The same goes if one answer is being given within the German community forums that completely contradicts information in the main English channels. Everyone must be on board and informed before the storm erupts post-announcement.

Once you’ve got your timing and communication plan in place, write the content of the announcement itself and plan strategically where you’ll be posting which tailored version of the message. Modern community programs don’t just encompass one official forum. Your community exists across social channels, forums, blogs, news sites, IRL meet-up groups — official as well as unofficial and across languages and cultures. Your message must be tailored for each of these channels, even if they will be only a short blurb with a link to the main message.

You’ve been respectful and clear with your players throughout your relationship with them. When you let them know about the game closing, you’ve got to talk to them in a way that is honest and shows respect for their feelings, but doesn’t give them any false hope. This break-up is final. Of course, no matter how clear you are, there will be the online petitions and the pleading. Be gentle; let them know it’s not them, it’s you. And that no amount of attempts to persuade you will change your mind.

Empathy should be the basis of your philosophy. Most of us have been huge fans of one product or another and know that feeling of absolute devotion. I have a dear friend in Seattle who still posts birthday wishes to the individual members of the Supersonics team on his Facebook page — a team that left Seattle in 2006. Some people never give up.


The closure FAQ

The key thing to keep in mind when you craft your messaging is this: what would you reasonably want to know and how would you want to be talked to if in their shoes? I say “reasonably” because of course you can’t comply with all of their wishes (disclose financials, layout roadmap for future products and so on). But there are many reasonable pieces of information that a community member will expect, and these should be laid out in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) page. Remember to keep the community voice as it always was. Tone down the playfulness, but if you’ve consistently delivered messaging in alignment with themes of war in the game, use this same style here. If your game is for children, write the messaging using the same simplified language and references to the game that you used throughout the life of the community program. See Figure 1 for some examples.

Another decision to make is whether or not to actively push players to your other games, if they exist. This subject must be approached with much care and can vary depending on the regional communities you will be messaging. Get input from your regional moderators on this subject as they’ll have the best information on the sensibilities of the particular communities they are supporting. As is always the case with community programs regardless of region, any communication that smacks directly of marketing can come across very poorly and compromise the community team’s credibility among players. Particularly at a time when you’re dealing with the bad news of a game closure, you need to pay very special attention in regard to directing players toward other games of yours. You need to ensure it isn’t coming across as a version of, “Hey! We can’t get money out of you with this game anymore, so how about you come over and play our other game so we can keep getting your money!?” You may decide to forgo this kind of redirection to be safe.

It’s important to disable the comments on the FAQ topic. Disabling comments is key to keeping the conversation controlled. You’re not stifling conversation by doing this. There will be several outlets for users to vent and discuss, such as other forum topics they create and social media. But the FAQ will be the last piece of information standing once you completely shut down the program. It will be the place you link to in every communication about the game closure and will be a static message controlled 100% by you.

The key points to hit with an FAQ:

Why? This often can’t be answered directly but you need to have a response in place.

When will the game end? Provide the exact time and time zone if it’s possible for you to share this.

Will refunds of any kind be offered? What conditions qualify a user for a refund, and by what means will it be refunded (gift card, original credit card)?

What’s next? Is there a new game in the pipeline? A different version of this one? Again, this can’t always be answered directly but at the very least some sort of response indicating that this can’t be confirmed at the moment.

Who can I contact if I don’t understand how this works? During the time after the announcement and before the closure, most questions can be answered by the community team. However, once the game ends you’ll need to update this messaging with contact info for the customer service team.

You should already have an editorial calendar containing your ongoing community campaigns and messaging. Update this calendar to contain the exact messaging you’ll be putting out via the various channels, including the localized versions of the messaging. Make sure that the content is appropriate to the subset of your community. If you have a particularly active group of Russian players involved in an IRL meet-up group, your communication should not only be in Russian but also demonstrate that you are paying attention to that group. Do they meet up at a local bar? Can you reference the bar in the messaging? The more you show your community that you’ve been listening to them and care about their feelings related to the closure, the better the outcome will be.

Just because your game is closing doesn’t mean that every campaign and contest you’ve been conducting up to this point needs (Figure 2) to come to a screeching halt. But they should be adapted to work within the current reality for your players. Do you have a contest for people to submit new maps they’d like to see? Adapt it to something related to sharing memories about their favorite maps. Is there a writing contest for new storylines? Do a “best of” series. The aim is to move the conversation away from rage and sadness and toward nostalgia (Figure 3).

All messaging related to the closure should include a link back to the FAQ. This way you can update the information as you go along and have it all contained in a centralized location. Eventually you’ll edit the FAQ from “The Game Will Close” to “The Game Has Closed” and it will all be in one place. This will save you from headaches down the line.

As I mentioned previously, everyone at your company needs to be aware of what’s going on in order to make the post-announce experience go smoothly. As soon as the closure is announced, your company must be prepared to ensure that it is no longer technically possible to register for the game.

You likely have emails, newsletters, in-game messaging and other automated systems in place to get content out to your players. This must be stopped and updated to reflect what is going on with the game. Some of this messaging might come from other parts of your company or regional offices that the community team doesn’t control. Make sure you are aware of all current contacts with your players so that no confusing messages end up going out.


Closure minus two weeks

Two weeks prior to the game closing, post additional public messaging reiterating closure plans as well as direct messaging to players using whatever means are available to you. In-game messaging works very well for this in addition to email, of course. Repeat this one week and one day prior to the actual closure.

At the exact time you announce the closure and for some days after, ramp up on your moderation staff hours, as hell hath no fury like a gamer scorned. You are about to receive a flood of comments across all channels. The reactions will range from rage to grief. People who are experiencing rage and grief say things they will regret and you need to have an abundantly staffed team of moderators on hand to delete offensive comments as well as provide a counseling of sorts to the stricken members of your community. Your moderation team will need guidance on best practices for dealing with fallout and also frequent check-ins by your community manager (CM). Moderators must have very thick skin to survive in the profession, but even the most seasoned veterans will be challenged by this experience. They will need some pep talks from their CM.

A good tactic to employ is to engage directly in private messages with positive users who you notice are providing constructive comments and taking on a role of spreading information and responding with kind words to upset players. Contacting these players directly with a simple “thank you” for their actions will encourage them to continue along this path and, consequently, help to foster positivity in the community.

Your CM will need to keep close tabs on the comments coming in and potentially adapt messaging, the editorial calendar or the FAQ topic. If a notably large number of people are confused about something, the FAQ should be updated and messaging sent out to address the confusing issue. Your moderators will deal with the minutiae and report to the CM about what is going on, but your CM needs to figure out what these details mean for the big picture health of the process, much as it functions during an active community program.


The closure itself

After the closure itself takes place, neatly button up everything relating to your online presence and finances. Implement whatever conditions have been set for refunds or credits. Questions will continue no matter how well things have been explained . This can be due to language comprehension issues or simply because some people would rather contact customer service than search through written explanations. This is why it’s so important to have customer service info in your FAQ. Clear explanations and multiple communications about technical issues and refunds will help to minimize, but certainly not eliminate, tickets coming into the customer service arm of your company.

The day is here and you’ve shut down the game. It’s time to close down all community channels except the space where your FAQ topic is live. Depending on the size and scope of your company’s brand, you’ll be able to host that FAQ for as long as you’d like. If you have access to analytics on page views, you can even monitor how often the FAQ is viewed and determine when it’s time to pull that down. If your brand consisted of the game, consider the financial burden of continuing to host that site versus the benefit to your former community members. In any case, at least two weeks post-closure is a good rule of thumb for keeping up the FAQ topic.

There is much to consider when taking on the important task of closing down a game community, not to mention your own internal team’s feelings on the matter. Those involved worked hard on this game and on creating a thriving community. Having to end that is no small task and not just a rote, business decision. But the amount of care and planning put into the process will directly affect the legacy of the game and your overall brand’s standing in the industry. By treating your community with respect and giving them the best goodbye you can, you’ll be doing right by them and they won’t forget that. Your international community members won’t forget that you gave them the same respect during the end-phase of your game as you did while building up the community during good times, by speaking their language and paying attention to their culture. Breaking up is hard to do, but there are better (and worse) ways of doing it. Lay the groundwork so that you and your community can part ways on good terms. That way, when you run into each other again, you can both feel good about it.