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What Minecraft Taught Me About Community

Estimated reading time: 11 mins

After reading an excellent post by Eugene Wei about Status as a Service earlier this week, I found myself thinking about my past experiences with community and status, and how those experiences could be applied to the communities I was working with today. I set out to write a fairly quick overview, but as you can see below I ended up with something a big longer. Strap in for story time!

Before starting Commsor, I started and ran a business called The Chunk. Most of you have probably heard of Minecraft, but I’d bet that most of you aren’t aware that Minecraft used to support an entire ecosystem of startups (and still does, to a lesser extent) in the form of Minecraft hosting and servers. Unlike Triple A games like Call of Duty, Minecraft didn’t provide centralized multiplayer servers (Realms being the exception, but that service launched far too late to have a major impact).

This meant that the entire multiplayer experience was left up to independent server hosts. The Minecraft multiplayer ecosystem exploded, quickly growing from small, classic survival servers to custom games built within the game. Minecraft was becoming a sort of game engine, and I was one of thousands of people that saw potential in building custom content on top of such a world wide phenomenon.

Banner for The Chunk

A banner advert for The Chunk

And so The Chunk was born, a Minecraft server network made up of a hub world connected to various smaller game servers where players could play a variety of custom content we’d create for them. This content ranged from simple capture the flag style games, like BlockWars, to more complex recreations of AAA titles like Titanfall. Yes, we recreated a first person shooter game with mechs, rocket launchers and more in Minecraft.

For the first year of building The Chunk, I thought we were building a gaming company. We were, after all, creating games, had players, and measured our success and metrics in much the same way that larger video game companies do. It wasn’t until the start of our second year that it really hit me – The Chunk was a community business that just happened to be a gaming community.

By the end of our first year, we had a variety custom games, tons of micro content, and we held our first big ‘state of The Chunk’ survey. We wanted to collect feedback from our players, find out what they liked and how we could improve. One of the core questions in the survey was “What is your favorite game on The Chunk?”. We had fairly good metrics on which games players spent their time on, so we figured we roughly knew how that question would be answered. We were wrong.

Now a bit of a sidebar before I reveal what the answer was. In order to play games on The Chunk you first had to join a ‘hub’ server. From the hub server you could form parties, chat with other players, and join into any of our games to start playing. Players would often hang out on this hub to chat, find others to play with and just generally socialize. Nearly 30% of our players answered the favorite game question with a write in: “The Hub”.

We’d never treated the hub as a game, and as such hadn’t included it on the list of favorite game options. In retrospect that result should have been obvious to me - the games on The Chunk were just a means to socialize, and the hub was the central location for all that socialization to happen. Players chatted about their days, game strategies, even met future significant others on our hub. Players came for the games, but stayed for the social hub.

I promise that my rambling above is mostly necessary backstory so that I can share what The Chunk and Minecraft taught me about community.

The Chunk hub

Part of the Chunk Hub v3, showing three games - Minerware, Haunted and Iron Fall

Earning Social Status and Social Capital

Running, growing and hosting The Chunk wasn’t free. At our peak we had a paid and fully remote team of 10 with nearly 50 volunteer player moderators and hundreds of dollars per month in hosting costs. All our games and content were free for anyone to access, so we had to find ways to get some players to give us money - a freemium model.

We could have taken the “pay to win” (p2w) approach, where those who spend money get advantages in the games. Better weapons, better armor, more speed, etc. Most Minecraft servers took this approach, but we were trying to build something different, something that was fair for all players, premium or free.So we turned to social status.

Players could purchase a premium rank and get access to a fancy colored name, special hats pets and other cosmetic items. These cosmetic upgrades offered no gameplay bonus, they just made players look cool. And for all the players who saw our hub as their favorite ‘game’, looking cool and standing out from other players provided social status.

This model has been applied to gaming more and more in the last decade, especially with games like Fortnite. Fortnite is 100% free to play, and they monetize exclusively by selling players cool looking skins, pickaxes and other cosmetic items. Just like on The Chunk, these cosmetic items offer zero bonuses to gameplay. Yet Fortnite parent company Epic still made $3 billion in profit in 2018, with estimates attributing more than $2 billion of that to Fortnite. Social status is powerful.

I can feel you asking “But how does this apply to my community? It’s completely free and I’m not going to charge any of my members for anything.” Social status still plays a very important place in a free community. The most active members who contribute the most will naturally rise to the top of the somewhat invisible social order of the community.

You see this phenomenon on Reddit, where users who contribute frequent, quality discussion are often recognized and stand above your regular Reddit readers. A great example of this is u/Unidan, who even has his own Wikipedia article! Some community platforms, like Reddit and its’ upvote system, have a built in way for users to rise to the top.

You should consider finding ways to recognize the top members in your community, whether that be rewarding the most active users with a special role, featuring a user of the month, or something else. Give community members a way to earn social status and capital.

Varied Member Experiences

We had a lot of custom games and content at The Chunk, and some players exclusively played one game while others jumped around across many games. Hardcore players of Block Wars (our capture the flag game) had different expectations than players of Thimble (a casual jumping game). Trying to design, provide for and engage with our players could never have worked with a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The same goes for most communities. Each member of your community will have a different individual experience, depending on who they interact with in the community and their purpose for joining. You, as the community leader, will have an especially unique experience compared to your average members. Find out who is in your community, why they are there, and what their differing expectations from the community are.

You likely won’t be able to provide one type of engagement or content and expect to provide value to all members. You’ll have to break your community members into buckets and provide value add for each bucket.

Take Latka SaaS Hackers, a Slack community of SaaS (software as a service) founders, CEOs, investors and professionals. The community consists of veteran and new founders, investors, and other SaaS professionals (marketers, product managers, sales and more). They all have different expectations for the group, so various ways have been designed various ways for each of these community member buckets to find unique value.

For the more veteran founders, there are private Slack channels where they can interact with other verified founders at their level. For the less experienced founders, the community hosts a weekly Ask-Me-Anything session with a prominent founder, investor or professional, giving them a chance to learn from those who’ve been there before them. There are also have channels dedicated to discussing sales for those who are learning how to be effective at that.

A community is a composition of smaller sub-communities. You first need to understood who your community members are, what buckets they fall into, and then find ways to provide value to each of those groups of members.

Create Community Engagement

In the early days of The Chunk, we had problems with low player counts. At certain times, our total player count would dip too low for some games to have enough players to start, which created a vicious cycle. Players who wanted to play a game that didn’t have enough other players would eventually leave, preventing that game from ever getting the required number to start.

To encourage new players to try some of these games, we started hosting weekly events. These events helped get existing players into these less popular games, while also attracting new players to bolster the player count. Something really interesting happened after we’d been doing these events for a few weeks – the player counts of the games stayed higher between the events. We became less and less dependent on the events for success, and were able to cycle them into other games.

You’ll likely face a similar problem in your community, especially when first starting out. If you simply put strangers together under the banner of ‘community’, chances are that you’ll end up with a silent community. Typically, users won’t be engagement creators as they’ll end up following the 90 - 9 - 1 rule, which states that in a community only 1% of members will actively create content and engagement, while 9% will engage with created content. This leaves 90% as lurkers, who may very well still find value in the community, even if they aren’t visibly contributing.

The exact distribution will vary from community to community, but in the early days you need to be the 1% that creates engagement. Give your members content to engage with and respond to. This could be as simple as posing a question of the week or consistently sharing interesting content with your members. You could also host digital events like we did at The Chunk. Find out what type of content and events your community engages best with, and give it to them.

As your community grows, you’ll reach a critical mass where you have enough members that the 1% creating content will be more than just you.

Let Members Contribute

At The Chunk, the primary way that we let our members contribute was through our player moderator system. Anyone who has ever been involved in gaming in any way will know that gamers can be toxic when left unsupervised. Our player moderators were made up of the older, more mature members of our player base, who volunteered their time to help deal with reports of players breaking rules, bullying, and more.

What did they get in return for their time? Social status and capital! The player moderator rank and title was an envious one in game that many other players respected and looked up to. The little red “Mod” tag that these volunteers got in front of their usernames was highly desirable, and it these moderators something in return for the help they provided.

Members will likely offer to volunteer to help out in the community, whether it be in through moderation, frequent engagement, or helping to create and host events. Let them! Find ways to let the most dedicated community members lead, create content, and provide value to other members.

Creating, running and growing a Minecraft server for three and a half years taught me a lot about community. I could probably write a post two-to-three times longer than this one if I were to include everything, but I’ll leave you with these four points that you can apply to your own community.

  1. Give community members the ability to earn social status and capital within the community.
  2. Truly understand who your different members are, what value looks like to them in the community, and find ways to provide that value.
  3. Create engagement. As your community grows, members should create engagement among themselves, but you can always create points of engagement to help encourage it, especially in the early days.
  4. Let your most active and dedicated members contribute back to the community, through moderation, events, and engagement creation.

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