A fansite is a great place for people to talk about games, to get an inside into a company and chat with fellow fans as well as some developers! Lionhead has always had many fansites and the latest in this great succession is; The Dead Hamster. Their webmaster explains how the project came about, why they are a great place to discuss Lionhead’s projects and his plans for expansion.
Let’s start off with letting people know who you are.
I’m a gamer. An industry activist. And a community rock star. [laughs]
My name’s Matthew Allen, and I run The Dead Hamster, a rather awesome Lionhead community website.
I’m a big believer in the impact of community, the power of fanbase, innovation through game design, the prevalence of social medias, and video game history preservation. I’m a music addict, movie buff, climber of playground equipment, narrator of anecdotes, master of the pottery wheel, expert adventurer, and I can make a killer lasagna.
What was your first encounter with the Lionhead community?
I joined the Lionhead community way back in 2005. I sometimes forget how long I’ve been a part of it, but it’s been 7 years now, which is crazy. At the time I actually didn’t know too much about Lionhead Studios (they were that Fable developer, right?). There was a game of theirs releasing that I’d had my eye on for a while called The Movies. On its surface the game seemed to be just a Hollywood sim. Look a bit deeper, though, and the game was actually some rather advanced movie creation software. Players could make movies, down to every detail, and upload them to The Movies Online, Lionhead’s online movie sharing website. No game had ever done anything quite like this and I simply had to be a part of it, so I immediately joined the forums.
What followed was a fun and crazy journey with some of the most amazing people I’ve had the privilege to know. Although I dabbled with The Movies Online here and there, I was actually becoming more and more intrigued with the community itself. The forums were an amazing place, full of people from different creeds, ages, and nationalities; all inhabiting the same virtual space due to a shared common interest. It fascinated me.
As time went on I became more involved with the community, eventually became a volunteer moderator, and worked with community stalwarts Sam Van Tilburgh and Woody Hennekam to keep the community a fun and orderly place to visit. In time, I cultivated an immense interest in the management of game communities. While I will always have a deep respect for those in the trenches of the game studio (programmers, level designers, artists, etc.), I always felt that people on the PR and community side of game development was where a good deal of the fun was had. You get to interact directly with fans, get to do interviews with the press, if employed by a larger developer you get to attend tons of gaming events and talk to thousands of people, get to go in front of the camera on occasion, and you get to have a hand in communicating fan feedback that will ultimately help shape the game. All in all, the position gets a good deal of attention, something that I candidly admit to enjoying thoroughly. In short, it sounded exactly like my cup of tea.
What made you decide to create a dedicated fansite to Lionhead Studios?
I’ve always felt that the term “fansite” was a bit of a misnomer for us. That’s not a knock against fansites mind you. There are some really great ones out there (ProjectEgo.net, Kayssplace, and the fan run Fable Wiki are all doing amazing things). Yet The Dead Hamster has, to me, always seemed a bit different than your average fansite. In a sense, we were never really a fansite that was created for the sake of being a fansite, but rather The Dead Hamster came about as a supplemental site for the existing Lionhead community.
While the actual history of our community is rather long winded (you can read the full story here), the website really began to come together, at least conceptually, earlier this year. It had become a reality that the time requirements of the good folks who helped run and maintain the Lionhead community were ever-increasing and the demands of managing a large community seem to only rise year over year as new and interesting ways to interact with fans evolve. It was clear that it would be difficult to sufficiently meet the needs of the community with things as they were. So Lionhead.com was redesigned to have a more blog-oriented social media format which presented an opportunity for The Dead Hamster to step in and help fill the niche of providing community forums.
It was a very bittersweet transition, to put it mildly. It was difficult to see the old forums go; there was so much history there. One really cool thing about the forums was that it had been around since the late 90’s. On the other hand, one bad thing about the forums was that it had been around since the late 90’s. The forums had undergone so many software changes and so many transitions over the years and, while the community team always managed to save all the content with each upgrade, eventually all those posts and software changes made things a little sluggish and unstable.
So it became this very interesting conflict of emotions during the community transition. The removal of the official forums was the end of an era and many were sad to see them closed. Yet, if that had never happened, The Dead Hamster would never even exist and in many ways The Dead Hamster improves upon the old forums. So it’s definitely a ‘silver lining’ situation. It’s been said that the end justifies the means and, in this case, I think it’s a fair assessment. It’s difficult to imagine, but if things had been just a little bit different we’d still have the clunky forums of yesteryear. Although it wasn’t a popular decision at the time (which is understandable), it’s a decision that allowed The Dead Hamster to step up and become the truly amazing community site it is today.
What makes The Dead Hamster different from most community sites?
I was talking with a member a few weeks ago and he compared The Dead Hamster to Lionhead Studios in the sense that we’re innovating with our community in the same way that Lionhead innovates with their games. I was hard pressed to find a better comparison.
There are so many community sites out there on the web. Within the game industry alone there are thousands…literally thousands…of them. In many cases, these communities are run by a team of marketing people with access to specialized talent and, in some cases, moderate to healthy budgets. Over at The Dead Hamster, we have to do things a bit differently. We’re a much smaller team (myself and a couple of volunteers, Bryan Carrithers and Peter Cormie) and we’ve absolutely no budget to speak of. So we realize we’re a niche website, of sorts, and yet we try to do what we can to be on par with “the big guys” in the industry, all while still doing our own thing. The ways we do this is by focusing on the member experience, innovative community features, and a passionate and active group of folks running the site.
We have a wide range of rather nifty features that help make The Dead Hamster what it is. We’ve got super powerful software powering our forums. We have a fully integrated community chatroom which allows users to have more casual and unstructured conversation. We have a Facebook app, so users who prefer their community experience more Facebook flavored can actually read and post to the forums without ever leaving Facebook. We’ve also got full mobile support for the forums and chatroom, including community apps for iPhone and Android devices as well as support for Blackberry and Windows Phone. In terms of content, we feature exclusive Lionhead interviews, Lionhead news, community write ups, contests, and more. These are just some of the larger bullet points of our community, but in my opinion it’s the little things we do that really set us apart (such as awesome fan art that our members post or the fact that we have a 24 hour hamster cam). At every turn we try to keep the community interesting and worth investing time in.
What role do you feel community plays within the game industry?
While the role of community management has existed in some capacity for the last decade or so, it’s really become much more prevalent and expansive in the last couple of years. The importance of a game developer’s community cannot be overstated. The numbers don’t lie. With active community management: site hits increase, franchise loyalty increases, and player feedback increases – all things that lead to a better selling and higher quality game. Yet at the same time, numbers are only a superficial glance at things. I think often times there’s a disconnect community managers have where they mistake working on their community for working in their community. In short, a community is a vital part of a game company’s health and public perception.
We’re no strangers to the nature of the internet. Gamers, in particular, are a particularly passionate group. In recent years, communities of gamers have been garnering more and more sway in the industry; molding it and shaping it. It’s an area of opportunity that should not be ignored.
As such, community managers should be ambassadors and advocates in one. On the surface, a community manager’s first responsibility is to the game developer and yet the community manager must also convey the voice of the community such that the developer fully understands the mood of the marketplace, the needs of its fanbase, and the community’s intentions. In an age where customer interaction with many companies seems so scripted and insincere, I think it’s important that community managers always remain candid with their fanbase. I realize in a few ways that might be naive, especially considering there are many factors at work in the game industry and often times there’s internal information or opinion that simply can’t be voiced. That said, an overall effort should still be made. Gamers are a savvy group of people. If you feed them a corporate line, they’ll know.
In video game design some of the most successful games were made on the basis of the developer saying, “We just wanted to make a game we’d want to play.” Likewise, the best way for me to manage a community is to create and foster the kind of community I’d want to be a part of. I honestly believe that as long as I do that then everything will take care of itself.
Do you have any future plans for The Dead Hamster?
Most certainly! In fact, we’ve got some really interesting things lined up in the very near future.
One thing I’m very much looking forward to is our community webcomic. I dabbled in a community webcomic for Lionhead a few years back and ended up putting out over 80 separate comics during its run. The series eventually faded away as other projects took priority, but I’ve always wanted to have another go at it. I’m planning on a new series entirely, one that takes a look at the game industry from the perspective of the developer more than it does from the perspective of the gamer (though we’ll still mix it up between the two). We’ve also got some very interesting interviews coming up soon, one with Fable: Edge of the World author Christie Golden. We’ll also be doing a livechat interview with a developer in the coming weeks in which users can submit their questions to the developer in real time (this interview will take place in our community chatroom). Naturally there are some other goodies planned which I can’t reveal just yet.
Rest assured, there’s always exciting and interesting things happening over at The Dead Hamster. It goes without saying that anyone who considers themselves a Lionhead fan should drop by and join in on the fun. Hope to see you all there!
Thanks for your time Matt! Myself and many other Lionhead developers will be lurking around the TDH forums, so if you have any questions for us, see you there! And I have to mention that all the opinions stated in this interview are the opinions of The Dead Hamster and Matthew.