About this Episode

In this episode of the Player: Engage podcast, we delve deep into the world of community in gaming from multiple perspectives. Greg, is joined by three distinguished guests from the gaming industry: Ben Kvalo from Midwest Games, Anna Wright from Niantic, and Carlos Figueiredo from Minecraft. Each guest shares their unique insights on building and nurturing gaming communities, emphasizing player safety, community engagement, and the integration of community feedback into game development.

Key takeaways from this episode include:

  • Ben Kvalo’s insights on the business end of gaming and the importance of market strategies for game launches.
  • Anna Wright’s experiences at Niantic, discussing the impact of real-world interactions in games like Pokemon Go and how these shape community dynamics.
  • Carlos Figueiredo’s perspective on player safety as a design discipline, highlighting the evolution of community safety features in games like Minecraft.

For a deeper understanding of how these industry leaders are shaping the future of gaming communities and ensuring safe, engaging environments for players, tune into this episode of Player: Engage. Their stories and strategies are not just informative but also a testament to the dynamic and ever-evolving world of gaming. Listen now to explore the intricate balance between player engagement and safety, and discover how top companies are leveraging community feedback to enhance gaming experiences.

AI Transcript

Greg Posner: 00:01: 01:59: Hey everybody, welcome to the Player: Engage podcast. We’ve got a really special episode for you today. I’m really excited. Today’s episode is actually brought to you by Community Clubhouse. It’s a continuation of the insights and connections fostered at the Community Clubhouse at GDC this year. As a premier gathering spot, Community Clubhouse is a free, dynamic hub dedicated to the gaming community and player experience professionals. It hosts enriching in-person events worldwide, featuring expert panels, AMAs, and invaluable networking opportunities. Additionally, it extends its reach online through their vibrant Discord community forum, providing continuous learning and networking resources. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Community SIFT, which is part of Microsoft. We’ll have some information on that on our website as well. But today we’re focusing on community in gaming. We’ll explore this concept from several different perspectives. Firstly, a studio’s viewpoint. We’ll discuss the commitment to ensuring player safety and fostering a secure online environment. Secondly, we’ll talk to a publisher’s perspective, focusing on the strategies to assist studios in building a robust online presence and expand their reach to attract more players. Finally, for franchises with established IPs and dedicated fan bases, we’ll delve into maintaining the integrity of the IP while continuing to ensure a safe and compliant community experience. Together, these approaches underline a holistic commitment to nurturing vibrant and secure gaming communities. With all that being said, we have three awesome guests today. I’m going to let them each introduce themselves one at a time. But as we do it, just to keep moving things along, these are all panelists from our GDC Community Clubhouse event. And what I’d love to ask you as you’re introducing yourself are, were there any pivotal insights or lessons that you took away from the Community Clubhouse experience? And is there anything that you’d like to expand upon and talk more to? So with that being said, I’ll start with the first box I see, which is Ben Kvalo from Midwest Games. Ben, thanks for joining us. If you’d like to say hi.
Ben Kvalo: 02:00: 03:18: Hey, Greg. I appreciate you having me on. I’m Ben Kvalo. I’m the founder CEO of Midwest Games. I was most recently at Netflix before I created this company. And I’ve spent time in the industry of Blizzard and 2K. And as far as areas that I was really interested in and want to expand upon is there’s just a lack of information around you know, how you go about the business end of games. You know, so much of the focus is the incredible creative, incredible developers that put out games, but there’s a lack of information and resources for how you ultimately maximize that. And the reality is that the market, you know, with over 14,000 games coming out on Steam alone, and then you look at the mobile market, you look at consoles, you look at everything else going on, there, how you go to market, how you really maximize your opportunity when you launch a title is so important. And I hope that we can get more resources out there for how people go to market and making sure that they have the realities in place and not just, you know, looking at the top 1% that do succeed.

Greg Posner: 03:21: 03:32: Yeah, I love it. Thank you for that. It’s getting to the market and maximizing your efforts. So I appreciate that, Ben, and welcome. Next, I want to introduce Anna Wright from Niantic. Anna, thank you for joining us.

Anna Wright: 03:32: 05:05: I am delighted to be here, Greg. Thank you so much. And it’s a delight to be with my co-panelists here. I am Anna Wright. I’m the director of player experience here at Niantic. We make games like Pokemon Go. We make mobile games that connect people to the real world, Monster Hunter Now. And, you know, my experience at GDC this year was pretty starkly that there were a lot of people really hungry for the kind of topics that Community Clubhouse was presenting. from whether we’re talking about community, whether we’re talking about player experience and support, whether we’re talking about trust and safety, each of these functions, each of these areas have just so much complexity, there’s so much depth. And we were trying to squeeze, you know, so much into one panel, I had a talk on player experience, and we’re trying to talk about everything from your player support journey, The feedback loops that you have, the type of tooling infrastructure and tech stack that you need to be effective, the kind of programs you can develop. I’m a bit of a geek for this topic, so I’ll say I think that that alone could be its own conference. So my sort of takeaway from GDC was more. Let’s do more. I think people are hungry for it. And I do think that there’s a sense in gaming now that there’s a sort of bigger opportunity for these functions to have meaningful contributions to the top line KPIs that a game would be pursuing. So that’s my takeaway. More of us.

Greg Posner: 05:06: 05:20: I love it. Thank you, Anna. And finally, we have Carlos Figueiredo. I’m struggling with that beforehand, but I’m getting a thumbs up, so that’s perfect. Carlos is from Minecraft, and we really appreciate you coming out today, Carlos. Anything you’d like to share?

Carlos Figueiredo: 05:20: 07:54: Thank you very much for having me. Great to be here with an excellent group. My name is Carlos Figueiredo, and I’m director of player safety for Minecraft. I’ve been there for over two years now, but prior to that, My career started over almost 16 years ago at Club Penguin, if you will now remember the defunct Club Penguin. That’s where I cut my teeth in player safety. After that, I worked for 2Hat. I worked for that company from very early inception when it was a startup all the way up to the Microsoft acquisition. So you were talking about the episode being brought by Community Shift. I’ve worked on Community Shift for many, many years. And, um, it was, it’s a pleasure to, to, to be here in the conversation. So for me, during the community clubhouse conversations, and also would say even overarching and overall in the GDC experience, something that spoke to me was the fact that the safety conversation was so much more prominent at GDC this time. And it’s a star contracts for me because I, the last time I attended GDC in person was in 2019. And I saw the difference very, uh, it was very much on your face, right? Lots of conversations about safety in different summits, different sessions, lots of, uh, focus on this, but not just that. More importantly, I would say is player safety is now becoming truly a design discipline. And I talked about this in my talk there, and I really think that this is becoming a reality where people are seeing safety is not just that unwanted thing that you need to do, you know, like blocking the F word. No, it’s a part of a holistic strategy. If you truly want to have a very healthy, thriving experience for your players online, that was a strong takeaway there. And the other part was AI. Just, I mean, where isn’t AI, you know, a part of the conversation right now? But I particularly enjoy the conversations during a community clubhouse when we were talking about AI in the context of it brings challenges when it comes to user generated content at scale, but it also is an important tool to help us moderate, to help us incentivize and reinforce our community norms and pro-social behaviors as well.

Greg Posner: 07:56: 08:48: Thank you, Carlos. And you’re probably the sixth or seventh trust and safety person I’ve met. And you all seem to have gotten started at Club Penguin. And it’s very suspicious that so many people have got their start at Club Penguin. But I love that you mentioned that because I think this is a good start to the episode that safety was much more prominent. at this. And I think that makes a lot of sense for multiple reasons. And I think we see a lot more people taking to online to have more discussions to broaden their group. But I’m curious if you think that anything has to do with kind of the trend of games. It seems like 2023 and 2024 LiveOps is being pushed a lot on a lot of different people who are playing these games. And, you know, in order to have LiveOps, you need to have community of people coming on and trust and safety needs to. So I’m curious from your perspective, do you think the rise of LiveOps is helping the rise of community or are there two separate parts of community that are helping build that pillar? And maybe Carlos, since you had that thought, I’ll throw it to you first.

Carlos Figueiredo: 08:48: 10:26: All right. I have to take us a little bit back to pre-pandemic years. I believe at that point, the recognition, the importance of player safety was already becoming highlighted at that point. Let’s say 2019, right? There was already stronger conversations around this, including upcoming, at that time, it was upcoming safety bills around the world, legislation, right? Like there was a lot of talk around that. The gaming industry seemed more primed to have that conversation overall and starting to understand the connection between a healthy community and things like engagement and retention, longevity of a brand, brand reputation. Those things were already happening. But now, of course, during pandemic years, just the importance of games as means of connection, people really feeling like they belong to a community, to something larger than themselves, and having that sense of community of belongings just became so, so intense, right? I would love to hear from my colleagues if they agree to that statement, that now it’s just a no-brainer that If you want to have a really amazing online experience, having social dynamics and social interactions, the possibility of truly building relationships online is paramount to the success of so many of those games. So I believe it has something to do with what you mentioned in terms of live ops, right? And operationalizing those elements.

Greg Posner: 10:26: 11:08: Ana, I have a question that kind of builds on that. And if you want to add anything, but you know, I remember, and I forgot how many years ago, it was when Pokemon Go first launched, but it started this whole wave of getting outside. And I think that A is a great thing, right? People are always associated gamers with sitting behind the couch, sitting behind their screen, playing. And all of a sudden you see groups of people walking throughout the streets, having fun, capturing Pokemon. Building this type of community is a little different because there’s actually physically people going outside, people going to do different things. And I remember reading stories of people showing up in in graveyards at night, which were fun things to do, but this all comes up. How do you take a look at community, and it may not directly sit under your role, but how do you take a look at that greater whole and make sure that your community is safe?

Anna Wright: 11:09: 14:53: Yeah, obviously it’s a really important question when you’re playing a game that has geolocation based foundations. You know, I think with Pokemon specifically, it was such a special IP. It is still such a special IP. People are so deeply connected to it. And so I think what we benefited from were sort of pre-existing communities of people who shared this interest, whether it was through the trading cards or through the movies or whatever it might be. And I think for us, what we learned was, you know, when we’re thinking about how you develop a community, And you’ll hear people talk a lot about, well, you want to go where your audience is. And when your audience is out in the real world and that’s part of your actual mission, that poses a really interesting sort of conundrum from an online community building perspective. But what we found was that really focusing on those micro communities of players helped us find and identify, you know, who were the real sort of connecting points within those micro communities and how can we tease out relationships there to help us have a better sort of presence within those communities. And I think through that, we really got a pretty close-up look at some of the challenges and, you know, maybe scenarios that players might be involved in that could be deemed unsafe. And so this gets into things like are they walking in a trespassing area or are they connecting with individuals who, you know, where things can get pretty heated if you’re fighting over a gym or things like that. So I think from the very, very early days, our consideration of safety had to be sort of an integrated consideration of both online and real world potential harm. And I come from a social background. I was at Twitter for about eight years. And for us, we talked a lot about when online harm can lead to physical real world harm. It’s such an integrated experience when you’re playing one of our games that you will be interacting with other players out in the real world. And so I think for us, the focus is obviously on making sure we have reactive frameworks in place to be responsive. But I think more and more, how do we, and this kind of gets to I think what Carlos is talking about, how do we think about this from the moment of design? How do we integrate the idea of more pro-social types of features and gameplay at the design level so that what we’re encouraging in the real world is the buildup of community rather than the sort of contention against others who are playing the game. And we’re still, you know, we have a bunch of games. I think Ingress is a game that you can point to where people are really, really competitive And that gets into the real world and it’s a shared game board. So anything I do to the game is going to be reflected in other players and people get really passionate about it. So I would say, I mean, this is kind of generic answer because I don’t want to get too into the weeds, but ensuring that we are being thoughtful, not just about our reactive presence for players and that they have a place to go with their concerns, but also getting really, really smart about how we can detect and even prohibit this type of behavior through better game design. And I do think that’s a more prominent conversation now than before. And if I zoom out, my head kind of thinks we’re getting as a world a little bit better at recognizing that we can’t completely disambiguate online from real world. We have to take these things into consideration at the same time, even if we’re making a game that’s going to have somebody sitting on their couch looking at their mobile phone. or logging on to chat with people in a chat room. Yeah, I would say that’s sort of my generalized, highly generalized take on it.

Greg Posner: 14:53: 15:39: I love it. And through the podcast, I’ve learned more about inclusive design, which is in the beginning, you kind of take in all these factors when you’re designing this and keep it in hand. And to Ben, Ben’s going to be a little different in this correct me if I’m wrong, Ben, but where Ben’s coming more from the publisher’s perspective, right? So he’s working directly with studios. I’d say it’s almost more B2B, but he definitely has a big C following of everyone that listens to him. So, and then Carl said, working with the players, playing with the players. Ben, when it comes to the studios that you’re working with or you’re helping consult with, Do you look at these types of inclusive design things? Are you basically looking at them from the community perspective? Because you do a great job of community building online. How does this knowledge transfer get passed down to those studios that you’re working with?

Ben Kvalo: 15:39: 18:58: Yeah, I mean, we are always trying to supply studios with the latest the latest advice, the latest findings, because that’s ultimately where their players live in all of these different kinds of communities, different places. And realistically, as we look at each of the games that we’re supporting, and we’re not a genre publisher, so we’re not only going after one area, we have to be flexible to know, OK, for this type of game, the audience is in these places. And these are the factors that kind of come into play in those places. Because, you know, as you look at where an audience is living, where a community is living, you know, there’s different factors. I mean, Anna worked at Twitter, Twitter audience, and if a game is heavily, you know, influenced by an audience in Twitter, that audience is going to be very different than a Instagram heavy audience. And each of these different types of games, if it’s a cozy game or, you know, different style game has a different place that their audience is living. And so we have to really think about, well, how best do we give them the resources to succeed with the audiences they’re they’re kind of going after. And then to kind of go back a little bit to what Carlos was talking to, the other thing I think about is, you know, as to why this online, is it live services? Is it, what is it that’s bringing us so much into this online space? I think we’re just in this kind of next era. If we think about the eras of games, we look at arcade era and You know, we look at the console era and we’ve been in this digital era that blends a physical and digital kind of space. But we’re also moving into this completely digital era of cloud that’s coming fast in the next five to 10 years. And in that era, it’s going to be, well, you can play anything, anywhere, on any device with anybody. And we’re going to be living digitally and physically, but we’re not going to be tethered to anything. And that’s what’s going to be really unique. And so I think we’re only further moving into it. I think live services might have had an influence, but in the future world, it might not be so so much about the live services. Any type of game can kind of live in this more in this completely digital world. And you can bring your games anywhere and I just see a world where you’re at a bar and if there’s a TV or some kind of screen you can throw the game, whatever you’re playing, onto that screen and you’re able to really live whatever kind of gaming life you want. And if you want that to be a strategy game, it can be a strategy game. If you want that to be a live service game or, you know, whatever it is, I think it’s the flexibility and accessibility that’s kind of the future of this kind of digital world. And then, you know, how do we keep people, you know, safe? And how do we keep, you know, the experiences right for the communities? It just becomes more complicated. the more we get into it, but we’ll learn and we’ll get tools to kind of adapt as we go as well.

Greg Posner: 19:00: 20:03: That’s well said. And you mentioned kind of the cloud, which I love, but in a similar, not so similar way is that the channel where people are congregating is also shifting, right? In the past few years, we’ve seen a giant rise of discord. Before that, everyone was trying to keep things in game. We’ve had Reddit, we’ve had all these different tools where communities are gathering and you have to decide at a certain point, where are you going to try and focus your resources? It’s hard to go really thin across all the different channels out there. So, Both the games that you guys work with, Anna and Carlos, Minecraft and Monster Hunter, Pokemon, all those games are all kid-related games. And there’s adults that play it as well, don’t get me wrong, right? But there’s this whole COPA, there’s this whole protect the children type of thing as well. And again, trying to follow what networks they’re going on. I don’t know how I asked this question, so I’m just going to ask it is, how do you decide to prioritize which determined networks you want to make sure you’re protecting? And obviously, the target has to change. How do you make those decisions? And Carlos, if you want to kick us off there.

Carlos Figueiredo: 20:03: 20:17: Just to make sure I understood your question. You mean in terms of thinking about the whole ecosystem, right? Like where our players are at, uh, not only our games, but where they are communicating and different things, right?

Greg Posner: 20:17: 20:18: Exactly.

Carlos Figueiredo: 20:18: 25:24: Yeah. So, so that is, um, a really important question. You think about the, the, the full ecosystem with examples that you shared as Discord and Reddit and all those things are. of course, very important, very important from the point of view of the practice of community management, right? Because that’s where you are interacting with your players in those communities, you’re building community there. But there’s something from the point of view of safety, from my perspective, that’s really important to put an emphasis here, is that the environments that we host, and when I say we, as in Minecraft is hosting, right? Xbox, Microsoft is hosting, then we have the full possibility there of implementing safety features, affordances, of doing human moderation, because that, those experiences, those interactions exist in our hosted environments, right? So it’s really important to talk about this, especially when you’re you’re considering folks who are not in the industry, who are parents and players, they might not understand that that conversation is happening on an environment that is not hosted by the game developer at all. It’s not hosted by them. They don’t have control. They don’t have the authority even to make changes or take action in a lot of cases. So it’s really important. So back to your question, like how do we focus? Well, the primary part of this question is, of the answer is we focus on what we host, right? Like this is absolutely important that we have to do a great job when it comes to safety of the places that we host. And that means having a lot of great safety affordances, doing things really well when it comes to player abuse reporting. having proactive scanning, so we’re not just doing reactive moderation, we’re also doing proactive things, using tools like chat filtering, things like that, but also having amazing moderators, right? So in those hosted environments, we get to do that. We get to put our full safety suit, innovate, right? Find ways of educating players, of reinforcing normative, positive, pro-social behaviors, and all those things. And then, How do we invest on the other areas? How do we choose what to focus on, right? So I’ll give you an example. Minecraft has a lot of private servers. So those are not servers hosted by us, right? They’re hosted by the community. When I joined the team, I knew that that would be a great opportunity. Like, how do we incentivize the adoption of safety best practices? How do we bring the community along to understand the importance of that so they follow those best practices, right? Because we can’t go and just simply implement it. We need to incentivize to work with them. That’s why we created official Minecraft server list. It’s findmcserver.com. And if you go on that site, you can see that that’s a partnership between us, between Mojang Studios and Gamer Safer, where we are working with the community of servers and they get badges that show their commitment to a lot of great community management practices, security and safety practices. And as they get those badges, they are featured on the site. It’s free to them, right? Like they are not having to pay anything to join. They just have to show the commitment to that. So that’s an example of how we’re prioritizing an area that is not hosted by us, but we are working with the community, with our partners to get them started on that journey, right? To help them follow those safety best practices and give them the spotlight on that website so they can attract more players. They grow their servers and grow their business as well, right? So it gets really nuanced when you talk about other tools, right? communities that are outside of the things we host. But then I will finalize with this point that it’s so crucial. We say this a lot and it’s so true when it comes to player safety. I don’t see competition. I see all of us coming together and there’s so many wonderful coalitions and wonderful things out there. One of those, I’m a co-founder of the Fair Play Alliance. And there are many other places where a lot of those companies you’re talking about, they collaborate, right? Like they get to work together in a non-competitive way. Really, like how can we improve the safety and well-being of our players all up? Because let’s face it, a lot of times the same player playing Minecraft could be the same player who is on Pokemon and other games, right?

Greg Posner: 25:25: 25:57: Yeah. And the same question, I want to kind of add a little bit at the end where, you know, building a community is not an easy thing to do. It’s building a village, getting people to come to the village, getting people to support the village. And eventually the village becomes self-sufficient and maybe you can take a step back. And my question is when you can kind of take a step back and let the community not self govern, but give them enough kind of authority to do what they’re going to do. Does it get easier or harder? Because then all of a sudden, you have to worry about what can happen kind of rogue.

Anna Wright: 25:57: 29:55: Yeah, I don’t necessarily think that a community ever really gets to a true set it and forget it stage. I think that You know, when we’re talking about a successful community, and I’ll start now, as Carlos did, thinking of a hosted community, I couldn’t agree more with, with what Carlos said. When you’re hosting, you have a different sort of commitment and a different a different responsibility to that community because you have presumably are coming from a place, a company that has made the safety of its players a priority. But beyond that, you know, you’re partnering across the company. If you’re a big place or if you’re small, you’re trying to think about, OK, what’s the how do we imbue this community with sort of a sense of the vibes of our game? How do we imbue this community with the kind of culture that we want our players to be able to foster? And when you’re being really aspirational, you want to think that you’ll bring together people and bring out the best in these people, and they will support one another. Your marketing colleagues are going to be interested. Your community team is going to be interested. Your support team is going to be interested. Your trust and safety team is going to be interested. And when you’re talking about, I think, a vibrant, really humming kind of community, each of those functions may at certain points kind of turn up the volume of their commitment with that community, depending on what your current community goals are. I can say in my professional past, I’ve had moments where we’re really leaning very heavily on our trust and safety colleagues, because something has gotten out of hand, and we feel like we’re not upholding our part of the deal for the players. We need to create a safer place. And that can also be a part of, you know, how you choose to moderate and engage with the voices on your community. You’re always going to have your loudest kind of players. So how do you find ways to incentivize other players to be participating in the conversation or communicating and interacting with one another? in a community that you’re not hosting, it gets a little bit trickier. And I think, you know, for us, it’s, it’s a matter of looking at, you know, you’re starting a community strategy, say from from scratch, or you’re trying to revise one, it starts with what your constraints are, in my experience. So we have IP partners, what are some of the requirements that they might have? What are some of the requirements that our cross-functional stakeholders might have? Let’s start by setting out the guidelines and the guardrails for what this community is not. And within that constraint, get really creative to achieve the goals that we would have for that community. And for us with Pokemon Go, again, kind of hitting on that idea that we understood immediately that there were micro communities of real world game players that we wanted to tap into. We knew they must be online. And where were they online? And we found pockets of them big and small. in places like Reddit, obviously Discord more and more, Twitter, now X, we still have a cohort of players there. It changes based on geography. And so our, our strategy ends up being, all right, so we’re not going to have one centralized place and be a center of gravity that people come to us We’re going to go connect to them and find out what the best way is to connect with these authentic voices and understand what their experience is and how we might be able to improve that. And it ends up feeling, I hesitate to use the word fractured because that might seem like a bad word, but I actually think it just means we need to be really agile and really creative because kids are very trend driven and it’s hard to keep track. So we rely very heavily on every single voice across our company to be able to let us know when there might be a new place where people are popping up talking about our games.

Greg Posner: 29:56: 30:55: I love what you said on how when you build a community, there are those loud, vocal people, because every community has them. The problem is, how do you get the others to start speaking up and raising their voices? Someone once told me that a lot of AI is being trained on Facebook data, and what basically AI is learning is that humans like to fight each other. When you go online, the most vocal people online are all arguing with each other, and it’s just like, oh my God, that’s a great point. The most vocal people, the only people that speak online are that 10% that are vocal. How do you get the other 90% to actually step up and do something? And it’s not easy, right? That’s the challenge in all this is how do you get others engaged? I have a similar question for you, Ben, and feel free to answer that as well, but kind of you’re, I’m looking again, more from a B2B perspective on how do you create these partnerships? How do you amplify the reach of yourself as well as the studios that you’re working with to make sure that others in the community are hearing that basically creating that network effect So people now know who Midwest Games are, who the studios are that work with them.

Ben Kvalo: 30:55: 35:09: Yeah, what’s interesting about our situation, obviously, we’re in a very different situation than both Carlos and Anna, because we’re working to even just establish awareness with something. And so with that, I go back to the word control. And ultimately, control is something that is nice to have. It’s something you earn over time. You earn the ability to have control over something because you have enough of an audience a bit of a privilege to have that. Whereas I’m working with developers that don’t. They have to give up control. They have to allow audiences to take something and make it what they want it to be. And sometimes that changes the trajectory of what a studio is doing, what a game is being made. You know, you look at games that come out on early access. Well, based on how the communities are reacting and where they’re reacting, it can really affect and change what the direction of a game is. And so for us, we want to create exposure for each of the games that we come out with, and that’s a piece of the value that we bring as a publisher, is they already know that we have a built-in audience, we have built-in pipelines, we know how to do some of these things, we know how to react to certain conversations, we’ve seen these things happen before, and we can guide people in the right direction, but the reality is we have to be flexible because we’re establishing audiences. We’re trying to figure out, well, where does this live? If it’s a certain type of game, and I spoke to this a little bit earlier as well, traditionally, it might be on Reddit. It might be more of a Discord type of audience type of game. And we’ll want to go after that and try those platforms. But you never know. It might take off in a completely different towards what, where the audience is showing up, how they’re reacting to it. And, you know, as, as marketers, which is a piece of our business, you know, we look at the demographics and we look at like the audiences we’re going after, but you never know who actually might attach onto it. And the gaming audience is so broad these days, you know, it’s nearing what 3.5 billion gamers worldwide. There’s so many different types of audiences and so many different different places. If you try to say, oh, this is a game that’s for females, you know, that are 24 to 30 and whatever, it might be males that are 40 to 50 that attach onto it. And you have to just go with whatever that audience is that is really resonating and try to maximize that and then try to expand it over time. And so we’re really thinking about that. And then again, because we’re not a genre publisher, you know, we’re bringing in people from different audiences and trying to get them to try something that’s maybe outside of their norm type of game. And so, you know, if we become really good at that, you know, we can take somebody that is used to playing JRPGs and introduce them to a beat-em-up and try to get them to play that game. help developers is we’re able to give those audiences and try to grow them over time, but we ultimately have to be able to pivot to where the audience lives. And that’s always changing as well. And so we have to, you know, TikTok obviously has grown in the gaming scene, but that might change, you know, if they have to shut down in America or sell or whatever that is. And there might be something else that emerges and into those areas and maximize that audience while it’s available.

Greg Posner: 35:09: 35:29: The developers that you’re working with, Ben, are they ever resistant to new strategies when they’re so dead set on it? I know my audience. I know my audience. I’m building my baby. People don’t like to be told that their baby is ugly, right? Do you deal with resistance or do you think there’s enough clout that comes behind what you say where people are accepting of it?

Ben Kvalo: 35:30: 37:31: I mean, any healthy relationship has what I call healthy friction. You know, there’s the belief in what something is, and then there’s a push on, oh, but think about it this way, or at least, you know, consider, you know, different alternatives, or what if you don’t hit that audience? What’s your backup, you know, route? So, yeah, I mean, absolutely. With any, you know, I’ve worked in enough creative places, you know, I’ve had films on Netflix, and then games on Netflix, And, you know, I’ve been in radio, I’ve been in e-sports, I’ve been in, like, all these different areas. No matter what, like, creative and operations sometimes has different friction points. And you can tell someone, hey, this is what we think it is, and they might have a different perspective on it. The folks that are most open and vulnerable and willing to be like, okay, well, that’s an interesting perspective. Maybe if we adjust and try certain things in this area, we can go after that. Those are the kind of collaborative relationships we want with developers, and we consider that in our due diligence process. Are they somebody that wants to collaborate with us, that wants to take advantage of the fact that we have knowledge? Now, are we always right? Absolutely not. We are wrong, but at times as well as anybody else, but we also have a lot to offer. And so looking at collaboration is so key and not somebody that’s going to be like, no, this is absolutely what this game is. zero doubt, this is my audience, this is exactly how it’s going to hit, this is how many units we’re going to sell. Anyone that tells you an exact honestly doesn’t know what they’re talking about because you just never know in this industry and you have to flex towards what is working. The ones that succeed, while it seems like they’ve known their audience from the beginning, it’s very doubtful they did. They pivoted towards what ultimately was was truly of their audience and they did things to serve that audience.

Greg Posner: 37:31: 38:05: Thank you. Carlos, in 2011, Minecraft was released. So we’re on about 13 years of Minecraft, going from Mojang to Acquired, 15 years. I’m not a good math person, this is why I’m here. How do you keep a community engaged for 15 years? We talked very briefly of LiveOps and I don’t want to talk about it for long, but you’ve kept the game alive longer than most games have been alive. So how do you engage with the community? How do you keep the community coming back for more?

Carlos Figueiredo: 38:05: 42:15: Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. And, you know, I’ve been My journey with Minecraft has been a small part of that journey, right? Two of the 15 years. It is 15 years next month, which is so awesome to see, right? And I’ll just tell you a story. Just before I was literally about to sign my contract with Mojang, I was at BET in London in the UK, the educational conference. Like I literally had the contract in my inbox, right, ready to sign it. I was there at work and I saw this presentation by Oxford, the university, presenting on how they use Minecraft education to teach English as a second language to kids. And that was like a really big mind blowing moment for me. Like it just like, okay, I am, making the right career change here. I knew at that moment that it was the, I already knew it, but it just reinforced it. And I’m using this example, this story, because I think that speaks to what Minecraft is. It really is a lot of possibility. It’s a lot of creativity. There’s so many amazing things that you can do with the game. I don’t remember exactly the name of the person, but it has been said that Minecraft is the best educational tool that there is, the best way to teach somebody something. And just the amount of the possibility of problem solving, of creating things, whatever you want to create, really like that sandbox, I think that appeal is essential to what the game is, right? So I think it’s important to start there. But how do you keep something as relevant as that for that long? My answer goes to honoring that, honoring the fact that the community, the players, it’s their game. right? It’s their game as much as Minecraft is for everybody, for everyone. So honoring the fact that it is a game that they take great like ownership. It’s my game. I get to do what I want to do with it. I get to create, I got to, I get to play with others. So respecting that, right? Like respecting something that you have built over so many years that has a story, that has a lore, that has a lot of different principles. Even when you think about design principles, the way that the game is designed, the way that the organization works with creators, with all the people who are playing the game, I think it’s respecting that. It’s respecting, honoring that, including their voices, understanding what people want This is what I have seen in my career, not just Minecraft, is that the really successful games, they have such a special relationship with their community. There’s a really touching relationship between developer and community. It’s something that goes beyond the game. And that example I think goes really well. You have Minecraft, you have Minecraft education, you have different versions of the game, you have Minecraft books. There’s so many things that you can do that relate to that world, relate And now I take us back to the beginning of our chat when I said a community of belonging, when you belong to something larger than you, something that is really purposeful, meaningful to you. I see that games have that possibility, right? If you make it that resonant and meaningful to somebody and you respect their voices, I believe you are already on your path to have something that relevant for that long.

Greg Posner: 42:17: 42:53: Fabulous. I love how you put that. Respect what the game is. I mean, some people try to come in and create a sequel that’s completely different, doesn’t play the same way as that first game was, and it just completely kind of flops. So respect what you’ve created. It is its own ecosystem at this point, and it is delicate. So let it be what it is. And then a similar type of question, right? You’ve had Pokemon Go that launched so many years ago, and now you have Monster Hunter, which is similar premise. How did you take feedback from the community about what was going on in Pokemon and take that feedback and turn it into Monster Hunter?

Anna Wright: 42:53: 46:40: That’s a great question, Greg. I think for, you know, what works with Pokemon Go, there’s a lot that works, but I’m going to focus on this idea of community. Um, and I’m, I’m kind of thinking about what Carlos just said, and it’s, it, I love this idea that you respect, you respect the game, but you respect the players and their commitment and attachment to it. And that attachment can feel quite, quite deep. Um, when I first attended, uh, Pokemon Go Fest, it was in Seattle in 2022. We do a few massive events, Pokemon Go Fest events every year. And this was my first one. And, you know, I’m in a, uh, a function in operation support player experience where a lot of the interactions that I get to be a part of or try to tend to are the moments where people are running into trouble with the game or need some help or need to get unblocked. So we see that hopefully very slim margin of player who might be a little frustrated or very eager to just get through with us and get back to the game. Going to Pokemon Go Fest, suddenly I was surrounded by thousands and thousands of people who defied any demographic categorization. And it was more moving than I anticipated to be in the support tent and watch people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, playing together, the kinds of people playing together who had, you know, they’ll come to you and tell you their stories. Oh, we met on the Silk Road and read it and we became friends. And this is our first time seeing each other in person. And these stories that really kind of bring home and into reality what it means to find a community of your people. and you just get to watch it and realize that the game is a facilitator, right? The game is cool, but the game is kind of not really the point. And that is deeply inspirational. And as a result, we try to get as many Niantics as we can to go to these events to just see that we facilitate real-world community finding that is profound in people’s lives. And witnessing that helps you respect that and helps you preserve that. And so as we’re developing other real world games, certainly the concept of community, how are we going to bring people together with this game? How are we going to facilitate the creation of yet more communities who can find both real world and online joy together through our games? And so for Monster Hunter, Um, we’re planning some of our first, uh, real world events. Um, looking very much, very much, very much looking forward to those. Um, and you know, that’s a strong Capcom, uh, has been a strong partner and this IP is extremely beloved. And so there was a lot for us to build on there. And I think if you are a Monster Hunter fan and you’ve played our Monster Hunter mobile game, you can see there was a lot of attention and respect given to that IP. And I think that that sort of through line has been, that can feel like a needle that you need to thread. And being on the side where you’re just kind of waiting for the players and ready to support them and being kind of reactively prepared from a community perspective, seeing that needle get threaded, just you feel it on the other end of it. You feel it on the other end when the players need help with the game, their urgency to get back into it, the veracity of their feedback. That stuff has just felt like something we needed to harness and really fast. And I think that to me is really that that through line that we have with Pokemon, the communities that we create, the real world events that we produce to help facilitate those interactions. That’s, that’s our special sauce for sure.

Greg Posner: 46:40: 47:17: A similar question for you, Ben, but, but whereas we have two very established IPs here, right? You’re building up multiple potential IPs coming up. So, so do you take into kind of a, what type of research do you do? Are you, are you taking a look at these other communities out there that exists? Are you taking a look at the IPs that you, that your studios are building out and looking at like, I see you as basically having this piece of pottery, right, that you could form into whatever shape you want, right? And you’re kind of in those first stages. So do you put any thought into like, how do we want to do this from this stage? Or are we putting the cart before the horse here?

Ben Kvalo: 47:17: 52:50: Yeah, we think about it from the, you know, from the beginning, from, you know, the moment a game is pitched to us, we’re considering that as a piece, because to your point of like pottery, as an example, you know, there’s certain types of pottery that you know, are you know, popular with, with, you know, popular selling wise, have a built in community. And you have to create something and put out something that is, you know, that is familiar, at times, you know, but, but you could, it’s all about the risk of like, how much do you lean into that? you know, some of these things, you might be like, yeah, it’s, you know, it is this game, but in a sci fi world, you know, and that’s how you sell it. And, and that allows you a built in audience, because if you love this other game, and then you love sci fi, you know that you’re going to be attracted this to this type of game. And so We take it into large consideration because we know what the ceiling is on any certain type of game. We know for like beat-em-ups, Streets of Rage 4 sold 20 million units. So we’re able to look at that and then compare any beat-em-ups to that. And then you look at the factors, well, what makes it different though? Because what people don’t want is the exact same thing over and over. Well, sometimes I do. But it’s usually the IP related. I worked on a game called Borderlands. And Borderlands 1 was fantastic. But what made Borderlands 2 blow up was it just did every single aspect of Borderlands 1 better. And it just expanded upon it. People loved that. And so you have to take into consideration all of these factors. And you ultimately take bets. And you say, hey, we think this will stand out in market. We think this has some really good selling points, has some audiences that we can hit on, and we feel like we can pull people from that audience. The big challenge is we’re fighting the data a little bit where a lot of people play legacy games, a lot of people play games that have been out for quite a while. It’s kind of like the bread and butter, the thing you go back to always. It’s really hard to break into. everyone’s playing Fallout again right now. And that’s because that’s a comfort food type of game. You can go back, you play something you really enjoy. So how do you break through as that new type of game? And so it’s having something familiar helps, but having something new and different helps. That game that came out that was medieval, but then you could drive a car through this medieval army. I forget what the name of that game was. But that stood out in a major way because it was so different. or squirrel with a gun because, you know, it’s a squirrel and he has a gun. It’s a bit ridiculous. And things like that help stand out. And so you have to lean. Do you go with something really out there and different? Or do you go with something that is a little bit more familiar? And then how do you balance those two things so you have enough that’s different? And then how do you, you know, how do you build an IP? My belief is you have to build an IP over time. It takes so much time. I mean, two great examples, you know, in this call between Pokemon and and Minecraft. That has taken a long time to build it to what it is today. My great example always is based on growing up was Ninja Turtles. That took a long time. It was a black and white comic at one point. that built over time, and they only just recently had their biggest successes. And so they’re on a huge upswing. But you have to take time to build IP and too often people are trying to build really high end IP overnight, and they fail massively. When you spend massive amounts of dollars, you have to succeed right away. Whereas in my space, you can build something slower. Minecraft was a perfect example of exactly the types of games we fund when it was much smaller, when it was just a small studio putting out this different type of game, not going on somebody else’s platform and doing things a little bit differently. We fund those types of games. And then you hope that they can build an audience over time, grow that audience, and be able to get to the point that they’re able to expand upon it, whether it be with different iterations or going into different channels like Minecraft, going into education like it has. All of those areas are expandable, but you have to earn your right by building that IP. And I just think in this $50, $100 million on something, you’re able to spend $100,000, $500,000 and start to build something that if you give it enough time and you do find an audience, that audience can grow into something huge.

Greg Posner: 52:52: 53:57: There’s a few things that I really love what you said. One thing is that IPs also aren’t a sure thing, right? I mean, you’ve seen a few recent games that came out that have great IPs, and they just didn’t have it, right? It’s not a slam dunk like it may have been at one point in the past. And then you talked about Streets of Rage 4 and kind of some imitation. And I think I love the idea of taking a look at what works because they say, I mean, the quote is what, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? Find what you love, see what you can improve upon it. Don’t just copy it word for word, but if you love Streets of Rage, build the next better Streets of Rage. Like you said, Borderlands, Borderlands 2 is probably the greatest looter shooter that’s been out there and it was a fantastic experience. So I love all that stuff and how you can take a look at that and how you can build that up. We are running low on time, so I have one last double question for each of you. The question is going to be one, most importantly, what game are you playing now? And the second is in 2024, have there been any trends that are getting you really excited that in technology, right, that you want to be able to start testing out, playing around with? Carlos, let’s start with you.

Carlos Figueiredo: 53:57: 54:48: Okay. I have to preface this by saying that I’m a father of a toddler. And that means that my free time is very minimal. And typically my choice of what to do with my free time involves some physical exercising and music. So typically I’m on the drum kit. So it’s better for me to answer your question as what was the last game that I played? It’s a better answer. Other than, of course, Minecraft, I do play in the context of work. So that for sure is more of a frequent basis. But the last time I played on my personal time was Starfield. Good answer. Really, really enjoyed it. And what’s the second part of your question, please?

Greg Posner: 54:48: 54:55: Trends in 2024 around gaming that excite you. It could be none.

Carlos Figueiredo: 54:55: 55:06: Trends that excite you. It could be none. Oh, that’s a good question. I’ll do a rain check. Might come something to my mind.

Greg Posner: 55:06: 55:09: Done. Anna, you’re on the hot seat.

Anna Wright: 55:09: 57:15: All right. I have to be completely honest. The game I am playing obsessively right now is our own game. I’m playing Monster Hunter now like crazy. I’m very competitive with some of my colleagues here. And I joined the internal dog fooding group because I have strong opinions. I felt like I could share some of those directly with the team. So that’s the game I’m currently obsessed with. And it is easy to just pick that up and play it while I’m kind of like walking on my commute. A little plug for the real world game. Trends in gaming. You know, one trend that I just think we can’t really ignore right now is generative AI. I can’t really say I’m reluctant to label myself about having a feeling on generative AI. would say that we’re in a bit of a hype cycle right now. Automation and automated intelligence has certainly been around a lot. But from my perspective as a leader in the player experience space, I can tell you that this is the number one conversation I’m having with any third party partner that we have. This is the number one topic of conversation that executives around me want to hear me weigh in on. I think that from a gaming perspective, there are some interesting things our team behind the game Peridot is doing right now that leverage LLMs that are really interesting and like fun applications of it in the game that are just, I think, creative in a way that has just been a delight to engage with. So seeing that spectrum of conversation and use cases going from like, that is genuinely delightful and fun and wonderful to, yes, I will sit in on your roadmap presentation to tell me where in your products, generative AI capabilities have been introduced. And so some of those are great conversations, but I think that that trend is hard to ignore right now.

Greg Posner: 57:16: 57:21: Thank you. Oh, Carlos is ready to go with AI too.

Carlos Figueiredo: 57:21: 57:38: Very quickly, I’m excited about the trend of great video game adaptations into series and movies. I mean, Last of Us, just absolutely love that adaptation. And I see more and more happening with a really high degree of quality and care.

Greg Posner: 57:38: 57:52: Can we parlay this into like a Fallout 5 conversation since you might have some insider information? Well said, I agree with you. Fallout series was a fantastic show and Last of Us was as well. And Ben, take us home.

Ben Kvalo: 57:52: 57:58: Let’s hope that trend continues. Well, there’s a there’s a bunch more coming.

Greg Posner: 57:58: 57:59: Borderlands.

Ben Kvalo: 57:59: 01:02:09: Borderlands is on its way. And Netflix has, you know, a million in the pipeline and Bioshock and others. So we’ll see with that. So for me, what I’m playing right now, I’m playing three games. I jumped on the Manor Lords. a bandwagon, that obviously incredible wishlist numbers, a publisher that I just like look up to and is doing incredible work, Hooded Horse, and a one-man studio, Slavic Games, that created that game. And so playing that, it’s incredible, it’s early that a ton. And then I go back to my comfort food, Starfield, as well. So I’m playing Starfield. And then I’m also needing a little cozy in my life. And so we just released a game called The Lullaby of Life. And so playing that as well, which is a super cozy puzzle adventure game that you should definitely check out as well. I have to do a little plug for that as well. And then the trend that I’m really interested in, and this is definitely a bias, but I really believe in it, is subscription model and premium mobile and what’s happening in that space. And it’s super interesting because part of the growth of free-to-play in the current mobile environment was around, really, restriction. devices couldn’t handle much. And so certain types of games were created that could, and then free to play really took off in a major way. But suddenly we’re moving into an environment of, wait a second, these devices can handle premium experiences, can handle the things that were on consoles and other types of devices. And not only that, but, you know, suddenly subscription services are coming and delivering a whole bunch of them for a low price, a low monthly price, where you can actually try out a ton of different games. You can play, you know, a lot of your favorite games are on there anyways. So, you know, seeing that with Netflix and Xbox Game Pass and others are coming into the space right now, is really, really fascinating to me because I think it’s going to completely change the mobile environment where my belief is if people were to be able to choose between are all about trying to basically convince you to give up more money compared to a game that is just a premium experience. You get the full experience. I think they’re going to end up choosing that premium experience. And so it’s just going to further expand accessibility for these premium games. And there’s interesting business models I’m having. I joined Netflix at the very beginning of the films initiative. That was how I had joined them. And seeing what they did during the streaming wars and all that kind of stuff. The video game streaming wars are coming. And it’s going to be fascinating to see what happens in that moment and what happens with all this premium content. And it’s going to be a content battle of who has the biggest IPs, who’s putting out the most content. All of that, I think, is going to help more games get to more audiences. And it’s going to create accessibility to the point that everybody on this planet is going to be able to be have accessibility to games, and there’s going to be variety and options for everybody, no matter what kind of game you want to play. So that’s what I’m super excited about that’s starting to really move.

Greg Posner: 01:02:09: 01:03:01: I love it. And the community will only help with those subscriptions as well, right? When you have to choose which ones you want to be a part of. whichever ones make you feel warmest inside, whichever one has the games that you like to play. It’s going to be an interesting future. And I think this is just such a great conversation. So first of all, I’m thankful for all of you to come out and talk about this. I think community is one of the most exciting things for me, and it has been for years on what’s going on with this industry. I think there’s been a lot of cool quiet people have been sitting in the back and afraid to raise their voice. But then when you have games like World of Warcraft, right, that eventually people can start talking online, you have Minecraft, you have Pokemon, all these great IPs out there. And I think such a strong community, it just makes it more exciting for everyone that’s involved. So I’m so appreciative to you, the three of you coming out here and explaining this. I’ll give each of you a chance to say where we can find you. So Carlos, any final words on where people can find you?

Carlos Figueiredo: 01:03:02: 01:03:08: Yeah, LinkedIn is the best way to find me in the professional world, please.

Greg Posner: 01:03:08: 01:03:12: Sure. I’ll have a link to his LinkedIn. You can check it out. Anna.

Anna Wright: 01:03:13: 01:03:18: Similarly, I would just say LinkedIn if you wanted to find me and connect. Yep. Thank you. I appreciate you, Greg.

Greg Posner: 01:03:18: 01:03:34: Of course, Anna. Thank you. And for Ben, just to show you how dedicated Ben is to his community, he is flying out tomorrow to his wedding. So congratulations. First of all, thank you so much for coming on and for everything that you provided today. So any final words and where can people find you?

Ben Kvalo: 01:03:34: 01:04:09: Yeah, people can find me. you’ll find me on LinkedIn, whether you want to or not, just because my stuff seems to be going pretty viral on there. And so I’m on there. And then and then you can follow Midwest Games, as well, or you can find us on on any social platform. But we would be We have a ton of games coming up. We have eight games signed. We’re about to sign a few more. We’ll be releasing games all year. And so hopefully you can give us a follow on social.

Greg Posner: 01:04:09: 01:04:24: Lots of excitement coming from Midwest. We’ll have links to Niantic. We’ll have links to Minecraft. We can find all this stuff. And once again, thank you to everyone. Thank you to Community SIFT for helping with today’s episode. And thanks for all coming out. Have a great day, everyone. Thank you.

Greg Posner

Avid gamer with a passion for storytelling. My goal is to unpack the narratives of customers, partners and others to better understand how industry-leaders tackle today's challenges.

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