Many video games have found their audience through the virality and reach of Twitter. But while expert community managers are more than happy to leave the hellsite behind, the lack of a like-for-like replacement means the future for community managers has become increasingly complex.
Amongst the few mainstream social media platforms with any significant following, Twitter lives with a bizarre narrative. Detractors, analysts, technologists, legislators and regular users have almost nothing positive to say about the site. The tales go something like this: Twitter has no true soul. Real people don’t use the platform. It’s permanently attuned to reward maximum division. And then there’s the relentless impersonation, varying between mildly amusing shitposting and genuinely harmful misinformation on an almost hourly basis.
Even if the platform’s collapse — which isn’t guaranteed, given the fact that Twitter’s still-sizeable user base ensures some future owners would happily save Elon Musk from his self-imposed nightmare at a sizeable discount — is closer to a stint on palliative care than a Thelma and Louise-inspired cliff drop, the schadenfreude does little to ease studios, publishers and the individual managers faced with the Pandora’s Box that is a Twitter-less future.
It’s not as if Twitter has been some kind of video gaming paradise. More often than not, especially for women, people of colour, transfolk and countless developers, Musk’s new platform has been nothing but a constant feed of torment, isolation, frustration and disconnection. It’s no surprise that many developers — particularly artists and indie devs — have flocked to the more decentralised, controllable instances of Mastodon.
But as much as Mastodon and its federated vision of a text-heavy platform appeals to Twitter’s existing crowd, the potential outcomes are very different. Certain video games have enjoyed enormous success on Twitter. The Fallen London developers saw a surge in reviews from a clever hashtag campaign for indies. The creators of Stray gained steam — and later, a publisher — after publishing WIP footage to Twitter. The cult following behind Stardew Valley was fuelled in part by Eric Barone’s constant engagement after the game’s launch. (It also helped that Twitter was also simple for websites and other platforms to embed and share, much like YouTube, which helped ingrain its existence to audiences.)
Picking the right GIF could go far on Twitter, too. Webbed got a huge headstart to its awareness and marketing thanks to the power of the Twitter algorithm. Even gaming Twitter’s trending topics has paid off for some, like it did for Hypercharge: Unboxed when they eventually found a fan in one of Twitter’s bigger esports influencers, which helped trigger enough interest to spawn the mainstream press coverage the game never received for its actual launch.
To put the impact into perspective, consider this from Wren Briar, the creative lead on Unpacking. The developer and co-creator Tim Dawson had worked on the game for months at the Stugan games accelerator program in Sweden. The reception from players, industry veterans and even Swedish-based publishers was warm, but not enough to support Briar to continue working on the game full-time.
Days after returning to Australia, Briar and Dawson posted the first tweet on Unpacking’s account. The tweet exploded across the internet, and within 24 hours publishers had gotten in touch with life-changing offers. “Unpacking probably wouldn’t have happened if people didn’t show interest in it,” Briar said in an interview.
That sort of life-changing accessibility is part of Twitter’s core problem now; the same mechanics that allow creators with functionally zero followers to garner millions of impressions is exactly what enables fake accounts to spread all manner of mischief and misinformation on the platform. But for years that accessibility has been a useful tool — and a key cornerstone for some — in the foundation of video game communities, and by extension, and their future growth.
So what happens when that platform ceases to exist, either literally or functionally through declining reliability or a lack of brand safety? I asked a string of community managers, marketers and gaming industry veterans what they thought.
Of course, Twitter has never been the only place to talk about video games or find like-minded fans. The platform has always existed alongside the spectres of Facebook groups, Twitch communities, dedicated YouTube creators, specific subreddits, Steam forums, Discord servers. But it’s not the lack of reach that’s the issue on most platforms: it’s the discovery.
That’s partially why TikTok, despite ongoing fears around its handling of data, is becoming so popular amongst game devs. That sheer reach — and the sheer difference in the community that TikTok is currently reaching — is partially why Meredith Hall believes Twitter’s time won’t be missed.
“The clicks on Twitter are low; conversion rates are low. You’re so often relying on virality, and games on Twitter live in an echo chamber most of the time. They only become big platforms when they’re big [somewhere else], usually,” Hall, a producer and the marketing director at Summerfall Games, said.
“It is really hard to make Twitter particularly useful for audience engagement or conversion even as a large brand, let alone a small one.”
Another senior community manager, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to discuss their work publicly, also noted that Twitter currently presented a huge risk. While they hadn’t abandoned the platform just yet, they’d already begun reducing the amount of hours curating and crafting content for Twitter because of its newfound instability.
“It’s a little bit like waiting for the captain to tell us whether to abandon the ship or not.”
“On Twitter now there’s no guarantee that our paid or organic content won’t appear alongside something that’s anti-Semitic, racist, or any kind of brand unsafe [material],” they said. “It’s pretty safe to say that most advertisers are reducing spend if not outright removing spend on Twitter, and even just reducing the amount of content time we’re spending on Twitter as a platform just for safety.”
That same fear doesn’t currently exist with the TikTok community, which currently presents the best return on investment (ROI) for developers and publishers. Even small amounts of time invested on the platform can have huge wins. The first post on the Heavenly Bodies TikTok account received 1.3 million views and over 4700 comments; the second had almost 740,000 views and nearly 2300 comments.
Not all engagement is equal, mind you. Just as the fandom behind video games lives and breathes in a very different way from fans of content creators, so does the world of esports. Twitter has always had more influence amongst the esports ecosystem than Facebook and Instagram, and not all players and teams have had the time, resources or the creative reserve to maintain Twitch and YouTube accounts alongside their main gigs.
Twitter’s immediacy also has an active element that’s lacking on most of the other platforms. When something breaks or people are commenting on an event like E3 or Gamescom, Twitter is built around being able to process and display that feed efficiently.
“If I was to lose Twitter as a platform professionally, I lose that immediate conversation — there’s nowhere that matches that kind of engagement you get,” the senior Australian community manager said. “The ability to immediately interact with a brand or a celebrity or another person in a conversational style; there are other things that do that, but none of them do that the way or as well as Twitter does.”
That audience accessibility is one of Twitter’s strongest attributes, especially in the world of esports, according to Shane Bailey, a former brand manager for Ubisoft and the current head of gaming and streaming at Cure Cancer.
“So much of esports’ value in terms of total reach and overall value proposition lies in reaching audiences outside of the live broadcast,” Bailey, who helped oversee the growth of Rainbow 6 esports in Australia, said. “I can imagine that overall reach would be greatly affected by a weaker Twitter for esports orgs, TOs and the like, something that would certainly affect their relationships with brands and sponsors.”
Esports has a particular brand of virality that works well on the hellsite thanks to the mechanics of likes, retweets and hashtags. It’s especially good for up and coming players trying to highlight their talents in a way that wouldn’t garner interest on, say, an official subreddit. And it’s more sustainable for those who might not have the hardware, money and circumstances to stream on Twitch or YouTube. Twitter’s continued support of classic video formats matters as well. Plenty of creators on Instagram and TikTok are working within the platforms’ squarer aspect ratios, games today are still designed around 16:9 screens, and some games just don’t visually translate when half the screen is cropped out.
That said, newer generations will find a way. Maddie Maree, a social media marketer who has worked with RTX Sydney, the GG EZ esports bar, ESL and Riot Games, believes the upcoming players and brands have grown up with TikTok and video-centric platforms, and so they’re likely to instinctively create content that works there.
“From what I’ve seen there’s a new generation of esports fans who are just coming up out of their teens, so I imagine esports content would be most effective on TikTok and platforms Gen Z are already using,” Maree said.
The perspective also varies differently depending on the company. An indie studio would be more dependent on their social media and marketing spend to produce an immediate ROI – wishlists, purchases, clicks. Larger publishers, particularly the ones with their own hardware, don’t need to drive direct sales through social media. That gives them the freedom to look at ROI through followers, engagement and different metrics, almost all of which enables better content, simply because it doesn’t come across as an ad.
Moving away from vanity metrics
But even with the mass engagement offered by studios and publishers that use Twitter well – Devolver Digital and Xbox for instance – there’s an increased risk of staying on the platform thanks to its added volatility. And then there’s the unique Australian element, where any publisher or major organisation can be liable for the comments posted on their pages and feeds.
But while that defamation risk is present on every platform – especially so on a faster-moving platform like Discord – the real kicker is Twitter’s lack of conversion.
“When you’re launching a game or announcing a game, and you have it trending on Twitter, it can feel really good, it can help with your brand and overall impressions,” Kelsey Gamble, publishing producer at League of Geeks and a former community manager with Bethesda Australia, explained.
Outside of those vanity metrics though, Gamble argued, Twitter no longer represents the type of engagement, or community, that managers want to build. Twitter was designed around scale and engagement first, but that engagement often doesn’t translate to clickthroughs, wishlists or purchases.
“Behaviours have kind of shifted from big playground to small, intimate conversations that are based on need rather than having your voice heard and shouting into a void,” Gamble said. “The emergence of group chats are more important than ever, and we’re seeing more one-to-one communication happening.”
“The ways that we’re engaging with people have been shifting for a while now,” Gamble added. “Community management as a large brand; we’re moving away from Twitter anyway. The people still in Twitter world are old-hats like me that are attached to the idea of Twitter and what Twitter brings.”
Hall agrees, noting that Twitter doesn’t have the same kind of organic growth that makes sense for those trying to build a community now. “Twitter is to young people what Facebook is to millennials,” she said. “You’re there because you signed up once when it was cool and you had to be, and you go on to check your niches (like BTS stans) or specific friends, but you’re mostly hanging out [on other platforms].”
But while other platforms offer the promise of greater reach and awareness, they also all have the same issue: time. Feeding the Twitter algorithm doesn’t take much time, especially when compared to video-first platforms.
“With the upcoming platforms there’s not enough of a moderation team or moderation tools.”
Victoria Tran, the Among Us community director and the creator behind Unpacking’s TikTok account, highlighted this disparity in a GDC talk. Creating a single TikTok video could take up to 4 hours, particularly when factoring in the trend research, storytelling and understanding the memorability that videos need. Each social media platform has its own voice; reposting the same content across multiple channels simply doesn’t work, which means companies need more time, and more staff, to be successful on multiple fronts.
Smaller studios necessarily don’t have the time or mental capacity to manage all of that, especially when staffers are typically already juggling several jobs at once. For the larger publishers, TikTok might replace the void of Twitter going forward – but the risk around TikTok’s handling of data and the app’s permissions are still a concern for companies with in-house legal teams. (Concerns around TikTok are so high that some federal politicians and their staffers have already been warned to keep a second phone so they can isolate their social media’s access to personal data.)
“I don’t think there’s one platform that could effectively replace Twitter and deliver the same core purpose or functionality,” Bailey said. “I think also there’s something connected here around the growing importance of micro communities, or the potential downfall of Twitter just highlights how powerful they can be.”
And while newer platforms have the promise of being Twitter, but better – particularly Hive and Cohost, which have grown in interest over the last month – the corporate uncertainty surrounding their future makes it difficult to invest years of effort into building a community there.
“There is an absolute risk that none of these [newer] platforms will survive when they hit a certain amount of users, or that someone will invest in them and change the entire direction of the company,” one community manager we spoke to said.
There’s an increased appetite towards direct mailing lists too. There’s a clear, direct consent when someone opts to sign up for a newsletter, and there’s a much clearer understanding of what that data and what it’ll be used for. They won’t have the same virality or reach, of course, but it still gives devs the chance to talk to customers who have already shown a degree of interest – and crucially, it’s a lot easier for them to manage and schedule.
The social future
Whatever comes next in the post-Twitter world, it will be something dominated by social media. Hootsuite found 49.6% of 16-to-24 year olds used social networks as their main source of information when researching brands and items, while 46.1% used search engines. The skew towards search engines improves as the age demographic gets older, but the trend is set in stone: younger users, whether they’re gamers or not, are starting to favour social networks as their first port of call for learning.
Crucially, Hootsuite’s own research found only 16% of all users aged 16-to-64 used microblogging sites – with Twitter exclusively mentioned – for the same research.
That backdrop means any studio, publisher or brand – especially ones thinking of the sorts of communities they want to drive long-term, live-service games – can’t just treat social media as a sidenote in their overall marketing or community management. For many studios, social media will increasingly become the first time someone learns about their game.
So for studios that don’t have an established social presence for their game yet, community managers will undoubtedly replace that with something. It’s just not liable to be Twitter, according to those I spoke with, although nobody is ready to farewell the platform either. The engagement and ability to quickly highlight your community is still incredibly powerful, especially for major brands; quote tweeting a fan’s work takes seconds and doesn’t have the issues around consent that resharing or reposting content on Instagram or TikTok might.
“A quote tweet means that you can take someone else’s content but make sure they are credited for it,” an anonymous community manager said.
And while it’s not Google, and certainly not TikTok, there’s enough discoverability on the platform to make it more accessible for unknown games and their developers than something like Twitch.
“A lot of old Twitter users are gonna have a hard time with the transition, cause nothing scratches that scrolling itch like Twitter does,” Maree said. “It’s a content delivery service that I think is too convoluted elsewhere.”
And that’s the kicker. While managers, teams and studios are already thinking ahead for what a world without Twitter looks like, nothing neatly replaces what Twitter does. Nobody might be happy with the state of the hellsite, and many communities and managers still carry the scars of living with the platform. But having Twitter is a vastly better option for studios and developers of all sizes than not having Twitter – as long as it continues to function, of course.
Alex Walker is a freelance journalist and the media advisor at Aussie Broadband. He was previously the editor of Kotaku Australia, a games columnist for ABC Tech + Games, and a senior writer at games.on.net. You can follow him on Twitter – for now – at @dippizuka.
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