With this guest piece, Sabotage Studio will take you through their journey as a developer using Discord to its fullest extent, leveraging our entire tool set to build the best community experience on the platform.
Sabotage does a lot of things that we think are “best in class”, and we hope you enjoy their very detailed post on everything they’ve been working on. You’ll learn about their strategies, best practices, tools, bots, and how they’ve grown from a small community to over 15,000 members.
At Sabotage Studio, we’re adamant about being as transparent as we can when sharing insight anecdotes about our journey as game developers and we wanted the community to play a part in that adventure from the very beginning. Our Discord server is the destination for everyone who’s interested in the game universe we are building.
But building a community is one thing. Designing a communal experience that is specific to our studio’s brand and universe is a whole other endeavour. We saw the potential of Discord as soon as we started using it and began experimenting and testing the boundaries of what’s achievable with custom bots, roleplay and automation.
2 years, 5 custom bots with a wide range of features, and 16,000+ members later, the Sabotage Studio server experience has turned into something we believe is truly unique.
Let me introduce myself
I’m Phil, Executive Producer at Sabotage Studio. I oversee the production and marketing of our games.
We are an independent studio founded in 2016 in Québec City, and we make retro-inspired games with modern design.
Our first game was called The Messenger, an 8bits/16bits ninja platformer, which came out in August 2018 and is currently available on PC and consoles. We launched Picnic Panic, a 3-level free DLC in July 2019.
The whole team, which now counts 23 members, has been working on our upcoming game Sea of Stars since then. This time, we’re diving into the turn-based RPG genre, for a prequel set in the same universe as The Messenger, and inspired by our childhood’s classics.
The release is planned for 2022, on both PC and consoles.
Sea of Stars was funded via a very successful Kickstarter campaign during which Discord played a key role in offering backers perks like server roles, distributing the backer-exclusive demo, and overall community management. I’ll go over the details later on.
I’m one of three team members working part time on the Discord community, backed by an effective moderation team and a little army of highly-engaged, wholesome community members.
The basis of a sustainable Discord community
As game developers, we’ve all heard everything about the importance of building community, but figuring out when or how to start a Discord server can be intimidating. At the start, the focus should be on making sure to have a game that’s in a state to garner attention before investing in building a community.
As a general guideline, once a few posts on social media start to generate a bit of traction is when it might be time to make the jump. For us, that moment was early 2018, about eight months before The Messenger’s release.
However, creating a server and hoping that a well-functioning community will emerge out of nothing is not enough. I mean, it’s cool to set it up and have people join, but it can’t simply be the old unruly wild west in there. It wouldn’t be sustainable.
We rapidly discovered a few essentials when it comes to putting together a space where people want to hang out. Here are a few things that worked great for us.
Everything in moderation
One major goal for us was to build a community free of toxicity of any kind. The first step towards achieving that was having a proper ruleset. From the get-go, all new members are exposed to these rules and made aware that breaking them will end up in getting banned.
This helped us set the tone right away. The great majority of newcomers do abide by the rules and contribute to the positive vibe of our server, but rules don’t always succeed in keeping bad apples at bay.
And we sure don’t want these bad apples to kill the mood for everyone else. Oh no. That’s where moderation comes into play. For us, it comes in two ways:
- Automated moderation. We built a bot with the ability to strike offenders based on censored words (I’ll introduce our good ol’ Concierge later on).
- Manual moderation. Supporting the Sabotage crew is also a team of 7 dedicated moderators who are exemplary members of the community. They keep a very active eye on everything going on in our multiple channels.
Built on strong moderation guidelines, a 0-tolerance policy for toxicity, full transparency from the team and incentives to be active, we managed to grow at a steady pace while maintaining a wholesome vibe on the server.
Our community members developed a strong bond with the moderation team, and they play an active role in regulating the quality of interactions on the server. Anything that feels off-topic, unsafe or even toxic is quickly called out.
This means anyone that comes from any background can hop in and start discussing in the #general channel without fear of being judged.
Giving room to the community to make it their own
We want our community members to immerse themselves fully in our universe, and this implies letting them feel free to express themselves and be creative.
Over time, we grew a core of around ~300 very active members who help with the wiki, support, and community animation.
We now see multiple initiatives that are 100% fueled by user-generated content:
- The fanart channels
- The wikis for both the Messenger and Sea of Stars
- The speedrunning competition for The Messenger
- The Messenger modding Discord server
- The Messenger speedrunning Discord server
Other quick tips
I want to get to the very cool stuff now, so I’ll just fire away a few other things we did early when we were starting to grow our Discord server.
- Getting verified — It makes our server look more serious and professional. Go get that blue mark!
- Uploading custom emojis — Reactions are the basic feedback currency on Discord. Cropped in-game assets are always well-received by our community.
- Being present and accessible — We like to spend a few minutes of our day to go and talk with players. They know they can send us DMs or tag us and expect a response.
- Having an editorial content strategy — Over time, we created familiarity and predictability by having consistent content strategies.
- Using custom assets on read-only channels — Discord has a 400*300px limit on images and GIFS, and it supports transparency. We used these specs to give a very unique feeling to our server.
Creating a unique experience: ARG, bots, roles & snowballs
Everything I’ve covered so far could be applied to pretty much any studio’s community. However, we wouldn’t have been satisfied with simply having a “well-built” Discord server. We wanted to create something that could only be experienced in Sabotage Studio’s backyard. And this is when the real fun started.
For us, that meant extending our games’ universe to the community. It also meant figuring out what makes us stand out as a studio.
First, our games all belong to a single universe with a rich lore. It gave us an opportunity to join our titles under a unique server and grow the community for Sea of Stars from what The Messenger had started.
Our games also are single-player endeavors. We’ll always have gaps in community engagement during the production cycle. Since these cycles are roughly 3-year long, we have to maintain engagement by constantly figuring out creative ways to engage with the community.
The playground that our games’ universe gave us combined with an evergoing need for activity were key factors in the development of an Alternate Reality Game.
In 2018, we started an ARG featuring multiple characters in the shared universe between The Messenger and Sea of Stars. They brought with them stories, which the community was able to interact with and influence the many outcomes.
They all joined Discord as bots with dialog commands accessible by admins on the server. For the full immersion within Discord, we built an external web-based renderer that generates dialog boxes with text within it, to simulate the in-game UI.
Over the last 2 years, we’ve been engaging the community with a full-fledged side story set within our bigger universe. Using roles, reactions, direct messages, public messages, voice channels, and an external infrastructure, we designed multiple game mechanics on top of these stories. It is also an interactive experience that evolves depending on where the community wants it to go.
Meet our bots
Some of the main characters involved in the ARG also act as bots, helping us automate tasks such as opt-in functions, roles, and moderation, while keeping a high level of immersion.
Let’s meet some community favorites.
The Clockwork Concierge
Appearing at first as a boss in The Messenger, The Clockwork Concierge was the first bot that joined the server, and is, to this day, the biggest Discord project we created and maintained. It was updated more than 10 times with new features. As you would expect from a concierge, it serves multiple purposes.
Other than chatting (quite often) with the community, it acts as a moderation bot by making sure no offensive content makes it to any channels. If the Concierge strikes you, you better watch your language because it has the ability to ban you from the server. Three strikes and you’re out!
We also built some functions so that followers can opt-in or out of notifications at the start of specific activities such as ARG events or streams by sending the Concierge commands via DMs like:
- !argin and !argout
- !streamin and !streamout
A character from Sea of Stars that allows the most active members to nominate other wholesome members to become “Solstice Warriors” after a 3 days process.
In Sea of Stars, the protagonists are Solstice Warriors, unique individuals born on either of the solstices, and tasked with defeating The Fleshmancer’s creations. No need to say that they are characters with a special status, and so are the Solstice Warriors on the Discord server. Members who are greeted the role by Headmaster Moraine gain writing access to the #mooncradle channel and are allowed to participate in special ARG events. But to get there, they first need to be nominated by other experienced community members via the bot, encouraging newcomers to participate, and to do it respectfully.
The bot will ask questions via private messages about character traits and how each new member thinks it can contribute to the general community experience. They also get to choose whether they want to join the Sun or Moon Solstice Warriors This is more for protocol and immersion purposes, as members aren’t obligated to act on the roles they are assigned at the end of Headmaster’s inquiry.
Still, it lets the new Solstice Warriors get a sense of how they want to contribute, the “Artists” might be prone to fuel our fan art channels, the “Athletes” to challenge themselves with speedruns, or “Scholars” to help us craft Wiki pages for our games. To each their own!
The dialog renderer
This external app was built on top of the Discord image upload feature and allows the multiple characters from the Sabotage universe to communicate using the in-game UI elements through Discord. The admins can swap between multiple characters, change font size and color. It also switches from UI style depending on which channel the character interacts.
When one of these dialog boxes pops in a channel, you know something exciting is cooking.
A few memorable ARG moments
An Alternate Reality Game is nothing without thought-out, immersive stories for the community to interact with. Those who choose to participate in these ARG events have 100% agency about the direction these stories take. The outcomes vary from game reveals, unlocking a new channel or deepening the lore. The participants’ decisions truly matter, and some rewards can be lost to the community forever.
To get a better understanding of how it all goes down, here are two examples of memorable Sabotage ARG moments.
Back in 2019, when it was still The Messenger’s server, the members were gathering “timeshards”, a Discord currency based on the game’s universe.
They would be awarded timeshards by interacting on the server, nominating other “Ninjas” (an exclusive role similar to “Solstice Warriors”, but back in The Messenger era) and each time a new member would join.
This Discord currency system allowed the community to unlock server perks and new chapters in the ARG story from the Shopkeeper, a well-known character from The Messenger.
The Shop still lives here: https://themessengergame.com/shop
The whole “The Shop” event ended up being a build up for the reveal of the secret “Project Solstice”, a tease for Sea of Stars, the second game of the Sabotage universe.
It was the perfect moment for us to merge everything under a unique “Sabotage Studio” server for The Messenger, Sea of Stars, and all our future games. This allows us to really capitalize on the fact that our games take place in a shared universe, and make it feel organic.
The Mooncradle snowball fight
In more recent times, this last winter, the Clockwork Concierge threw a tournament between the Sun and Moon Solstice Warrior clans worthy of our northern roots: a snowball fight.
The prize? A trophy exhibited in Sea of Stars (yes, I mean IN the game) with the names of all the fighters of the winning team. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it kinda was. Remembering the first round of the tournament, it was absolute mayhem. Absolute, silly fun, mayhem.
But how do you create the feel of a snowball fight in a Discord server you may ask? Here’s how we did it.
A few minutes before the start of a new round, the concierge made an announcement for members to opt in by sending it a command via DMs to make sure the participants were online when the fighting starts. Snowballs were then distributed randomly to fighters on both sides and a predefined time range for the round was announced.
Then, let the fighting begin!
When given a snowball, participants were told by Clocko (the concierge’s nickname) via DM. As quickly as possible, they had to throw it to an enemy fighter using the !throw #username command. The process was then repeated on their side. At the end, the team who had held on to snowballs for the least amount of time was the winner of the round. Points were calculated automatically behind-the-scenes by the bot.
To make sure all that frenziness was visible to everyone, Clocko was commentating all the action and updating the score every few minutes in the channel. No mercy was given on both sides.
That was until the very end where, against all odds, both teams found themselves tied just before the very last round. A choice was given to the Sun and the Moon Warriors: play the final round and declare one side as victorious, or call it a draw and put everyone’s name on the in-game trophy.
The community’s choice made for another truly wholesome moment:
As you can see, other moments within the duration of the snowball fight tournament have opened up new opportunities, most notably the chance for the community to participate in the design of a Sea of Stars’ character.
Let’s just say the engagement in this activity was also quite mind-blowing. We can’t wait to see the final result.
The Kickstarter campaign
In early 2020, we launched a Kickstarter campaign for Sea of Stars, which ended up being way more successful than we’d ever anticipated. With exclusive Discord roles as part of the pledge’s rewards, it became clear that going through the process of assigning roles manually was out of the question. Discord also was front and center when it came to distributing our backer-exclusive demo at the end of the following summer.
Once again, automation and the discovery of less known Discord features made our lives so much easier.
The Kickstarter Assistant
With more than 10,000 backers (out of 25,000) eligible for a Discord role after the Sea of Stars Kickstarter campaign, we had to automate the process.
So here came another bot: the Kickstarter Assistant.
Backers were directed to the assistant, which was able to verify them using their email address. It could then automatically assign the right roles, give access to the backer-exclusive channels, and distribute other digital rewards. This would have been an unimaginably tedious task without the custom bot.
Demo & adventure log
When distributing our backer-exclusive demo, we decided to go with the Discord Store Channels, because they allowed for a deeper integration on our server. While it worked great for us, the Discord team has informed us that this feature is to be discontinued, so I won’t go into much detail about how we set it up.
To elevate the demo’s engagement within the server, we built the “Adventure Log”, a bot that tracked in-game events and metadata from the demo. This created a huge hype on the server, as thousands of people were going through the demo at the same time.
Distributing all these backer rewards via our Discord server helped us centralize early feedback, backer updates and overall community management. This way, Discord was without a doubt a key contributor to the success of our Kickstarter campaign.
During that period, our server grew from a couple thousands members to over 16,000 to this day. Thanks to the thorough guidelines we established when it was still a small community, this fast expansion went over quite smoothly.
Some results (for now)
Well, that was a lot.
You might be reading this and wondering: “is it worth it?”
The reality for each studio is different. The amount of time and money you want to spend in your Discord community will differ depending on a wide array of factors. So I won’t try to give a universal answer here.
What I will say though, is that for us the results have exceeded our expectations by a lot. Our Discord server pretty much feels like a big family at this point; we got to know each other through daily interactions, and we’d never expected the connection with our fanbase could become so fusional.
We still have quite a long way to go before Sea of Stars’ release, and already having such a dedicated and loving community at this point is priceless.
Even so, it became so much more than about games. It’s a social space to get feedback on ideas, and to chill with friendly people after a hard day of work. It is a huge playground that we keep experimenting with, always trying to push the possibilities that the platform has to offer.
And to be honest, altogether, building this was quite easy.
We got a lot of support from Discord team members when we went with more experimental approaches. For example, when we launched the Kickstarter bot on our server, thousands of members interacted with it in the first hour. It was flagged as a spam bot by Discord because of the many DMs it sent for the external authentication process, which led to a crash.
I reached out to the Discord crew, and it was whitelisted within minutes, which then allowed everything to run smoothly.
The harder parts about Discord revolves around the fact that it is an ever-evolving platform. Some modules are experimental, some of them get deprecated quickly, and committing to building innovative bots can be hard in this context. You’ve got to be ready to maintain the automation processes often and fix issues when they appear.
But if you’re willing to get your hands dirty, the possibilities to create unique community spaces truly are endless.
Thanks so much Phil and everyone at Sabotage Studio for this great and insightful piece. We hope it may be of help and inspiration to other game developers and communities looking to foster fantastic communities on Discord. We certainly can’t wait to check out Sea of Stars!