Flameseeker Chronicles: Community and what it means in game development

Last week, I did an analysis and recap of ArenaNet's Retrospective video. The recap was released at the same time as the video, so at the time I had no clue what community reaction would be. Because of this, I was watching the general feedback with great interest, and I found that a lot of commentary focused on a particular quote from Chris Lye -- one that I particularly enjoyed. "You know, we're not a video game company, we're a community building company. We just happen to have one of the coolest ways to build a community, which is through a video game."

It's an attitude shared by pretty much the entire ArenaNet staff, and it's one that drew a bit of criticism and a lot of discussion in game and on the forums. Follow along after the jump as I take a peek at the pros and cons of this philosophy.

Pros

The pros are easy! Being in touch with your customer base is -- or should be -- sales and marketing 101 for any company in any industry. The gaming industry is a bit of an unusual animal, though, and it's maybe one with an advantage here. If they're smart, game studios and publishers will go out of their way to hire gamers. The gaming industry has a customer base that is seriously devoted to the product it's using, and if you hire gamers who happen to be designers rather than designers who may or may not be gamers, you've got an instant connection with your customers.

This sort of thing is basic common sense, but it's how you manage this approach that can get tricky, and it's where a company like ArenaNet can really shine.

My description of the gamers/designers combination may sound like I said the same thing twice, but I definitely did not. It's an important clarification when you're talking about dealing with your community. Of course there's no way I can know the gaming, personal, and educational background of every single ArenaNet employee, and I certainly don't pretend to. But given what we've seen of the team, I would venture to guess that the company made an effort to hire people who were longtime gamers first and filled the position requirements second. It's not that job qualifications are unimportant; it's that a passion for and understanding of the MMO industry is just as important, if not moreso. The market is too crowded for someone who's just in it for the paycheck to succeed.

This core goal of the ArenaNet founders is a lot of what the Retrospective was about, and the team has done a lot to implement it -- this is where the pros of heavy community development come in. The ANet presence this year at PAX and Gamescom was probably the most visible element of that all year. I've mentioned the demo setup more than once -- every person playing the demo had an ArenaNet staffer beside him for some one-on-one discussion during gameplay.

This was fun for the fans -- who among us wouldn't love a chance to chat about Guild Wars 2 with a developer on an individual basis? For ArenaNet, though, it was a very smart move. Those two events were the first opportunity to get feedback from the general public, and not just in the form of verbal feedback afterwards. The setup allowed a valuable overview of players as a whole as the team watched so many come and go. What did a lot of people seem to have trouble with? What profession was the biggest hit? How did people handle the UI? How did they generally react to cutscenes?

The staff gained information through watching gameplay trends, the general preferences of hundreds of people, and even facial expressions. ArenaNet's effort toward community interaction paid off in a big way here for both the company and the fans. We had a great time, sure. But in the end, we're also going to benefit from the information ANet gained, with a better game.

Cons

The biggest downside to all of this community interaction is that it can get really overwhelming. It can also be pretty unpleasant at times. I've said many many times that the Guild Wars community is one of the best out there. I stand by that assessment, but I'll acknowledge that it's also an old and large community and that it's got its bad elements.

There is a vocal element of the population intent on inserting negativity into any element of the community it comes in contact with. I'm not talking about those players with constructive criticism to add -- they're probably one of the most valuable segments of the community. I'm talking about the "omg lawl epicfail anet" crowd. You know whom I'm talking about -- the ones who want so badly to prove how jaded and superior they are that their only contributions are negativity, name-calling, and saying that everything sucks.

My personal rule, with a few rare exceptions, is to pretend these people don't exist. MMO gaming is a form of entertainment, and that crowd contributes nothing to my entertainment. Therefore, I ignore it. I have that luxury, but the ArenaNet community team does not. Part of the team's job is to filter through those immature tantrums to see whether there's anything that truly does need to be heard. It's almost impossible not to let that stuff get to you sometimes, and it's a big downside to having such a heavy community focus.

With such a large community to deal with, the community focus can get very overwhelming at times too. I'm sure the ArenaNet team had a blast during the convention season this year, but I'm also sure it was exhausting to be the center of loud, enthusiastic, neverending attention for three straight days. Even outside of convention season, the devs have got Facebook, Twitter, emails, comments in the media, and a huge number of forums and fansites to deal with.

Feedback is fantastic, but a constant avalanche of it means that you'd better have a community team that can keep ahead of it, or you're in trouble.

Where does ArenaNet fall with all of this?

I think ArenaNet handles its heavy community focus well and manages to make it a useful tool for game development. That's a difficult balance to strike; a heavy community focus is great, but in the end it's got to contribute something to game development and maintenance. Right now, ArenaNet's community focus is what's driving the hype train, but the team is in a potentially difficult situation right now. The devs were in a position in which they had to announce the development of Guild Wars 2 much earlier than is considered standard in the gaming industry. Combine this with the enormous scope of the project, and you've got a hype train that's been chugging along for an awfully long time. I imagine that community involvement is a lot harder now than it was three years ago, and 2011 is going to need to bring great things or that train's going to start slowing down. I'm optimistic that the years of experience the team has, combined with the fact that it's part of the backbone of the company, will allow it to do what's needed. Let's hope my optimism is warranted.

Rubi is a longtime Guild Wars player and the writer of Flameseeker Chronicles here at Massively. The column keeps a close eye on all the events in Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, and anything bridging the two. It's also the home of a weekly summary of the travels of [MVOP], Massively's Guild Wars guild. Email Rubi at rubi@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.