Because of my time serving as an MMO community representative and my vested interest in the Star Wars: The Old Republic community, I can say that the representative system employed by BioWare is ineffective. But I don't solely blame the BioWare community team for its shortcomings. Indulge me as I discuss how it could be better and how we could better utilize the current system.
The BioWare community team does a wonderful job, and it certainly communicates with the SWTOR community well, despite what detractors might argue. Unfortunately, I'm not certain that the Class Representative system works. I'd like to draw your attention to the system I'm familiar with so that we can draw comparisons.
In SWG, representatives were based on class as well as gaming aspects, like roleplay or PvP. I don't know the magic formula behind how many representatives a game should have; I'd think it would depend greatly on the game and on the purpose behind the representative system. With SWTOR, the point of the reps is class balance, so it only makes sense that there is one rep per advanced class. Any more than that would mean that we'd have to have one per skill tree, and that would be overkill.
BioWare might have gotten the number of reps right, but its method of choosing those reps is lacking. As of right now, it's a pure popularity contest. Originally, we had a thread in which we would simply vote for the player we thought best represented the class. These candidates were supposed to serve one term, then there would be another election. There hasn't been an election thread since the first one, but maybe that's a good thing. An effective representative not only needs the support of the players but should also communicate well to BioWare. The most popular person isn't necessarily that person.
Although there are other ways to do it, I do believe that SWG had a decent way of picking the reps. The community team would call for nominations. The each player would nominate herself or himself, or (as most people did) he or she could nominate another player. The number of nominations was certainly considered, but the ultimate choice was up to the community team because it was to be that rep's job to work with the SOE staff.
Regardless of how the representative is chosen, the method of communication is also flawed.
I love the idea that the representatives ask three questions that the developers are obligated to answer. And I don't think that should change. However, having a single set of questions without a way for the person asking the questions to have a follow-up presents a couple of issues.
The first problem became evident when the reps asked their first set of questions. The questions were extremely long-winded and full of ridiculous detail. I don't blame the reps specifically for this issue; they could have been more concise, but they wanted to make sure that their questions were answered fully. I run into the same issues when doing email interviews.
Secondly, the SWTOR developers truly want feedback. If there were an issue they'd never run into before, there'd be no dialogue about the issue, so we'd have to assume that the devs read the forum threads following the answers. I don't know how effective that is for getting answers. Not every developer is equipped to dive into that soup, nor should she be. So what is the rep supposed to do? Wait another six months to a year before he's able to ask another question to respond to the developer?
Players also do not communicate well with their representatives, and that's extremely unfortunate. Maybe this is the way it should be. I know that my Marauder representative is Gundarzz, but I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the names of the other representatives.
In most cases, it's difficult for players to find out who their reps are and communicate with them. I'm not sure where the fault lies in this, but that's not the point anyway. The reps are in a difficult position: They need to make sure that they present questions the community is truly concerned about, but at the same time, they also have to put themselves out there publicly, which places expectations on them that they can't possibly fulfill. I felt that first-hand as a RP senator. I would make a regular showing on the SWG forums, and because I was a rep, the RPers believed that I could just convince the devs to do what I wanted. That is never the case in any game, ever.
I do believe that the community team could do better at raising awareness about the reps, especially when they are gathering questions for the devs to answer. Perhaps the community team could put it on the front page with the rest of the news. It would show existing players what's happening and show potential and future players that the developers listen to the community.
Ultimately, I think the class representatives have been underutilized by both parties, and everyone needs to step up to improve the game. Both developers and players need to be more active on the forums. (Yes, it's a bit of cesspool, but you will quickly learn to navigate it.) Developers need to understand that true dialogue is more important than one group talking at another group. And players need to understand that the devs want to make a great game, too. And everyone needs to learn to post with respect. Maybe together we can make SWTOR even better than it already is.
Finally, a bit of good news: Hyperspace Beacon has returned to Massively as a permanent fixture starting today. Alongside my website of the same name, this column will appear on Massively every two weeks. A great big thanks to those who support me and the work I've done. It's not gone unnoticed.
I'll see you in two weeks. Until then, may the Force be with you.
The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your biweekly guide to the vast galaxy of BioWare's Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!