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ION 08: Focusing on the community manager

Kyle Horner

One of the strengths of MMOs are their communities. The stronger a community around an MMO is the more likely that game is to last into the foreseeable future. "Successfully Managing a Community Emergency" was a panel at ION 08 full of the people in charge of the communities we all take part in. Fittingly enough all of these men and women have their own friendships based on their shared experiences as well, which makes for a kind of interesting mirror effect. It was like watching the same group of people who post on these forums talk about them -- except with a bit more maturity than you'd expect. Though don't get me wrong, there was a lot of goofing about as they tackled different forum emergencies.

The panel consisted of Katie Postma (Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment/Stargate Worlds), Victor Wachter (Cryptic Studios/Champions Online), Alan Crosby (Sony Online Entertainment), Meghan Rodberg (Turbine/Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online) and was moderated by Craig Dalrymple (Sony Online Entertainment/EverQuest, EverQuest 2, Free Realms).

Gallery: ION 08: Managing a community emergency | 10 Photos

It kicked off with the topic of preventative maintenance or stopping emergencies before they happen. The main way community managers handle this is through training methods for new team members who may want to post on the forums.

Meghan Rodberg says that while all dev team members are welcome to post, they are always given some basic guidelines. These are always simple things like, "Don't disagree with each other publicly." which is definitely something I imagine any developer wants their team members to avoid. Also, another thing to consider is that if you have someone who isn't suitable to post, then it's probably just best to not risk them causing situations in the first place.

Another method to avoiding problems is to keep a lot of visibility with the team, as brought up by Victor Wachter. His preference is to allow only a small group of developers post, as it can make everything a lot easier for him to control and follow. The key to this is to make sure these devs are posting a lot, as it lets them become tight-knit with the community and with the other developers who post. He employs the use of weekly meetings to talk about what's happening within and around the community.

All the panelists largely agree that dev trackers are very important. They allow players instant accessibility and are great for knowing when the developers aren't regularly posting. By making sure that development members are posting often it removes a lot of fog between players and developers, something that's incredibly important to a game's success. I'm sure that some team members must hate these things, now that I look at them in that way

This led to the inevitable discussion of how to break it to a team member that they can't post on the forums. Katie Postma treats her internal community the same way she treats her internal one, while Meghan finds that going to a team member's lead can be the best solution as it creates less friction for her. Something very interesting was the mention by Alan Crosby that he'll allow SOE team members to post with their character account as long as they act like a player and don't post any work-related information.

We've all encountered forum trolls, so when the discussion turned to them I was glued to the conversation. It's a bit surprising how trolls are actually dealt with, as most people probably assume they're simply banned. This isn't the case, usually. Meghan says that identifying a troll early on is easy as long as continuous attention is being given to the forums. Although she does say the post-launch is easier as you can ban accounts, while pre-launch is much harder as you usually have to employ an IP ban.

Alan chimes in saying that the single most important tool is micro-communication. Examples given are talking to a forum troll on a personal level through private messages or email. This lets the player who's been trolling communicate whatever reasons they had for doing such. These are simply passionate people and their passion can be put to a positive purpose. It helps quite a bit and I find it happily surprising that it's an SOE employee who's talking about this.

Going even further, Victor says that it's even possible to turn trolls around. To make them positive posters through talking to them about solving their problems with the game, forums, etc. Of course it's not always that way and sometimes a ban is simply unavoidable, but these guys (and gals) don't want to do that unless they absolutely have to.

Basically it comes down to the fact that not all bans are equal. Obviously spam bots get insta-bans, but players breaking terms of agreement rules tend to get warnings that build up over time. Meghan also notes that treating players good can be rewarding to the company later on when things get tough, like when Turbine experienced a huge blackout earlier this year. In that instance, many people in the community put out potential fires for Turbine because they remembered an experience in beta when the dev team treated a game issue as if it were a live problem during a Christmas weekend.

Keeping with the discussion of positive voices in the community, Alan says that these types of players are extremely important in the grand view. These people can talk to the middle -- as opposed to the super-fans or super-haters of a game/company -- and have a much greater impact that a developer saying the same things themselves. Victor agrees and says that it's in a developer's best interest to cultivate positive people, as they'll help defend a developer even in the darkest of times. There are times -- these darker times -- when it's just best to let the positive and negative players go head to head.

Even the tiniest of things can become big problems. Things like class balance issues snowballing or accusations that one game type (PvE or PvP) is more important to the developer than another. In these cases all the panelists agree that having some kind of pre-planned strategy for any game changes is essential. So if they know a nerf or a tweak is coming, then having pre-written developer diaries explaining the reasons for the changes is a big help. Also, the use of templates for all sorts of potential forum emergencies is important. Anticipation is key, says Victor.

Then the subject of how to deal with competitive game releases comes up. Alan says that the players who just want to vent on the forums and leave no matter what can go as far as he cares. Victor pops in with something along the lines of, "Do you really want to say that?" to which Alan cheerfully says, "Goodbye!" Which is a statement that garners some audience chuckles. Meghan agrees and says that with Age of Conan discussions she just lets those threads go. "Just ride with it." are her feelings on the topic.In the case of Stargate Worlds (Katie's game), she's on the opposite side of this issue. "Not all games are for everybody. Rising tides lift all ships." she says, which is a very great way of putting it. Alan is in agreement with everyone and sums it up by saying that these are communities of gamers who talk about games. Let them talk about all games so long as it's within the set rules.

Then the discussion shifts a bit to Cryptic and their recent challenge with allowing players on their forums to talk about City of Heroes. It's definitely an interesting and unique position for Cryptic, to say the least. He goes on to say that shifting from Marvel Universe Online to Champions Online was an incredibly difficult and drawn-out proccess. He was presented with the choice of maintaining absolute silence on the MUO forums or just closing
them down early, knowing that they would eventually HAVE to go down. Victor says he took some hits from the community for it, but that in hindsight it was the right choice to make. Keeping your original community is incredibly important and every panelist agrees on this one too.

The moderator, Craig, (known as Grimwell to some) asks what do they do when a member of the development team gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar. What's interesting about this is that Alan (who's essentially Craig's boss) answers this question quite openly. He says that people will be people, they're going to make
mistakes and do stupid things. The best thing that can be done in this scenario is to distance the company from the person who made the bad decision. It comes down to the fact that people are paranoid and they don't need any reasons to think a company is trying to screw them over. So the first and only public response is
to basically say the employee made a very bad choice and the rest is dealt with internally.

Next question: The Servers go down, the websites go down, everything goes down! What do you do?

Alan smiles, nods a bit before abruptly saying, "Cry" Which incites laughter from everyone in the room. This goes back to what Meghan mentioned earlier about the 25 hour Turbine service outage. She says the best thing to do is to go to all the fan-sites, blogs, social networks such as Facebook, etc and to spread the word that the development team is aware of and correcting the issue. With that clear and powerful line of communication, then most players will understand that the emergency is being taken quite seriously.

Going back to the issue about a lack of communication, Alan says that such a lack is the primary reason for any emergency -- except for when a dev member does something stupid or improper. He goes on
to say that the Star Wars Galaxies NGE came from a huge lack of communication. Very true and a Perfect example. It's important to know every single channel of communication.

Then there are the times when players will talk about things a community manager really wishes they wouldn't talk about. All of the panelists agree that creating a single thread and closing out all extras -- while pointing to the main thread -- is key to containing a possible fire. Meghan quips about a recent issue in Lord of the Rings Online where the whistle to call a player's horse mount was altered. This one little issue spawned tons of different threads, "Bring back the old Horse whistle" and, "/petition for the old horse whistle" or even, "no, /petition to keep the new Horse whistle" where flooding the forums. Pretty funny stuff, actually. So in cases like these it's best to just close all threads out and create one single discussion area. Players are going to talk about it so you may as well give them a focal point to do so. This isn't the first time something like this has happened with LotRO, as in the past there was an incident known as "Red Squirrel vs Grey Squirrel" where "Tolkien Scholars" (re: hardcore fans) noticed early beta screens that featured the wrong color of squirrel. Lots of laughter and disbeleif -- in some cases simultaneous -- could be heard and seen from everyone in the room.

Grimwell (or Craig, but I like calling him Grimwell) poised the next question, "How do you deal with the announcement of sequels?" This is definitely something Alan Crosby has the most experience with from EQ and EQ2. He opens his answer with the statement that the two biggest mistakes with EQ2 were launching it so close to WoW and calling it Everquest 2 in the first place. Here's where I agree with Alan wholeheartedly: If you're going to make an MMO sequel, make it drastically different. He mentions a steampunk Everquest would be great. I'm pretty sure he's reading my mind at this point. The topic of sunsetting (or shutting down) an MMO came up. This is a very hard topic because of the intense grief players can feel when something they've spent so much time in is gone forever. Katie aptly points out that the message a community needs to receive is gratefulness that these players came out in support of this project. Then if you can, try and get them to look into your next project -- which hopefully will fare better.

Alan points out that SOE is still running all of their games, even The Matrix Online. Katie jabs him with, "Look, over there, your one player!" Ah, more chuckles. I told you this panel was full of goofing around.

A final -- but incredibly major -- topic that was discussed is the method of hiring new people to the community team. All the panelist agreed in varying terms that the best place to hire new people is from the community itself. Or at the very least someone with experience in MMO communities who has some thick skin and very good judgment. So for all of you reading this who want to get a job like these guys' it's in your best interest to become heavily involved with your favorite community. The more you make their jobs (the community managers') easier, the more likely of a candidate you probably are.

Gallery: ION 08: Managing a community emergency | 10 Photos

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