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ION 08: Taking an MMO community from pre-launch to live, page 2

Kyle Horner

Onto everyones favorite topic: "Fuckwads!" They're usually absolutely negative, but can they be converted?

Katie says, "You can convert them!" She's rather optimistic as her URU Live experiences have taught her that anyone genuinely interested in a game can be turned to the light side. Apparently back in Katie's URU Live days there were three guys who "vehemently" disagreed with each other, but did agree that the game was broken. These three guys had an incredibly impressive discussion in a thread, so Katie invited them all into a chat room one day. She told them how impressed she was with their ability to articulate their complaints and issues. So she asked, "Do you want to be moderators?" and they agreed! In the end these three players ended up being huge advocates of URU Live. Two of them even did some tech support for the game.

Identifying what a person is trying to accomplish through their behavior is also key, says Victor. Some of these people are just trying to get some attention unfortunately. Time can be wasted on the wrong people, so being able to locate and invest in people who can be brought over from the completely negative is an important skill.

Meghan brings up the ones who are hopeless. There was a poster in the Lord of the Rings Online forums (a LotRO Scholar) who took great pleasure in beating people with his intellectual epee. This person eventually had to be banned, but since he'd developed a niche group around him he did take some people with him. However, it truly was the best choice for the community.

If they're not a true "fuckwad" who's just trying to beat people with their intellectual epee then give them an NDA and beta access, says Craig. Letting them see the game -- and try the game -- for itself can alleviate many fears.

How do you balance the smaller fansites with the big PR-fueled media outlets?

"It's hard." laments Katie. Meghan chimes in with agreement, "I love the grass roots." she continues, "they're the people supporting you for basically nothing." They do it purely out of love and passion. "You can't not appreciate that." admits a solemn Meghan. Still, the truth is that developers need marketing and PR. "Sometimes you want to give the smaller sites screenshots, but you just don't have them." It's a tough place to be.

Something that Craig points out is that simply showing up letting small sites know that, "Hey, you guys rock!" is all the validation most of them need. It's easy and very important.

Katie mentions that she filters the smaller sites through her by taking their questions and answering some of them to the best of her ability. Then, she takes these answers to the PR folks, who of course just have to improve them (can you see the high-level trickery here?) before giving them back to her. This is a great way to reward the smaller sites.

Someone in the audience suggests that big sites have passionate writers who are hired for that very fact. "Big sites aren't all completely soulless." remarks Steve.

A trick that Craig makes use of is quietly suggesting to smaller websites to pay attention to news feeds over the next hour or so. This way the big sites still get that sexy press release while the small sites are able to talk in-depth about it right away. Katie brings up the problem of there being so many smaller fansites that tipping even several can make others feel like there is preferential treatment going on. She did however invite a local fansite to attend office events, purely because said fansite was nearby.

Steve asks about hanging the big carrot stick in front of players so they'll be good in order to earn a early beta slot. He asks if the panelists have been any good or bad uses.

Immediately Craig chimes in with, "Such as using a website where you have to play for membership to download the beta?" A square upper-cut to the jaw if I've ever seen one.

Another thing to keep in mind is that giving beta keys to smaller sites so they can give them away in contests is tricky. The contest has to be incredibly fair and nigh un-cheatable. Also, it's important not to announce the names of the winners in beta slot contests, because while that may sound cool it's only really announcing the 999,999 other people that they lost.

Of course the risk of letting influential individuals from the community into the game early on is "unexpected results". There's a lot of excitement about a game between the moment it's announced and the day it launches. Many players can't touch or feel the game out for themselves, so there's a risk of players building up a game in the mind that's completely different from the actual title.

Craig says that it's also important to clarify what's really going into a game with the game's lead. Otherwise you'll end up over-promising, which is of course very bad. "Yes you're going to have unicorns that poop Pegasuses!" exclaims Craig. He something else well-worth remembering, saying "Once you say it, that's it. It's for real now. Somebody from the company said it and that's it."

Next is the topic of dropped features which have been previously promised.

We don't talk about something publicly until we see it, says Meghan. Most of the panelists have learned this lesson in the most bitter of ways as all heads are nodding in agreement. "Don't talk about it until you see it." goes the mantra.

Katie says to be honest and genuine, admit that you were told to say it and so you said it, then apologize. Craig chimes in to say clear communication is incredibly important in all things. "It almost never happens, but there are times when you are told to go and say something by someone in the company." Craig reveals a bit surprisingly, to me at least. "I don't say this very often," begins Victor, "Part of our job is to advocate for the customer." A community manager sometimes needs to remind upper management that their reputation with the community literally relies on what they say. Craig also recommends trying not to say something that was dropped will be in a patch or expansion unless a lead developer commits to it.

"I like getting paid, so at the end of the day I'm going to do my job." notes Craig. It's best not to lose your job over it. Hopefully -- if you're lucky -- the company you work for respects the role that a community manager plays in the success of the game.

Meghan brings up the fact that it's a good idea to slowly break the news to the community when you do make the post. Make it an open discussion and lead up the breaking the bad news slowly.

"Hey, we cut that feature!" yells Craig while giving two thumbs up.

In all seriousness, a community manager has to speak to the large audience first. If there happens to be small pocket of players that are complaining loudly it's ideal to attack it and find out their issues. However, the general audience does come first. Meghan adds, "Just making sure that players know you're working on it helps."

Another fun story from Katie, this time about a player they recently let into the "Friends and Family Alpha" for Stargate Worlds. This player literally could not get into the game. They ended up getting in touch with a developer through an instant messenger and figured out what the issue was together. Bringing the right players intimately close with developers and making them a part of problem solving is a huge part of the overall success equation.

How do you handle negative buzz coming out even with an NDA in place?

Even with an NDA there will be a point when information gets leaked out. Victor suggests taking as much control of the situations as can be taken and to look for the right people to help you spread your message. Allowing people from the community to write up a personal blog post and then send it through PR to "OK" it is smart. Combat fire with fire, essentially.

Katie laments that, "There is always a vocal minority."

"SOE has a crack team of ninjas." Craig says in response to the NDA question.

"Your team is on crack?" queries Katie.

"Yes." says Craig with a great deadpan voice. Or maybe he's not kidding. Who can tell with Grimwell?

What we do know -- or Craig knows, at least -- is that when NDA discussions are leaking out into the Internet it's a sign that these people didn't have a provided place to vent these problems. Without any place else to go they simply post out on their own blogs or forums.

How do you deal with a buildup of negative-focused communities?

"Send them lots of cupcakes." Advises Craig, most wisely. (We finally know the secret to getting SOE to send us lots of cupcakes!) The truth is that these players -- or groups of players -- aren't really interested in your game, they're just interested in being a part of the hate club. It's fun for them to be hateful and spiteful. They simply don't want to do anything else but be angry.

The panel finished with lots and lots of different topics being covered, all of which continued to show me why these people are so important to the successful launch of an MMORPG. Every one of these community managers seem incredibly good natured. That's saying a lot when you consider that this is a group of people who constantly sit between the ire of fans and the supposed apathy of a developer. It's a tough job, but somebody has to constantly remind us that we're all just passionate people who all love online games.

Gallery: ION 08: Taking your community from pre-launch to live | 16 Photos

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