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

Kyle Horner

Yesterday was the final day of ION 08, but that didn't mean there weren't some incredbly great panels to attend. "Taking Your Community From Pre-Launch to Live" was just one of these panels and to make things even better it included some previous speakers I quite enjoyed hearing from.

This time around the moderator was Steve Danuser (38 Studios) while Craig Dalrymple (Sony Online Entertainment) took a panelist seat along with Katie Postma (Firesky), Meghan Rodberg (Turbine) and Victor Wachter (Cryptic Studios). It's important to point out that all the panelist are in fact community managers, as opposed to Steve Danuser who is the lead content designer and director of community development for his company. However, Danuser was previously a community manager for EverQuest II.

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

Steve kicked off the panel with a pre-written rant that he created after being approached by an attendee who asked why everyone seemed to be acting so nice to each other. It was certainly a passionately written rant with choice sentences such as, "Community Managers get kicked in the face and come back day after day because they're touch" He then proclaimed that they were not only under-appreciated, but also under-paid -- a sentiment that caused Craig Dalrymple to shout, "Yes, yes I agree!" It didn't end there though, as there was much more on Steve's mind.

"They're warriors. They're bad-asses." He demands with a determined fierceness. Pausing for only a moment, Steve then continues on in with his rapid-fire, passion-powered rant. One choice quote was a stern, "It's time the industry stands up and recognizes that they'd be screwed without them." And with that he introduced the panelists.

The panelists are introduced by Steve as four people who'd walk through fire after being barraged with bullets, simply because they love what they do. It was quite an intro and really set the stage for what already promised to be a great discussion.

Craig "Grimwell" Dalrymple introduces himself, saying that his specialty lies with wicked lasagna creation. I can only take that to mean he's got max lasagna crafting skills. Steve quips, "If a missile crashed into this room right now, online communities would literally die." I'm also of the opinion that I would probably die, but I suppose that's only my concern.

First order of discussion is setting the tone. How do you start communicating with players efficiently in pre-launch mode?

Jumping right in is Meghan Rodberg, who starts the discussion by saying that it's critical to set the tone early. If you simply let the community shape itself then you're risking a community you may not want at all. Letting a negative tone shape the community from the outset will hurt a game/company as time goes on.

So is there a practical way to set a positive tone early on?

The plucky Katie Postma gives her two cents, saying that she tries to make sure that all community members realize that the forums are their place. The people involved -- or future players -- need to make the community something that they actually want. "It's not my doing, it's their doing." She says in a very motherly tone.

Craig takes a different approach. "I like banning jerks." He admits, crisply. It doesn't matter if you're running beta forums or a live game forum, everything a community manager does will either validate or encourage some sort of behavior. "If someones being bad, you have the grand opportunity to nudge them in the right direction and with them thousands of others." Says Craig in a very straight forwardly. What's important is making sure you're not validating the wrong thing, as doing such will cause all kinds of nightmares later on.

There's a spectrum of firm handedness and light handedness, but what's most important is consistency in whichever a community manager favors. Katie points out that a game tends to dictate its community and says, "I couldn't be the community manager for Shadowbane. I just couldn't do it." Which makes me wonder what kind of person could. Although I'm willing to bet that you'd find them in the Shadowbane community.

What's becoming more important is knowing your core audience well, especially as the market grows in new directions. This is something that Victor Wachter mentions, that when starting from scratch there's an opportunity to tailor to a community from the very beginning. Something you can do based on knowing what your game is going to be all about.

Bringing someone positive from your community early on is all for the better, interjects Craig. However, carefully laying the groundwork for a deeper, more intimate relationship with said community member is also very important.Craig says a community managers need to ask themselves, "What are you trying to build with this community?" There's no question that a carefully crafted community in the early stages will greater help a game in the long-term.

On the subject of criticism Meghan firmly asserts that, "Things like constructive criticism are what we welcome. We absolutely welcome it." She continues by saying that if you ask for just that, the community will by-and-large give it to you.

Katie has a different method. Her mantra is to humanize herself and the rest of the team. "What we had for dinner isn't off limits." Says Postma. While posting official responses and such is very important it certainly doesn't hurt to jump into the forums like any other poster and just be a human being with the community.

Steve suddenly enters character, asking why she isn't telling him why the development team isn't doing X to fix Y or doing everything possible to address every one of his complaints. Katie then leans towards the microphone and says, "We're in beta?" with dash of sarcasm. As a side note: I've seen a very similar kind of humanization on the Champions Online forums and it's been working out well for that community, so I'm in agreement with Katie.

Now the subject moves to creating an official post on a topic. The question is: What's the average amount of time spent writing a few paragraphs to post on your forums?

According to Meghan it only takes her about five to ten minutes to write up the post with lots of re-reading involved. Steve wonders out loud about five to ten minutes being all the time she needs. I have to admit that's pretty impressive as I've seen many the Lord of the Rings Online official forums posts, which are usually very good. Craig says he makes sure to filter his posts through lots of different applications as it forces him to re-read his post many times over.

Katie mentions that she usually throws up a placeholder posts saying something along the lines of, "We're looking into it." so that the community at least knows that the development team is working on it. Victor jokes that his first step is to go outside and smoke for a while. I certainly can see why many community managers might be heavy smokers as well.

The discussion then shifted to the topic of whether or not having official forums is ideal.

All the panelists agree that it's not so much a matter of saying yes or no to forums, but more of a balance in all things. Your forums can't have too many sub-forums in them, for instance. Otherwise -- if they do have too many -- the community manager will have a hard time focusing his or her attention. Victor is a big proponent of having a "magnet" forum where most of the discussions happen.

What's the right time to launch your forum?

"When the game is announced" says Katie. Everyone seems to agree with this as well. Katie adds that there's going be fansites cropping up regardless, so if your forums are there early you'll be the first place for players to establish a community. This definitely ties directly into making sure to foster a positive tone with the communities as well.

Victor is quick to point out that there are many dependencies. With Marvel Universe Online, they announced the game without any forums. In fact, Victor isn't even sure what he would've done if he did have forums. "I think that MUO forums might have been counter-productive." he adds, saying that there wouldn't have been anything to satiate the players' desire for information.

It was here that Craig puts it pretty simply by saying, "It really boils down to when you're ready to converse with the audience." He asserts that you must have something to say. If you come to the table without content to talk about then players get bored very fast. It's entirely possible to start a board to early, causing players to get bored and even never play your game. Meghan adds that it really helps if you've got an IP with pre-existing topics to talk about like with LotRO.

An unfortunate coincidence was that the FPS Stargate SG-1: Alliance was canceled right around the same Stargate Worlds was about to be announced. "We actually delayed our announcement by a couple of weeks in respect of the SG:A team." So you can never be sure what to expect, even with game announcements.

The next topic of discussion was about what to do when the influencers within the community begin to float to the surface. More specifically the question was: How do you interact with and embrace them in order to help them build the community?

Craig is very clear that by saying that spending some time with these people to see if they're genuinely interested is very important. You don't want to just approach them immediately with something like, "Hey do you want to come and get some exclusive attention?" Another thing that Craig makes sure to mention (we've heard it before, but it is important to remember) that people who are negative aren't always bad people or bad customers.

Reinforcing what the positive players say and do publicly can reinforce that behavior in the rest of the community, suggests Meghan. Those positive players can even be brought into the early beta so they can play alongside the developers. There are lots of great opportunities with positive players.

This is actually something that's been done with Stargate: Worlds, says Katie. They actually put both positive and negative players into the early game as they all simply say what they honestly think and feel about the game. Players that aren't just kissing ass are very valuable to a developer.

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