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GDC Online 2011: CCP talks community management

Karen Bryan

As we all know, every MMO has its share of crises. They can range from an unpopular game nerf to bugged content to full-out server meltdown. Ironically, CCP Community Manager Valerie Massey submitted her plans for a GDC Online talk the day before, as she put it, "all hell broke loose at CCP." From that point on, the devs "were out of the frying pan and into the fire" over and over. In all, Monoclegate and the Incarna problems were two months of one PR disaster after another.

When it comes to crisis management, she stressed that it's not an exact science, that it's hard to pick apart post-analyses, and that one CM's experience is very different from another. She chose to use Tylenol as a key example of correct response to crisis. Back in 1982, a killer inserted cyanide into Tylenol bottles, thus murdering several people. Tylenol wasn't at fault, but the company reacted correctly by pulling all bottles from the shelves, recalling the product, adding tamper-resistant packaging, and discounting prices after the fact. The company's quick action restored the trust of the consumers.

Who did it wrong? BP. That company shirked responsibility, waited two days before making a statement, lied about the extent of the damage, and failed to execute a clear clean-up plan fast enough.

In a crisis, whether it's in game or in real life, the key is to prepare in advance.

Valerie went on to talk about how to deal with a crisis once it hits. First, she stressed that at the earliest sign of a crisis, it's important to find out what the core issue is, to investigate and accurately pinpoint the problem. Next, find out the worst-case scenario of the resulting damage, things like loss of players, leaking of personal information, or legal issues. Next, identify the target audience. Will it affect just your active community, or will it spill over to the larger community and media? The scenario dictates what reaction is needed.

In order to fix things, she said, it's important to staff your "war room" with relevant experts, with each small group coordinating who will do what and when and addressing the core issues thoroughly and completely. Lastly, she said that the right people need to speak to the players, with the "right" voice -- community managers and support should address the players, public relations should speak to the general public and media, and the top brass should get involved only if necessary.

As for the message, Valerie said it's important to be clear to the community but never speak in absolutes or over-promise certain results because that always tends to come back to haunt you. She also stressed that it's critical to develop good communication not only with the active players but with the media as well because when a serious crisis develops, you'll need to get a response out to the larger gaming community through those bloggers, fansites, and formal press.

When it comes to follow-up, one option is to contact affected customers via mass email to see whether everything was resolved satisfactorily. A postmortem shared through a developer blog is another good way to follow up.

Her takeaway advice? "If you screwed up, own it." But she added that sometimes, even after doing everything you can, you just need to wait until the smoke clears.

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