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PAX East 2013: SOE's Linda Carlson on the state of the community

Karen Bryan

How many times have you found yourself asking, "Why won't the devs just listen?!" For any loyal MMO fan, it can be extremely frustrating to see feedback seemingly get ignored, and sometimes it feels as if there's a huge wall separating the fans from the developers.

Linda Carlson, SOE's Director of Global Community Relations, spoke with Massively at this year's PAX East to talk about SOE's efforts to break down that wall and improve the relationship between players and developers into something that's more collaborative, rather than contentious. Whether you're the most loyal SOE fan or someone who's vowed never to play another SOE game, you might be surprised at what she has to say.

First off, a big part of philosophical change in SOE has been a renewed outreach to fansites and community figures. Traditionally, developers were discouraged from posting on fansites, and there was a bit of a barrier between developers and community figures. Now, though, SOE has brought prominent fansites into the loop through the creation of a Skype channel that also folds in active members from the Community Council. The Community Council was composed of influential players, and while there was a hesitation to bring in fansites at first because of fear of leaks, it's actually worked out very well, and SOE has gained a lot of important feedback from those in the Skype channel as a result. She points out that those who are in the channel don't need to always agree with everything SOE says, but they do need to care passionately about and make the time to provide feedback on the topics that they discuss.

The community has also become a big part of SOE's yearly convention, and part of that is the player panels, which are returning to SOE Live this summer. They were very popular last year, and one EverQuest panel, called Design Your Own Missions, actually led to the development team putting those missions into the game with the future game update. This is yet another example of the team collaborating with the players, and it's something that's become a much bigger part of SOE's overall philosophy. With things like Player Studio and the official Wikis, there's an emphasis on building a relationship with players that's much more cooperative. Longtime fans might remember the famous catchphrase "You're in our world now," but Carlson said it's really more like "We're in this world together" these days.

As the SOE lineup of games grew over the years, Carlson finds that players not only influence their own favorite games but help give feedback across the board. Players and fansite operators in the Community Council will compare how things are done in each game, and the discussion that follows about what's good and bad often leads to valuable feedback. She mentioned how the Free Realms members played a role during the free-to-play transition in EverQuest II with the Freeport server. Because of their experience with it already, they didn't see it as a big deal, and that helped encourage EQII members to give it a try to see for themselves.

Recognizing the importance of building a strong community, Carlson said that people work best in families and tribes. Yes, things can be contentious and crazy, but guilds are the glue that keeps people together and provide the best memories. She added to what EQ Franchise Director Dave Georgeson said about tradeskillers having a particularly important role in all of that, saying that they tend to be the more social members of a guild. They're online a lot more, greeting and chatting with members, and often might not even leave the guild hall. They play a matriarchal role in guilds (although she stressed that when it comes to playing the market, they can be the most cutthroat people on the planet!). On a side note, she added that there's a depth of content in EQ and EQII, to the point that they don't even know how many zones the two games have. When you include different versions of zones, plus temporary zones from holiday events, the best answer they could come up with was, "lots, and then a bunch more."

The Guild Counsel  SOE's Linda Carlson on the state of the community
Regarding feedback, SOE has made some big changes to make it easier for it to analyze player input and get an accurate picture of how players feel about changes. In many cases, players are generally neutral, even though that might not seem the case on forums. And in games that have been out for a long time, players tend to have a wait-and-see approach. "It's not just about forums anymore," Carlson added while explaining how the studio now uses analystics programs like Clara Insights. Forums are where you get long conversations on topics, but then there are shorter stories on Facebook and even shorter comments on Twitter. Add in fansites and Reddit, and there are many places where SOE collects feedback. All of it is valuable, and while it's difficult to quantify, the studio works hard to include it all when assessing the state of the game.

Because there's such a broad landscape of places where players comment, SOE President John Smedley told the team he wants everyone to branch out and communicate to players not just on the forums but on these fansites and other social media. The catalyst behind that was the introduction of free-to-play, and ever since then, there's been a big change in philosophy from the top down through the company. Calrson told me that Dave Georgeson is the best thing that happened to the EQ franchise because he's willing to try new ideas. And all of the changes were choices, not forced. Features like Player Studio have played a role in bridging the gap, and we'll see that system expand more and more in future titles, which should also mean an even more collaborative relationship between players and developers.

But change in general can be hard, and even seemingly small changes can be difficult on the community. Carlson pointed to the addition of UI changes like quest helpers and mini-maps, and even though these are positive changes, players will still respond negatively, saying they're dumbing down the game or copying another game. SOE believes it's not dumbing the game down as much as making it more intuitive.

Carlson then looked back at the evolution of the community management program at SOE and talked about how far it's come. There are three branches of the company that all play a role in helping players: customer service, in-game player guides, and the community management team. The customer service team has actually undergone the most change the fastest. They were the first ones to become customer-centric in the company, and they provide amazing feedback, according to Carlson. Community managers used to do in-game events, but as the company grew and added more games, it's had to become more efficient, so while the CMs can't do as many in-game events anymore, they do everything they can to promote, cover, and assist with player-run events. They've even helped contribute prizes like Station Cash codes and t-shirts to make those events successful. And the guide program works to be the social glue in game. There are about 200 volunteer guides who do everything from running quests to organizing in-game events and helping players any way they can.

Lastly, we got an update on the ProSieben transition. Carlson explained that it was a difficult transition because it was a big change for overseas players. But ProSieben has built up a great team of people who actually have a lot of experience with SOE games as players themselves. They're doing a great job overall, she says, and they've done everything they can do to make players happy. But Carlson did say that coordinating with them and keeping them in the loop can be tricky. They have to make sure to keep both teams up to date on game changes, new content, and promotional contests, but they also have to make sure the development team isn't slowed down as a result. As SOE has continued to transition other games to ProSieben, it's learning each time, and it's going more smoothly as a result.

Overall, there's been a lot of changes when it comes to community relations, and SOE believes it has renewed its focus on building a better relationship between the company and the fans. Thanks to Linda Carlson for pulling back the curtain and giving us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes!

Massively was the ground in Boston during the weekend of March 22nd to 24th, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2013. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, DUST 514, or any MMO in between, we aim to have it covered!

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