PAX South 2015: Camelot Unchained's proactive approach to community management

A different kind of community management

In the crowdfunded independent industry, we are starting to see some ups and downs. Backers have seen some games fail and other games soar. One of those games that seems to be doing very well, at least if you ask its Community Manager Jenesee Grey and its legions of fans, is Camelot Unchained. At this weekend's PAX South, I spoke to Grey about her experience as a CM for a crowdfunded game.

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The double-edged sword

You can find out pretty much anything you want to know about Camelot Unchained by investing a few hours reading its Kickstarter page, and that's just part of what makes this game unique compared to other MMORPGs in development: The backers are not some corporate conglomerate looking to make money; they're players who are looking to support a good game. "We are making something that people are excited about and that people want to have," Grey told me. However, she also described the work of the community manager in a community-centric crowdfunding environment as a "double-edged sword."

"On the one hand, we have accountability and responsibility to our backers to make the game we said we were going to make. On the other hand there are a lot of things I'd like to say and information that I'd like to give out: ideas we're thinking of [and] ideas we're toying with. I have to be very judicious about how I do that because I don't want to make promises or say anything that can be construed as a promise and disappoint our backers."

Grey has been the game's community manager long enough to feel she's built up a rapport with the fans and feels comfortable talking to the backers about things not every community manager would mention to her players. "Most people give me leeway to share ideas," she says. "It's one of the wonderful things about crowdsourcing." As long as the ideas are presented as ideas and not promises, then everything works out well.

AAA developers, on the other hand, are usually forced into holding back every last detail until it's ready. Camelot Unchained, even though its an independent game, isn't immune from those same needs. A few times during my interview with her, Grey had to tell me that the team wasn't ready to talk about a specific topic just yet, even with the backers, who are "emotionally invested because they've put individual money into building something, and they are a part of that building process."

As she put it, the community-first philosophy it's a double-edged sword, and to help alleviate in possible issues, Camelot Unchained has a backers-only forum for backers who are testers. In fact, she told me about a specific forum where backers can talk about things to come. She called it the "something to think about" section. This is where the developers can directly pitch ideas to the backers who are fully aware that what's spoken of really, truly might not happen. But it gives the developers direct and instant feedback about the ideas they have for the game.

Proactive community

Proactive community management

As Grey was explaining CU's philosophy to me, it hit me that this is a strinkingly proactive way of managing an MMO community. In many MMOs, the community manager is little more than a forum moderator. In other games, the job of the community manager is to quell rioting fans. Grey's proactive role, on the other hand, actually helps the community development part of the game by allowing the backers, who are ultimately players, participate in steering the direction of the game.

"It is amazing -- it really is," she told me. "It's great to have that participation back and forth. We have a vision; we have the core elements and a plan; but then we have [players] adding little things and helping us change things along the way to kind of shape [the game] into something that we are all making together."

Anyone who's run communities and seen them develop into something fun and exciting also knows the negative side of running a community. Many times the community members will feverishly debate something until it becomes personal. So far, though, that's not been a problem for CU; Grey says that the vast majority of the Camelot Unchained community members are respectful to each other and the developers, even when they disagree.

Developers of many other games are often forbidden to post on the forum or talk to players in game without first having their posts heavily edited or even written by someone from the community or PR team. That's also not the case with CU. As Grey explained, the Camelot Unchained developers have constant communication with the backers via the forum and in game with no moderation from on high. Game Designer Ben Pielstick, for example, often frequents the forums and answer direct questions from the backers, and Grey said that she even hunts down specific developers if there is a question that is appropriate for one of them to answer.

I was also curious about communication with the developers from a community management point of view. I have experienced situations in the past, particularly with large triple-A studios, where players will pose a question to the community manager, who tells players he'll get answer from the developers, and then a month later, we'll finally get the answer to a simple question that's become moot in the interim. I understand that sometimes answers can't be turned around very quickly, but Grey told me that's not usually the case with Camelot Unchained. She says that she meets with the developers for lunch on a regular basis, equipped with (her words) "green sticky notes" of things that forumgoers have asked that she would like to get a better understanding of. And they talk about it so that she has a firm grasp on how that system works. Many times she will respond to the forum post herself, but sometimes, she thinks it's best that Pielstick or another dev reply to it personally.

Grey couldn't really speak to how other games studios handle community management, but it's clear that CSE has something special. When a playerbase is passionate about a game -- and they are, if our comment section anytime we post about CU is any guide -- it's infectious. It translates into a bigger community, better feedback, and ultimately, a stronger game.

Grey appeared on the MMO panel that I was a part of this weekend, and she welcomes Twitter followers. And she will be at PAX East representing Camelot Unchained in about six weeks. Many thanks to her again for speaking with us.

Massively's on the ground in San Antonio during the weekend of January 23rd to January 25th, bringing you all the best news from PAX South 2015. Whether you're dying to know more about Guild Wars 2's Heart of Thorns, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift, or angling for some rumors from the SWTOR cantina crawl, you can bet we'll have it covered!