Sunday, June 17, 2007

NYT - The Life of a Chinese Gold Farmer

A fairly typical article about gold farmers, but it does have some interesting information.

For me, the fact that gold farming is done by many, many small businesses in China shows how difficult it is to combat the practice by simply banning the farmers. It's like putting out a fire in a peat bog.

A company that is unwilling to make significant design and process changes to combat or derail RMT is either willing to accept the practice and the downsides, or is committing itself to an expensive and unending guerrilla war.

In any case, the lesson that a lot of money is being left on the table by many MMO companies is still apparently not sinking in.

Read it HERE

Friday, May 25, 2007

Why Forums Don't Scale

It's a math problem.

The number of potential interactions between users goes up exponentially with the number of users. The interactions are what need moderation, of course. Therefore, the number of moderators needed to keep a constant level of oversight goes up exponentially too.

The income per user, of course, does NOT go up exponentially. (Although that would be a neat business model, if someone made it work.) There is definitely a level at which you can make forums work with a single mod per shift - or even one real mod and a bare minimum of oversight. A bit higher, you can do with 2-3 people during the bulk of your posting hours. That's still a pretty reasonable budget for a (pre-WoW) successful MMO. Beyond that level, though, it is either too expensive to do at all, or it just gets done badly - and badly moderated official forums are, in my experience, worse than none at all.

It's not that I don't think official forums are valuable, although, having tried both sides, there is a definite advantage for the community manager to being completely divorced from the moderation side of things (and, by extension, for the company - the players can't complain that we're censoring them when WE aren't even involved.) It's that I think that for games past a certain size, the expense of having official forums is not offset by the value. I can get many more valuable things done when I'm not moderating, and if someone offered to pay for a staff of moderators, I could honestly find other work for them that I think would benefit the game and the community much more.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Eating Bees

If you're interested in the sort of stuff we talk about but want to see it done better, check out - Sanya Weathers, formerly known as the infamous Tweety, covers community management in her inimitable style.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Information Dissemination

It's been awhile since my last long-winded post, so I thought I'd whip up a little ditty on the differences between the centralized and decentralized form of game information release in terms that relate to Community Management.

Centralized Control

Accessible. Official. Definitive.

Official forums, WoW’s Armory, LOTRO’s Lorebook

Bringing forums and game content under direct control, more power can be exercised in the release of information and it’s tonality. Additionally, accessibility to the information will increase for both casual and hardcore players as an officially sanctioned resource offers the definitive word on a topic relating to the game. The information is also lent more credence as being factual if it comes from the mouth of a Community Manager or Designer appearing in official forums or posting quest information to the website than if it came instead from a player at a fansite.

Internalizing the release of information means that a greater burden is placed on the community relations and web team to provide frequent and consistent updates. This shifts the CM focus further into the “Maintenance” area of the Online Community Focus triangle. Centralizing control also removes some of the impetus for fansites to form, as they usually occur as the result of making information available that the developer can’t or won’t.

The Mystery Factor:
Information provided out of game reduces the amount of discovery needed in-game. Laying bare all the monsters, gear, items, and levels to the players could potentially damage the game experience, and concurrently the amount of time spent playing the game by negating the elements of discovery.

Decentralized Control

Low Maintenance. Evangelist Empowerment.

UO Stratics Forums, Allakhazam

By providing a vacuum of official information, or rather segmenting it via limited release, decentralized control limits the amount of time and energy required by the community relations and web team. It also decreases the amount of time required in the “Maintenance” area of Online Community Focus, freeing up hours that can be spent directly growing the community or expanding supporting infrastructure. Evangelists in a decentralized system tend to find greater purpose in presenting information that has been discovered through in-game means. Learning and sharing that one secret about how to complete the end-level quest or what the greatest build order might be garners the revealing player a measure of prestige and respect amongst his peers.

By limiting control over where and how information is reported to the public, risk of unwanted or downright damaging information from speedily reaching the public. Being at the mercy of fansite and gaming news portal owners means that deteriorating interest and general player attrition on the part of evangelists can fragment an online community. Sculpting perceptions is also more difficult to do as well, as the tonality of the message is changed from source to source. Accessibility and dependability are factors, as casual or new players may not bother to browse through the official “Links” or “Community Sites” section to find the answers they are looking for.

The Mystery Factor:
A lessening of both the availability and definitive quality of information about game content lends towards fewer players being aware of that content. Less awareness can mean less interest, but can conversely spark feelings of exploration and discovery. That feeling that comes in the beginning of playing any new game is like the first day of school. An intimidating, yet refreshing feeling of a whole new world to explore, with its rich tapestry of intricacies and mechanics unraveled before you as a holistic part of the gaming experience. Everyone knows how to get the warp whistle in level 1-3, but envision how it felt to be the first one to find that wonderful little secret?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

I'm Back!

After a long hiatus, I've rejoined my comrades here, and plan to terrorize them into posting more often.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Meditations on Lord of the Rings Online

As a Community Manager, watching a new community form from the ether surrounding a new game announcement is thrilling, but watching that game ship is like seeing a live birth. There's a tense emotional quality for those involved, and alot of hope usually mixed with alot of pain. As an outsider, watching the LOTRO community come into existence, I can't help but think of it in these terms. For one paying attention, there are some really interesting things we can learn from these early stages of LOTRO.

Frequent, casual, consistent communication from an approachable CM lends a huge sense of stability and a feeling that "the devs are listening."
Patience, the LOTRO CM, is very personable and frequently posts in topics that a jaded veteran normally wouldn't expect to find an immediate response from a developer in. Topics that would usually fall under the "Why the heck do they CARE about this?!" category are being answered by her, and that's impressive.

Extensive, multi-staged beta test with Marketing involvement
This was an incredibly intriguing formula and I'm honestly surprised how effective it appears to have been. What they did was they had one or two closed beta tests, invite-only to a steadily growing number of folks. But that wasn't the unique part. The unique part was that pre-orders got to join in a special "Pre-Order Only" beta period, where the characters they built would be transferred over to the live servers once the game was released. Not only this, but Pre-Orders were given access to special "Founder" pricing and given an option to purchase a lifetime account. Additionally, two unique items are given in-game.

At first glance, this doesn't that sound genius. But look at it closer. What this has done is effectively provided THREE incentives that appeal to multiple parts of a player's consideration where adopting a game is concerned.

It says, if you join as a pre-order, you get a head-start. You can only get to level 15, but there's no limit on the number of characters you can get to level 15...imagine how many people you'll be ahead of when the game releases.

It says, if in the future, you realize that you want to play this game, you'll have missed out on a great chance to get special pricing for it. You know how quickly those subscription fees can add up... so if I buy the pre-order now, I won't have to worry about that in the future. They'll probably be in high demand, too. And if I really fall in love with the game, I can always plunk down the price for lifetime and be done with it.

It says, not only do I get that, but I also get two little baubles to help me through the first 10 or so levels of the game. Even MORE of a headstart.

Couple this with an Open Beta (which industry folks should by now be reading as a "time-limited free demo") and you have a really great combo.

Adherence to Consistency
From the get-go in character creation, you are -very- encouraged to participate in the lore of the world. A multitude of naming conventions are presented for you based on your racial selection, with polite offerings of what you might augment your name with. It may sound like a small thing, but perception of stability and consistency begins right after the first impression. Perceived consistency breeds immersion, and immersion is one of the key factors connected to community that keeps players playing.

The world itself is interesting and inviting, albeit a bit of a linear-style train ride as far as questing goes. The differences between the Peter Jackson movies and EA Games and LOTRO is stark, but the classes, the rich quest dialogue and scenery make it feel like LOTRO is a more faithful representation of the books. Not that I'm a purist by any stretch!

A fun game so far, and certainly a great case study to observe for enlightened CMery.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Community Management Focus

In my comparatively short span of time spend managing online communities I have noticed that budgeting time performing community management can be summed up into three basic types of activities. To visually represent this, here's a little diagram I whipped up to help represent these areas of focus-

Printed out, I poke a push-pin in where I feel the community focus is, and a second where I feel it should be headed. It has helped my own day-to-day tremendously and serves as a great reminder up on the office wall. What follows is an explanation of the three points of CM focus, Infrastructure, Growth and Maintenance as well as a short breakdown of some of the related activities.

Infrastructure in Community Management is any means by which your message may be conveyed and the refined processes thereof. Infrastructure is the whole of all of the combined methods and systems that permit your communication and influence to travel through your network of contacts and information outlets. These are represented in various mediums, as forums, websites, fansites, IM lists, newsletters, e-mails, in-game chats and more.

In most situations, the Community Manager’s primary pieces of infrastructure will be the Official Website and the Official Forums. In a typical setup, communication flows from developer to player via the website, and from player to developer via the forums, with the Community Manager mediating and facilitating the flow of information.

In essence, community infrastructure is the “population cap” of a given a community. Infrastructure determines the level of organization and order your community possesses as well as the number of individuals and groups it can comfortably accommodate. Being too far under it is never good, as it means the community growth has gone stagnant. Going too far over this imaginary “pop cap” through accelerated growth can be equally detrimental, and can result in a few tricky problems like Community Manager burnout, fan resentment, and poor perception by the gaming media.

Growing the level of infrastructure in a community is as simple as spending the time working building tools and improving relationships with the people involved. Here are a few examples of infrastructure found in common gaming communities-

Official Website
Your official company or game website.

Community Sub-site
A special community specific sub-site, usually containing links to forums, fansites and special downloadables.

A fan or network run site dedicated to news and community for your game.

Official Forums
Message boards which are considered the primary source of community feedback for your game, usually hosted with the official site.

Fansite Forums
Community run and guild forums, usually hosted off of existing fansites.

E-mail List / Newsletter
An extensive listmail that can be used for one-way communication with your players.

Chat rooms set aside on official or fansite servers which can be used to host discussions and developer chats.

Direct Instant Messaging (Yahoo, MSN, ICQ)
Direct line of communication with your evangelists, fansite owners and key player leaders.

Developer Information Pipeline
The process by which you the Community Manager receive aggregate information about the development of your game. A raw source of unfiltered information from the development team, garnered through meetings, company e-mails, casual discussion and task lists.

In-game Tools & Systems
Global broadcast messages, Messages of the Day, patcher notes, built-in news systems, lobbies and general chat fall into this category.

(Online) Community (Relations) Manager/Director
This is the person responsible for representing the developer to the fan base. Responsible for creating and following through on initiatives and using all the resources available to grow, maintain and organize the game’s community. Operates as the primary conduit between developer and player for communication and feedback.

Community Representative
Shares the load with the Community Manager in maintaining the community. Usually specialized to provide developer feedback on the forums.

Forum Administrator/Moderator
Forum admins and mods, either employees or volunteer players. These individuals are responsible for keeping order on the boards and making sure discussion remains civil and focused.

Fansite Owner
Owner of a game or genre-specific website that focuses heavily on your game or a set of features in it. Fansite Owners post news, stories and articles about your game on their site.

Evangelists are the front-line warrior-leaders of your community. Usually early-adopters, fansite contributors or guild leaders, evangelists are the primary opinion makers and tend to maintain large networks of friends and acquaintances that they influence. The evangelist is the primary building block of a strong community.

Growth is the means by which a gaming community increases in number or dedication. Numerical growth is easy to quantify using basic metrics of forum traffic, unique site visits and in-game user polling. Growth in the player base dedication to the game can be a bit more difficult to determine, but nevertheless represents a very important aspect of effective community management. The loyalty your players show to your game correlates directly to how likely they are to recommend it to a friend, and word of mouth recommendations are some of the strongest forces in the gaming market.

Of the three pillars, Growth is perhaps the most difficult to affect. Is there a demand for your game? Does it fill a need? Is it buggy or well polished? Do your marketing guys know what they are doing and if they have enough of a budget to do it well? These are all concerns related to growth that are beyond the control or purview of a Community Manager. The good news is that growth can be prodded in the right directions through targeted community initiatives. This includes contests, fansite promotions, live in-game events, swag strikes, developer chats and anything else that directly engages the community. In addition, direct conversion through clear invitations to notable evangelists in related genres can help get a community starting from scratch off to a great start.

Typically the most influential evangelists in your community will have come from other communities, and early growth is an absolute requisite. As Raph has mentioned, don’t be afraid to steal the community you need! All communities and social structures have come from one or another, born out of the need to share in order to accomplish. What follows are a few examples of actions that can inspire growth in a gaming community-

Screenshot Contest
Offer a small prize to anyone who can capture the greatest looking or funniest screenshot from your game, or even a caption contest for an existing screenshot.

Tournament Competition
Appealing more to the hardcore segment of your community, a tournament of skill can be great fun and can generate a lot of interest.

Fan Art Contest
See who can draw the best or funniest fan art for your title and offer prizes to the winners.

Fan Fiction Contest
Let your players write up their version of events or expand the lore of the game with some fan fiction.

Game Knowledge Contest
Reward knowledge about the game world with a trivia contest.

Target Evangelists: Same Genre
Visit the forums and fansites of games in the same genre as your title, establishing connections with them and networking with their evangelists.

Target Evangelists: Related Genre
Visit the forums and fansites of games in related genres as your title, personally offering an opportunity for evangelists to experience a greater variety.

Incite Topic Discussion
An official thread inciting discussion about a particular topic tends to garner a greater amount of attention. Don’t hesitate to shift focus towards something your dev team might want feedback on – keeping the dialogue fresh is good!

Arrange Fansite/Media Exclusive
Nothing builds fansite love faster than an exclusive interview with a developer. Proactively offer your devs and in-progress concept art and goodies as down-payments on coverage and interest.

Maintenance can be considered the regular daily upkeep required to keep a community intact and functioning without issues or drama. Most methods of maintenance revolve around keeping your community well informed about progress the development team is making, and keeping the channels of communication open and clear. Regular website updates with news items, frequent posting in the forums, patronage to prominent fansites, board moderation, checking up on evangelists and site owners and making sure that feedback gets to the right folks on the development team are all examples of maintenance activities.

Maintenance is the “default” mode Community Managers operates in, as they are tasked with keeping the online community content and informed. Keeping an eye on the level of maintenance in the game’s community is a very important role to consider when building up infrastructure or targeting increased growth. A drop in the maintenance can be a costly one, and difficult to recover from. Managing expectations and perceptions players have of the Community Manager and the community itself takes on an important role in the everyday upkeep. Keeping in constant touch with the community is the best way to build healthy, lasting relationships with your players and also boosts their confidence in having chosen your game to play. Here are a few examples of community maintenance.

Maintenance Actions
Read/Post on the Forums
Pay attention to the active threads in your community and offer your voice where response is needed. You represent the developer’s presence, and keeping involved lets the community know that they are cared about.

Metrics Tacking / Trends Analysis
An arbitrary function at best, metrics tracking can help justify certain actions taken to grow the community, and also display growth trends as well. Tracking referrals can also be useful for identifying isolated pockets of community that might not be receiving as much attention.

IRC / IM Dialogue with Fansite Owners and Community Leads
Being directly available to certain higher-level evangelists and site owners can help when situations arise that need immediate attention. Having these contacts close at hand can help to build strong relationships with them.

Board Moderation
Keeping your forums clean of trolls, griefers, spammers and other nuisances helps to instill a feeling of order necessary for maintaining a vibrant community.Website Updates
The best way to keep your public informed and aware is by presenting information about the latest happenings and news on the official website or community sub-site.

Town Hall-style Chats
Allowing players to ask questions in a town hall style IRC chat can help fans relate to the development team and know first-hand that their concerns are being heard and responded to.

Player Issue Resolution
Filter through the din of player feedback for valid concerns and issues, compile them, and direct them to the appropriate departments in the development team.