Monday, December 04, 2006

The Virtues As Applied to Community Management

Community Management originated well before Ultima Online, but didn’t quite emerge until the first few MMOs arrived on the scene and began to necessitate it. The need for ongoing attention paid to the burgeoning communities of subscription-paying inhabitants of these persistent worlds is still relatively new, and has gradually been extending out to encompass games with multiplayer aspects (RTS and FPSs). Ultima Online was the first big one however, and being my first experience with MMO communities, it shaped much of how I view community management and the challenges that go along with it. From Leilo to Sannio to Nomad, UO has had its fair share of CM pioneers. In that light, I thought it’d be nifty to assemble a collection of guide points for CMing, based around the old Virtues of Ultima lore. So, in no particular order, I give you the Virtues as Applied to Community Management-

Honesty
Tell it like it is, and don't be afraid to level with your audience. Only give absolute timeframes if you have to, and if you have to give them a deadline, make darned sure that you stick to it. Nothing breaks the trust gamers have for their Community Manager more than feeling like they’ve been lied to about a time or date for something to come out.

If your game has issues - and it will - being honest doesn’t mean telling them everything about what went wrong, but it does mean being prompt and up front about, and letting the attentive audience know that your team is working on fixing things or making them better. Brief, informative, to-the-point posts can mean the difference between a minor snafu and a megalithic disaster in the eyes of the gaming public.

Justice
If a community evangelist or fansite owner has done something good for you and your game, then recognize them publicly and shower both affection and swag upon them. The cost of sending off a signed copy of your game, t-shirt, mug and a personal thank-you note is well worth the satisfaction they receive in knowing that they made a difference and that your company realizes it.

On the flip side, if a member of your community is actively harming it with sour commentary, doomsayer-style prophecies or outright exploitation, don’t hesitate to marginalize that community member. A private chat via IM with the person to address and acknowledge their issues can often help turn a dissenter into an evangelist. For the more casual naysayer, proper forum discipline and liberal use of “This is not on topic” pruning by forum mods can usually direct attention towards more productive discussion.

Valor
Get down in the trenches with your peeps! Don’t be afraid to answer the toughest questions with “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.” There is no shame in admitting that you don’t currently know something, and your community is almost always going to have more questions than you have answers. Because you often serve as the lightning rod for public opinion for the entire development studio, a great deal of pressure can build on you very quickly when community perception shifts as a result of a news piece, game issue or controversy on the forums. Be brave and don’t be intimidated. Keep to the facts out front and keep the spin to a minimum. Bold, direct answers will earn respect for you and for your developers.

Honor
Marketing, Public Relations and Customer Service are rarely synonymous with “integrity” in this day and age, and with Community Management an amalgam of those professions, it can be very challenging to present an image of honorable intent when communicating with an audience of gamers. It helps to remember and keep to your word and always, always follow through.

Respect and praise your community members as a whole, because they will eventually react in much the same way you treat them. Don’t address detractors directly, but defend your game and developers in hostile threads with matter-of-fact statements and privately encourage community allies to back you up. Never fear saying “You are wrong, and here’s why…” but make sure to acknowledge their trepidations and offer your gratitude for their willingness to express them publicly to you.

Compassion
The industry forums and blogs are filled with drive-by developer posts from aloof luminaries more concerned with high-level vision than they are with the day-to-day concerns of their gamers. Being able to recognize and fulfill the needs of a gaming community should be one of the foremost duties of a Community Manager. They operate as the emotive online face of the game development company, and should be as approachable as possible. Lurk on the popular guild forums, they’ll appreciate the extra attention. Pop into IRC occasionally for some casual chatting with fansite owners. Make sure your evangelists have your IM info and tell you about every little neat thing that’s going on in the community or problems on the horizon that you might not be able to see quite yet.

Sacrifice
Typically, patience and sanity are the quickest things sacrificed up to the gods of Community Management. Hearing the proverbial vox populi on a daily basis at typically ear-shattering decibels can quickly jade a CM. Dealing with a large cluster of vociferous and occasionally malcontent gamers protected by the anonymity the internet provides is both time-consuming and maddening. And, unlike the developer vocations of Production, Art, Design, Programming and QA, Community Management is never actually “finished”. Understanding first that simple maxim can save a CM bunches in sanity points. Keeping that in mind, the overall objective in keeping hold of the reigns remains simple: maintain and grow the online community for your game.

Spirituality
In order to sincerely and passionately represent the developers and the game to the public, you must first play the game. That may seem like a very obvious statement, but a surprising number of community management folks don’t actually play their own games much. It is imperative that the CM be intimate enough with the game to know its heartbeat, and to be able to tell when signs in-game point to things overlooked that demand attention. It is important to play the game, even if you suck at it.

Passion and zeal are winning edges to have as a CM, and your community will be quicker to believe you aren’t feeding them a line of marketspeak when they’ve seen your nick in-game actually playing it and checking up on things. Plus, passion is contagious! If you are passionate about your games, it will show through when you write or speak about them.

Humility
As a Community Manager, you play video games. Some of those video games have communities. Some of those communities have Community Managers. When you deal with your community, bear this in mind – how do YOU want to be treated as a gamer? Mentally put yourself into their position before posting, weighing the wants and needs in communication with the interests of your developer team. A more genuine, forthright tone will pervade your interactions with the community, and will help keep your company on personable terms with its fans.

Targeted in-game events, even small ones, can help keep a gaming community active and interested. One interesting event to consider is to present either yourself or fellow developers as sacrificial lambs to engage in friendly competition with the players. These Stomp-A-Dev contests usually end in player victory over the dev, and offer warm fuzzies all around with the player enjoying the satisfying result of beating a dev team member “at their own game”.

5 Comments:

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Tisirin said...

Very interesting post. One thing I will note is that you approach this almost solely from the point of view of facing towards the community. Granted, that's the major part of the job, but a lot of these concepts can and should be applied facing inwards towards the company itself.

Valor and Sacrifice come to mind.. and the latter usually comes into play soon after the former is exercised. :)

 
At 2:58 PM, Blogger Sporkfire said...

And Justice, Tsirin. Bloody, righteous fury ;)

Ok, it's usually humility. But I often pray for justice.

 
At 3:53 PM, Blogger Jeremy Dalberg said...

"Don’t address detractors directly, but defend your game and developers in hostile threads with matter-of-fact statements and privately encourage community allies to back you up."

Here's a point I've wanted to make - I think there is a real danger in identifying "community allies" and treating them differently then the average player. (This is not directed at people with specific, official roles in the community (fansite managers, for example), but the regular $15-a-month player who happens to be well-spoken, levelheaded, and a fan of the game.)

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE these people. They save my sanity on a daily basis. But.

They're not my "allies". They're my customers, same as the PvP homicidal maniacs, the crafting obsessive-compulsives, and the forum trolls (and billy goats). They deserve the same respect, attention, and consideration as everyone else - and no more. Asking them privately to speak up on my side gives them a responsibility that is patently unfair - both to the other customers and to them. Other players will notice, will hate them for it, and will hate the CM for it. It also dilutes their usefulness as members of the community – once they’re doing it out of a sense of personal obligation or hope for reward or because they have a crush on the CM, they stop being evangelists and start being astroturfers.

It's easy for me to understand where this impulse comes from. As a CM, embedded as we are in a relatively tightly-knit group of people, it’s terribly easy to get sucked in to the social dynamics, to the drama, and start to see the public discussion of your product as an us-vs.-them scenario.

It's easy, and it's deadly.

Once you get to that point, you can't be objective about what the community wants and needs, because it's too tightly bound up in what YOU want and need. You can't be evenhanded with your forumgoers, because they're your enemies - or your allies.

The forums are part of the game to some players, but they can't be a game to a CM. You can't win it - or lose it. It's your job, and these are your customers. Keeping that firmly in mind is the only way to keep your last fingernail's grip on sanity.

 
At 11:24 PM, Blogger Adele Caelia said...

Very interesting.

 
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