Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

24 September, 2012

The misunderstood role of community management
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:10 AM
(This post has been viewed 6573 times.)

In my analysis of Steam's Greenlight project, many of the solutions I suggested centered around community management. Unfortunately, community management is sorely misunderstood, so I think some people didn't understand how this could help the situation.

Let's take a look at what community management is, what it should be, and how it is treated these days.

What is community management?

Many times people see community managers only as the people who post news about a game. Sometimes they're derisively painted as the mouthpieces of developers or management, the hapless people who have to give the bad news and hope the community doesn't decide to shoot the messenger.

The reality is (or should be, at least) deeper than that. Community managers facilitate the feedback cycle between the developers and community by acting as a useful filter and translator between the two groups. Community managers collect information from the community to bring issues that are important to the community to the developers. Conversely, they also take information from the developers to share with the community in a way they understand. In these simple descriptions there lies a lot of complexity, which is why you need quality community managers.

Community managers don't mean necessarily that developers can't talk to the community directly. Especially for indie game developers, you might not be able to afford to have someone who just manages the community. But, realize that community management could take up a significant amount of time, to the point where it can hinder actual development. A developer also needs the experience to know how to interpret the unrelenting waves of feedback coming from the community, and how to communicate clearly with the community when responding to their feedback. Communication is a messy thing, and even if the players and the developers really want the same thing, saying something in a way the community doesn't understand can lead to problems.

The goals of community management

What is the purpose of having a community manager (CM) working with you? As I said above, the primary purpose should be to keep the information flowing between your community and your developers. Let's face it, many developers are introverted tech geeks and sometimes lack the finer social graces that others might expect. Developers are also often too close to their project, so it helps to have someone to help share a wider perspective.

Another role of the community manager is to set the tone for the community. In general, this means establishing and enforcing rules. But, a community manager also carries a lot of weight, and whatever they give attention to will influence how people react. The old cliché of "don't feed the trolls" is often a guiding mantra for community managers. This can be really hard, because the natural tendency is to pay attention to the people complaining the loudest, but if you give attention to these people then you teach the community that this is the best way to bring up concerns. This will only lead to crying later, probably on the part of the developer or CM. Sometimes community management also needs to adjust for the type of community. For example, if you are running a hard-core PvP game, you might allow the community to get a bit rougher around the edges than if you were running a game targeted at kids.

The daily life of a community manager

What does the daily life of a community manager look like? As with most things one size does not fit all, but let me share my perspective from my experiences working with community managers and interacting with the players of Meridian 59 when I ran it.

Let me create a scenario and give an example of what internal communications might be. Let's say a recent patch tweaked the game and made the game harder for spellcasters: they do less damage to enemies now, which had the side-effect of reducing their survivability.

Act One: the problem

A CM is reading the forums for feedback and sees a thread about this topic. This is where a CM's experience can help, because they will have to evaluate these complaints and try to understand the motivation. Is this thread people complaining for the sake of complaining? Is this the expected reaction for any change in the game? (Note that players generally hate being told that their concerns aren't important, so the CM will likely keep these analyses to him- or herself.) Or, does this seem to be a legitimate issue that should be adjusted by the developers? No matter what, the community manager will likely note the issue and report it later.

The experience of the CM comes into play in how to address this concern. If it seems like a temporary flare-up of people complaining about a change that is likely to be accepted shortly, they might not say anything to let the issue pass. If the thread has taken a particularly aggressive approach, the CM might ignore the thread in order not to encourage that tone. On the other hand, a good CM knows that players like to know their concerns are being listened to, even if the issues resolve themselves. But, sometimes posting in a thread will mean people take it as an implicit guarantee that the situation will be addressed to their satisfaction. A lot of factors go into knowing when and how to respond.

Act Two: letting the developers know

Okay, let's say that the CM has decided this is a topic that needs to be brought to the attention of the developers. The first task is to decide what to communicate to the community. The CM might decide a quick, "I'll let the developers know your concerns" is appropriate, or might ask for more specific information. Or, the CM might decide not not say anything; perhaps the issue is legitimate, but the tone has gotten too negative in the post, for example. The next task is to take the mass of posts in that thread and summarize them. Here's where the "translation" aspect comes in, because they have to take posts that run the gamut from "I think there's a problem here..." to "LOL teh company sux big donkey dong and cant code theyre way out of a paper bag cuz this game suxxorz nao" to "trololol plz 2 be nerfing my spellcaster enemies while I giggle. thx!" and explain what the concerns are. Aside to players: this is where having a well-written, intelligent, and polite posts can help, because a CM might just copy and paste that post as an example.

Of course, a good CM knows that what is posted is not necessarily the full story. There will be people that will post from the other viewpoint, saying that they agree with the change. Depending on the tone of the community, these people might be shouted down, and others who agree with the change might hesitate to post their support. Also, generally only people who disagree with a change will be motivated enough to go post on the forums; people who don't care or who agree with a change won't be as motivated. My personal rule of thumb is that 25% of people will love a change, 25% will hate it, and 50% will generally not care. But, it's important to keep this in perspective when building a summary of the issue.

When the CM has a good summary, he or she will bring this issue up to the developers. Now, this is probably something either brought up on an internal mailing list, or presented at a regular (weekly) meeting. The developer and designer leads take the information and then make a decision on what to do on the development side. Of course, it'd be great if every issue could be address to every player's satisfaction, but the developers have to balance the long-term needs of the game, the needs of the players who aren't raising the issue, and the constraints of budget and schedule that is always present in a game project. It could be that this is a legitimate complaint, but that the developer just doesn't have the time to address it properly. Or, worse, it might be something they decide to take action on, but a later change in priorities means the issue gets overlooked. This means the developers might have good news or not-so-good news for the CM to take back to the community.

Act Three: going back to the community

So, this is what I think is the hardest part of the CM's job: communicating the developer's response back to the community in a way that doesn't cause more problems. This takes a lot of finesse and understanding the community to handle properly.

Let's say the developers decided not to take action on the issue. Again, the CM might decide not to post anything for a variety of reasons: posting brings attention to the issue that might become less of a hot topic, the tone just wasn't proper and the CM doesn't want to reward inflammatory posters with attention, etc. If the CM does post in response to let the community know the issue is not going to be addressed, then he or she will have to deal with the fact that nobody likes to be told their concerns are not worthy of attention. This might cause some people to lash out at the CM, which isn't necessarily fair. But, this is a reality in dealing with a community.

But, even if the developers do address the change, the CM still has the hard work of translating developer-speak into something appropriate for the community. Further, the developers might need time to figure out an appropriate response, so the CM needs to let the community know the issue is being addressed without going into specifics. Of course, some players will still make assumptions about what this means: for example, some will hope the change will be completely rolled back when the devs might only end up making the change a bit less severe.

As this is a feedback loop, this might continue for a few more iterations as changes are being made and reactions from the community are received.

Understanding the community manager

One of the complications in game development is that there are certain jobs that have more cachet and prestige than others. Depending on the company, a CM might rank only slightly higher than QA, but far below any "real" development job. Honestly, this is a toxic attitude to have, as I think that CMs should be considered part of the development team; this does not mean, however, that they get to dictate design any more than the other developers do. But, this view of CMs as lower on the food chain than "real" developers can cause some problems. It leads to some people seeing CM work as a stepping stone into those "real" development jobs. This isn't to say that CMs shouldn't be allowed to move into design, in fact I think it's a great idea since a former CM will know how to "read" a community. But, it's dangerous to make CM work feel like the "dues you must pay" to get a "real" development job.

As I said, I think the best thing to do is to treat CM like part of the development team. Let them understand the development issue facing the team, and let them focus on expressing that to the community rather than merely being a mouthpiece to translate missives. As the CMs come to understand the design philosophies of the game, they can also understand which issues are important to consider and which are things that the game design just can't be adjusted to incorporate.

I think it's also important to understand how a CM is evaluated by management. If a CM is judged based on community feedback, then the CM is going to do what they can to stay on the community's good side to get positive feedback. If the CM is evaluated by reducing complaints, then he or she will do what it takes to reduce complaints rather than focusing on what is good for the game. Unfortunately, it's easy to measure the CM's work in a way that makes it so they can seem antagonistic to the developers. It's important to let the CM do his or her job and be seen as a valuable member of the process by all involved.

The problem of treating CM as PR

Because CM work deals with communication, it tends to be lumped into other forms of company communication under the banner of PR. It makes some sense, because a lot of the skills you need are similar. But, it becomes problematic when you want the CMs to actually be part of the feedback loop. The biggest problem is that PR often focuses on "controlling" the message, to emphasize the perspective that best flatters to the company. This is less offensive when you're dealing with one way ("broadcast") media, but when you want a tighter loop it becomes problematic. Traditional forms of PR (and marketing) are notorious for feeling "fake" when it tries to a address someone on a more personal level.

There's also a problem with separating out the CM from the developers, as this can often foster an "us vs. them" attitude. Now, ideally, you'd want to do everything you could to avoid this type of attitude in general, but in this case you really want the CMs to play an important part in the communication loop with the developers. Positioning them as outsiders to both sides of the loop can make this feedback loop seem dysfunctional both to the developers and then to the community.

This gets especially confused as we introduce social media to the mix. Obviously, social media is a great way for the CMs to engage the community and get feedback, especially feedback from a wider audience that might not go visit a game's official forums. Given such fluency in social media, it might be tempting to have the CMs work with PR or marketing. Again, this is dangerous because unless the PR or marketing department understands the concept of the feedback loop, as it can feel "fake" to the community. Worse, if you have the CMs literally being the mouthpieces of PR, it can damage the trust the community has in the CMs.

Let me give a recent example. Of course, let me give the usual caveats: I don't know the exact reasoning behind the actions in this example. I'm not intending to insult the CMs at ArenaNet, but to point out a problem I have seen. (In fact, I know one of the CMs personally, and think she's a pretty cool person.) Anyway, there was a lot of attention about ArenaNet's GW2 thread on Reddit about suspended for inappropriate names and behavior. They opened a thread and let people get clarifications about why they were suspended from the game. It was a bit humorous as people asked for justification when the reason was an hate-filled message broadcast over in-game channels. This link was widely posted and discussed.

The problem is that this was quite obviously a PR exercise and not really proper community management. The first question I have to ask is, why do the people who were suspended not know why they were suspended? Obviously the records exist and are searchable, so why was this information not communicated to the people in question when the suspension was issued? The purposes of the suspensions should be to correct the problematic behavior, but some people just can't correct behavior if they don't understand what the problem was. This also sets the tone that public mockery is an acceptable form of behavior in the context of the game; this is a potentially toxic allowance that could have serious problems down the line.

It's hard to anticipate what specific problems this might cause. It's still pretty early in GW2's life cycle, and the honeymoon effect is still strong. But, the designer and administrator in me worries that this is setting things up for problems down the line. Hopefully I'm wrong.

Respect for the CM

I hope this gives a bit more insight into why I think a community manager is what Steam needs. The feedback loop between Valve and their audiences (both the developers and the user-voters) had broken down. Having someone who had experience with the CM and could understand the problems that Valve was facing. A bit of anticipation of the problems would have helped the launch go smoother.

As I said in my previous blog entry about Greenlight, I think the root problem is that Valve doesn't understand the Steam community. Having someone be able to help the communication process would be a tremendous benefit to Valve. I might have helped them avoid the misstep associated with the fee they came up with all of the sudden.

Personally, I think CMs have a tough job and really do deserve a lot more respect than they get. Often a failure in community management isn't solely about the failure of the individual person, but about the external pressures put upon the position, often by poor internal structuring within a company.

What do you think? What could CMs do to help the community? How can CMs better balance the needs of the community and the developers?

--


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14 Comments »

  1. I'm not sure if I would treat CMs as part of the development team as such. But then again, I have a very clear idea about what hats/roles are involved in a good software development process, and I'm saying that from this perspective.

    Eh, too long to explain here today. Maybe some other time.

    Comment by unwesen — 24 September, 2012 @ 11:00 AM

  2. Former Meridian 59 dev pens essay on community management

    [...]Have you ever been curious what, exactly, a community manager does from an insider perspective? Here to help you with that is Brian Green, who's developed for both Meridian 59 and Storybricks. [...]

    Pingback by Massively — 24 September, 2012 @ 2:00 PM

  3. The first question I have to ask is, why do the people who were suspended not know why they were suspended? Obviously the records exist and are searchable, so why was this information not communicated to the people in question when the suspension was issued? The purposes of the suspensions should be to correct the problematic behavior, but some people just can't correct behavior if they don't understand what the problem was.

    This is especially true given that the response to many people who asked on that thread was "You were hacked." That definitely seemed like something that should have been directly communicated to the player.

    Though, if I was conspiracy-minded, maybe every time the player turned out to be banned unfairly, ArenaNet just said they were hacked to cover it up and make it seem like all bannings were legitmate.

    Comment by Rohan — 24 September, 2012 @ 2:30 PM

  4. Former Meridian 59 Dev on Community Management

    [...] Green, former developer on Meridian 59 and Storybricks, has posted an intriguing essay on the realities of Community Management for an MMO, the day-to-day challenges, and how it can go [...]

    Pingback by The EQ2 Wire -- EverQuest II News & Commentary — 24 September, 2012 @ 6:19 PM

  5. I don't know how you position a community manager in a way that players accept their legitimacy as a source of information, given that their chief role is to talk to players and be an advocate for players to the people who make the changes. As a player, I've almost always taken a developer's word over a CM's, although I think a lot of that is that developers are generally more free to communicate their thought processes in detail than CMs are. So maybe that's how.

    Part of the goal of ArenaNet's Reddit thread was indeed PR: one of the bigger outside communities was filled with complaints that they had been banned 'for no reason' during the head-start phase. It was potentially a big PR disaster. However, there's another side-effect: that incident, and a later incident where ArenaNet banned hundreds of people for exploiting a vendor selling goods for far too low a price, was also trying to set a zero tolerance tone for the community, which may well head off the problems down the line where some players decide public naming and shaming is an appropriate way to go about things.

    Comment by Merus — 24 September, 2012 @ 7:02 PM

  6. unwesen wrote:
    Eh, too long to explain here today. Maybe some other time.

    I'd be interested in hearing your point of view. I do think game development is a bit different than other forms of software development, though.

    Rohan wrote:
    This is especially true given that the response to many people who asked on that thread was "You were hacked." That definitely seemed like something that should have been directly communicated to the player.

    Agreed. I'm not really sure why this type of information was withheld from the player.

    Merus wrote:
    As a player, I've almost always taken a developer's word over a CM's, although I think a lot of that is that developers are generally more free to communicate their thought processes in detail than CMs are.

    Again, I think this tends to be a side-effect of the structure. The CM is much more limited in what they can talk about if they're under the umbrella of PR, and they don't have the inside knowledge like the dev does. This is why it's important to get the CMs participating with the developers.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 September, 2012 @ 7:43 PM

  7. Many times people see PR managers only as the people who write press releases. Sometimes they're derisively painted as the mouthpieces of publishers or management, the hapless people who have to give only the good news and hope the company doesn't decide to shoot the messenger. The reality is (or should be, at least) deeper than that. And it is. Brian, you've talked about proper CM, but there's proper PR, too.

    Comment by Morgan Ramsay — 24 September, 2012 @ 8:36 PM

  8. As a hobbyist and commentator I find the whole skein of communication between players and makers fascinating but as a consumer I much prefer companies not to enter into protracted debates or negotiations with communities. Developers have metrics. They can see what players do. I'd prefer they make whatever changes they deem appropriate based entirely on that information.

    From the outside, as a customer, I'd hope it works like this:

    Use good PR to announce significant changes and explain them clearly, preferably within the game itself, since that's the only place most players will go. Monitor how gameplay metrics change in response to the changes and tune those changes in direct response to usage. Be prepared to change direction or even go back to the old model if player usage indicates a change is damaging to the long-term future of the game.

    Whether people praise or pan changes on the forums matters a lot less than whether the changes improve the game experience for the majority of those actually playing it and you can only judge that by watching what they do, not by listening to what they say.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 25 September, 2012 @ 1:50 AM

  9. There is one area of design where the CM should have a major say: the design of the community management tools. All too often - even with experienced developers - the design of these is left until far too late to be properly integrated, and we end up with partial solutions that just mean more work for the customer service reps.

    Perhaps if a few designers who haven't got any CM experience were trained in CM, sitting alongside actual reps answering actual problems then trying to deal with a few themselves, they might weight the design of effective tools a little more highly than they would otherwise...

    Comment by Richard Bartle — 25 September, 2012 @ 2:14 AM

  10. This is a great detail on the core of what a CM should be doing in their role as the conduit that connects developers and players. As well as some of the basic problems a CM faces. If you have a CM and aren't getting this kind of feedback on your player community... something is wrong.

    If you need this kind of feedback and don't have a CM... it's time to open up a job posting.

    :)

    Comment by Craig Dalrymple — 25 September, 2012 @ 1:11 PM

  11. Morgan Ramsay wrote:
    Brian, you've talked about proper CM, but there's proper PR, too.

    Oh, absolutely. There's a whole chapter about it (separate from Marketing, even!) in Business & Legal Primer for Game Development. Maybe not quite so cutting edge anymore, but it's a good primer for people who are interested. We didn't cover community management, though.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    Whether people praise or pan changes on the forums matters a lot less than whether the changes improve the game experience for the majority of those actually playing it and you can only judge that by watching what they do, not by listening to what they say.

    Sure, and part of the developer's response to an issue that a CM brings up should be to look at available metrics. But, perception is reality in these games, and some people on the forums tend to carry a lot of weight; they are "hubs" that influence opinions in others that don't read the forums. So, knowing what the "hot button" topics are is important, and knowing how to politely respond, "Well, you say X is a problem but from our data you're a lying sack of crap," takes a certain finesse. :)

    Richard Bartle descended from the heavens to impart this wisdom:
    All too often - even with experienced developers - the design of these is left until far too late to be properly integrated, and we end up with partial solutions that just mean more work for the customer service reps.

    But, but, but... CM time is cheaper than programmer time! ;)

    Craig Dalrymple wrote:
    If you need this kind of feedback and don't have a CM... it's time to open up a job posting.

    There's a reason I advise people to get CMs early and often, because this type of feedback and communication needs to happen early and often.

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 September, 2012 @ 2:53 PM

  12. The primary question for me is whether a Community Manager position is a role or a discipline? For instance: a CEO is a role, whereas an Economist is a discipline. Both have a title, but is it about a position or is it about applying a specific study?

    A Community Manager, as you have described, is (at least in part) a role of authority. Even the name implies management. Although I've argued that they end up being PR, because on a dollars-and-cents scale that's where they're usually most valued-- but take away the PR aspect for a moment and let's put them where you and I both feel they are most valuable: They are facilitators.

    In regards to Valve, they operate in a sort of non-corporate culture where titles are just for the comfort of outside forces. In their environment, roles about position aren't present. So I am assuming they have not taken on a Community Manager for Greenlight, because it's a strongly titled position. Valve is anti-management. So the idea of them requiring to hire someone in an inherently managerial, facilitator position-- it doesn't sound like a good fit.

    Comment by Rog — 26 September, 2012 @ 3:04 PM

  13. Rog wrote:
    Valve is anti-management. So the idea of them requiring to hire someone in an inherently managerial, facilitator position-- it doesn't sound like a good fit.

    That's great when it works, and it has for Valve for a long time in many ways. But, it's pretty painfully obvious that Valve isn't handling their community well. Just as you shouldn't expect any random software engineer to go fire up Excel and handle corporate taxes, expecting someone to step up and handle community management without any experience seems to be asking for trouble. Maybe not "visits from the tax authorities" trouble, but obviously trouble enough.

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 September, 2012 @ 12:10 AM

  14. Storybricks Announces EQNext Involvement

    [...] MMO Wizard (yes that’s his job title). He posted an eye-opening perspective piece called the Misunderstood Role of Community Management which anyone who’s ever railed against a forum’s Community Manager for not listening to [...]

    Pingback by EQNWire — 6 December, 2013 @ 7:40 PM

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