24 September, 2012
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?