I wanted to take the space of my column this week to talk about something that I've been thinking about on and off for a couple of months now, and that's the role of the Community Manager on the staff of a current MMORPG.
I'm going to go ahead and put the disclaimer on this article saying that I'm not intimately familiar with the specific internal workings of how each and every development studio is structured and that this is more of a musings piece than it is a direct criticism of any one company or individual.
With that being said, I have something to get off of my chest: Community Managers should not, I repeat should absolutely not, be members of your MMO's marketing team. If they are, there's a good chance that you're missing the point and a valuable opportunity to create a meaningful bridge between your game's development team and the people who are paying to play it.
Too often, I've noticed that it has become more and more the job of the Community Manager and his or her team to actively promote their game and to bring in new players, a job that has traditionally fallen into the realm of marketing. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's nothing at all wrong with the idea of having a person or a team of people responsible for building your game's profile and drawing more players into it. It's just that your CM shouldn't be it.
The truth is that it's the job of the marketing team to present everything about the game in the most positive light possible. It's their job to be the game's cheerleader, playing down the negatives of the game and playing up the positives.
Having your Community Manager act as a part of that team undermines everything that you CM should be. Your CM needs to be your company's bridge to its players. He or she should be their voice and their ears in your offices and your meetings. He or she should be able to bring you the valid concerns of your community and be able to openly and honestly take your decisions back to them.
Where your marketing team are the cheerleaders, seeing and acknowledging only the positives and spinning the bad as best they can when they have to, your Community Manager needs to have the freedom to talk to your players in a more frank and honest kind of way. He or she needs to be able to acknowledge what your community might view as the shortcomings of the game and be able to honestly convey to their audience that their voices and concerns will be heard, and that even if the final developer decision doesn't please them, at least they weren't lied or marketed to and were approached honestly like valued customers should be.
In an ideal world, your Community Manager should be someone that is on your payroll to listen carefully to what your players are trying to say to you, both through the massive din of the forums and through in-game metrics, and to tell you things that you don't want to hear.
I realize that this is an ideal situation. I also realize that it's difficult to explain to investors why you have someone on your payroll that is doing anything other than telling everyone who will listen just how cool and awesome your game is but, for what it's worth, you can always try to tell them this:
Launching an MMORPG is a significantly different undertaking from launching almost any other product in the games industry. It requires a delicate balance between providing a game and providing a service for your players. In order to go about the unique task of asking players to pay not only the price of the box for the game, but also an additional fee either through a subscription or through an item mall requires the unique solution of paying someone within your own development team to be their representative.
But then, that's just my opinion.