An MMO is a big beast with thousands of players and as many different playstyles. You can open forums and twitter pages and whatnot and people will come to discuss your game, guaranteed. Left unmanaged, the community will grow like kudzu: rapidly and unhealthy for the larger environment. Community growth is a good thing, of course, but when it revolves around a business, it has to be cultivated and managed carefully, or the resulting conversations from that communicating could do more harm than good.
In the early days of the Internet, there were far fewer outlets for communities to form than today. You'd primarily find them on usenet, IRC or smaller BBS'. The fansite back then was typically a geocities page with a few low-res screenshots. They grew organically, and just like today, they talked about games. They talked about what they did in the game, their opinions of it and gave advice on how to play it. And they flamed. Oh, did they ever flame.
User-generated contribution in the form of FAQs and resource lists were emerging, but in a pre-Google age were hard to find. It would get posted, but quickly fall to the bottom of the threads list as more controversial topics gathered the responses that kept them at the top and easy to find.
Developers are tech savvy people, and a few of them found their way to these conversations. I have a lot of admiration for people like Raph Koster and Brad McQuaid for their early dialogs with players and for and setting the stage for the dev interaction that you see in game communities today.
But they quickly realized two things:
- Interacting with player communities was a full-time job in and of itself.
- They sometimes said dumb things about "the vision" or how people "should be playing the game."
So, game companies soon began to hire community managers to be active participants in the conversations going on in the tubes. The idea was to provide direction (and, frankly, spin and damage control) for game communities and integrate their content and feedback into development and business strategies.
It took some time for the first community managers to mature and be recognized as something more than a PR shill or a board Nazi. Some were able to make a difference right away while others simply perpetuated the flame war. I consider myself a second-generation community manager, fortunate enough to be able to see the examples set by people like UO's Jon Hanna and DaoC's Sanya Weathers while avoiding the misadventures of others who I am too professional and, shall we say "abashed," to name directly (but not too professional to drop a hint).
What makes a healthy community?
I view community health as a combination of how active conversations are, ease of entry for the newcomer and general online safety. For my purposes as a community manager, customer satisfaction with the game isn't a component of the community health. If customers are dissatisfied, I want to make sure that there is a readily available channel somewhere in the community where they can discuss their issues.
There's a steep learning and social curve to joining an MMO for the first time, so the community should be a place where players can get information to make the barrier to entry as painless as possible. I look for ways to introduce new members easily, and ideally have FAQ's, rules of conducts, great posts from other players, fansite and Wiki links and any other useful resources ready for people as soon as they join.
I normally work with official company-hosted forums and see setting the tone on them as a large part of my responsibilities. By setting the tone, I don't mean keeping them positive. I mean making sure that the atmosphere is one of mutual respect among players, where they can debate without flaming...
Okay, that last statement is full of crap. A perfectly safe community might exist where the unicorns chase butterflies on a rainbow bridge, but not on game forums. The Internet is what it is, and some people can't resist flaming, while others can't resist putting boobs in their sig. But you can establish the trust that when things do go too far, you'll be ready to moderate and do your best to bring the discussion back to something that resembles reason.
Dealing with emergencies
When I fire up my browser to look at the forums, I know that anything could happen. A major exploit could be emerging. Servers may have gone down two minutes ago, and there's always an eight page thread on login troubles which will grow past 50 pages within the hour. These are the ones that need to be jumped on immediately.
In the face of a major service issue, people aren't posting contemplative thoughts, sharing strategies and insights. They're posting their real-time emotional responses to the issue at hand. It's a mob, calling for a fix to the problem, threatening to quit the game, and calling for developers to be fired. In their heightened agitation, players start flame wars amongst themselves, the word idiot will get thrown around and people will generally make themselves miserable while they wait for a response from you.
It's great drama for the passive onlooker, but the community manager has to remain the calm one. They have to put aside their own emotional responses, which can be far more difficult than you imagine, and bring reason to their customers. Real-time emotion is easy. Real time reason, not so much.
I try and remember at all times that the community is a group of customers: People who pay for my company's products and services. Day-to-day, they may be fans, influencers or flamers, and my relationship with them might be more casual and conversational with them. But when the service they pay for not meeting their expectations, their identity as customers becomes my main focus. After all, my job depends on keeping their continued business.
A community manager dedicated to customer satisfaction sounds great, right? The unfortunate part is that the community manager is not directly responsible for the customer experience. I can escalate and communicate issues, but I'm seldom the one responsible for resolving them. The issues that customers face are complex and live in the domain of developers, network engineers, executives etc. and I'm dependent on them making good decisions that I can communicate back to the public.
But "good decisions" are the key and your team won't always make them. The truly unfortunate part of the community manager's role comes when bad decisions are made. If you point them out before they are implemented, you run the risk of offending your team. A good CM shouldn't be afraid to offend, but offenses have a way of piling up, which can make the job a political maze at times. If you don't recognize the bad decisions before they go public, then you're back on the damage control treadmill.
Issues we face today
We still face a lot of issues in the field of community management and the definition of its role. Across the industry, you'll find a lot of variance in the job description. There's no consistent reporting structure, with community managers reporting into development at some companies, marketing or customer service at others, or (all to rarely) being a unique department within the company reporting to a senior executive.
Another major issue is that the ceiling on our field is still too low. I know a lot of really talented community managers, and I know that a large chunk of them won't be community managers in five years. There's a continual talent drain from community, as managers move on from community into roles with greater growth potential in either development or traditional marketing.
On the bright side, in today's the age of social media, community management has gained a lot of ground a distinct career. But the cloud within that silver lining is that I think we're at risk of taking some steps backward as well. I see community managers so focused on using Twitter or Facebook to grow their communities, but I think that we are forgetting a lot of conversational part of the role. We have far more access to analytics, surveys and trending data, but we're forgetting the value of the anecdotes and context gained from just talking to people.