From AGC – Thursday October 27th, 2005
The Austin Game Conference (AGC) looks and feels like a high school reunion. Dominated by the MMORPG industry, it allows developers to get together and compare their ideological toys. Unlike E3, this is not a commercial event. For example, EA’s booth here is actually a booth, rather than some kind of football stadium. This allows for more of a community feel and serious discussion of issues facing the game industry without the need for marketing individual products to any great degree.
Each day there are a number of panels that range from discussion of in-game concepts, to industry roles and the business side of gaming. Today, sandwiched in around interviews, Staff Writer Laura Genender and I attended two panels: the Secondary Market and Community relations.
This panel featured economist Edward Castronova, Puzzle Pirates designer Daniel James, Turbine President Jeff Anderson and the President of IGE Steve Salyer. Castronova took the anti-secondary market stance, while obviously Salyer took the pro. James and Anderson played more of a middle ground. James favored, as demonstrated by their new server, the internalization of the sale of game items for real world cash; which is to say having it be controlled by the game companies rather than outside sources like IGE. Anderson admitted his company’s undecided stance, but also mentioned how it was a problem that could not be avoided much longer.
As a bonus, Chris Kramer of Sony Online Entertainment was invited to address the audience about his company’s introduction of Station Exchange. Besides a general summary of how the service works, Kramer also revealed that there are plans afoot to expand the Exchange to all Station games, but maintain their segregated server stance.
Laura Genender had stronger opinions on this issue and will offer a more detailed and spirited account of this panel in another article, so I will stop there.
Mythic Entertainment’s Sanya Thomas, Webzen America’s Chris Mancil and NCSoft’s EM Stock formed this more light-hearted panel that looks at the role of Community Management and how the profession – mostly unique to the MMO genre – has evolved since its inception.
“This is a job with a specific skill-set,” said Thomas. “Our role is more valued.”
These comments summed up the earlier phases of the debate, which chronicled the evolution of the community management from the part time role of the development team into its own division within every major MMORPG company. Thomas specifically noted that it used to be that every person who applied for a job on her team secretly wished to be a designer. Now, community managers are a breed onto themselves and not simply a gateway into the ‘fun stuff’.
The three community managers agreed on the concept of managing player expectations; something that may not immediately be considered among their roles. EM Stock explained how she was deathly afraid of what would happen when City of Heroes launched. The crux of her problem was that players had built the game up so much in their heads that they expected the impossible. In the end, she believes they were saved by the overall quality of their product.
“We lucked out like you couldn’t believe,” she explained. “That could have killed us.”
Thus, a role of the community manager is not to build hype, but to ensure that it stays realistic among the user-base. Otherwise, when the game launches it is possible that player expectations could make a good game look average or more fatally make an average game seem bad.
In addition to their roles evolving, the mediums through which they communicate with their players have also evolved. Originally, community management meant board reader. Today, the job has moved into chats, company websites and the nearly scientific gathering of data. Pie charts, polls, spreadsheets and other forms of analyzing what the community wants effectively help ensure the voices of the masses have an effect on the direction of the game.
One problem is that the bulk of the players do not visit message boards. Thus, they have the problem of the silent majority. To reach these people, EM Stock explained how NCSoft puts important information into their patcher, thus spreading their reach further.
Another valuable tool for community teams is surveys. “When there is no audience you know they’re saying what they really want you to hear,” said Sanya Thomas, pointing out the difference between message board and private comments.
Sanya Thomas outlined – for her – the three stages of a community management team’s job.
“You’re looking at a panel full of dinosaurs,” said Sanya in response to where she believes their profession is heading. She went on to explain how community management has evolved beyond the concept of a single manager and now has become a team effort, even a department within the company.
Check back tomorrow for day two. We will also be bringing you specific coverage of the games and companies we have seen at the show over the next few days.
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