Thursday Thoughts

Today I saw a tweet from a friend of mine, @dlangar , asking the world, “*can* a dev or journalism site shape the attitude of it’s community, or past a certain point is it beyond its control?”

I was behind on my internet reading and before I could even respond he had written a blog post about it as well expands the topic, and several people comment.   And even before I could finish reading all the comments I started an IM discussion with him on his original question.  Which eventually spun off onto other tangential thoughts, but then whole thing made me want to compile some of my thoughts on topic.

So lets go back to the original question:

Can developers (and their community managers) or journalism shape the attitude of a game’s community or past a certain point is it beyond their control?

My simple answer is yes.

Yes, I believe devs ‘can’ shape a community. And yes, I believe there are aspects of all communities that are beyond dev control.

I expanded upon my short answer to dlangar’s question with four points:

  • dev and CMs have less control over communities than they wish they could or think they do.
  • But dev and CM participation are NEEDED to keep ‘the ship’ upright.
  • Smaller ships are easier to steer than larger ships.
  • No matter the size of the ship, if the passengers start to fight their is a higher chance the ship will flip over.

I am aware there are hundreds of books and studies out there about how social groups form and interact, and several that probably talk specifically about online communities, and up front I am going to state I am no expert on such studies. Instead I speak only from my own experience.

First when I look close at every game community I have been a connected to they all act about the same. Second, in my opinion, there are several factors that can affect a game’s community and foster particular attitudes:

1. The players believing that the CMs (and Devs) are actually part of the community.

You need to have enough good CMs where they can have time to do more than just police the community and post news.  CMs need to post often, they need to take part in and lead discussions, games, silly threads. Yes, they need to police things, and the population should know up front that such actions will happen, but they also need to see the CM staff engaging the populace.

2. Your audience.
Jythri touched on this in dlangar’s comments and it got me to thinking.  Yes, you need to take a hard look at what sort of people make up your audience. Learn what methods you should use to rally them behind you, cater them, cultivate them. Eve players are different from the Free Realms Players and you should know that before you ever have your first external player.

But in my experience there is something more important; you need to be prepared first for any community.

I believe that in the most broad sense MMO communities are fairly homogeneous. Meaning in each community there will be fans of the game and haters, helpers and hurters, in context chat and out of context chat.  This is true from, using Jythri’s example, Toon Town to Shadowfall.  CMs and Devs should understand that fact before trying to catrer down to game’s specific audience. Make sure you have the people, tools, and procedures in place to deal with any community.  If you don’t then you probably don’t have what you need to steer your specific community.

3. Pre-launch expectations and post launch actions.
Every MMO player has some opinion and expectation before a game launches, and at some point every live MMO has to actually launch. Failing on either of those can haunt a game and taint the community for a very long time.

If you build up an expectation that does not match what your game delivers, you better prepare for a turbulent community. But if a game that might meet most player expectations launches with techinal or account issues, the community might again be permenately affected.

Pre-launch expectations can and should be tempered by the dev and CM involvement in the community as soon as you open the doors to an official sight; maybe even before using fan sites.

And at the time of launch, no matter how it goes, involvement by CMs and devs needs to again guide and temper the feelings of the community. Keep them involved and informed of what work is being done, and when players can expect to see the results.

4. Bugs, tech issues, and the way the developer acknowledges (or not) these issues.
This is the big one, and sort of obvious.  If the game is has problems so will the community.

Though if the devs can acknowledge these problems and foster a sense of working with the community, the community problems can be lessened and in some cases countered completely.

Do note that no game has zero problems. There will always be someone who has some sort of issue, some that may even be “by design”, but how the devs communicate their feelings back to those people can have a direct effect on the overall community.

5. Game population levels
The more people in the community the more problems you will have; “end of line.” 😉

While bigger populations do mean there are more people out there that want to help, it also means, more people that feel a design point is a bug or broken, more people that simply want to complain, a bigger audience for people that simply like to cause trouble, and simple more comments than the devs(and CMs) can actually keep up with.

I think the smaller the community the easier it is for each individual to stand out (for good or bad) and this makes it easier for the community to police itself. For example members will remember and prais those that complain constructively while also remembering and mocking those that only complain to complain.

Since most devs would like to see their populations grow, they should develop tool and procedures to help with that filtering process. There are lots of suggestions out there, and I think it best to leave discussing them for another day.

In the end I look at community management a lot like herding sheep. I am sure someone will find that offensive, but I believe it true. Thus to do it well you need a few things:

  • Some good shepherds; ones that know their sheep, the land, and the enemies.
    • They need to keep those sheep safe, together and well fed.
  • Some sheep dogs.
    • Sheep dogs are often introduced to sheep when they are puppies as to gain an almost family like attachment to their sheep
  • Good grazing land.
    • If your land is barren and rocky the sheep will wander and look for green land even if its weeds.

One response to “Thursday Thoughts”

  1. Very interesting blog post.

    Devs and CM’s need to remain fully engaged but also must be approachable. Personally, I find the more mods and devs on the site the more real the developer / players connection is.

    Its really pleasing to see various Robot devs talking on forums. You’ll never know what players really want unless you have a community. All the playtesting in the world might not reveal absolutely everything.

    Is it not true that Ensemble thought 3v3 maps wouldnt be very popular. Now Robot knows from community feedback that players want to see more 3v3 maps and hopefully they can respond accordingly.

    No one likes “robotic” mods though. Mods need to feel human. Share jokes, get involved etc. Locking threads without reason or overly harsh policies can be a big negative as players grow to dislike a mod / CM this can be carried accross to the game and the developers image as a whole. Infact, a sole CM or Mod can actually represent an entire developers image as the sole point of contact.

    I can think of some quality CM’s who have now moved on…

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