Community Management is an area of MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game development that’s somehow under appreciated. It’s immediately obvious that you need designers, artists all of kinds and programmers but when it comes to keeping your community at bay, you need people who can handle well, to put it succintly, other people.

Today I’m going to talk about several lessons learned while trying to manage the community of a MMO. An old and familiar tale that many people have read and written about.

This case is rather strange, since it’s the collective experience gathered from programmers and designers. Not community managers nor people who wanted to be in the forefront when things got heated.

Nonetheless, I hope that somebody can take this and at least be a little more prepared than we were. Let’s get to it, shall  we?

Lesson #1: It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read.

I did mention we were missing a Community Manager when we started, right? I mean, why on Earth would you put programmers to do that instead? (Talk about using the wrong tool for the job). The answer was simple, there was no one there but us and somebody had to do it.

So we exhaustively tried to read as much as we could about it. There were articles like this, of course, dozens. We studied hard and some of us had experience dealing with forums outrages, that surely would’ve sufficed to guarantee at least some level of comfort.

Not even close.

It didn’t matter, all the omens wisely told by ancient Community Managers were not enough. We would go and stumble upon each and every one of the rocks on the road, in broad daylight. There was one occasion, a fellow developer from another MMO (Eternal Lands) stepped by the forums to warn us, possibly out of pity because of the comments we were receiving. I naively thought that we were safe since they were warning us, “meh! we got it covered!”.

Who’s laughing now? (Hint: not me).

So basically, the lesson here is that there is no substitute for experience. Yes, that common phrase that all of us have probably read somewhere, go ahead and brand it on your hand.

Lesson #2: The community is NOT part of the dev team.

Your game community usually is a vocal minority that loves to discuss about the game (the other ones are too busy actually playing the game, go figure). You have all kinds of people mixed in together, some are into development and some don’t have anything to do with that but like to chat and share their thoughts.

It’s okay to let the players participate in the direction the game is going. But this is a fine line, because if you are not too careful, some will start to think that it’s “their” game. Of course, in a way it is, since without the player base, the game would be just a fistful of bytes.

The error on our part, was just a single line on the home page: “Community driven development“.

My mistake, I admit it and in retrospective, I should have been more careful. But that small ambiguous bullet was enough to be quoted ad infinitum in the forums. So much that we ended up deleting it to avoid any further confusion.

The lesson here is YOU are the development team and not the players. You have the responsibility to drive the game forward and have the tools to do so.

Lesson #3: Do listen to the community and do NOT listen to the community.

Okay, this one overlaps a little with the previous lesson. But it’s broader in a sense. Let’s start with the NOT part.

Each player has an opinion on how the game should go to. After all, they are worried about their own experience and that’s completely fine. But here lies the problem, if you listened to one, you have a moral obligation of listening to everyone and if you did that, well, you would have as many games as there are players.

On the other hand, you can go ahead and not put an official forum. You can ignore any negative comment and focus on the positive ones. But hey, one negative comment that was actually spot on could have been the reason why that elusive bug was giving you trouble, on the payment system no less.

We don’t get to choose how the feedback is sent to us.

And all feedback is valuable, we just need to filter all the nuggets and separate the gold from the rest.

There are proven ways to do that, fortunately. Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and several other social media are perfect inlets. Bug reports, forums, support tickets, talking directly to players at conventions, mails, anything can be a potential hint of something that needs improving.

Lesson #4: Make friends, prepare for war.

This one is kind of odd and I don’t know how it applies to the big behemoths out there. I had the opportunity to be part of a really small development team so some of us became friends with early members of the community.

We would go out and have dinner with some of the players, one programmer even met a lot of friends from other countries that would come and stay at his house, then visit the company headquarters.

That’s perfectly normal on a social game, where there is a lot of interactivity between the development team. So far so good until you make a change on the combat system, a nerf there or you have to remove items because of an exploit.

Then everything changes.

The weak friendships that were formed, immediately shattered. We even had threats and people coming by the building (even though we explicitly told there was no personalized support).

The lesson here is to limit the team interaction and while you cannot completely avoid that (everyone does what they want on their spare time, which is fine), at least you can warn and protect your team.

Lesson #5: It’s going to come back to haunt you anyway, deal with it.

Let’s say you actually have experienced Community Managers in the team. You have proper tools and channels, you did your homework and trained your staff. You have a solid technology and game, you haven’t lied to your community and your roadmap is up for grabs in the official website, there are no hidden changes and you do show a profound respect for your players.

It doesn’t matter.

The one single fact that affects this all is that the game is under development, the entire lifespan. With a single player, you make your best to release it to the public and then worry about the next game (of course, it’s different if your game has a multiplayer component to it). But with MMO’s, you need to constantly churn out content and changes to please both new and old players alike.

So, sit back, relax, prepare of course, get ready for a bumpy ride and deal with it.

Lesson #6: Damage control is your middle name.

Bugs are little things impervious to the Q.A. department. Some of them are eventually caught but some of them go right into the wilderness, some like to call it the Live version.

This is a common fact of any game and more so with games that can get away with automatic patching. A console game needs to be tested thoroughly before making it to the gold master (although ”thanks” to online patches, that’s starting to change) but an MMO can usually be updated blazingly fast.

Having said that, there is no reason to stall facing the community over a unannounced or ill-received change. The sooner and the more respectful you are about it, the better.

One even starts to develop a talent for these things. Swiftness and diplomacy go a long way in the long-term relationship you have with the players.

There is a hidden lesson here (Lesson #3?), maybe if you listen long enough to a common complaint and do something about it, there would be less damage control to be done.

Lesson #7: Us vs them mentality is the key to insanity.

This one is dangerous. I recall now reading about it from a community manager of another game (maybe I should have listened more carefully). This is the worst thing you can do with the users. There are some people who play this card to their advantage.

Do not let them.

The minute you have an “Us versus Them” situation, you lost. It doesn’t matter if you try to sweet talk out of it, you will be the bad guy at the end of the day.

The best way to win in this situation, is to deny the battle (Thank you Sun Tzu!). Both the company and the community want the game to prosper, it’s an important fact that should be insisted upon. There will be naysayers, sure, just don’t let them put the company actions in the spotlight, one should remind them constantly that the discussion should be focused on the game. There are exceptions of course, this is unfortunately a gray area.

Lesson #8: Only humans

Yeah, even though MMO developers are seen as strange people who came from other planets, they are still people. They will go out, drink one too many beers, come to the office the next day and make mistakes.

Some will even make mistakes because they never have done this in the past (who knew?). Others will have to deal with strange situations like “deadlines”, “meetings” or “you better finish that or you won’t get a dime out of me”.

As much as I’d love to think these and other facts are uncommon, they are not. And this lesson is actually directed towards the players and their unforgiving nature. Of course, if you get to a grocery store and the fruit is rotten, you will ask for an exchange. But in this case, it’s somewhat easier thanks to the wonders of digital distribution, you just have to ask nicely.

This can also be a lesson to some unforgiving producers as well.

Lesson #9: Mock me once, shame on you. Mock me twice, shame on me.

Combine the “Only humans”, “Us vs them” and “Do not listen to the community” into one and you end up having things like this. Far too many times I’ve seen moderators, developers and community managers use sarcasm or mockery as a catharsis mechanism. It’s understandable that once it gets to you, you react but there is one big problem.

It’s a slippery slope.

I swear, some players (scrap that, some people, in any line of work) do not listen to reason. They will come back and make a counter argument that’s not even an argument, they will annoy you until you cannot handle it anymore. Then you respond with a simple joke. All of the sudden, it’s a little too late.

If you are answering publicly on a social network or forum, you are giving a response to ALL of your players. And some are not there to waste their time and be treated like childs or ignorant people. No one likes that.

The lesson here is two-fold: Be careful not to deliver any remarks that could be considered offensive to some and if you reached that point of the day where you’d better off punching a sandbag, for the love of god, go ahead and punch the bag instead of answering on the forums.

Mind note: Get a sandbag.

Lesson #10: Converting the undoubtful.

There are several types of users on a community. Long articles have been written about it and it’s really beyond the scope of this one.

But let’s concentrate on the ones that matter here. There are players that show an impressive amount of knowledge about your game. You can see that given the data they have, they display excellent criteria when it comes to the logic behind their proposals.

The problem here lies in that sometimes these users are on the fence, they are not taking the dev team side nor the players (Remember, “Us vs Them” bad!). A good community manager will find these players, and give them assurance and information about the direction of the game.

Naturally, making sure that they know there are no sides on this. And even if you cannot avoid a two-sided battle, it’s better when they are on yours.

Lesson #11: “It’s only a game” is not true.

You know the case of that guy who lost his job because he wanted to keep playing that game? Or that girlfriend who left his boyfriend? And I don’t want to go to the extreme cases, but they do exist.

The answer seems to be obvious, tell them “It’s only a game” and wait for the problem to magically disappear.

Wait a minute.

Of course is not only a game, it’s an escape route, it’s a hobby, it’s a way to meet other people, it’s a lot of things and one should respect that. On the other hand, it’s important to respect that everything in excess could be a bad thing.

From the developer side, a few tips can be applied, like making sure there is a playing session timer visible to the user, a few reminders here and there about making pauses, some games even use daily pacing mechanics. Granted, maybe not out of empathy but as a way to ensure a lot of monthly active users.

Lesson #12: Build it and they will come. Fail to support it, they will leave.

This is a no brainer, after all, MMO games are running services. And like any worth having service, you need customer care.

Now, customer care in this case is a complex problem. You have billing on one side and then you have several levels of support, ranging from simple problems when signing up or downloading the installer to specific game problems like getting stuck or losing an item.

Then you have fraud screening, balance issues, server issues, you name it.

The lesson here is to never underestimate the support department. Resource wise, it’s as important as having a good tech department and maybe more after you have launched. Support also is a great way to gather feedback on key issues but that only works if the communication inside the team is oiled.

Lesson #13: The elders ruling.

This is something that possibly most long running multiplayer games have dealt with. Once your game is out there for a certain period, an elite of old players begin to form. A covenant of the greatest players ever lived.

Most players leave after a few months but some endure several years. They have seen it all, the first release, the first great expansion, remember that big old nerf? they were there, every tiny change and mistake you have made have been imprinted on their minds.

And with any long and washed out relationship, it doesn’t matter what you promise them, the outcome will be indifference. This can be hurtful to the community since they also tend to be very vocal, they have a self-appointed right to lead the newcomers to whether they see fit.

This is a double edged sword, you definitely must appreciate these players, all the hours and effort they have poured in. But on the other side, they tend to be able to provoke riots with just a post or a tweet, they have this power to herd the community to your favor or against you.

The lesson here is that since you cannot do much about it, you might be better off giving them tools to channel the community. Great examples of this are Eve Online or League of Legends where they have a player run tribunal of sorts that help carry on community politics in a more organized fashion.

Lesson #14:  The forum is in the hands of the enemy.

Raph Koster said, the client is in the hands of the enemy. I think that the same can be applied to the forums or any other channel that’s publicly manipulated. This leads to a horrible truth.

You don’t control the information about your game.

As scary as it sounds, once you release something, once players have access to it, it’s no longer yours. Screenshots, blog posts, comments, tweets, reddits, anything you can imagine will be said about your game and there is really not much you can do about it.

And even if you could try to cover every tiny little hole, it would end up being a big case of the Streisand effect. Yes, you could go ahead and put a watermark on those alpha screenshots, or have a legend that says “this may not represent the final quality of the game” but you cannot trust that because of that, it will be perceived in good faith.

Lesson here is, once you go public, you better be ready with some top-notch screenshots, press-releases and whatever you can muster to turn the tide into your favor.

Lesson #15: Empower them and they will power you.

Of the hundreds of  thousands of players that have played your game, there are really some brilliant people out there. Even some that could be a great addition to your team.

Coupling that with the complexity of MMOs and the amount of data it gives the players, there are all kind of angles you probably didn’t tackle or worried about. This usually has to do with the User Interface and definitely some games have even considered that from the design perspective (Blizzard providing an API to World of Warcraft with LUA for instance).

Right now, RESTful interfaces are pretty common and with the advent of web technologies and online services, a lot of players see that as a benefit and even demand it from their online games.

The lesson here is simply, open as many API’s as you can to the users while maintaning integrity and you’ll be surprised with that the users may come up with. You can decide to withhold information as much as you’d like but at the end of the day, a website will pop up with all the quests, all the items, all kind of charts, NPC finders and anything that might be worthwhile for the players.

If you design the game with this in mind and make it easier for players to find game information, you’ll be rewarded.

Last lesson and conclusion.

After re-reading this article for proof-reading, I’ve found that some of the lessons overlap, some are redundant and others are contradictory. This led me to this final lesson.

This is not an exact science.

You are bound to make mistakes, to be contradictory, sometimes you will have to bend your own rules for the greater good. And that’s fine, you just need to do that with as much respect for the development team, the players and the game as possible. And at the end of the day, hope that it pays off.