Forums, Feedback, Fiascos (or, “Moorgard Defines Good Community Management”)

A few comments from my friend Chris Cao have ignited a bit of controversy, with Lum and Raph chiming in, among others. Though I moved from community management to design a while ago, being involved in the goings-on of communities isn’t something you can ever really walk away from. Just ask the two guys to whom I linked.

The questions being raised are valid ones. How useful are forums to developers? And how useful are they to players? 

From a design perspective, Cao is right. Forums when taken as a whole aren’t terribly useful to developers because they are so inefficient. A dev has to wade through many posts to find those with practical merit amidst flames and general whining. And honestly, some of the outright attacks can make even the most dedicated dev wonder why they put in the effort. There’s only so many times you can be kicked in the nuts by the people you’re working all those hours trying to entertain before you get fed up with board extremists and tune them out.

That said, message boards are still invaluable because, short of in-game polls and exit surveys, they’re one of the few direct means of hearing what your players think. Thus it is worthwhile to have someone culling that information on behalf of the devs, which really is one of the most important functions of a good community team; as Lum says, doing it effectively is an art. When it comes to the community manager, it’s my opinion that being the players’ advocate to the devs is every bit as important as being the devs’ spokesperson to the players.

There are ways to improve the odds of making forums useful through their design. While planting a “General Discussion” board at the top of your forums may draw traffic, it is also the least efficient kind of board you can have. Useful threads typically get buried very quickly in a sea of noise and reposts, which is why I didn’t include one when setting up the EQ2 boards for launch. Instead, it’s much better to direct discussion into specific boards that are centered on discrete topics. This helps the discussion stay on track, making it that much easier for devs to find information on a particular subject and respond to it in a timely manner.

There are also varying schools of thought on who should be doing the communicating with the players. You can have the community manager as the sole spokesperson for the team, or you can have all the devs active on the boards, or some combination of the above. During EQ2’s development, I was the primary voice of the team because our boss, John Blakely, wanted me to carry that role so the people who needed to could focus on implementation. And while the ill-informed like to imply that community managers aren’t developers, the truth is that they’re the most vital contact that players can establish a dialogue with. Though not in the trenches implementing content (most of the time), a good community manager has the ear of every member of the team and can bring issues to the attention of the people who need to hear them–faster, in most cases, than the majority of devs. A good community manager heads off more potential problems at the pass than most players will ever know about.

(Note: I use the term “good community manager” loosely. What I really mean is a community person who is empowered by the team’s leader to be an active part of development, seeking out solutions to problems that are important to players. This is what Blakely expected of me, just as Hartsman expected it of Blackguard later on. Some companies don’t operate this way, treating their community people as nothing more than glorified board mods who pass out t-shirts at conventions. That is the wrong way to do it, and it wastes a resource with incredible potential.)

Though I don’t always agree with Raph’s perspectives on some aspects of community management, I agree with his point that you have to recognize all aspects of your player base and be as inclusive as possible, even if the feedback you get isn’t as elegant or as useful as you’d like. That said, of course, you need to be willing to weed out the jerks if it means that your community will be healthier as a result.

If you put all these pieces together and work hard to maintain them, you can have forums that are useful. But don’t relax for a minute; if you lose control, it’s nearly impossible to regain it. If your community people are smart, firm, and fair, you can reap a lot of benefit from your forums. But no matter what you do they’ll never be perfect. Maybe that’s part of the charm.

For us masochists, anyway.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

9 thoughts on “Forums, Feedback, Fiascos (or, “Moorgard Defines Good Community Management”)”

  1. “How useful are forums to developers? And how useful are they to players?”

    Your post was devoted primarily to question #1, what are your thoughts on question #2?

  2. So, never mind how right Cao’s statement was, how right was he to post it on the boards? What’s to be gained from making such a statement, except a brief moment of catharsis followed by a lot of useless grunt-work by the community manager consigned to clean up the manager’s mess?

  3. A fair question. But I can’t really give a fair answer because I’m not close enough to the Austin studio to give an honest assessment. I don’t pay enough attention to the SWG boards to know the current climate of the community, but we all know that–whether some feel it is justified or not–the SWG community has been extremely harsh to its devs in the past. I don’t think it’s fair to take Cao’s post out of context any more than it’s fair to take a single post from one player and say it represents the opinion of the entire community.

    Making a post that has the potential to antagonize players is not something devs want to do on a regular basis, but there can be situations where the risk can justify it. Clearly some players appreciated Cao’s candor, while others did not. Perhaps things had gotten to a point where such a post was really needed; like I said, I just don’t know.

    The SWG community is a lot different than others I’ve been a part of, and part of that has to do with the way it was run from the beginning. I don’t think the community team took a firm enough hand, and that’s not something you can really change once your patterns are established; once you lose control, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

    The one thing I can say is that no EQ2 dev ever made such a statement while I was community manager. But then again, our team members were never put into a situation where they may have needed to.

  4. Nice post.

    You’re right to include the general board “vibe” when talking about Chris’ post, or any community for that matter. I think on many other boards his post would have been much less controversial, and perhaps even largely ignored on some others. But the perception amongst the vast majority of SWG players (or at least those who frequent the boards) has been one of neglect, mistreatment, and being ignored. NGE exacerbated this feeling to unparalleled heights.

    So although I really do believe Chris had good intentions, his post could be summed up as “the beatings will continue until morale improves” in the context of the history of the game. I think it was a colossal blunder on his part. Colossal might be too strong, but certainly I think it could have been said in a much more tactful way.

    On the other hand, it generated some SWG publicity, and you know what they say about publicity. :)

  5. Forums drive me nuts!
    I only ever played eq2 as my first MMO and it was my friend that showed me the forums, which often was the only place to find up to date information and links about the game, which was always my primary interest.
    What frustrated me was the amount of arguing and pointless junk amongst it all and I am just a player! I found it odd that people become proud of their forum posts number and having custom colours in their ID’s or whatever. The mechanics of the boards encourage this in fact.
    Frustrated people use it as a place to vent, or to start an argument. Forums in general are an odd world of hierachy and etiquette and a frustrating way to find information you want. For a newbie they are almost esoteric in their function. Sometimes the arguing or endless posts make *you* feel angry where you were not at the start. Sometimes a couple of angry posts can make you feel anxious about the game or your class.
    I would prefer to see a place IN-GAME for feedback, and maybe even literally somewhere you go with your character to speak to in-game devs.
    The opportunity to make faceless insults on a forum is too easy.
    I now know what specific places to look for information, and try not to look at anything else!

  6. As someone who has a couple of dozen posts on the SWG boards (i.e., a frequent reader of Dev Tracker posts but very rare poster), I appreciated Chris Cao’s post. It’s one thing for Raph to say that “posters who play” shouldn’t be ignored, but I think Chris’s point is that neither should they be seen as representative of the community, or even (necessarily) beneficial to the game.

    Frankly, the S2N ratio on the SWG fora is way way too low, even worse than most game fora — but it’s the folks who have the time and patience and interest in navigating same that get to influence development. It strikes me as unfair, and I was glad to see Chris publicly recognize that the “vocal minority” can’t drive every development decision.

  7. “While planting a “General Discussion” board at the top of your forums may draw traffic, it is also the least efficient kind of board you can have.”

    Which is something I’ve been saying on the SWG boards since, well, it feels like forever now and in fact I’ve stopped saying it.

    Things used to be arranged along the lines of In Discussion / In Development / In Test / Live / Feedback. Now it’s just a huge melange called ‘dev discussion’ and for the most part the devs have abandoned that area and are posting merrily in ‘gameplay discussion’ which used to be a slappable offence as discussion of game design, bugs, suggestions, feedback were meant to be elsewhere.

    So. Rule One. Don’t just stick up one huge noticeboard and expect to be able to find anything in among the noise.

    Rule Two. Make filters (ie individual boards for individual topic areas) and stick to your own rules about posting.

    Rule Three. Even when things are as hectic as can be behind the scenes, never let the “Transmitting” light go out on your boards or people WILL think the worst. They’ll rapidly start filling the vacuum of infomration with tinfoil hat threads.

    Well, my tuppence worth, fwiw.

    @Powers: /agree on the S2N. But it used to be far better squelched, and not by weilding the big stick willy nilly, but by exercising control and treatign people like sane, rational adults. (even when they were clearly munching the green crayons and writig with their faces)

  8. I agree with what you said for the most part. The problem is that the Chris Cao comments were taken out of context, that context being what was done, by who-ever that may be, to SWG with the introduction of the NGE.

    I can sum it up in a couple of sentences…

    32 professions down to 9.
    An economy turned completely turned into loot based.Decay removed and No penalty what-so-ever for player death…in fact, most people use it as a form of travel now.
    Being told the CU was here to stay, multiple time, by the development team.

    While the forums for SWG are terrible right now, with all the whinning, flaming, trolling and personal attacks. Most of it is because the player base was LIED to by the Development team. Why would they believe ANYTHING that they say now? the players are angry. And this is one of outlets available.

    ToOW was launched…10 days later the NGE. After being repeatably told the “the CU is here to stay”.

    No, forums generally when well regulated are not like SWG’s, but they brought it on themselves. They attacked the playerbase by lying to them, the playerbase is now attacking them back by using the only other means possible besides cancelling, and thats through the forums.

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