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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