Community Management – Then and Now

I’ve been working in the community management field in the game development industry for a little over a decade now, and it’s astounding to see the changes made over this short span of time. When I first began, there were only a handful of massively multiplayer online games launched, and game development outside of the genre rarely employed individuals solely for community management.

It will be interesting to see where we go. While the field has evolved since its inception, it is still in its infancy. Companies are increasingly learning how beneficial it can be to their products to have strong, healthy communities.

At the time, community management mostly involved forum administration and bringing information to the fans from the development team. While the managers did bring input in the other direction, they lacked dedicated representation in the upper tiers of company management. In addition, the community team was sometimes the last to find out about changes made and the rational behind them, often making it difficult to communicate to fans and customers about issues.

As I said though, the field has undergone some monumental changes since than. Now, instead of shortly before a closed beta begins, positions are filled earlier and earlier in the process. This gives the staff time to plan properly, develop, and set the tone of the community when it is most malleable. It’s much easier to express what behavior is acceptable and encouraged when there are only a few thousand dedicated members rather than when there are hundreds of thousands and more.

Community team managers have been given a voice in upper management. This gives them better insight into information they will be relaying to the public in the near future, as well as providing a proper vehicle to voice consumer excitement and concerns.

They have also been given more responsibilities, becoming more of a liaison between the development team, publishers and communities rather than just filtering information one way. They have been refining and employing new strategies and tactics, not only to bring information to and from existing customers, but also to acquire new ones.

While a decade may feel like a long time, community management is still a relatively new field in the game development industry. It is continually evolving and maturing, and a lot of what has been and is still being learned within the field is through trial and error. Another complication is that practices, procedures, responsibilities and even titles differ among companies, far more than in many other fields.

Of course, none of this really answers the question I probably hear the most. What exactly is it that the community team does? It is essentially the liaison among the fans, consumers, developers and publishers, and is pivotal in regards to messaging, retention and acquisition.

First and foremost, the community team not only helps facilitate communication, but also encourages it amongst all the different groups including developers, publishers, consumers and fans. This entails things such as making sure information is easily accessible and digestible, enforcing policies, encouraging discussions, and ensuring accuracy. It is imperative that community works with marketing and public relations, as well as the rest of the company, to make certain messaging is consistent, and information is accessible to anyone who might be interacting with customers.

Retention goes hand in hand with messaging. The basic tactic for this is to keep your community informed, interested and involved. Consistent education helps individuals understand what the game is currently about, and also garners interest for where it is going with future updates. Getting the fans more involved helps create a sense of ownership and citizenship that, in turn, lengthens retention and builds a more interwoven community network.

Acquisition is a community team responsibility that’s often overlooked. No one is in a better position to empower the fan base to grow. These are the people who are passionate about the game, and who want others to experience that sensation, too. So we can foster and facilitate players becoming evangelists.

This is one of the many areas marketing and community have in common. Both are responsible for communicating about the game, and key in acquisition and retention. However, they differ in that the former’s main goal will almost always be acquisition by speaking to an external audience, whereas we typically speak to an internal one, the players. But to be effective, these disciplines should operate as two sides of the same coin, constantly supporting and working with each other.

It will be interesting to see where we go. While the field has evolved since its inception, it is still in its infancy. Companies are increasingly learning how beneficial it can be to their products to have strong, healthy communities. For example, the one I work for, BioWare, has a very established commitment that is evident in the communities that have sprung up around Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age: Origins, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Our fan base is incredibly dedicated, and we rely on the members’ support and input to help ensure our games meet their expectations of quality.

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The above is an article I wrote for IGN in March 2009 when we were still developing Star Wars: The Old Republic and can still be found on their site: Community Focus: The Old Republic.

When you’re pulling things out of the box, you generally bring out memories and this one ran bitter and sweet. I enjoyed writing the article and was ecstatic that IGN approached me to write it (the sweet part) but when reading this today, it reminded me of an argument I had with another community manager who I high respected (and still do today). I do not remember the specifics but I do remember I was a little headstrong in my responses to him and, looking back, I wish I had not been.

What I will say is that I do recall that a lot of what I learned in the industry that helped me refine my skills in Community Management wasn’t just because of trial by fire — it was due to many of the great Community Managers I talked to and learned from such as Jonathan Hanna, Chris Mancil, Sanya Weathers, Danielle Vanderlip, Troy Hewitt, and others. Sorry about that Jon, and I hope you know that even that conversation helped me in many ways.

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