Should you in fact, feed the trolls?
No, this is not a question posed in Sweden about the ecological upkeep of the native troll species. It is in fact, a question posed by Hanna Fogelberg, CCO of Landfall Games, the makers of Totally Accurate Battle Simulator. At Sweden Game Conference, Fogelberg took the stage to discuss managing online communities, in particular how game developers can wrangle with their negative commentators.
Fogelberg's talk laid out a basic framework for developers struggling to handle a slew of feedback about their game, especially developers who are aggressively online, chatting frequently with users in Discord and on social media.
Every response, even a lack of a response, counts
First things first, Fogelberg makes clear that her advice about handling online hatred is mostly targeted at companies and organizations--establishing a clear distinction between how individuals versus groups can handle online anger.
Fogelberg's experience with online hatred began when she was handling social media for a Swedish "nerd festival" in 2015. After a storm forced the shutdown of the main stage, Fogelberg got caught up in the physical logistics of reorganizing the festival, and ignored the brewing social media storm that was growing. In effect, not responding to anger about the main stage cancellation was the same as a response.
This led Fogelberg to begin advocating for a proactive approach to dealing with online hate. Describing social media as a "spectator sport," she pointed out that online anger becomes something of a show, and when you fail to respond to individually angry users, other users take an impression away, even if they never contacted you.
Now with Totally Accurate Battle Simulator, Fogelberg says her goal has been to slowly convert angry users. She urges developers to reply with speed, be factual and honest, avoid making excuses while explaining why things have turned out the way they di, display empathy with your users, and believe angry commentators still have a heart. "Even if you come across as a bit of a dork," she joked.
Fogelberg said even her own team moderators think she can be a bit naive when she goes in to respond to angry Discord users. But it's turned into a productive interaction, where she can reply to users saying they hate the game into a functional customer service interaction.
On social media, Fogelberg explained it's important to avoid the hate spiral. All of the above rules to social interaction still apply---but she says she'll only reply twice in the public space. It's a technique to avoid the aforementioned spectator sport, and one that helps filter well-intentioned angry users versus genuinely cynical ones.
During the Q&A, Fogelberg used the recent struggles the Ooblets team had with their community after the announcement of their Epic Game Store exclusivity. In their response, Fogelberg pointed out the team essentially "told users to be angry," by offering a statement that assumed users would be mad about the exclusivity.
In Fogelberg's view, it helps developers anticipating negative feedback to not bake that assumption into statements, and that a good-faith approach can help blunt potential firestorms.
Sadly when it comes to PR crises, many teams will keep one phrase locked in a glass case and never wielded until it's far, far too late: "we're sorry." Fogelberg's advice: when used sincerely, an apology is a surgical tool to help convert your angry players until ones who can become your advocates.
Sometimes, Fogelberg explained, it's necessary for Landfall Games to apologize to its users. But an apology isn't a universal band-aid. Though apologies benefit by being sincere, Fogelberg said, it's important to not just apologize to a small amount of angry commentators.
Here, Fogelberg went a bit high-level, pointing out that apologizing is sort of an essential function for society, and game communities are essentially small societies. If developers take responsibility for their actions, and focus on what was done, not was intended, it helps keep the interaction centered without feeling like the developer is putting the responsibility back on the complaining user.
Game developers have a few particularly unique tools for apologizing. In one story Fogelberg shared, the company had to apologize after the servers for Totally Accurate Battlegrounds went down and no one noticed. In apologizing, Fogelberg helped the team create a unique response, featuring a weird hat that said "shame." This hat was eventually implemented in-game, helping players feel like there was an established relationship with the company.
Fogelberg's last bit of relevant advice for community management was to adapt the above patterns not just for angry users, but friendly ones as well. Developers don't want to create a situation where they're only providing positive feedback for angry users, but friendly ones as well, especially as they convert users from the former category to the latter.
Update: This story has been updated with additional context on Fogelberg's statement about the Ooblets team.
Gamasutra is a media partner of Sweden Games Conference, who provided travel and lodging to cover this event