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In this lecture from this year's Serious Games Summit, Jay Watamaniuk, who runs BioWare's community web presence, describes the benefits and drawbacks, challenges, and rewards of running a fan-based community.

Rusel DeMaria

December 1, 2005

12 Min Read

In this lecture from this year's Serious Games Summit, Jay Watamaniuk, who runs BioWare's community web presence, describes the benefits and drawbacks, challenges, and rewards of running a fan-based community.

He began by suggesting some questions, which he intended to answer during his talk.

  1. Why run an online community?

  2. What do you want out of it?

  3. What do fans want from a community site?

There are many benefits, he told us. For instance:

  • You have a captive audience for future products. BioWare's online store is an example. “What we wanted to get across is that you could show up and purchase more content, such as the Pirates of the Sword Coast for Neverwinter Nights. You could download it. In this way, we reach directly to the community.”

  • Demographics research… “We noted that our fan base was overwhelmingly male.”

  • Marketing research and play habits. “We conduct surveys asking what players want, but also asking questions about their play habits… What are players actually doing with the products? Are they playing more single player or more multiplayer, for instance?” The results of these surveys help in planning future products.

  • The community is a great asset for potential and future business partners. If you have a game that's exceptionally good, but your competitor, with a lesser game, has the names and addresses of ten thousand people, he has a valuable asset.

Content such as the Pirates of the Sword Coast for Neverwinter Nights can be downloaded from BioWare's online store.

So what are the drawbacks?

  • Running a large community site requires dedicated resources, depending on its size and activity level. But if you have a web guy in the office doing a full-time job, he can't do it all. He talked about people who advertise looking for an IT guy who can do marketing and Flash and Photoshop, etc… and be the community manager. “No one person can do all that.”

  • It's ongoing. The product can be done and out the door, but the community is constant. Even after eight or so years, the Baldur's Gate community is active.

  • You must have a reason for people to come back. That means dedicating resources to keeping content fresh.

  • Negative feedback can spread quickly. It's great that you allow players to communicate with each other, but it's not so good when you get negative feedback that spreads quickly through the forums.

  • You're dealing with an anonymous public. Watamaniuk then offered a few examples of the really wacky emails he's received to exemplify something of what dealing with anonymity means, such as, “You have no soul and I will excommunicate you from the church of your choice” and, “If your life had no meaning than that would be your life. If mine did, or does and will. I'm awesome.”

Next, he dealt with the subject of what fans want from a community. This is the big question, he said, and if you don't have a specific response to it, you may waste a lot of resources. Watamaniuk suggested that fans want:

  • To get new information on the games they're passionate about

  • To be entertained

  • To express themselves to people who have the same interests and to be part of a group

  • To vent. It's a game, and the amount of passion displayed or how upset they get is awesome. “We deal with passionate people.”

The key tools for a successful community, according to Watamaniuk, are:

  1. Does it encourage communication between members of the community and between you and the community? Or does it obstruct or limit communication?

  2. Does it provide valuable content that retains existing members and attracts new ones?

  3. What are the resources required to create and maintain this feature?

“Anything you consider developing to create or encourage the community to grow needs to be screened through these three ideas,” he told us.

Moving right along, Watamaniuk identified the key tools of successful communities are a place to gather and regular new content. He said also that the fans are your greatest resources, and it was critical to be able to assess what resources you had at your disposal. And, mega important, he said was the ability to communicate with your group. How much communication and what form it takes depend largely on your available resources.

Watamaniuk moved on to talk about the various methods of communication available for community sites, stressing that, for gamers, the content should have a strong visual component with easy places to go and obvious starting points.

BioWare uses direct email under some circumstances, but with care, newsletters that are crafted for exact messaging goals such as big announcements and new products and forums. The newsletters, he says, are good because they can remind inactive members of the products and possibly get them involved again.

About forums, he said that, love them or hate them, they are the central no-frills method by which fans communicate with each other and the hosts. BioWare began with a single forum, but now they host forty. “You must provide them with a home base or they will go elsewhere.”

Forums are good because they are dynamic, live, and provide instant communication. They can be seeded with company messages, but the content is mostly generated by the community itself. In addition, everyone at your company can have a public voice and the staff can have a lot of control. The guy with the direct knowledge of a subject can go on the forums and answer questions.

However, forums also have their down sides. If you throw open the doors, you need constant policing. They are not very visual, and they need a lot of technical maintenance. Even when they work 90 percent of the time, when they crash, they crash dramatically. You have to be prepared for emergencies. In addition, there is a lot of competition out there. Another potential drawback is one of the forum's strengths – that everyone in your company has a voice. Not everyone is good at public relations, and they can unwittingly set off reactions with the public. “A small vocal minority can alter the tone of the entire forum,” stated Watamaniuk. “Even with more than eighty thousand posts each month, one person can change the tone.”

You're dealing with the unfiltered public. People can be unreasonable, but with anonymity “you create a curious study in screechy madness.” Watamaniuk's theories are that:

  1. People can be crazy

  2. People can be crazy when confronted with logic

  3. People can still manage to be crazy even when a team of scientists with special turbo-charted electric… well you get the point. People can be crazy…

So what are the dos and don'ts of running forums?

  • Establish guidelines for behavior – for everyone, the company and the general public. You need something to refer to when you have to police the forums.

  • Establish separate forums for different topics.

  • Locate community leaders and give them some power to help. They will show up and they are passionate.

  • Have a way for members to give feedback… and listen to them!

  • Have a clear channel of command in case of emergencies such as hackers, servers going down, etc.

  • Exploit the advantage of having inside information on your products.

  • Automate wherever you can. BioWare has a “swear” filter than can automatically clean up a lot problems. Words on the list have a point value, and if a particular user exceeds a set value, they can be automatically banned from the forums temporarily.

  • Set levels of power within the forums: general public (read only), registered community members (read and post), “game owner” (a special category for those who have bought and registered products, with access to special ”game owner” forums), forum moderators (can move, lock and manage the forums)

What not to do?

  • Don't promise anything with a specific date and time. Every second you spend placating an enraged group of passionate people is a waste of time. If you announced it for 11:35 and it doesn't happen, at 11:36 the firestorms will happen on your forums. Be a little vague. “Trust me on this. I know.”

  • Don't overpolice your forums. You don't want to go too far. Keep it safe, however.

  • Do not hesitate to ban someone from the forums. It works.

  • Don't forget that you are always on the record. Even if you kinda trust them… don't trust them!

  • Do not delete anything, even stuff deleted from forums. Save it all.

  • Do not make big policy changes based on forum feedback. This is not the voice of the general public. Don't make policy changes based on the ideas of angry 12-year-olds. Do listen to them, though.

On the subject of content, Watamaniuk said, “Anything that holds value for your community – screen shots, interviews of developer, answering questions, news and so forth.” In the end, he stressed, community members need to be aware that you have regular new content so that they will keep coming back. BioWare's approach is to have all big announcements made on Wednesdays, which means that people always know to check the site on Wednesdays, at least, and they don't have to risk missing something big on another day. Every Wednesday, BioWare attempts to have some new and interesting content.

Of course, he stressed, it's good to assess the content's perceived value versus its resource cost. To do that, you want to be able to measure the users' response to your content. But, he warned, don't assume that everything you have been doing, even if successful, is enough. He suggested that you vary the content because you may not always know what will be popular without experimentation. You need to reevaluate on a regular basis to keep pace with changing community needs. Ask yourself, is what I'm doing relevant today?

Above all, don't make promises you can't keep.

Fans are the greatest resource. “The work I do pales in comparison with what the fans do.” Fans work as communication facilitators and content creators. When someone rises to prominence within the forums, they make them Advisors. Rewarding active and helpful fans not only elevates them, but encourages other fans by showing that the company responds to what the fans are doing. “We encourage their participation and take the time to get to know them. Through them, we get some control over the community. They are a microcosm of the whole, easy to talk to and a moderately trusted part of the community. It's important that you can trust their judgment.” Ultimately, some Advocates can become moderators, where they have access to a special forum just for moderators. This forum is also valuable to BioWare as it allows the company to understand what the moderators are facing and to learn more about how the forums are working. “It's easy for me to pop in and see how things are going.”

Aside from feeling valued, however, Watamaniuk talked about some things you don't want to do with the forum leaders:

  • Do not treat them like employees – they are not paid; they are volunteers. You can make requests, but never demands.

  • Do not neglect them.

  • Do not exclude them. Listen to their ideas on how to improve the community.

  • Do not assume they are public relations experts.

Fans as content creators are another asset. “If you build it, they will build it as well…” Some members want to add to the community in very real and meaningful ways, and some of them possess “mad skillz.” “90% of what sustains a community,” Watamaniuk stated, “is the community itself. You provide the framework for their work. If fans are there creating content, it means that you don't have to create 100% of the content yourself.”

And, he added, this can be a way to discover significantly talented individuals, and several “fans” have been hired by BioWare based on their contributions to the website. This sort of thing also creates a “powerful resonation” with others on the site, as well, and those who started in the forums and then joined the company are excellent at continuing to support the site communities.

How can a company help members who want to contribute?

  • Support large projects the people want to collaborate on

  • Give recognition to exceptional community members

  • User your own communication network to offer free PR to recognize community projects

  • Ask the community directly who deserves recognition

  • Encourage fans by establishing a personal connection. A short personal email to a fan can create an instant super fan. Surprisingly, this does not lead to a high maintenance relationship…

In closing, Watamaniuk noted that BioWare's forums are very active, and that at any given time there are at least three or four employees live on the site – often more.


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About the Author(s)

Rusel DeMaria


Rusel DeMaria has been a participant and observer in the electronic gaming industry since its inception. He has written nearly 60 strategy guides and is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of that book genre. DeMaria has been a senior editor and columnist for several national magazines, a speaker at the prestigious Computer Game Developer’s Conference as well as other industry events.

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