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How To Train Your Community

Traditional game community forums should take a different approach to community management. By allowing players to contribute more and as a collective your game can reach greater succes.

Bram Stoker

January 31, 2014

11 Min Read

Communication between game developers and players is important. Games are played, reviewed and experiences are shared in communities. Communities are great to get to know your players and interact with them. A gaming community can be defined as a group of people that share experiences about a game, mostly on an online medium like forums. Players that actively participate and provide feedback create a stronger bond with the game and other players. I’d like to quote Julien Wera’s article on why communities are important for games and publishers:

“If the people who play your games feel part of something bigger -- a network with its own rules, its own stars and its own language -- they will be less likely to move to another game, because they will remain loyal to where they belong. Just as it can be difficult for someone to leave their country, it can be hard to quit a community.

It's well known in the MMO industry: people try your game because of the gameplay, the graphics, the reputation or a good marketing campaign, but they keep playing because of the people they play with. When it comes to other genres, it's all about loyalty.

People join a community because they're interested in your game, but if the community brings them what they need in term of entertainment, gaming experience, socialization and accomplishment, they will be more likely to remain loyal to the publisher or the developer who brought it to them.

In the end, a community is also a source of infinite ideas. Give your customers the right tools to express themselves, and they will talk about what's right and what's wrong in your products, allowing you to improve them or build a solid basis for the next version.”

Additionally customer participation and feedback can help determine whether a game will be a success before it has been released. Blizzards Hearthstone already anticipated success whilst in closed beta testing. The other way around EA’s free to play Command & Conquer was cancelled due to too many negative feedback during their open beta test.

Player feedback is widely used to test games that are in a beta phase, to balance a game or to decide what to patch. Yet communities are far too often overlooked in early development stages. Prototyping gameplay mechanics is common, but usually only used to pitch idea’s internally to the development team or management. It is hard to make an objective decision on their value for your players, so why don’t ask them?

Listening to your players is the best way to make sure you are making the game they want to buy and play. Early communication between game developers and players is increasingly becoming more important to create a successful game. Feedback of potential players can definitely help to direct development. Measuring and evaluating feedback earlier in the development process can help understand what players value, so development is more customer-driven. Eliminating goals that are hard to realise and that your players do not value highly helps avoiding the risks of spending too much time on something your players don’t want. Kickstarter campaigns to some extent show this shift to a more client-driven approach to develop. Perhaps mainly because their community funds the game and choose what they like to see realised.

If you want customers to get involved in the development process it is necessary is to get your game noticed and create a platform to communicate on. If players don’t know your game and you don’t give them the opportunity to learn about it, you won’t be able to build a common place to share information. Mostly games have an official forum in order to do so. Interestingly Kickstarter as a platform shows that a community can be built before a game has been released, even if your are not a known studio or are developing a sequel. Important is to get the attention of people and inform them, so they have the opportunity to get involved and support your game. A pitch video, screenshots, short descriptions and media are often used as hooks to pull in customers. Development diaries and live streams help to share information, ideas and updates of your game.

The goal of having a community from a company’s perspective is to sell a product, but also to receive suggestions or constructive criticism to improve it. To keep your community alive means giving it means to talk and discuss your game. Managing a community involves providing news and updates on a regular basis, answering questions, leading and engaging in discussions.

Where a lot of players communicate there are conflicts, especially in online communication. Common social rules are more easily ignored on forums leading to flame wars, excessive trolling, a lot of spam and locked threads. There exist methods like moderation systems, spam and chat filters, controlled communication and removing anonymity that try to create a desired online environment. However to control player activities impartial moderators have to be selected and managed, chat filters are easily bypassed and controlled communication restrains players from their freedom to have a nice conversation or good discussion. Removing anonymity can result in real life harassment and violation of one’s privacy.

Moderation, providing and extracting information, leading discussions and responding to questions make managing a community a hard and time-consuming process. To improve traditional communities there should be a different approach to community management. By allowing players to contribute more collectively in regard to news items, moderation, answering questions and feedback, tasks traditionally taken care of by the community manager, are more shifted towards the community itself.

Existing community forums fail to highlight valuable threads and posts from those that are less constructive. Threads that ask a question should be treated different to threads suggesting an idea or require feedback. Starting a thread to discuss an idea does not fully support collective thinking and collaboration of players as too much focus is on the original post and not on responses or arguments of others to improve upon. Letting the community contribute, discuss, collaborate, improve, merge and then up-vote to publish can highlight constructive posts and filter out others.

Can voting and editing another’s post really work in a games community? With the right user moderation system and using karma to assign privileges it can. User moderations allows a user to moderate others. Additionally karma takes a user his past actions into account in order to determine how reliable he is. Reputation or karma is widely used in moderation systems across internet forums and takes a user his past actions into account to determine how reliable he is. This way we could nullify or expand the weight of a vote. Stack Overflow is a good example on how to collectively come to an answer and has a very effective reputation system in order for it to work. They let users participate in their community to earn more privileges and fancy badges.

The next few paragraphs explain a basic user moderation system in more detail. The basis of a good moderation system starts with a set of common rules, mostly referred to on forums as the code of conduct. Rules should be straightforward or easy to pick up and memorize. Important is that players accept them or at least the majority should. Let’s say users are given votes on their actions ranging from -1 to +3, where -1 is voted for breaking a rule, 0 is being voted not valuable and +1 to +3 are used to reward valuable posts. Actions a user can perform can be moderations, posts, messages, contributions or abstractly speaking anything that can be perceived by another user within the community forums. In order to collect evidence together with a vote actions should be archived and be traceable given a vote. Since I’m discussing a forum everything is archived, but this is necessary to trace back incorrect votes that should be reported.

Unregistered user have a reputation (or karma) of zero and are not able to post or create a new thread. Simply because we cannot track their karma and thus do not trust them enough to make an impartial decision.

A registered user can vote on another’s action down by selecting a rule that has been violated. Collecting more identical votes on that action indicates that the specific votes are most likely correct and the user can see his reputation decreased given a penalty for breaking that specific rule. Votes that lead to correct moderation should be rewarded karma for their effort. The other way around incorrect votes can be traced back to those that voted to decrease their karma. Moderation can be subjective when voting posts up, so votes that differ little from the determined one, like +1 and +2 should not be treated as being incorrect.

Penalties for breaking rules should be pre-determined and in the code of conduct. Penalties should decrease karma significantly opposed to the karma users gain in order to make karma more valuable and prevent players to misbehave. Each user should be able to view a log of recently acquired karma increases or decreases, so they can learn from their actions.

Notice that the system to determine a correct vote is based on numbers under the assumption that the majority of the community knows and acts by the code of conduct. This system only works in larger communities, because a threshold is required to decide which votes are most likely to be correct. Users with a lot of karma are considered more trustworthy in taking the correct decision than someone with little karma, so when determining the most frequent vote to a post they are more decisive.

Newly registered user should be given some initial karma and the privilege to vote, create threads and reply to threads. Breaking rules as a new user should not yet deny them these privileges as new users can be unfamiliar with the forum rules. New users should be able to vote, because the moderation system will teach them the forum rules. When a user misbehaves and his karma is back to zero or less his privileges to post or reply are revoked. The only way to increase his karma is to vote correctly, but because he still has a karma of zero or less he has no influence in the determination of the correct vote.

Finally the amount of karma a player can have should have a maximum, because nobody should have too much of an influence in a jury. To keep the collective system intact there should always be multiple member of the jury, so to speak. This also accounts for the forum rules that can always be adjusted if backed by the community.

Rewarding players to contribute can be done by badges or unlocking avatars depending on karma levels. High scores can display the number of posts or correct moderations and give away prices for contributor of the month. Take a look at the privileges on Stack Overflow to get an idea of possible rewards.

Interaction between player and developer is extremely important to show that input from the community is appreciated. Knowing that forums are being watched can be enough to motivate players to contribute. A simple ‘Thanks, I’ll pass it on to development’ is a good start, but better would be for a developer to spend an hour himself to engage in the community. Independent studio Vlambeer regularly broadcasts on Twitch to show their current working title The Nuclear Throne. It is a good example of showing your game to the public, engaging interaction with players in live chats and to differentiate yourself from other publishers or studios; it’s good to build up a name.

The value of user feedback and managing your community can achieve greater loyalty from your players, infinite ideas and feedback. Players, as a collective, are able to manage themselves and create a great community that can push game development always further in the right direction. Listening to your players is the best way to make sure you are making the game they want to buy and play.

While I discussed above moderation system in perspective to game forums this method can be applied to all online communication that involve a lot of users like user generated content. When sharing user generated content a similar moderation system would have advantages over traditional one’s.

There are reasons a user moderation system might not work. There should be cohesion between your target audience and your community rules and there should be a certain amount of player that should actively moderate. If rewards are not appealing to players it can break the system. There is always a possibility for a player to build up a lot of karma that is not of value and then down vote users incorrectly. This is a problem if the multitude of these votes indeed are correct which can only happen if your community is very small and corrupt or starts to riot.

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