[How has community management evolved as games change from packaged products to online services? Gamasutra speaks to CrowdStar, CCP, and Insomniac to investigate how three very different companies manage their communities.]
Not so very long ago, the role of the community manager was to police the game forums -- period.
But as gaming has moved from product to service, community managers have grown much more relevant to studios. Today's community managers wear multiple hats -- serving as the liaisons between the gamer and the design teams; contributing to marketing, PR, and customer support and retention efforts; even going out into the field to meet and greet the most ardent fans of the games they represent.
Whether they are employed in the MMO, the social, or the console spaces, community managers confirm that they -- and their teams -- perform a countless array of functions, frequently 24/7. And they have the tales to confirm it.
Take Valerie Massey, who has been on the job for almost 13 years, first as a player counselor for Ultima Online in 1998 and then, in 2003, as the original community manager for EVE Online. Today she is senior director of community relations for that MMORPG, at Iceland-based CCP Games.
"Back in 1998, we were the front line support," she recalls. "If a player had problems with the game, they'd contact us and we'd try to resolve their issues."
Today, Massey has a team of six -- and growing -- who communicate with EVE Online's players through message boards and, more recently, through social media like Facebook and Twitter.
"The players tell us what makes them happy, what makes them unhappy, and we relay that information back to the developers," she explains. "Then the developers will say what they can and cannot do to acquiesce to those requests."
She calls humor her primary tool: "You need to know when to use it and when not," she says. "Most importantly, you can't take gamers' complaints personally. It's not about us; it's just that we're the first ones in striking distance. Pretty soon you learn to build up a thick skin but, at the same time, you can't become so disconnected from the game that you don't feel anything. If you have no passion for the job, your players will see that immediately."
One of Massey's biggest PR challenges is the blogs often created by players who "become the voice of authority on the web," she says. "Where once the industry was covered strictly by professional game journalists, today we need to show bloggers -- who may be some kids in their parents' basements somewhere -- the same respect or it can quickly backfire on us. That just shows you how our job is changing with the times."
While community managers were once known as "forum monkeys" whose job it was to simply moderate the forums "and make sure nobody's puts any nasty pictures on the message boards," today they have become an integral part of the design team.
"The designers want to know how the gamers are reacting, but they can't spend hours each day reading 200-post forum threads," she says. "So they've come to depend on us to read all the feedback, distill it down into a summary, and then tell them what most of the players want and what they don't want."
She and her team provide the designers with regular reports and participate in design meetings. She sees much of her effort focusing on player retention, telling the designers what changes the players desire to keep them happy and connected. But when the designers then make unpopular decisions, choosing not to give the players what they want, it becomes the community team's responsibility to take the heat.
"We are the meat shields," she says.
That is, perhaps, why Gordon Walton has become one of her inspirations. Walton is VP and executive producer at Playdom, and his keynote recently opened GDC Europe's Community Management Summit.
Walton called the community manager the designated voice of the entire company, saying that everything a community manager says will be dissected and taken apart by the community. And so he stressed the importance of their working closely with both PR and marketing to make sure messaging is concise and on message.
He concluded his talk with a call-to-arms to community managers to demand their jobs get the recognition he feels they deserve: "It is time for community managers to rise to the occasion. We must educate and we must get active about things. No one is going to hand recognition to you. You have to demand it," he said.
Massey admits that community management at CCP, which currently produces just one MMO, is simpler than at a studio with multiple games, because a community manager needs to know the inner workings of every single one of their games. All that is about to change, however, when CCP releases its second game -- Dust 514, an FPS exclusive to the PlayStation 3.
She anticipates that her team will be involved in promoting the new title, just as it does with EVE Online, generating promotional ideas and contests, working with the various portals to sponsor events, and participating in conventions, like the recent Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.
As senior community manager at Burbank, CA-based Insomniac Games for a little over five years now, James Stevenson knows very well what it takes to deal with multiple games -- 16 console titles, in fact, including the popular Ratchet & Clank series, since the indie developer opened its doors in 1994.
Stevenson says the most important ingredient in a good community manager is "a lot of patience," especially because much of the time he and his team of five frequently "deal with the vocal minority. They are the most passionate fans, the ones who can either help you reach new heights... or sink you quickly. That's because, if you do things to what they consider 'their game' that they don't like or don't understand, they can turn around and bite you, possibly ruining the game by telling a lot of people online that your game isn't any good."
And so, Stevenson believes, it is extremely important to maintain a great, long-term relationship with those fans through a variety of mediums -- both the long-standing message boards and the new media like Twitter and Facebook.
"We try and respond to just about every question we get," which requires constant attention to the various inputs that flood in from fans around the globe. "When you're dealing with all the time zones, someone is always awake, someone is always playing your games, and if something goes wrong, you've got to be ready to try and help."
Sometimes it feels like a 24/7 job, he says, especially when he tries to answer every single Tweet he gets -- checking and responding to them before he goes to sleep, and then again first thing in the morning when he wakes up.
Stevenson considers himself on the front line because it is he and his team who are frequently the first to be aware that something is wrong with an Insomniac game.
"We're the first to see the complaints coming in," he says, "and that's when we try to deal with the problem by bringing in the right people and making sure they know what's going on. We're also the first to communicate back to the players that everything is under control and there will be a fix coming soon."
Indeed, when he and his people are wearing their "crisis management hats," the ability to keep players calm is all-important.
He recalls an incident just recently that involved the beta version of Resistance 3 which launched last month for the PS3. The developers had to shut off the matchmaking function for a few days while a fix was prepared.
"Gamers immediately began complaining," he says, "and we were responsible for keeping them up-to-date and telling them that we were working on the problem. We were super-responsive, super-fast, and I think people appreciated that."
One of the most rewarding parts of the job, says Stevenson, is seeing how much impact his team's input has on the games. For instance, when Resistance 3 was being developed, an extremely hardcore contingent of players was adamant that they didn't want to play with any special abilities. Ironically, the game was originally intended to be packed with "lots of crazy abilities," he reveals. And so, Stevenson's people sat down with the design team... and the result is that gamers who want to play a more skill-based version of the title can now do that.
"We try to offer our suggestions and the players' feedback when we think it's appropriate," he says, "and the result is that I think our fans know that we listen to them and that they have the clout to actually influence the games -- not always, but often enough that we have a very devoted fan base. We recognize that without them, we couldn't be where we are today."
While Stevenson has had no experience yet with a community built around social games, Insomniac is currently working on a Facebook game. And based on what he hears from friends who are social community managers, he expects the forthcoming audience will be quite different from what he is used to. He says he is preparing himself for the challenge.
"Social games have fan counts that are way bigger than most console games and, because our game will be on Facebook, practically all of our interactions with those fans will be on Facebook," he says. "While the ultimate principles will be the same in that we will be trying to engage the community, the numbers of interactions will surely be much more than we've come to expect."
Indeed, as CrowdStar's community manager for the past three years, Yvonne Lee is well aware of the difference between her social gaming audience and those in the MMO and console spaces. Burlingame, CA-based CrowdStar has developed about seven Facebook and iPhone games, with Happy Aquarium being one of its most popular.
"Many of the folks in our community aren't really gamers -- 90 percent of them are casual players, usually stay-at-home mothers and young kids, and so on. But they all use Facebook and so they've found our games," she explains.
And because Facebook games are updated on a daily basis, Lee maintains that her audience is even more active than most MMO and console gamers in shaping the look and feel of CrowdStar's titles.
For example, the Happy Aquarium community -- which numbers about 200,000 monthly active users -- started a petition for an alligator to be added to the game, Lee recalls. Two weeks later, the designers released an alligator in seven different colors that turned out to be one of the game's bestselling animals ever.
As soon as the alligator was posted, it was announced on the game's forum, and fans were thanked for their feedback, confirming the fact that the design team not only listens to the community but encourages input.
Indeed, new features and content are usually pushed at night and so, by the time Lee comes to work in the morning, there is already fan feedback that the designers can act on.
Facilitating the communication is a team of 10 community managers -- one or two for each game -- plus a group of volunteer community managers who enthusiastically donate five to 10 hours a week of their time and are rewarded with virtual goods, T-shirts, and mugs.
Additionally, frequent contests -- both on a weekly and a monthly basis -- generate even more fan interaction. Prizes include popular virtual goods used to decorate gamers' virtual aquariums.
Now that the company is planning on adding two to three games per month, Lee is certain that further expansion of the community management team will be necessary.
"A few of our current community managers today are actually power users from the forum," she says. "They were so super-passionate about our games and had such positive attitudes that we decided to hire them full-time."
She suspects that additional community managers might be found at some of the company's regularly-held events where power users are invited to come meet the design team, hang out, and get a peek at the behind-the-scenes goings-on of game development.
"Community management is a dynamic effort at our company," she says, "and, as long as we keep expanding, there will always be a need for enthusiastic people to communicate with our audience."