Authors: Kenneth T. Tran, Jack Wegrich
COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT: AN EVOLVING ROLE
Questions about community management abound in today's developing tech scene. The whole concept of community management remains relatively new and still evolving at an incredibly rapid pace. Why is community management so important and yet so rare? Is the need for community managers confined to the games industry? Community management and community managers are something everyone is aware of a thinking about in today’s tech industry, but is it worthwhile for a games company, and what makes it worthwhile?
THE DANGERS OF BAD MANAGEMENT
Indie game development and startups showcase dangers of not having community managers, and vice versa, more clearly than any other area. Many indie companies go without community managers, seeing them as an expense that isn’t particularly worth it compared to other things like real marketing and social media work. The loss here is palpable. The innovators (in a startup) and developers (in a games company) must take time out of working to deal with the stuff a community manager usually handles. This practice is quite widespread, so community managers in the independent scene have adapted.
Not only is a community manager at a startup or indie games company a community manager, but usually he or she is also the PR department, the social media manager, the sales representative, and the person in charge of getting investors on board. The danger then, is that you have a single person who is taking care of everything involving outreach; if they screw up, or miscalculate, or just plain old don’t know what they're doing, it’s a disaster. Once the game or product launches, a good community manager can make or break the dreaded drop off for an indie game, especially since many indies rely on small but dedicated communities willing to shell out to keep the game afloat (Blacklight; Retribution, Wargame franchise, Berzerk Ball, etc). These games can remain solvent for years on communities of less than five thousand total players. Their community managers are a huge factor in this. However, if your community managers don’t know what they’re doing, it’s a disaster, from start to finish.
GAMING STARTUPS NEED TO KNOW THEIR STUFF
For startups, the danger after launch is even more significant. The community manager is the key figure in the fundraising effort, and if he doesn’t know his stuff exactly, you might not make your goal. Hiring people, I’m telling you now, if you interview someone who has been successful in indie games or the startup scene as a community manager, make sure you take a second or even a third look at them. They’ve done something extraordinarily difficult. So, the answer to many of the questions, at least for small scale work, is based on the individual, or for larger companies individuals, in question. If they’re good at their jobs, they can make a game or product vastly more profitable and keep consumers much happier.
COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT AT THE AAA LEVEL
So what does community management look like at the AAA (or big tech company) level? With huge teams and huge budgets available, it changes the role of a community manager significantly. We asked expert Bryan Haskell, former Live Ops Team Lead for Activision’s Call of Duty: Elite and Producer at Brandissimo! For NFL Rush Zone what the most important function for a community manager in the AAA scene was, Bryan told us,
“To me, proactively engaging with community members if the most important thing for a manager. Actively proselytizing for the Next Big Thing, conducting litmus tests on community sentiment, or getting out ahead of issues or demands; maintaining an at-attention, public-facing presence is the most crucial part of the job. This seems like common sense, but you'd be surprised how many big-name, hugely popular titles and services broadcast static or radio silence when the community needs communication the most." Quite a change from an indie guy trying to juggle social media management, creative development, and keeping the players happy. Not to suggest that a AAA developer has it easier, just quite different. They have to worry about players, and nothing else. However, there are between 2 times and ^2 more players to worry about.”
SOCIAL MEDIA, ESPORTS, AND A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
The future of both gaming and startup community management is changing. It’s changing at both the AAA level, the indie level, and even at the eSports arena. For example, individual players have started to gather their own sub communities dedicated to that single gamer. We call them Live Streamers and Twitch Streamers nowadays. So your game might have a community, and within that community the gamers command their own communities of which you, as a community manager, have no control over.
Back when I was a community manager for THQ and Relic’s real time strategy game, Company of Heroes: Online (Company of Heroes 2 now being an eSports accepted battleground), we simply acted as though we were referees in a sporting match. We were there to keep the competition fair. To resolve disputes, make bans when needed, and organize matches when needed. That was 7 years ago. Today, the rise of not only eSports, but social media has changed the way we manage games from a community-perspective. Whether it is a more hands on or hands off approach is debatable within the industry.
For example, imagine you are a community manager and faced with a dilemma. The scenario is: You run a game on which a gaming community forms. The players like to broadcast their plays on Twitch and Youtube Gaming. You run the social media for your game. Do you highlight the features of your game on your social media channels? Or should you highlight the user created content by featuring the player’s highlights? Or should you be trying to gain more followers on Twitter for your upcoming kickstarter? Of course you should do all of these things, but the dilemma lies in the lack of a clear job description, a lack of a linear strategy, and a lack of an outlined daily to-do list. Add on a lack of a uniform prioritization system amongst all community managers, and what you have is a wild wild west of social media and community management.
In the old days, the PR team from the publisher would handle the social media. The community manager handles the forums. And the marketing team produces the videos. The gamers would just play the game. Now it’s all mixed up. The community manager, whatever their ever-changing title may be, might do all of these things. He or she might even play the game to produce the videos, which before, was left up to the publisher which would send out an order to the public relations department to produce a how-to or tutorial video, or teaser video, and everything would be done in a neat, tidy, and orderly fashion. Now, however, in today’s landscape, you’re gonna be doing these things live. And guess what? You might not even have as many viewers as your player’s channels do. And you’re running the official channel. Some live streamer might have more viewers than you do.
THE ONLY RIGHT WAY TO MANAGE IS TO BE UNIQUE
It’s the wild wild west for an old fashioned community manager. The only solution is to adapt and take a startup mentality to the gaming world. You must constantly adapt to the quickly changing world that is AAA gaming, indie gaming, eSports, and even mobile gaming.
There is no one path. There is no one methodology or training program that you follow. You must work not for your players, but with your players in creating something unique that works for your individual community. The fighting game community, which often doesn’t even call itself an eSport, is nothing like the League of Legends community. And that community is nothing like the Minecraft community. So be unique. Be yourself. Be personal. Take charge and be the glue that holds the game together.
And above all else, make a good game. Because not even the best of community managers can run a dedicated community that actively plays a game of pong. Yes, pong.