Possessed with one of the more daunting jobs in the games industry, as Community Relations Manager for Star Wars Galaxies at Sony Online Entertainment, Kevin O'Hara is tasked with balancing the needs of many thousands of vocal prospective Jedi in a PC MMO title which, while extremely popular, has certainly seen its share of post-launch controversy. He talked to us about listening to the community, dealing with miscreants, and even picked some of his favorites from the current crop of upcoming MMO titles.
Q: How do you balance the voice of the power gamer and the casual gamer in a game like Star Wars Galaxies?
A: The majority of your forum-based online community are going to be your hardcore players - some might claim that they're casual players, but a casual player, almost by definition, never visits a forum. You have to be cogniscent that what they're screaming loudest for might not really be what 80 percent of your players really want out of the game. You should listen to what the people on the forums say, and it's important, but it's not the end all be all - there are other methods of getting information out of the community, such as in-game polling, anecdotal evidence, and so on. Exit polls are really good for us, because when we ask people why they left the game, their top issues often don't match up with the top issues of the forum people. But forum people are generally not only your hardcore players, but your biggest community leaders and PR people for you, so you definitely don't want to ignore them or treat them like a minority, even if they technically are.
Q: Star Wars Galaxies has been through a number of open/closed stages with regard to public messageboard access - can you explain those?
A: We have gone through many phases. Before we launched the game, we were completely open, then we went to Beta, and we had closed forums just for the people in our Beta program, and also, we were under NDA so we had to do that. When we launched we decided that only subscribers of the game could post, and initially, anybody could look at the forums. And it turned out that our launch wasn't as good as we had hoped, and the community was hard to manage at that point - it was very volatile. So we made a decision that we would close it off so that the outside people would see our marketing sites, and not necessarily our community site, which wasn't indicative of the majority of players' gameplay - it was the hardcore people who had bypassed the medium level content, and were already up to the high level content and were getting frustrated. In retrospect, I don't know if that was the right decision. Recently, we re-opened them so anyone can read the forums, since the community has got a lot better, and the game is in good shape now. We're understanding that if we don't have something people can read, then they're either going to go to other forums to get their information, or we're going to get misquoted off our on forums in other places, and it's not defensible for us, because we can't point to it and say 'No, see - we said this.' I think we've ended up open for anyone to read, because that can draw you into the community, or give you the information you want, but still closed to subscribers posting, because in order to manage a good community, we still want to have the accountability in saying that if you're really just a griefer and causing problems, we can get rid of you and you can't come back - or, at least, you can't come back unless you re-buy the game.
Q: How do you deal with separating out the griefers in your community from those who are just, say, mean-spirited?
A: It's a hard line to put in the sand. I generally give people the benefit of the doubt. The Internet is a nasty place overall. We are a licensed product and therefore we have to run a family-friendly forum. So if people are not adhering to our community standards, our first thing is to give them a basic warning. The second time we warn, we tell them that they may not have paid attention, but we are serious about it - we want a good friendly place. If the third time, if they're really intent on causing problems, we may realize that they're not getting better, and we give them a third and final warning. The big thing with forums, like in-game, is that your other players don't want to play with [griefers]. On the forums, you may want to say that this person is being mean, but freedom of speech and everything, but your good people come to the forums, and say this isn't a good place to be, and they're not happy there. So you want to clean out the worst stuff so people feel comfortable coming there. It's always our policy that people can say things against our game, and don't like the way we've implemented something - we need that feedback. It's just the ones that are totally unconstructive.
Q: Do you think you can encourage people to be constructive on messageboards by making people less anonymous?
A: From a community management point of view, you don't want people to be anonymous. The more they have an identity, the more that they are either respected or tut-tut-ed by community members for what they say and how they act. Back when I worked on Meridian 59, I think we had a great community, and that's one of the things that people took out of it, because the game was only 200 people per server, and they all knew each other. Since they all knew who the people that would cause problems were, and wouldn't group with them and help them, it really was self-policed, and made it a friendly place to play, and a constructive place, even though there were plenty of opportunities to gank [kill] each other. I'm all in favor of smaller, less anonymous communities. Unfortunately the industry calls for larger and large communities, and consumers want to feel they don't have to be themselves when they go online. So It's at odds with each other. But from a community perspective, it's a good thing to have some way to be attached to your comments.
Q: Do you think the online press got on top of Star Wars Galaxies a little at launch and gave it worse press than it might otherwise have merited?
A: I think that's the case with almost every massively multiplayer game. I have seen a few instances where they haven't hammered on an MMO, but I kinda expected, going out the door, that no matter how successful we were, there's a certain percentage of the press that's going to judge us by different standards. It's all about maintaining expectations, and when you start out with the Star Wars franchise, your expectation bar is too high to begin with anyway. On top of that, when you win E3 Game Of The Year awards twice in a row, even a year before you ship, then expectations are just out of the door, without the developers really saying much at that point. We kinda realized it would be a hard sell out of the door, but we've done alright with it.
Q: How do you handle the idea of volunteer GMs or admins for Star Wars Galaxies?
A: On Galaxies we are very concerned about the potential legal ramifications of it, so we are trying to stay away from unpaid employees - we don't want to say you can volunteer for us, here's your schedule, we expect you to do this, this, and this for us, and you'll get this in-game item, because that's in the same sense as saying you're an employee of the company. As much as possible, though, we want to encourage people who are able to volunteer, and show them as an example - 'Hey, this guy is really great because he hosted this player event'. But at the same time, we can't make it official.
Q: How do you deal with community feedback when integrating new features into the game?
A: We've changed our community pipeline, where if we have an idea of something we'll want to do, we'll put it to the community first. After it goes through that, and we actually start working on it, it goes into our 'In Development' section, then it gets to the 'Testing' section, and each step we let the community give their feedback on. And there's been several times where we'd said 'Here's a good idea, it's going to be great!', and the community has said: 'You're on crack!'. I think our dev team are great , and they make lots of great decisions, but there are a couple of decisions that they're on crack, and it's great to have the community to be able to kick that out early without us finding out the day we go live with it.
Star Wars Galaxies
Q: Do you think consoles will be increasingly popular venues for MMOs, as opposed to the PC?
A: I believe it's going to happen, and it's going to happen in a big way, but the issues with communication will have to be solved first. Current keyboard peripherals or software keyboards aren't cutting it for anyone, and voice communication hasn't quite been proven yet, so once those challenges get solved, then we can move forward with console MMOs. But right now, a massively multiplayer game without the means to communicate with someone is not really a massively multiplayer game, at least not what we're used to.
Q: What do you personally get excited about with the current set of MMO titles?
A: I'm really personally looking forward to City Of Heroes. It looks like a fun, direct experience. Mostly I'm looking forward so I can play with my friends and they don't say 'Hey, you gotta fix my class!' World Of Warcraft certainly looks interesting. Not to plug my own stuff, but EverQuest II, from playing inside Betas - it's pretty incredible. Generally, my opinion, and I hope it doesn't make Sony unhappy, is that the more we widen this market the better. I really am looking forward to quality products coming out from companies, although I do think there's a little bit of a glut, and we're seeing too many released, and more fail than we want.