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A crash course in crisis management (for all creatives)

Community development manager and GDC Masterclass instructor Stephanie Bayer tells stories about how to survive your darkest hours in game development.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

October 6, 2022

5 Min Read
A screenshot of the Match-3 game Bejewleled

Whether you're a front-line community manager or just a developer tuned in to your community, player feedback can be rough. And it can get rougher when an out-of-nowhere bug, unwanted feature, or other five-alarm fire fills your mentions and inbox with unwanted awful messages.

In this business, those moments can make it especially difficult to separate the worst, most hateful comments from the valid feedback your team is receiving. It's easy to let emotions run wild and lose sight of why you're making games in the first place.

Community-facing experts like Stephanie Bayer, a veteran community developer with experience at companies like CD Projekt Red, Blizzard Entertainment, and beyond. Last week Bayer presented an in-depth session called Death By 1000 Keystrokes - Surviving a Crisis of Comms at the very first Game Developer Talks—a webinar series coordinated by Game Developer, and our colleagues at sibling organization GDC.

Bayer's advice spanned from the practical to the tactical—and might save you from your next crisis.

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Any community crisis is led by a set of circumstances that you as a developer cannot control. You cannot control how players feel, you might not be able to control how your game works, heck, you might not even control what decisions were made that landed you on the front page of Kotaku (or here on Game Developer).

Bayer's first guidance was that before any crisis takes place; developers and community managers would do well to prepare themselves with learning basic relaxation techniques and by knowing who they could turn to for a source of venting.

"Make sure you limit the venting time," she said. "It can really go into a very downward spiral if you just make it all negativity all the time."

Both techniques give developers an important resource in any crisis: time to think, react, and plan. There are always moments where you may have to respond quickly and efficiently, but if you can buy yourself time to think, it'll cool down your emotions in the moments where you need to think clearly.

Once you've armed yourself with all the tools to emotionally prep for a crisis, you can start looking beyond your station. Here Bayer advocated for the creation of a "crisis management matrix"—internal documentation that covers major issues you might encounter every day, with tools to solve them.

A screenshot from Bayer's slides. The steps in order are

Said document can include generic approved copy that you or another team member can deploy to buy you some time, as well as pre-planned reactions to events like service outages in live games. "I used to do this a lot when I was working on live titles," Bayer explained. "If we had something to come up—back projects, videos—anything we could potentially use...that's why it's good to keep talking with your team on a regular basis and figuring out what are some of the fun things you can do across social [channels] that can help keep your communities engaged when you know things aren't going to be great."

TLDR; In case of a surprise outage, pull out surprise gifs, concept art, bug videos, or high-skill plays of your game.

Assume Direct Control

Bayer keeps her crisis communications matrix updated with all of her contact info, but she also stressed the importance of establishing "off hours" where you should only be reachable if something is "literally on fire." She shared one anecdote about her days at PopCap, where she was the sole person turning on sales for Bejeweled.

"I used to have to be by a computer every Saturday morning to turn on sales within the app, because we didn't have a [scheduling] tool!" she shared. "I was the only one that was willing to do it because I really wanted to have these particular Caturday sales because it fit within the product."

Bayer has no regrets about Caturday, but after that experience she did set harder boundaries with her colleagues.

Your crisis comms resources should also have the contact information of your company's legal team and as many opportunities to have legal pre-approve communications as soon as possible. Building a relationship with the lawyers also helps you establish mutual language and nomenclature that can get you through a crisis. In Bayer's words, "If you can explain projects in a way they understand, it really does expedite things."

Trust is another key trait needed to navigate any crisis—trust in yourself, and trust in your team. But your team also needs to trust you back, and let your lines of communication be the ones player deal with the most. Making sure your colleagues posting on social media aren't either pre-empting your work or moving too far ahead is important. "Screenshots live forever," she said wrly. "Just avoid it right now."

"Make sure you limit the venting time...[you] can really go into a very downward spiral if you just make it all negativity all the time."

Much of Bayer's further advice orbited around the notion of boundaries she set up earlier. Per her thinking, studios would be well-served to let community leaders like her reduce boundaries with coworkers in the studio. Bayer would make little interactive experiences that encouraged coworkers to swing by her desk, and she'd wind up meeting developers from other teams and learning more about their work.

On the player side, maintaining clear boundaries was crystal clear—though Bayer herself learned a lot by pushing them. Most toxic players get a "two-strike rule" before she lays down that if they continue their behavior, she would cut off interaction with them. By telling players that, she would either get an apology, "or somebody completely changing direction."

In one baffling example of deploying this strategy, Bayer connected with an older Bejeweled player who had sent near-criminal levels of threats and harassment to her boss. That didn't make sense to Bayer—why was somebody's grandmother sending messages you might find on 4Chan?

The baffling answer? Said grandmother was upset that an in-game currency sale landed on a different day. Bayer quickly clarified the sale timelines to her, and her toxic activity stopped.

Not every bad-faith player will respond that way, but Bayer credited her boundary-setting strategy with helping to calm down the situation.

Bayer's full presentation (complete with a can't-miss Q&A session) can be viewed on-demand here, and will be the first of many our team is putting on in the coming months.

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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