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ION: Successfully Managing a Community Emergency

With MMOs, community is everything – so how can you ensure your community remains happy and healthy? An intriguing panel at the ION Conference in Seattle featuring reps from Sony Online, Cryptic and Turbine aimed to answer just that question.
With MMOs, community is everything – so how can you ensure your community remains happy and healthy with content changes, server down time or even just a developer misspeaking able to lead to a full meltdown? They can happen no matter what is done to prevent them, and in this panel at ION the best methods to employ to avert disaster were explored. Moderated by Craig Dalrymple (Sony Online Entertainment) panelists included Victor Wachter (Cryptic Studios), Katie Postma (FireSky), Alan Crosby (Sony Online Entertainment) and Meghan Rodberg (Turbine). Prevention The panel's advice to prevent community emergencies before they occurred included setting up guidelines for developers when dealing with the community -- including rules such as "don't disagree with each other" and provide info about it in the welcome packet to new hires so they get the message up front. That's not to say that developers should be dissuaded from talking to the community. On the contrary, "players want to hear from the developers even if they're just talking about staying up late at night eating ramen." Of course, they should know to keep it clean, so companies should provide samples of the kind of things that could be posted, including reminders that kids (or their mom!) could read it. "If people want to be themselves, they can find other forums," explained Sony's panelists. "At Sony, we allow developers to post as their player characters if they don't identify themselves as a developer and don't talk about internal stuff." While community management may seem like it's entirely about managing the community as a while, the panelists agreed that communicating on an individual level, with individual users, could be incredibly important. With "troublemakers" it's possible to talk privately with them and they can come to your side, it was explained. In some cases you're dealing with a cult of personality and they can be difficult to excise, it was suggested - but sometimes it's necessary. This kind of management can be easiest in a launched game (where users tend to be tied to an account). On a pre-launch or open beta community such management can be harder, but it is still very important, as aspects essential to a healthy community (such as a detailed infraction system) are easiest to set up when a community is young -- and very hard to introduce once a community is established. Training developers to only respond to comments worded politely was also important, as then people would try to be polite in order to get positive attention. Similarly, players will advocate for developers if they give them things to talk about that are good, like working through the weekend to keep beta servers up, or helping users one on one. What communities handle the worst is surprise, the panel noted - the more you can tell people about what's coming down the pike the more they will embrace it --which builds good will for the admins. As an example, development team turnover, which while seen as "no big deal" for developers, is often seen as a sign that "their game" is in trouble by communities. If communities are given the most warning possible of personnel changes, it should be seamless. Damage Control But when disasters happen, then what? Advice given included turning to fan sites. If developers find that they can't get the message out on their own site, fan sites can be "your best friend" for communicating with the community. Sometimes, it was noted, dedicating only one thread on a forum to whatever the community disaster is can help control it, by concentrating the furore in one place. However, "when your devs do something wrong, sometimes you have to throw them under the bus," it was suggested. "Make sure the community know it was just one guy -- not a conspiracy. But do keep the sensitive details internal." The panel concluded with the one emergency that was the result of a game doing well rather than anything else -- the announcement of a sequel. Why is that an emergency? Because of similar fears that make surprise, or developer turnover, so undesirable – the idea that players might "lose" their favorite game. As with other problems discussed in the panel, the emergency could be avoided (as much as possible) by simply communicating clearly with the community and being, above all, honest.

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