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The Community Manager Interviews: Cryptic Studios' Nicole Hamlett

In the latest entry in our community manager series, Gamasutra speaks with Nicole Hamlett of Cryptic Studios (Champions Online, Star Trek Online) about being an MMO CM.
As the community manager for MMO developer Cryptic Studios, Nicole Hamlett's role is particularly long-term. No community manager's job ends when a game ships, but with an MMO the position becomes all the more crucial. Gamasutra spoke to Hamlett for the fourth part of our series of interviews with community managers from several companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios. Previously,we featured 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey, Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer, and Bethesda Game Studios' Matt Grandstaff. Hamlett is currently focusing on Atari-owned Cryptic's two announced upcoming games, Star Trek Online and Champions Online. (Cryptic originally developed City of Heroes and City of Villains for NCsoft before the games were passed off to Paragon Studios.) Here, she discusses her experience in editorial and marketing before landing a community gig, the duties of an MMO CM, the overlap and separation between marketing and community, and the essential qualities of the job. In your view, what is a community manager? In particular, what is the role of a community manager for an MMO? Nicole Hamlett: Most people aren't sure what a community manager does these days. Or, worse, they think a community manager is a glorified forum moderator. That certainly isn't correct. Thankfully, quite a few companies are getting wise to the job and giving their community managers quasi-marketing roles. This is because the primary goals for a CM are user acquisition and retention -– the same goals of a marketer. That means we use whatever tools we have available to acquire new people for our community and then make them happy enough to stay. Pre-launch, available tools might include social networking, contests, game feature reveals, etcetera. Whatever it takes, right? I encourage my OCR [online community relations] folks to visit the forums and interact, but not spend all their time there. I think work hours are better spent coming up with ways to make our community's time more enjoyable when they are with us. How did you end up in your current position? NH: I came into development in a roundabout way. I started in editorial, working for a gaming community website and then moved into a developer relations role where I spent a lot of time interacting with community managers and PR reps to gather content, generate stories, collect assets – whatever I could get my hands on. It occurred to me later that I would really enjoy working with communities on that side of the fence. I was fortunate enough to get a job with NetDevil and then Cryptic. Now I do just that. Does previously being in the press and then marketing side give you any insight into community, or are the disciplines too separate? NH: Oh, I absolutely think my past editorial experience gives me insight. Walk a mile in someone else's shoes, you know? I believe that every decision I make in regard to my community stems from what I wished I could have seen when I was part of the community on the receiving end. So, my experience allows me to better understand what community participants and fansites are looking for, and it gifts me with a general idea of what's newsworthy when we come up with content ideas and plans. When I'm looking to fill an OCR role, I scan resumes both for past experience and editorial background. I think it helps. In fact, when people ask me how they can get into the industry, I point them to the various editorial websites and tell them to start there. That's where we look, anyway. One sentiment I have gotten from community managers is that the role is very much still being felt out, and has not yet had time to be well-documented or taught. Would you agree with that characterization? How have you gone about defining your own place? NH: It's a valid statement. Everyone has their own idea of how a community needs to be run; however, if you ask a hundred community managers what they think they should be doing, I'll bet you'll see a consensus. Personally, I have been extremely fortunate in that I have had really amazing directors who have said, "Do what you think works. It's your expertise." Of course, I also have the advantage of having some really incredible friends who have been doing community for a long time. I take pieces of their expertise, add in some of my own ideas, and throw it all out there. If it works, great. If it doesn't, I still have the director-given freedom to change it. I've gotten the sense that although they work together in many cases, there are times when community and marketing/PR don't see eye to eye, due to the difference between the driving a message and fostering discussion -- have you found that to be the case? NH: Well, as much as we are the same, we're different. Marketing and PR tries to sell the game. They do this utilizing high-level tactics. Community also obviously wants to sell the game, but we go about it differently. I think our focus is on the players and what they want to see -- what they want to hear. We work very hard to give them a sense of what is under the outer layer that marketing provides. How much of your job is focused on actual direct interaction with the community itself? NH: I interact directly with the community on a daily basis. As I've gained more responsibility, it becomes increasingly hard to do so, but I make an effort. I think that the community should have at least one person that they can identify and attach to. I think you have to build a trust with your community. They need to believe that what you're telling them is truth. So, I try to talk to them every day. How important are social networking sites or techniques to your particular approach, if at all? NH: They are becoming much more important. These days, the community manager has to do things more economically. It's easier for us to do a grassroots marketing campaign through Facebook or Twitter, for example. We have the job of stealth acquisition and these social networking sites are the best place to gain new community members. It's easier to branch out when you can reach people who have targeted interests. Do you have ways to measure the "success" of the community, be it through specific metrics or tracking, or more subjective observations? NH: I'd like to say that it's all very standardized; it's just not. Benefits are still, largely, intangible. I would like to see more concrete methods used to gauge success, actually. My team uses a variety of metrics to determine ours. Some are based on forum comments, contest entries, traffic, outside influencers. We are working on getting a better system in place. I've heard from some community managers who can get overwhelmed by the responsibility of dealing with such a large group of people, who tend to be very dedicated. Any tips on how to avoid that, and keep the right mentality? NH: When you deal with any large group of people it can become extremely overwhelming. There are thousands of people who depend on your ability to communicate effectively with them. There are some who border on fanaticism and there have been cases of stalking. It gets very hectic and the pressure is extraordinary at times. Something that I have had to do is separate myself from my job. I go home and I don't read my forums. I try really hard not to work once I leave the office. It allows me to come back the next day with a fresh perspective. With any job, there is absolutely going to be burnout. It's just a matter of making sure you take a step back when it approaches. The world doesn't rotate by the will of our words, after all. Having an old-fashioned thick skin helps, too. I've had a player tell me that I should just do the company a favor and kill myself to save them from having to fire me. I'm pretty grateful that I can laugh that off. An extremely supportive management system helps, too. I think that without them, I would have a harder time with it. Any general tips for those going into community, or hoping to? NH: More and more companies are looking for good community people. I've heard people say that anyone with half a mind and a forum presence can do the job. Sure, they technically can, but they won't be good at it. If you are patient, creative, and a good communicator, find a place at one of the media networks and watch yourself rise to the top. We look for people who can handle a bad forum situation, a tricky communication issue -– people with perseverance and drive. It's not an option to give up in this job. And play on your strengths, damn you! Having a unique perspective on how to keep people interested in a product is always beneficial. Also, you would be surprised at how many people who are not gamers try to get into community management. That's pretty much a requirement. You must play and know games.

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