Up Where We Belong

Every few minutes, someone with zero creativity and no access to Google says “Entertainment is serious business!” A cliché becomes a cliché for a reason, though, and in this case I suspect the reason is due to a collective yearning for development to be a process of magic. An organic magical process, where money goes in one end and comes out the other much increased. Furthermore, in this fantasy, no one is picky about how long the organic process takes, and someone shovels money in the front end for however long it takes the process to crap out gold ingots.

The people with the shovels are understandably cranky about this ridiculous yearning, and therefore when you pull their strings, they say “Entertainment is serious business!” I suspect the hope is that if the sentiment is repeated enough, the recipients will deliver a salable product instead of platitudes about the process.

But this beagle at my feet knows more about venture capital than I do. I have never been in a position to say “how much can I have,” but rather, “What can I do with what I’ve got?” This leads to a certain lack of creativity in my thinking, when it comes to huge piles of money. I could be completely wrong, and it could be that innovative and revolutionary games really arise from nude midnight chanting.

Oh, how sweet, the gentleman in the back thinks I’m being facetious. Have you ever been to Austin for an industry event? Don’t count out nude midnight chanting.

In my dull and literal worldview, a game studio is a business. Businesses, like human bodies, require certain systems in order to function. Every cell in the body belongs to a system, and this is not some kind of bias or hate towards the power of the individual cell. It’s a matter of efficiency, of every element working together towards the common goal of sustaining life.

A cell with no organization is a cell without a purpose, but cells are allowed to specialize within their systems. The brain cells can’t say to the pancreas cells, “Hey, diabetes is treatable, so why don’t you just let that go to hell and come on over here to these here lungs. Get going with repairing twelve years of Marlboro damage.” The brain cells also don’t yell at white blood cells that are almost done healing a stab wound and insist they move down to an infected toenail.

Also, just as a side note, the human brain is in textbooks considered to be around 2% of the human body by weight. I suspect the percentage is in actuality far less, considering that many of us are entirely sedentary. With a percentage like that, it’s safe to say that the human body does not allow stray cells to insist that they are brain cells and demand offices and assistants.

The analogy breaks down, as all analogies do if taken too far. Just because we as game company employees have chosen to specialize does not imply we can never change jobs. It is sometimes necessary to redirect our white blood cells. And we can adapt far faster than any of our individual cells.

I was going somewhere with this. Ah, yes! The MMO industry, and I suspect the game industry as a whole, has long struggled with where community fits in the organizational body.

Marketing? In the first post to this little website, I said that caring about the customer was the secret ingredient to good community work, and without it, the aspiring game company employee belongs in marketing. Contrary to popular belief, this is not insulting to anyone, and doesn’t diminish either community or marketing. It is a statement of fact.

The primary issue is that of setting priorities. Before launch, the marketing department is nurturing positive buzz, and has as their raison d’être to make everyone in the world think the product is worth buying. This is not a bad thing. The more people that hear about a game, the more people will try it, and the more who try it, the more will buy it. (Assuming it is a good game, which, these days, does not go without saying.) But a community weenie is, before launch, building buzz in a specific segment of the population, the one most likely to play the game over the long term.

That buzz building is also the beginning of relationship building. It is similar to building relationships with members of the media, but the members of the media approached by a community manager are also leaders and opinion makers. Often, there is overlap (Richard Aihoshi, for example, or Jeff Moyer), and coordination between community and marketing is essential to minimize drama.

After launch, marketing is concerned with keeping product recognition high, and the perception positive. The community manager is also concerned with those things, but again, in a different way. We are out on the front lines managing expectations, apologizing for crimes both real and imagined, and handling feedback to and from the development team. By doing our jobs well, we are directly responsible for the product’s perception – and it has nothing to do with advertisements, and everything to do with honesty and candor.

Because the goals of marketing and community are similar, we tend to get lumped together. But our priorities and methods are different, and in a situation where community is a subset of marketing, community never takes precedence. And tremendous opportunities for building customer loyalty are lost.

Put another way – a marketing professional can do an incredible job, and be a tremendous success (I am thinking of several specific people right this minute), without developing a single personal relationship with a customer. As a community professional, I would actively cause harm if I failed to build relationships. That is the essential difference between community and marketing. We are the closest of cousins, and if we fail to work together to coordinate our efforts, we waste time and effort. Our professional tool kits overlap to a degree. But we are not the same, any more than red blood cells and alveoli are the same.

Production? Companies that don’t consider us a subset of marketing have us reporting to the executive producer of the game we support. And by “support,” I mean “for which we sweat blood.”

Reporting to production is a better solution than reporting to marketing for many reasons. I shall use media communication as an example. With marketing, when we say we are gathering information for a website, marketing pros tag it in their heads as “media relations” and stop listening. The exercise is mentally now one of simple PR/communications, and the material will be edited to remove anything that could cause drama, and the tone polished to a high sheen. With developers, though, facts are provided and the communication is (usually) left to the professional. A community manager knows what tone to take, whether or not that particular section of the community needs reassurance on a topic, how detailed the answer should be, and how complete the answer should be. A general audience is often satisfied with general statements and a positive attitude, and such an interview may even lead to a bump in sales. A specialty website devoted to determining the perfect cloak to wear while crafting metal bits is… not the same.

Another positive is one of attitude. When community is part of development, the feedback is received in a more positive way – because it is internal feedback coming from within the team, instead of external, coming from a department outside of game development. This is simple human nature. Whenever a process can be designed to take advantage of our natures, rather than asking us to rise above those natures, it is a good thing.

Of course, this positive element has a downside, one in which more than one developer at more than one studio has suggested that the experience is not unlike being punched by a spouse. Developers and designers are passionate, creative people who have poured themselves into the birth of a virtual world. No sparrow falls without some bleary-eyed bastard subsisting entirely on Cheetos and Mountain Dew studying the falling algorithm. The community manager is responsible for passing on the news that it is possible to set up a subroutine to track the falling sparrow and kill it repeatedly in order to get seventeen levels in two hours.

This rarely goes over well.

The first armchair quarterback who smugly suggests that the developer in question should either stop whining or not make an exploitable system in the first place is hereby invited to screw his personal bits into his own ass. Clockwise. No offense.

There are things the professional community weenie can do to make the feedback process less personal. At bare minimum, we can edit out the bits insulting the designer’s mother, and preferably, we can design systems to back up the anecdotes with trends and evidence. (Oh, you want me to be specific about these systems? I have reasonable hourly rates, but you can bring me on full time if you’ve got a good product. ;))

No matter what we do, though, we come to a point where (as with marketing) community and development have different priorities. Development requires a “back room” with a certain amount of privacy. Some elements of design and production are considered trade secrets. But community people, if serving their community is the priority it should be, are always advocating for more transparency and more explanation. And while developers are often right in holding back, making community a subset of development means community will have to fight each and every time for transparency. That is exhausting, and wastes time and effort. In order to be most effective, community priorities need to be equally considered with development needs.

Customer service? This isn’t a bad fit, with the right department head. Community managers are serving the customers in a variety of ways. We are responsible for communicating information that is vital to the customer’s having a good experience. We work closely with the customer service team to address common stumbling blocks and game-stopping problems. When something goes wrong, the first people to get a phone call at two in the morning are in customer service and community.

I see the community manager’s role as being as much an ombudsman as anything else. By virtue of being a part of the community, that community’s representative, we have the same perspective as the customer service department. That is, we see the daily repercussions of development decisions. While those of us with a passion for helping customers occasionally lose sight of the forest for the trees, well, sometimes, an individual tree just needs to be seen.

Because of the volume we deal with, customer service people are forced to develop policies that do the most good for the greatest number of people. We need form letters, stock answers, web pages, and clearly defined processes for everything from answering questions to banning troublemakers. Any system designed for volume cannot help but create situations that are grossly unfair to people in unique circumstances.

A good community manager looks out for those unique circumstances. We must be aware of the policies, and the reasons behind those policies, to determine if the customer is in fact presenting a valid exception to the rule. We then need the skills to assure the customer we care, and the power to advocate on his behalf. Being a part of customer service facilitates all that.

But once again, we run into community and customer service having different priorities. If the community manager is subordinate to the customer service manager, the principle of “the most good for the most people” will win every time, especially if the CS manager is worth anything. That’s what a good CS person does.

In all three cases (marketing, production, and customer service), it is possible for community to succeed and even thrive – with the right department head. Certainly I managed very well for five years with a manager who understood what I was trying to accomplish. With that kind of supportive manager, who also has the authority to make final decisions, the category to which community belongs is to some degree irrelevant.

Sadly, anyone with experience in an organization knows that dependence on any single person is a disaster waiting to happen. When an entire professional specialty depends on one person’s goodwill, how can the specialty have any meaningful long term success?

The solution seems obvious to anyone with any experience in taxonomy. A duck is not a fish even though both can swim. A bat is not a bird just because it can fly. Community management is, simply put, its own professional specialty, with its own techniques, standards, and priorities.

With that said, where is our system’s place in the game development body?

I believe that community teams are service teams. We exist to serve the needs of customers, both inside and outside the company. If a developer comes to us and says “what would happen if I did XYZ?” our job is to say “when do you need that information?” and to make it happen. If a CSR comes to us and says “we’re getting a hundred appeals an hour on XYZ,” our job is to address the situation. If a customer comes to us and tells us there is a problem, our job is to get the ball rolling and report back with the results. A service group and its manager cannot be treated as superior, or they lose focus on their purpose. We’re specialist cells, not brain cells. It’s up to the brain to make good decisions based on all the evidence provided by the specialists. But as subsets of other divisions, the community specialty is too easily dismissed, to the detriment of all types of customers.

Finally, when it comes to the bottom line, the MMO industry has matured past the point where any specialty that contributes so directly to customer retention can be marginalized. It is time for community managers to take their place with other leads within a studio, and as peers, attend to the business of sustaining virtual life.

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27 Comments

  1. Ken Sykora said,

    May 31, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Well put… always interesting to read your take on this industry. Sometimes certain MMO developers forget that without a community they wouldn’t have jobs.

  2. Rick M said,

    May 31, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    “In the first post to this little website, I said that caring about the customer was the secret ingredient to good community…”

    Hello CCP, are you listening? Sometimes, being right isn’t as important as being responsive to your community.

    I’m interested in online communities and participatory culture, and I enjoy your thoughts about gaming communities. As a long-time player, I think a good community has been one of the two most important elements toward my enjoyment of a game (the other element being a fairly polished and balanced gameworld). DAOC had both for me. WoW only has the polish and balance for me, but they do that so well I don’t miss the community toooo much. I’ll admit to yearning for my old DAOC community on Hib/Perc while soloing my way through WoW at times, though 🙂

    I hope you keep writing about community as a key element in game development, and I hope there are people listening who can implement the ideas you’re talking about in an effective way.

  3. Servitor said,

    May 31, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Hear, hear! I’ve never actually had experience with a company where community management staff and devs/CS/marketing were considered peers (although some companies have paid lip service to that idea). I’d very much like to. I get tired of people thinking that because I’m in the CM/CS space, it’s either because I a) want someday to be in game design/development, or b) tried being a dev and couldn’t hack it. I like my profession. I chose it. It’s easier to do when I’m not viewed as a “necessary evil”–yes, my group has been called that before, and to our faces–and when I have the leeway to help make things work for the customer.

  4. Brenlo said,

    May 31, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    You know Sanya, I have sat down to write this very thing, albeit not quite so well, many times.

    Well said my friend. Well said.

  5. Blackblade said,

    May 31, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Wonderful post! Most people probably don’t think about CM’s as anything more then PR or Marketing – Although I think the necessity of good CM definitly needs to be emphisized, as we’ve seen in the recent drama’s that have unfolded. (Tseric, CCP, etc.)

    “A good community manager looks out for those unique circumstances. We must be aware of the policies, and the reasons behind those policies, to determine if the customer is in fact presenting a valid exception to the rule. We then need the skills to assure the customer we care, and the power to advocate on his behalf..”

    Something you may or may not remember, but a few years back, I posted on the Catacombs boards about a name-change to one of my characters. My case was special as I had my name “approved” by the RP Server Lead when I first made the character a few years prior. Well the naming conventions had changed, someone had appealed it, and was forcing me to change it.

    I was a bit distraught over it. I had contacted a CSR in the game, and even the CSR said that there was a notation in my account stating that the name was approved, but because of the current guidelines, there wasn’t anything they could do.

    So I posted my mini-drama on the Catacombs boards. Lo and behold, a moderator on the forums sent you an E-Mail to let you know about this incident. Thus, my name was kept, thanks to your efforts.

    Players never forget when CM’s do the sort of things that you did. It establishes a brand loyalty that pales in comparison to any marketing gimmick. I played DAoC for many years, simply because of this one small event. She made an ally for life that day.

    And I even made something for Sanya too, back in the day – http://webpages.charter.net/aastpier/Sanya.jpg – It was just a little thank you.

    Good relationships with CM’s are good for any MMO. No MMO should forget that.

  6. Cadillac said,

    May 31, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Does the size of the game or company dictate where CM would fall in an org structure? I think so but even then the debate about the order of priority given to teams needing attention is at the whim of the Benjamins. Regardless, CM is a critical component of a “Team” that compliments the performance of every other team. No argument there.

  7. Iakimo said,

    May 31, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    I wonder: Is there an economist or CRM somewhere working on a Laffer Curve-type model to determine the optimal mix of honesty and positive communication? Perhaps the model could be constructed as follows:

    First variable = honesty
    Second variable = positive sheen/spin
    Third variable = quantity/severity-of-problems index

    I think we could graph this out.

    Let’s assume we have a perfect product. In such a case, I would hypothesize that we could implement 100 percent honesty, and assign a null value to the positive sheen/spin coefficient. Such a scenario would result in near-perfect product acceptance among our target audience, assuming our hypothetical company’s communications goals were perfectly met. (For now, our model would assume perfect 100-percent contact with a perfect target audience, as equally lacking in flaws as our product. But as a former broadcaster, I recognize communication as a whole ‘nuther can of worms.)

    But, as problems make their presence felt, the need to digress from honesty (too) often becomes an objective for Senior Management. Some loss of customer base is to be expected in the shadow of such imperfections, but (too) many Senior Managers assume that Positive Sheen/Spin can compensate for said flaws.

    And so the question becomes, can Positive Sheen/Spin indeed compensate for product flaws? If so, to what extent?

    An interesting sidebar to this research project would be to determine whether a Hot Intellectual Property can boost the impact of Honesty and/or Positive Sheen/Spin? Could such an impactor be labeled the H.I.P Factor?

    The ultimate goal of any such mathematical model would be to verify the hypothesis that any Senior Manager who thinks in such terms should be immediately sacked and never again entrusted with anything more significant than a mop and a bucket of slop water.

  8. Alex Weekes said,

    May 31, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Yet another insightful article. My own experience so far has been with a community team that was treated as its own distinct group. We were listened to and relied on to provide everyone with information and knowledge and opinion. That was with a publisher and I’ve now moved on to a developer where I’m still finding my place.

  9. Iakimo said,

    May 31, 2007 at 8:48 pm

    Another interesting question would be to determine if there is a tendency for the effects of Positive Sheen/Spin to reverse themselves, creating a phenomenon similar to what is known in military test-pilot parlance as “augering in” — a phenomenon in which the energy of the effort actually helps drive a flawed product more forcefully into the ground.

  10. Apache said,

    May 31, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    “With that said, where is our system’s place in the game development body?”

    Between a CSR and an intern Ass. Producer, in most companies. 😦

  11. Andrew said,

    June 1, 2007 at 2:04 am

    Community should be involved throughout the product. At the point where community extends beyond the product it seems like it would become purely PR, which I don’t think you’re including here. Another way to put the question would be ‘who should tell community what they can and cannot do.’ A logical line of thinking would be that there are art directors and technical directors, and there should be a community director as well. The main difference is that artistic skill and programming skill are things that are easily demonstrable while the skills of a CM are those that most everyone seems to think they have.

    It doesn’t matter where you are in the corporate structure – as long as the people you report to can have a few drinks and believe they can do your job better than you, you won’t get the respect you need to do your job to its full potential.

  12. sixsevenandnine said,

    June 1, 2007 at 5:56 am

    Great article and you raise some excellent points, essential reading for anyone working in a community focused environment. I think that quite a few MMO publishers have got it right in terms where they sit community and how they handle community. This is a pretty recent development which standard publishers still need to catch up on, they’ve not moved with the times. Most MMO publishers understand that they are service providers and not shippers of boxed goods, their job doesn’t end when the box hits the shelf but their job starts when it hits the shelf.

    In my experience MMO publishers and developers really understand the importance of their customers and they listen in terms of what goes in the collectors box and what goes into the actual game. As long as managers understand the importance and relevance of community and community teams are given an ear and a voice it doesn’t really matter where they sit. If they sit under product and the dev leads choose to ignore everything coming from community and don’t invest time in posting on boards and offering info that sucks. Likewise if community work under marketing and every community query is spun into some random PR line, that’s also not great.

    So its less about the team community sits under but more about the people that run those teams and the company in which those people work. Making a standard rule as to where community should sit won’t fix the route causes, but understanding the overall issue might…

  13. Changling bob said,

    June 1, 2007 at 5:58 am

    From the sounds of it, CMs sound an awful lot like stage management in theatre; basically, keeping every other part of the production in contact with each other. As SM, you have to talk to the director, take his vision and deliver it to where its needed: technical, set, costume, front of house, whatever; then relay everything back to the director, telling him why his highly creative idea won’t work particularly well. Having dabbled in it myself, I know how much hard work goes into keeping everyone happy.

    Of course, another way they’re similar is that no-one seems to appreciate how much work they actually have to do.

  14. Loic Claveau said,

    June 1, 2007 at 7:55 am

    (Sorry, my post had been posted on the wrong topic)

    Very nice and interesting read!

    And we Europeans CM have to deal with another department…Localization! Our two departments are intimately connected!

    Funny when I think that yesterday, I had a long discussion with the Head of the Loc Department about what you are talking about: Department Priorities. The question was: The message the Community Team needs to convey towards the player in order to make them understand the Loc Process is not as simple as one would thought

  15. John said,

    June 1, 2007 at 7:57 pm

    “It is time for community managers to take their place with other leads within a studio”

    I fully agree.

    Great read, thank you.

  16. Apache said,

    June 1, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Well, EA Mythic is looking to hire a new CM if any of you S&M enthusiasts are looking for work. 🙂

  17. kyan said,

    June 1, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    The conclusion takes me aback a little. Not out of disagreement, but because out of a somnolence on the (lacking) value placed on the role with the community foundation of the genre considered. A sort of, “certainly, that makes sense” abruptly followed by a, “wait a second, am I not taking this for granted too?”

    Strong insight, as per the norm now it seems.

  18. Engels said,

    June 2, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    “Well, EA Mythic is looking to hire a new CM if any of you S&M enthusiasts are looking for work. ”

    My suspicion is that someone in Sanya’s old team is vastly more qualified to step up to that plate than any external hire. The posting is probably a formality.

  19. Cito said,

    June 2, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Interesting post, awesome insight into the industry.

  20. Garthilk said,

    June 3, 2007 at 12:21 am

    As long as you have office managers, production leads, CEO’s and senior game designers thinking that they can do the specialized job of a CM, the CM will continue to be a marginalized role. I’ve said this a dozen times already. Artists are not programmers. CEO’s are not customer service agents. Community managers like the specialties before, are their own entity.

  21. Apache said,

    June 3, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    ^^^
    While that’s true, a good community person has overlapping roles in some of those fields also. It is a niche job, in a niche genre, of a niche cubby of the entertainment industry, so it’s hard to peg people into X job only. What a community person does at a place like Blizzard (who has 8,000,000 paying subs) is going to be different at just about any other mmog studio, because the budget isn’t there to be as specialized.

  22. Sanya Weathers said,

    June 4, 2007 at 7:48 am

    Apache – I neglected to put this in the post itself, but community work, in general, is growing beyond gaming. I prefer to limit myself to preaching about gaming, since that’s what I know best at this time. But there are other company hiring community managers, and wedging us into marketing or CS.

    It makes no sense. Having to depend on earning the goodwill of an individual will never be as good as being respected as a specialist. It is my hope that if we are considered professionals in our own right, we will face the “bigwig who thinks he can do it better/thinks it’s just message board posting” syndrome less often regardless of the industry.

  23. Apache said,

    June 4, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    It’s a human resources problem. The HR departments of many publishers entering the MMOG market haven’t evolved yet. While it’s true BigWigX might be a pompous arse, he most likely has HR outlining the job descriptions.

  24. J H said,

    June 5, 2007 at 2:08 am

    I didn’t see how CM differed from CS. You gave some examples, but they can be taken as ways to improve CS, not just justification for a new entity on the org chart.

    “The solution seems obvious to anyone with any experience in taxonomy…”

    Not really. Every little niche is going to be able to point out ways that it is unique and special. They may be different, but that doesn’t mean that every team gets a box on level three of the org chart.

  25. J H said,

    June 5, 2007 at 2:43 am

    … using your analogy:

    A duck is still a bird, even though it can swim.

  26. Jessica Mulligan said,

    June 12, 2007 at 1:00 am

    Well said, Sanya. Don’t stop, :D.

    On any development or Live Team that I run, the CM is a member of that team and sits *with* the team as a lead, and attends every leads meeting. CM is so integral to the process that I just don’t see how it could be any other way.

    I can’t count the number of times in the last 10 years I’ve had to throw a hissy-fit to keep my CM from being moved in the org chart – and physically – to the Marketing Dept., nor how many times the head of Marketing wherever I happen to be working has tried to decree that all posts by any CM must be vetted by Marketing for “proper content” before being posted. This, of course, is madness.

    Not knocking on Marketing; to them, EVERYTHING the company says and does is part of the marketing function and they act accordingly. It is up to others to make sure Marketing does not redefine the CM role into Bizzaro World and, thus, dilute or negate it.

    It is rarely an HR problem in specific, because HR just comes to the team for job descriptions. Generally, it is more a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of CM at the executive level. Execs at online gaming companies still tend to have far less experience in the industry than their employees, with a correlating lack of understanding of the roles and needs. In that, Sanya was lucky to have a senior management crew at Mythic that had actually helped build the industry and had a greater understanding of the role of CM.

    At some point, time and experience solves this problem. In the meantime, we’ll see more incidents such as those that recently rose to haunt CCP. The tragic part is that simply having an experienced CM and respecting that person’s role can nip most of these problems in the bud.

  27. guts-griping lamb said,

    October 20, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction — Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872


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