Talking to your community...

Been reading a few threads and articles during the last week that combined to inspire this latest musing on the subject of our communities. In fact it could probably spawn more than one, let's see how it goes. First up, the folks over on the Age of Conan US forums linked an interesting post from indie developer Jeff Vogel, which sparked some discussion about how we interact with our communities. Mainly about how much developers should talk to their players.

It's not for everyone

One of the things about interacting with your communities is that there seems to be a (mis) conception that it is somehow part of a developers job to be obliged to be part of a community, and also to have to listen to criticism, because that is the customers right. Let's take those two separately shall we?

Talking externally, where things you say will be taken, read, misread, quoted, misquoted, potentially twisted or mis-understood actually takes a certain amount of skill...and not everyone working on a game has that skill set. A development studio is pretty much like any other office, there are people that have good communication skills and those that don't. Contrary to the oft quoted perception talking to their players is not a part of the job description for a vast majority of staff on a game. Here I agree with the relevant parts of Mr Vogel's post. If a developer isn't able to distance themselves from the nature of internet discussion it really wouldn't be helpful for them to be a part of it. Some people just aren't built for it, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, and I am afraid to burst some bubbles here, the individual player is not always right. In particular in a genre, like MMOs, where there are so many different opinions and preferences out there. A developer over-reacting to a specific opinion could be just as harmful as a developer completely ignoring an opinion, depending on the circumstances. It is important to keep track of players opinions, and have people on the team doing that. Personally I consider it very important, but it is also important that those doing so know how to 'read' forum interactions, and have enough experience to be able to weigh the possible opinions appropriately. Simple put, that isn't something that everyone can do.

Then you have the fact that, let's not kid ourselves, the internet forum can be a proverbially dangerous jungle, and some people aren't suited to keeping their temper when faced with a polarized and often confrontational debate. Now personally, having done that kind of work for over a decade now, you kind of get used to it, some people won't however, and then you have the fact that simply put, an average developer shouldn't have to put up with some of the more colorful vitriol that you see being put forward on occasion. With my project lead hat on for example, I am not going to expose people to that unless I am very confident they can handle it, and not let it adversely effect them.

lastly, there are usually people on a project who are tasked with taking part in that communication, or who are suited to being able to take part in public discussion. Whether it is someone like me, chosen developers, or a community team (or a combination of those people), these people are there to collect feedback and provide updates from the project. These are the people who are paid for it (or at least have it as part of their responsibilities), and how many of them there are will vary based on the size and scope of the project. I think the point of the original post is that on those smaller indie teams, where you don't have that kind of a support structure available, there is a good argument for not necessarily being as involved as all your fans might like.

So that is one reason why you don't always see developers interacting publicly. The other main reason links into some of the above, but is really a separate discussion.

Should a developer have to put up with what often passes for 'criticism' on internet forums?

An important distinction...

This is an area that has always intrigued me because it is always as if people prefer a polarized, confrontational argument to an actual discussion. Really, some days it does amaze me. The very people who often call developers out for not being communicative are the very same people who often go out of there way to make sure that the developers are unlikely to wish to do so.

It is also quite often misrepresented as developers being too afraid of criticism, too precious about their game, or too egotistical to listen. Personally, while I am sure there is the odd exception (there have indeed been the odd creative types with an ego down the years for sure), by and large that is something that doesn't gel with most developers I meet. One quote from the thread on our own forums that symbolized that kind of a problem:

"if a developer gets angry because a person WHO PAID THEM for their product finds a bug or fault in it THEY SHOULD care and SHOULD read about it."
Developers never, ever, ever, get angry at that. Honestly we don't, at least I have never met one who did.

Good honest, objective, and constructive feedback is rarely ever dismissed. The fact that it is often very hard, dare I say impossible, to convince some people that this is the case, is often one of the most confounding elements of online feedback cycles.

We probably read our forums and monitor feedback more than most...

Where developers do tend to get angry, or upset, is when the person who is reporting said bug / fault, then questions their genetic lineage, or generally insults them in a disproportional manner. Developers are people too, and they can generally take genuine criticism of mistakes, but it is only human to also get upset when faced masses of negativity. As we looked at above not everyone can learn to shake it off and communicate with those who half the time sound like they want to lynch you...

Too much negativity?

Lynch you...that's mighty strong isn't it?

Even if they don't really mean that, they often sound like they do.

So perhaps most interestingly, there are often more people who see that form of interaction as 'the way it is', than those who think it shouldn't be acceptable.

Now this is one of my personal bugbears.

I love our communities, and I love debating games, game design, what we like and dislike, with fellow gamers with a view to equipping ourselves to make better games. In order to do that in this day and age however I also have to be able to stomach an awful lot of abuse. Objective criticism is always fine with me, you can tell me why you dislike our game, or why you think any decision we make is stupid...but more often than it should be, the current internet moral code seems to allow for these anonymous entities to go beyond that, and start to insult the actual people involved.

On one level, lets say the old 'sticks and stones' approach comes into play, and for me it probably does. I was taught that at a very young age. So I prefer to focus on those who do want to improve things rather than those that just rant. Sometimes though you do find yourself having to address or answer some of those ranting trolls. When that happens I often wonder if I, and others like me who openly operate in such forum environments, am in some small way, actually giving a form of tacit approval to such behavior by continuing to have a presence there.

On one hand that kind of behavior is often just accepted because 'that is the way it is'. Many do bemoan that it is allowed, and simply dismiss forums as nonconstructive and pointless homes to trolls. While at the same time, companies have to be careful against too firm an action against it, for fear of being seen as draconian, or being cast as some Orwellian villain, out to deny the ordinary man of their freedom of speech.

We seem to really struggle in this modern world of ours to allow a debate to actually be in the middle ground, it is almost as if we prefer it just be about shouting at each other than actually talking, and I think that is a shame.

That is because personally I do see the good side of interacting with the communities. If having to deal with the odd troll is part of that, then I can live with it, I've been at it long enough. There is a lot of very passionate, constructive and caring fans out there, and I don't want the actions of those who would rather destroy then build to come between them and me hearing their opinions.

I do however wonder if (and maybe worry that) we are going down a road that will make it harder and harder to do so in the future...

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