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...


AmandaP said…
I can't believe the patience some of you guys show when you post in public, I would be wanting to throttle some of those damn trolls, which might just be proving your point :p
Lyth said…
First of all excuse me for any grammatical errors it's 1:33 when I'm starting this and I'm a bit tired.

First of all you managed to point out one thing in the first part of this post which I think is really crucial in this matter: that being the audience and the playerbase MMO's try to cater to.
The more subscribers to any given MMO there are the more of those are casual players. While generally those who comprise the initial playerbase or those whom stay after the MMO has long passed it's prime tend to be the more hardcore ones. Some of them just stick with it for some reason not willing to change settings others are hooked to the game itself. Whatever the reason these people often have greater insight into how the game actually works, how well it's put together balance-wise and if quest rewards are worth it or not. Some of these people who are willing to sacrifice some of their time are capable of giving real nice feedback or criticism that I think - and as you've stated - is extremely helpful to the dev group in that it points out certain flaws or potential errors in the game the developers may have overlooked or failed to notice.
Now the more people you have the more of them are. Most of these are people who play the game, just to unwind for a few hours or so. These people can't be bothered by the mechanics, and they most often lack the insight.. And as such these people most of the time won't be able to see why certain parts of a game "s*ck" or are imbalanced they can just see that it's a nuisance for them. Something that doesn't let them enjoy themselves. They will then throw themselves in a rage and go on cursing the devs since in their opinion they are payed to make the game fluid and fun. Some of these actually feel they've been wronged since they pay the company - and the devs along with that - to be able to have fun and something is not letting them.
Generally you will see these people just ranting on any forum and most of the time they have to be told what the actual cause of their problem is by someone - be it a developer or a fellow player - who has more insight.
You can see countless examples for this on any major forum where someone files his complaints and a lot of people simply post their "/agree" or equivalent posts in the thread.
In a way this is a bit of a hellish circle since the goal of any MMO is to attract more subscribers but that inevitably seems to mean more and more people with less insight.
Criticism in general is a really important thing in my opinion, but the way in which it is presented is far from being irrelevant. Being told that something seems to be wrong is one thing. Being told that you're an utter moron who is completely lame at his/her job and btw the game outright s*cks since their toon is no longer OP here and there is a completely different one. The first would encourage people to look into it while the other would most likely cause most people to want to cut ties with those filing their complaints in such manner.
Showing some manners towards your fellow humans IMHO should be a mandatory thing, even on forums. I think that people should be capable of voicing their complaints in a manner that is appropriate, I'm sure if they have the sufficient linguistic abilities their concerns and general disappointment will come trough even if they don't swear and curse at every given opportunity.

Disclaimer: I did not wish to belittle the casual player community in any way - I myself consider myself to be among them in some games and I guess I started out as a casual in at least half the MMO's I've played. I believe however that the lack of insight shouldn't be a basis to post whatever I wish without thinking of the consequences just because I payed for a game.

Well, there you have it, that's my two cents. I hope I managed to convey what I wanted to say with this rant (English happens to be a language I picked up, not my native tongue).
Craig Morrison said…
Yes Lythis, I think that in general the percentage of those anti-social types isnt all that different between games, but as you have more users you have more of them, simple math.

I also agree in that I wish there was more ways to be able to acceptably enforce a more rational discussion.

You are also right that it is exactly why it drives developers away from that discussion more often than not, which is also a real shame. So personally I can never blame a developer who doesn't want to expose themselves to that because it isn't reasonable criticism.
Carver said…
That is exactly why I stay away from forums and also why I hope developers don't put too much stock in them. The bigger the game the more hatred you see spewed on the forums. It is very disheartening.

By the same token, a small, close knit forum leads to a great community, but that only seems to work on smaller forums where your reputation means something.

The problem is that when it doesnt mean anything, and there are no consequences to being a douche, then some will just be so. Even more so when you throw in anonymousness on top of that.
Anonymous said…
A very interesting read, indeed. I agree with almost everything you said in your post, and I have some opinions as to why forums on the internet are like they are. Being anonymous is of course part of it, but I think one big reason for debates turning into very polarized arguments is that people read the wrong things in what others say. As opposed to having a debate face to face, when people can see body language and hear the voice of their counterpart, when you see something written in a forum you automatically assign some intent to it. And it is often different from the real intent. This can make it really hard to stay on topic, because you have to keep trying to "fix" what others are trying to break down. I can only imagine how this is for a developer...

Now, I don't know if you always let others know you're a developer. Do you ever do like "the Phantom", walk in the streets like a normal man? In this case, take part in the forums masked as a random user? I know I would have, because then I could have said anything and not been held ransom for it.

Arcalimon said…
That was indeed a good read, it's nice to be able and read a bit more in detail what "Sillirion" thinks.
Somehow through the community forum I, at least, feel some kind of uncoverable distance between us (the community) and you (the Team).
Distance that sometimes it's disturbing even if on the overall it is understandable!

Only one suggestion: Give us a bit more of information especially about how do you think our classes are faring, use the Advocates to maintain a double channel dialogue between community and team, it will only make the game stronger.

Something like a "Monthly Developer chat" would be a nice idea :)

Arcalimon (EU) Aquilonia - RP-PvP
Conttarii said…
That's why you have moderators Sil :)
sveisvei said…
If you have seen communities like, they have point systems to reward good answers etc. I think it is key to award good behaviour, and not only bash on bad behaviour.

Like / unlike on all posts
N points for each like
N points for each post
N points for new thread
You can not unlike if you have 0 points
Emblems and "prices" for high points, "levels" on behavior.
Craig Morrison said…

The problem there is that it more often than not doesn't help, because the exact type of people we are talking about also crowd and try to dominate those channels and are determined not to like any answer given. That is to say they don't actually want a 'chat' or a discussion unless it is someone agreeing with them 100% (which can probably never happen), anything else and they slate it as pointless. It is a shame, so instead we do chat with players, but we do it in game, on the test server, sometimes 'as developers', sometimes anonymous. I would guess I speak to more players in that manner than I would get from any kind of organised 'dev chat', as those still tend to be us 'talking to' the community rather than actually having a conversation. I love those conversations, so I have them almost every day, just not on the forums. Most of those 'dev chat' type affairs are mainly for community morale when they are done, given the devs usually strictly control the questions that are answered.

So we do very much do what you suggest, just not through the medium you suggest.


We have considered things like that down the years, and I ahve worked on some forums in the past with systems like that. the problem is that people also 'game' that system, form cliques, and then 'downvote' perfectly rational posts simply because they don't agree with them, and also 'upvote' rants and flames if they have enough numbers. That kind of a system tends to work on very small communities, where there is a degree of trust, or very large ones where the larger groups cancel each other out.

I do love the idea, always have, but have struggled to find a way that it works well with gaming communities without actually making more work for the moderators.
KendrickTSW said…
After many years of being apart of various MMO forums, my opinion of how MMO 'communities' should be managed is rather insular.

Personally? I think official forums are just a bad idea. They're near impossible to datamine for unbiased information/feedback, they're far too self serving for the players, and the potential for headaches is far too high.

If you need feedback for a particular issue, have a pop up box survey in game or on the launcher that allows for a quick 30 second survey. You're actually reaching the people that play the game (instead of playing the forums), it allows you to focus the players attention on a particular subject and it allows you to control the responses the players give in a tailored way that you can actually achieve within your system. If you post a request for feedback on the forums, you're going to get 10000 word War and Peace novellas that are impossible to digest.

Going further with the above, lets say you're looking for feedback on something particular with rangers. Instead of giving EVERYONE a shot an opinion, how about giving an ingame pop up box once someone selects their ranger for play?

If you want to relay information, again, you could/should do this with the launcher that directs to your game's homepage via link (if it's too much info to put on the launcher).

As far as your homepage is concerned? Ixnay the official forums, and run a blog type page wherein you post updates, ideas for development, etc. Let the community form elsewhere on fan sites. Visit the fansites, and patronize the ones that are well done and balanced. Request a special tag on their forums, and give them a visit every now and again. Don't patronize the ones that aren't supportive of your game and allow its members to run roughshod over everyone. The good ones will rise to the top, the bad will fall to the bottom.

Let your community managers actually be the face of the game, and keep your developers as far away from the forums as possible. Empower your CMs with information, keep them up to speed, let them sit in on your meetings. The only 'devs' that need to be participating in forums are the CEOs of the games - you, for example for AoC. Tornquist for TSW, etc. Unless you have some specific training for the other devs in community relations? Keep them away. Finally, no player moderators. Sure, they seem like a good idea, but bias and personal grudges eventually start to rear their ugly head and problems arise. Pay your mods - they tend to do a better job of being unbiased when their next meal is on the line.

The more information you can give and receive via the launcher or ingame, the better. Consolidate it. Focus it. Reach the people actually playing.

Otherwise you end up posts like this :)
KendrickTSW said…
Hrm. I had a comment here but it's gone?
Craig Morrison said…
@KendrikTSW ..for some reason Blogger likes to consider your longer posts as spam...restored now :)
KendrickTSW said…
hahaha, prophetic, I suppose ;)
Arcalimon said…
Thanks for the answer Sil.

I do perfectly understand your points and I have to agree on it, but from a community member point of view sometimes the "silence" on the forum gets a bi frustrating, there are often question that are left unanswered but I do believe it's perfectly normal given the amount of stuff you have to manage.

Nice to hear about the chance of a chat on the TL servesr, i guess i will pop there on the WE to take a look at the development of the new graphic engine :)

Luckily enough i will have the chance to be of any help, and maybe to catch one of your stuff :D

I remember the game as it was on D-1 you all did a lot, but as my CEO usually tells us here, there's still much to do!