Interview from Motivate. Play.
During a recent trip to San Francisco, Jim Cummings and I had the privilege of sitting down with veteran community manager Ron Meiners. Ron has worked in online community for fifteen plus years, from Myst to Burning Man, from Splinter Cell 3 to The Sims 3. I believe Ron’s insights add a tremendous amount of value to how we all think about community.
Travis Ross (TR) – Ron, it’s been awhile. Tell us what you have been doing.
Ron Meiners (RM) – It has been awhile. I’m not certain when we last spoke, but some time ago I headed down to Los Angeles to work for a company called My Hollywood. It was a really fascinating, but failed attempt to… Do you know Puzzle Pirates? You know how Daniel (James) has crafted a story about a pirate world that is built around a number of mini-games? – Well, we were following a very similar model that was aimed at a female demographic and based around celebrities and fashion. The goal for players was to create a character that started out as a newcomer to Hollywood and then through various mini-games, and other experiences that had some connection to the world of celebrities travel up this ladder of progression, which eventually lead to superstar status. Our model was to take the real world achievements of celebrities and make various game mechanics around them. And I think that had all sorts of just really wonderful possibilities for social interaction, which was my piece of it. In many ways, making game mechanics and connecting people around a content stream that they love is a really exciting opportunity. Unfortunately, we did not get far enough to see how it would work out.
Currently, I am at EA working on The Sims, consulting and working on community. We just released a new expansion called Showtime today. The Sims has a very large and vibrant community where there is a lot of content sharing and curating. People create websites with really interesting community activities, for example people create film festivals. There is really a wide range of things that people do inside and outside of the game as part of the community. I think that is one of the really exciting pieces about working in a game that is flexible and features a strong community – that people use your game to actually create things.
TR – Yeah. I think that a lot of academics who discuss community use The Sims as a goto anecdote. For example, you hear things like there is someone’s grandma and she gets into content creation. Suddenly you have this very nontraditional audience participating in a vibrant online community.
RM – Yeah. Things are interconnecting in really exciting ways. There was a thread the other day that I was reading, which said something like, “I am older and I play the Sims”, or something like that. It was funny because people were on our forum bragging about how old they were. People were saying things like, “Oh, I’m fifty-three I am the oldest one.” And other people were saying, “No you aren’t.” It was kind of exciting to see people in, you know, this nontraditional demographic, really stepping out of the expectations in a lot of ways. That is one of the things about online communities that is really exciting to me people have the opportunity to create new ways of interacting. It is kind of like a playground for socializing and interaction.
TR – In The Sims 3 – I actually haven’t played the newest one – do you have neighbors that are actually other people?
RM – No, actually that is one of the features that was introduced into this new expansion – a very limited ability to introduce your sims into someone else’s game. Your sims can become performers by following the performer career path. As you advance, other people can request a show from your singer sim and the singer can come to their game so it becomes somewhat sandboxish.
TR – So they are not really coming over into your world right? Just a representation of their sim comes into your world.
RM – Yes.
TR – So then most of the community takes place in the forums?
RM – Yes. Absolutely. The forums, Facebook, a lot of fan sites, some Twitter, you know social media. One of the things that is very interesting though is that it is a community that uses the content very creatively. One of the things that has been done – and we are starting to figure out ways to support this – is that there have been challenges that the community has created for each other. Like, ten generations of a family, and you don’t get to request more money, and you don’t get to do various other things so that you have a bounded situation. You have to start out with certain traits or certain types of characters and things like that. A lot of this happens on Facebook. On a Facebook page, people will say okay now we are starting this challenge. When I see things like this, I will actually advertise it on our page. It’s neat, the community are taking whatever tools they can find to create these really engaging experiences for each other.
Jim Cummings (JC) – Does that lead into any sort of iterative development? So, if you see something emerge have you guys tried to toggle dials or mechanisms to cater to those emergent behaviors?
RM – To some extent, yes. The challenges are a good example. We try to pay attention to the community and their creativity. The release today has dynamic challenges in it, which are a new feature that actually came from a community behavior. So, we’ll take what they have done and incorporate it into the game. Since we have the development tools ourselves, we are able to make it that much more integrated into the game. We know that is something that the community enjoys. But, these are things that have come from the development work of the community so to speak. It is a tough relationship in a lot of ways because it is a game that is a couple of years old now – actually three years old. Yet, we are still releasing content and a lot of the content tries to build new features into the game. This means we are sort of working with a legacy platform, so there is a whole bunch of integration work that has to be done and that can cause problems because it is very complex.
TR – It seems like a lot of games have a very weak community element. Do you think this is changing and how would you say The Sims is different?
RM – This is one of the things that developers really don’t do, which is pay attention to the community. Like we talked about. But, this is one of the things that The Sims team does really well. From my standpoint it is really neat to be part of the team because our community is so interesting. Community is still new enough, or such an odd skill set, that I think a lot of people discount the learning that a community team can bring to the table. The design team or the development team can really benefit from what we know. The community team is spending the majority of their waking hours with the player community, and while it is less true where I am now, I think that a lot of teams often don’t pay that much attention to the community teams. I think that games do really suffer as a result.
JC – What form does that input take? Are you just qualitatively relaying the information to the development team? Or is there a particular metric that you are trying to quantify?
RM – The Metrics are getting better. There used to be just about nothing under most conditions. Some MMOs were good at tracking usage statistics, but most were not. At least that is my understanding. Social media gives you a lot more data that we used to get. So we can now point to specific things – like Facebook has this funny dance with content. You want to make bright shinny content that has little tidbits and can be consumed in like 15 seconds. The nice thing is that you can now track this content. Facebook will tell you how many people are sharing this content, liking it, or if they have it on their walls. This gives you a whole lot more ammunition in cases that were traditionally qualitative assessments. However, ultimately it becomes wrapping your head around this notion of a team who, because of their understandings, skills, and daily interactions with the community, can accurately assess the character, wants, values, or likely reactions of the community.
Travis – A common theme of late seems to be the stripping out of elements that players explicitly do not seem to want, but that actually seem to hold together the community of players. I was speaking with Raph Koster, and we were talking about the importance of downtime for building relationships in the traditional MMO and how the removal of some elements – like downtime – seem to be leading to games that are shallow on community. What do you think?
Ron – It is interesting. For some time I have watched the development of World of Warcraft, because it is a very sharp team. It seems over the last couple of years that they were very purposely guiding their content changes in a very explicit way. I think that is interesting because they certainly have gathered a lot of information about what their players are doing and I believe that it has informed their design decisions. What they seem to be aiming for is more group accomplishment oriented quests. The exploration, the simple story lines, the way the earlier levels have been progressively easier, but the high-end content has become progressively more elaborate around coordinated activities more group more raids more ways to interact with at more parties.
TR – When playing World of Warcraft it often seems to me like your community is just your guild. I never seem to interact with other players in the community and so I only have these forty players who I am committed to. Unless a player has alternate characters in another guild or they drop and join a new one, then I get the impression that players are not really interacting in a meaningful way with anyone outside their guild. So, for a player the game becomes a game about these forty players who they interact with closely and all these other people who they may compete with or engage in economic transactions with. In The Sims it sounds like the community as a whole interacts, but maybe I am wrong. Do you think that The Sims community behaves this way? And if it does, is there a future for games that have a more holistic community?
RM – I think that we are very much in the exploration phase. And, the interactions that people have in World of Warcraft are significant and very meaningful. In The Sims there are definitely both elements we see segmentation and we see a holistic community.
TR – What are the subgroups in The Sims like? Is there a Gothic housing community where you can’t participate unless you have at least 12 gargoyles on your house?
RM – It’s not so much exclusive. What you get is a lot of people that sort of hang out together. So like those who like to build Gothic houses, or those who build content, or those who make movies, or who make fashion, and those who design challenges. So, you get people who are broken down based on sub-interests, but there are definitely interactions between those groups, because the challenge designers want people to play their challenges, and the fashion designers want people who will wear their clothing. However, groups like the builders and the more technical folks have their own communities because they are doing things that just might not be that interesting or too technical to the other players, but they serve the community because they are creating content.
TR – is there an economy in The Sims? Can players buy and sell items?
RM – Well, players can’t explicitly buy and sell items through The Sims platform. But, I think there are external websites where content is sold. I’m not completely certain. I think it is interesting because it contrasts with Second Life, were the economy plays such a central role.
JC – The items that you sell is there a formula at work? Or are the new iterations of what you sell related directly to community feedback?
RM – A little bit of both. We take feedback and see what the community wants, and then we sell items. We also offer items as the part of expansion packs that are generally more formulaic. Things we have done with the community is that we brought back items that were in the older sims games and were not in this new version. For example, a pool table and a photo booth. There was a lot of demand from the community so we created them.