Data-supported videogame shrink: what we do to understand our players better
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Gaming communities are full of surprises. Pleasant ones, mostly.
Speaking to your players is always rewarding — rewarding both to your project (in terms of brand trust and product insights you get from communication with actual people) and to yourself as a person. 2 years of community management for War Robots taught me thousands of things I never realized before.
For example, think about this: do people raging on game X’s forum actually hate the said game? Or it is, in fact, completely opposite? Let this question breathe for a bit — we’ll get back to it in a minute.
Nothing changes the fact, that speaking to people on the internet can be rather strenuous at times. And it will eat you alive if you don’t approach it properly.
When you take a quick glance at the community page of any established game, the first thing you’ll likely see is people being very upset over something. New community managers are often hit by that really hard (well, I certainly was). The knee-jerk response to that is to try fixing the situation as promptly as possible. Asking development team to implement features X and Z people are asking of right now sounds like the best bet. It clearly seems like project’s life and death depends on those... Or does it?
That’s how I thought at first, and soon I had to face reality.
Reality is always the same: let these Xs and Zs go live today, and tomorrow something entirely new will take their place. Fulfilling everyone’s expectations is impossible, as there are literally thousands of contradicting “wants” and “needs” flying around.
So what a person handling dev-to-player communications (let’s call this person a community manager, CM for simplicity) should do to remain sane and helpful to all parties?
One way to handle this is to restrict CMs working field to simply showing care. On social media or forums, steered by strict guidelines with inflexible directions like ‘in case of [this] say [that]“. Is it a good idea? Depending on what you’re looking for. This approach basically turns CMs into another line of customer support service, surely simplifying things a great deal... but also making developer-player interactions boring and mechanistic, throwing away all chances of something special emerging.
We aren’t huge fans that approach. Here in War Robots team community managers are all on their own. We, too, are decision makers, working both in players’ and product’s interests. We know many things others don’t. We have key product metrics on our hands while providing tons of data by ourselves.
For all of it to work, we have to stick to certain principles. In this article, I’ll attempt to outline a general framework that will help you not only finding common ground with a multi-million player base but actually turning your back-and-forth communication into a healthy process from which everyone can benefit.
Never underestimate how close hate and love are to each other
Negativity is hard to avoid. Even the abstract Best Game Ever would have to face hateful speech in social media over, supposedly, pettiest things. And the further the project goes, the more you’ll have to withstand.
After years working with different communities, I didn’t find anything better than to change the way I look at the hate itself. Let’s get back to the question from the beginning. Do haters actually hate?
There’s one paradoxical, yet game-changing insight:
Those berating you, care about your game more than anyone else.
They care so much, they just cannot contain themselves — and they aren’t to blame. Try putting yourself in their shoes. Would you be happy if the game where you spent your best years was going in a direction you don’t agree with? I definitely wouldn't.
Let’s use a trite-yet-illustrative human relationships parallel. People change, and whether or not you and your partner will accept each other exactly as you became — on that depends if you will stay together. The difference is, with human-human relationships you can break up if things don’t work out. It will be painful, it will be hard, but nobody will die (most likely). But if you break up with your community, your game is usually doomed as there is no one else to bother.
Good news? You will never please every single side of your multifaceted player base anyway. So just accept this and go with the flow.
Go with the flow… but don’t stop questioning
Resiliency is the trait you have to develop as a CM. Take into account what I said above: people on the internet are unhappy, but only because they love your game, not because they want to make your life at work miserable.
Sometimes this will make them say horrible things. False things. You might want to call them out for that. To prove them wrong, to make them feel bad for what they’re saying, to literally demolish them...
Hush now, hold your horses. Before acting, take a moment and observe the situation through player’s eyes.
One general rule that will make a difference: never argue. You’ve been told this many times perhaps, but I’ll still emphasize it. Passive aggressiveness doesn't cut it either — you won’t make the situation better if you try to fight back in any form. Even if you win, if you prove someone wrong — it won’t make anyone feel better.
Instead, listen. Ask questions. Understand what is the actual driver of people’s unhappiness.
When we are upset, we all struggle to find out what makes us feel this way. By getting to the core of the issue you can find that precious tiny straw in players rationale, pulling which will help you steer the conversation onto the constructive course.
Most importantly: when talking to players, ask for feels and causes, not the solutions. The solution is up for developers and designers to figure out, as only they have the whole picture on their hands. Your job is to expand this picture with your insights into players’ minds. The Mom’s Test (http://momtestbook.com) by Rob Fitzpatrick is probably the best book on that matter: clear, concise and helps to ask the right questions. I strongly suggest you read it.
When in doubt, check what data says
Empathy helps you to address the right things at the right time. But it works even better if it is supported by data.
Data allows us to translate everything from the language of a player to the language of a product. We don’t just come to the producer all like “uhh some people don’t like it so you have to change it”. Such claims only worth something when we can support them with a clear idea of who these people are.
- How many of them there is — five or five thousands?
- How long ago they started playing — a month or maybe three years ago?
- How active are they? Are they casually running a couple matches per week or diving deep for many hours daily?
...and so on. It is a huge mistake to believe that all players are the same — which, however, is widely spread. There’s nothing easier than to catch false positives from some small yet vocal group.
To illustrate that I often refer to the game called Wildstar. This game has an incredibly captivating concept: an MMORPG for hardcore players remembering the old World of Warcraft days. Believing that this is the huge market to cater to, its developers spent nine years making it. Nine freaking years!
Did it pay off? Hardly. Wildstar is still around and is pretty good... however it never got as big as it could’ve been (which is unfortunate). As it turned out, nostalgic players ready to grind away weeks straight just to get an access to the raid dungeon weren't the biggest part of WoW community. They were the loudest.
And now, how do you pinpoint the difference between “loud” and “numerous”? You know the answer. Data.
We use stats provided by social platforms augmenting them by third-party services when native analytics are not enough. Social media mining tools free our hands when it comes to collecting general sentiment on new features and the situation as a whole.
Your community can provide with much more numbers you might initially think. Places like FeverBee blog might be a good place to start digging for inspiration.
Talk to your followers. Face to face
The bigger your community grows, the more you want to zoom out and observe it from the level of pure stats. But you should never stop approaching people personally: every show of humanity can go a long way.
With that in mind metrics must support your actions, not command them. You are working with people, and there’s a lot of weird stuff happening behind the scenes that you cannot explain just by looking at graphs.
Personal contacts with our players helped us catch and fix any issues before they started to show up on any metrics — like drastic metagame shifts or potentially game-breaking exploits. But these contacts aren’t just about building the intelligence network. It might be convenient to think about them this way, but there’s another huge reason to keep up with your pilots/summoners/tenno (however you prefer to call your lads and gents).
Here is that reason: you should always realize that your players are people. It sounds obvious, but when you’re operating the game with millions of monthly players it is easy to start seeing them merely as numbers in your dashboards. When quantity takes over, you might become completely desensitized to people’s feelings, and once it happens nothing I said above matters anymore.
Seeing players in person gives you a so much needed reboot and sets you back on track.
This April we invited a bunch of players to our office. It was a much less ambitious event than the one from two years ago (back them we invited top clan leaders to join the first ever official tournament), but scaling it down allowed us to keep things as informal as possible. High profile War Robots youtuber Adrian Chong came to us with a long lecture on the state of the game from player’s perspective, but that was the only “official” part of that event. After that, we were just hanging out and chatting. About everything. Literally.
And heck, that was incredible — insightful and... sobering in a way. Bringing players to our place allowed us to remind the development team that War Robots pilots are much more than suppliers of feedback and requests — but real genuine people for whom our game plays a huge role in their lives and whatever we do affects them a lot more than it might seem from our side.
Don’t bother anyone with your business
There are players who want to dig into inner workings. The most hardcore followers. They save entire worlds by bringing closed projects back to life (like it happened with Star Wars Galaxies or Asheron’s Call), help funding passion projects of immense scale on Kickstarter and so on. But they definitely aren’t the most people you meet on your Facebook or Reddit page. Most people prefer having a much simpler time in their virtual worlds. And that’s okay!
But that is also why I am strongly convinced that there’s no need to ever draw players’ attention on video games being a business. People have enough “business” in their lives already — why should we also bother them with ours?
It is always better to underpromise than underdeliver. If there’s even the slightest chance something won’t go according to plan, don’t make the announcement.
But if something goes wrong, resort to one simple trick.
Honesty is your trump card. If you screwed up, admit it. Own it. Players’ trust is the most important asset of yours — if your audience trusts you, they will forgive many things. They know nobody is perfect.
It’s okay sometimes to say that “we did that to drive sales” when you push another monetized feature. People might get emotional at times, but they aren’t dumb. They will understand. But only if there’s a real trust between you and them.
Getting the trust back is much harder than building it from scratch. Figure out what kind of relationships you want to have with your players — and start cultivating them right away. Set the boundaries, the amount of attention you’re going to commit, then stick to the plan. Firmly. Every time you deviate, you lose your trust points.
Working with the community can go a long way. Remember though: if you are speaking to the community, you aren’t here to turn every dream real. First and foremost, you are here to understand what the dream actually is.
It is also up to you to keep providing everyone with great entertainment while protecting them from the nitty-gritty of making this entertainment tick. Find stories to tell. Build engaging activities. Or just give people ideas on how to deal with things they don’t like so they don’t hinder their enjoyment.
Whatever you do, just keep the communication going.
Help the game experience to extend to the outside world. This is something that is absolutely in your power. Bring people together. Help them create. If you manage to do it, it will bring absolutely beautiful results, transcending all the business-related discourse and turning your game into something truly magical.