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The Community Manager Interviews: Bethesda's Matt Grandstaff

The Community Manager Interviews: Bethesda's Matt Grandstaff Exclusive

May 5, 2009 | By Chris Remo

Bethesda Softworks' community manager, Matt Grandstaff, joined the company just two days before the Fallout 3 forums opened -- "Good luck, meat shield," executive producer Todd Howard teased him on their first meeting on the job.

Gamasutra spoke to Grandstaff for the third part of our series of interviews with community managers from four different companies -- publishers, publisher-owned studios, and independent studios. Previously,we featured 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey and Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer.

As a field that is relatively young and frequently loosely-defined, community has not always gotten the amount of coverage that might be due such an integral part of operating in the modern, interactive world of promotion and communication.

But Grandstaff, an active member of the gaming community in forums online who first dreamed of being a games journalist before finding his way into his community role, was able to use his firsthand understanding of the audience's expectations to navigate the steep challenges of introducing them to the long-anticipated Fallout sequel.

He read the phrase "Oblivion with guns" more times than he could count, and here, he discusses with Gamasutra how he adapted to being "thrown into the fire" early on, the fascinating culture clash he witnessed among Bethesda franchise fans, and what he learned in the end from seeing it all come together.

In your view, what is a community manager? In particular, what is the role of a community manager for a company that develops single-player games with a potentially very long shelf life?

I serve as a liaison between our company/development staff and the folks that play our games. Even though a game like Fallout 3 is single-player, there’s always something new going on with the game. Heck, Morrowind came out in 2002, and we still see players doing cool stuff with it.

For the community, a large part of my job is to keep them up to speed on news and happenings for our games (pre and post-release), while being sure to highlight the community aspect as too. I have a lot of fun interviewing members of our community on our blog.

For the company I’m making sure our staff is aware what’s going on with our games -- whether it’s issues players are reporting, or just sharing reactions the community has to news and announcements.

How did you end up in this role?

I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember, and it was always a goal of mine to have a job in the industry. During and after college, I did game reviews for my school paper and took any freelance opportunities I could get. I always dreamed of writing for a magazine like EGM.

Easier said than done -- I needed to find a real job. I ended up taking a marketing internship at the National Park Foundation here in DC. That internship turned into a full time job and I worked there for a few years. After that, I took a job at a marketing agency where I helped with projects relating to movies, TV shows and games.

With my knowledge and passion for the game industry, I became the office expert on games. After a couple years there, a friend let me know about the job listing at Bethesda. Less than a month later, I was working at Bethesda.

Does having that previous marketing experience give you any insight into how to deal with community, or are the disciplines too separate?

It’s a different world, but there are still some similarities. Whether I’m posting in the forums or on the blog -- it’s still a form of PR. While it’s not the same platform [marketing and PR VP] Pete [Hines] speaks to, you always have to remember you’re representing the company -- so you really have to think about what you’re saying.

Posting in an online community comes pretty naturally to me -- years before taking the job, I was already posting at places like [online gaming forum] GAF.

Speaking of Pete, he referred to you as having "survived Fallout 3." Fallout 3 is an interesting case, because it inherits separate longstanding and communities from both the Fallout franchise and Bethesda's own past games. Can you speak to the challenges of working with those, as well as presumably attempting to draw in new community members?

I don’t know if Pete means to do it, but when he hires a new employee they seem to be thrown into the fire right away. When I started, I had two days to familiarize myself with things before we opened our Fallout 3 forums.

I remember that first week when Pete introduced me to [executive producer] Todd Howard. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of "Good luck, meat shield." In the first few months, handling Fallout was definitely a challenge for me, but more importantly, it was a challenge for the community.

You know, you had this passionate fan base that had waited years for a sequel, and once we started to promote the game, they wanted to know everything about the game. With limited information on the game released, there was plenty of speculation, arguing and sometimes total mayhem in our forums. If I could have a dime for every time I heard "Oblivion with guns" or read a topic called, “What is the definition of an RPG?”...

To make things more interesting, the idea of "Oblivion with guns" was pretty appealing to our existing Elder Scrolls fanbase -- so there was a culture clash when the Fallout boards opened in our existing forums.

Over time -- especially after the game was released -- I think the two sides have come together and strengthened our community. It’s especially cool to me to see our Elder Scrolls fans, who are pretty familiar with modding, help Fallout fans with modding the game.

As for me, I think I’ve come a long way too. I still feel like a meat shield, but at least I know what to expect. Fallout 3 was more or less my rookie season in community management, a memorable one at that.

That's something community managers frequently say, that it can be overwhelming to deal with such a large group of people, who tend to be extremely dedicated and vocal. Any thoughts on how to avoid that, or generally stay sane?

I suppose the biggest challenge for me is that while I leave work between 5:30 and 6:30, the community never clocks out, and I get asked questions at all hours of the day. It’s pretty crazy to answer hundreds, sometimes thousands of community emails and [private messages] each week.

In terms of tips, I think it’s important to make yourself feel like a member of the community. This comes pretty natural to me, and I typically can relate to the feedback I get. Also, be sure to keep your cool when posting in the forums or answering a question. I might get frustrated from time to time, but try to never show it in the boards.

Another sentiment I've gotten from community managers is that the role is very much still being "felt out," and has not yet been well documented or taught. Would you agree with that characterization? How have you gone about defining your own place?

Definitely. After all, I’m the first community manager at Bethesda. Talking with some of my colleagues, they’ve told me things like, “I really didn’t understand why we needed someone like you, but you’ve really carved out your path.” On top of my role as a liaison, I’ve really worked hard to become the eyes and ears for our company. Additionally, I’m always looking at how to refine the community experience " either by tweaking what’s in place or trying something new.

Do you see the community manager role as changing at all?

I think it is and will continue to change. In fact, you could say the role of the community manager changes from game to game. How a CM works with a game like Fallout 3 is already different than how a CM would interact within an MMO or an online shooter.

I think the biggest change to the CM role will come as more games integrate community within the actual game. Just as the world becomes more obsessed with social media like Twitter and Facebook " we’re going to start seeing similar applications/portals in games.

I've also gotten the sense that although they work together in many cases, there are times when community and marketing and PR don't see eye to eye, due to the difference between the driving a message and fostering discussion -- have you found that to be the case?

Sure, there’s time when I have a differing opinion on how to handle something, not just with PR, but with other departments too. But that’s really the case with any job. In the end, I think we do a good job in balancing what’s best for our company and our fans.

How much of your job is focused on actual direct interaction with the community itself?

Even if I have a lot of busy work, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I’m not interacting with the community one way or the other. Ideally, I like to be able to spend at least an hour or two posting in our forums " whether it’s helping out with something game related, or just getting to know members more through discussion.

How important are social networking sites or techniques to your particular approach?

For my first year or so, most of my focus centered on our forums and blog, but I’ve shifted more attention to social networking sites recently. We do Facebook pages, we’ve put up modding tutorials on YouTube, and last month I started the company Twitter page. I think we’re only at the tip of the iceberg with social networking.

Do you have ways to measure the "success" of the community, be it through specific metrics or tracking, or more subjective observations?

Well, we track the amount of discussion and visits we get on our forum and blog, and we’re pretty happy with what we see. I do put more of a focus on subjective observations, it’s more important to me to know the pulse of what’s going on within the community.

Can you speak to any particularly successful campaigns, tactics, or interactions?

Well, we did a Create-a-Perk contest, and we were blown away by the amount of submissions we got. And lately, I’ve been getting a kick out of the response I’ve seen to our Twitter page. I’ll tweet a redeemable DLC code, and within 10 seconds, someone will have entered it on Xbox LIVE. I think those campaigns are effective for three reasons: they’re simple, they’re accessible, and they’re fun.

Any general tips for those going into community, or hoping to?

Play a lot of games and participate in the social aspects of gaming. Become a member of a gaming forum, start a blog -- do something to get your name out there and make yourself known.

[Previously, Gamasutra's series of community manager interviews featured 2K Games' Elizabeth Tobey and Naughty Dog's Arne Meyer.]

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