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Managing An Online Game Post-Launch


May 21, 2003 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 
The Five Elements Necessary for Success

The five elements are talk soup, band of brothers, the living organism, welcome wagon, and help me!

Talk Soup

Your PW needs many methods for players to communicate, individually and in groups, and both in and out of the character of the game. Yes, this is a game that will allow tens of thousands to play simultaneously; players, however, will naturally segment themselves into smaller community groups (guilds, teams, towns, races) for their own ease and comfort.

If this communication is facilitated, the communities will be able to grow more easily and more quickly and the game will have a much greater chance of becoming the player's primary entertainment vehicle. This is done by ensuring that there are many easy and intuitive means for players to contact and communicate with each other, and making sure the community relations and player relations teams take advantage of those tools to communicate effectively with the players. This encompasses everything from instant messaging between individuals, to player-configurable in-game chat channels, to special message boards for guilds and teams, to in-game email between players and groups of players.

This sounds like a very common-sense element that every game should have. However, most online games have had only minimal communications tools at launch, and after a hue and cry from the players, were forced to build decent communication features into the games later.

Lack of these capabilities has also limited the ability of the live team to communicate effectively during their support missions for the players. The essence of supporting the player is being able to communicate effectively. Being limited to web posts or 80 characters of text at one time slows down support and makes it more difficult to communicate.

Band of Brothers

In the final analysis, players don't continue to play a game because it is cool; they continue to play because their buddies are there. Once they join some kind of guild or team organization, the emotional attachment to that group of friends, that band of brothers (to paraphrase Shakespeare and HBO), makes it very difficult for them to leave the game for a competing product.

To facilitate this, you'll need to build in full-featured "guild" functions, allowing players to set up, manage, and control the membership of teams. The team element is critical; it allows friends to congregate logically, easily, and within the context of the game.

They will do this whether you provide this service element or not; by providing it, however, you add to the acquisition and retention features of the game. Only UO and AC currently have easy and intuitive mechanisms for accomplishing this.

The community relations and player relations teams also need to understand how the "band of brothers" phenomenon can play into enhancing the retention of new subscribers by providing ready-made, player-run support mechanisms. Many guilds are willing to train new players and recruit them into the fold to increase their own size and power within the game. This is a powerful means of locking in loyalty.

However, many games pay no particular attention to the needs or desires of the teams within their product. Providing them with the tools to create their own content, such as team events, faction wars, or in-game parties and weddings, should be a top priority for the live team.

The Living Organism

A subscriber's play style will change over time. Some customers churn out and stop playing, others move in with new ideas about how the game should be played, and new content and features are added. The longer someone plays, the more likely it is that his/her goals within the game will change. Someone who started out as an explorer may transform into a socializer, or a socializer may transform into an achiever.

This type of change contributes to the dynamic nature of a PW, but it can also cause problems if the live team isn't changing pace and objectives along with the customers.

A responsive and flexible service philosophy takes into account the major playing styles and how they change over time, and then adds content and features that match.

Historically, the opposite has happened more often; live teams have watched how the players play and then made changes to try to force them back into a cloistered vision of how the game should be played. Considering that these are virtual worlds as much as anything else, this is like Ford telling Taurus owners the car was never built for Sunday afternoon drives in the country and the vehicles are not to be used that way.

Inflexibility such as this will tend to set a live team into conflict with the players, as designers try to shoehorn players into a particular style and players keep trying to break the chains and move on with their virtual lives. The service philosophy should take into account the changes that will happen and work with them, not against them.

Welcome Wagon

Online games and other PW environments can initially be confusing for many users.

How many times have you entered a new online environment for the first time and wandered around aimlessly for hours, trying to figure out the simple basic mechanics of how to move, talk, and interact?

Our experience in online gaming over the past decade has shown that games that have a human greet the new player within a few minutes of logging in for the first time have an extraordinarily low churn rate (20% vs. 50% for the industry overall). In-game tutorials can take up some of this slack, but nothing beats having a human drop by and say, "Hi! Can I help you get started?"

To get the most bang for your buck, the game should have a staff of paid or volunteer helpers specifically to greet new players and help them get to know the world. With the proper backend tools to allow them to support the players and then ensure that new players have someone to talk to and help them get started, the churn rate will be lower than average. Supporting the GMs and new player greeters by giving them the proper administrative tools and some leeway and discretion to solve player problems on-the-fly will lower initial churn faster than almost any other feature.

Help Me!

For some strange reason, some developers and publishers who are banking their future on games accessible from the Internet and web are failing to use them fully for support. No game currently has dedicated chat and message assistance available on a 24/7 basis; at best, such assistance is available for a few hours each day.

This ignores the 24/7 nature of the web's subscribers, who exist in all time zones and geographic locations. The live team can solve this problem by implementing a root structure that includes the following elements:

  • A dedicated message board for use by the game's subscribers. In-house and volunteer "sysops" to monitor the message board on a 24/7 basis and respond within two hours to all questions and inquiries
  • A dedicated chat system capable of supporting a significant portion of the subscriber base
  • In-house and volunteer chat hosts to facilitate the chat rooms and service the subscribers in them
  • A complete and detailed knowledge base database dedicated to the game and available to both subscribers and volunteers on the web, and (perhaps) within the game as well

By implementing this structure, human beings will be available at all hours to assist your subscribers and direct them whenever possible and feasible to relevant portions of the web site and knowledge base.

Community Relations: Processes

"Less is more. What I mean by this is that communication with players should be clear, consistent, and focused. A larger quantity of unfocused communication is inferior to consistent delivery of focused messages. I'm a big believer in memorializing information in a single place that is easily accessible to the player base. Duplicated information is error-prone."
-Gordon Walton

"Tell them less than you are initially inclined to, but never be dishonest. Treat them like adults. Reach out to people who will happily build community sites and be cheerleaders for you. Be sure you let them know when you change something due to their input. And, most of all, be sure that you never let them feel like your communication with them has grown stagnant."
-Damion Schubert

Managing the expectations of players starts with and revolves around the community relations team. They have the primary responsibility to ensure that a consistent, focused, honest message is presented to the community, and that the concerns of the community are relayed back to the other members of the live team for comment and consideration.

However, they can't do that without the cooperation of the live development and player relations teams. In that sense, customer relations is a consensus-builder within the live team and between the live team and the player base. They drive the processes that keep information flowing.

The Three Principles

The processes of managing a game community start with the three principles discussed in the next three sections*.

Constantly Design for Growth and Change. If an online game is successful in building a subscriber base, participation in both the in-game and web communities will grow over time. Features and support not required at launch will be required months down the line. As much as possible, those features need to be planned at the outset to allow for a graceful, structured growth. It also means there have to be regular reviews of the community relations feature set and changes made to ensure that growth and change within the community are being met successfully.

This also means that there has to be open communication among the player relations team, community relations team, development team, and the publisher, so everyone knows about and buys into the plan developed to support the game over time.

Create and Maintain Feedback Loops. As discussed earlier, the communication among the players, community relations team, developers, and the publisher needs to be carefully managed to protect the reputation of the game and the company and to keep even small incidents or rumors from being blown out of proportion and creating a mess. At the same time, the players want unfettered access and input to the game developers.

Creating and effectively maintaining feedback loops between the players and community relations and between community relations and the developers and back again is vital to creating an atmosphere of contribution, while at the same time protecting the developers from having to answer every question or comment the players might make on message boards or in chat.

Empower the Players over Time. Players change their own roles over time. Some become leaders and need tools to help them lead their people; others become opinion-makers in the out-of-game community; while other players create roles they find interesting for themselves. Each requires different tools and capabilities; if they have them, they'll help you increase the size and role of your game community over time. It is necessary to ensure that this is tracked carefully and that players are empowered at the proper times.

*Excerpted from the Themis Group Online Services Overview, copyright 2001-2003 Themis Group, Inc., used with permission.

The Cult of Personality

The point person on these principles and processes is your community management, specifically the lead CRM.

If there is one thing players hate to see on message board postings, it is a communiqué from the developers or company signed "From the Live Team." Nothing is quite so impersonal or non-interactive as a faceless, human-less message. This whole industry is based on interactivity, with the game and between the people who play it, make it, and publish it. With the human touch so important a factor, why would anyone go out of his/her way to de-humanize the process?

Amazingly, that is exactly what many online game publishers and developers do, in spite of the abundance of publicly available evidence that it does not work and that the players dislike it. You need the human touch.

One effective way to keep the human touch is to set up one person as your contact point with the community and create a cult of personality around him/her. If you pick the right person as the lead, day-to-day CRM, this won't be a problem; it will happen naturally. For example, take Jonathan "Calandryl" Hanna. Jonathan began as a player of UO and, over time, became an influential opinion-maker in the forums. When Origin Systems began looking for someone to come in and take over community relations for their sloppy and disliked public face, he applied for and got the job.

Within weeks, he had the players eating out of his hand. Not only was he one of them, but he also made a concerted effort to take player questions, track down the answers, and post them. He also took the time to post chatty messages and dealt with the players with respect and humor.

This is the perfect type of community relations person - a gamer who knows the player base, likes them, and considers himself/herself their advocate to the live team, without losing sight of the fact that he/she still works for the company. This minor kind of cult of personality, when the right person experienced with the product is the center of the cult, serves a number of functions:

  • It enhances player comfort and trust in the game and company. Having a real, live person interacting with the players, instead of a faceless corporation, creates the human connection that Internet game players live for.
  • It makes insulating the rest of the live team from daily player pressure easier and more amenable to both sides. Developers worry about losing contact with the player community and understanding their issues, and players worry that they won't get the straight skinny from the developers. A trusted intermediary can negotiate these waters and satisfy both sides.
  • It provides a control mechanism when problems develop. It is not unusual for the patching and publishing process to create temporary problems due to bugs or balancing issues. This also causes a temporary spike in complaints and a rising swell of player dissatisfaction, confusion, and anger. If not handled correctly and in a timely manner, this can quickly get out of hand. A trusted and effective CRM can ride the swell and control it, keeping the players appeased with a constant flow of information on the web, in message forums, and through "Letters from the Developers," and reining in the natural inclination of the developers to get out there and defend themselves (that is, argue with the players).

This takes a person of particular qualities. It isn't enough to just drag someone out of the community and throw them into place. All too often, the loudest supporter running a fan site is picked for this duty, in a modern-day demonstration of, "He who raises his hand first gets the job." While this is certain to get a loyal "wannabe" on the staff, one who will not often question the developers, it might or might not get you the person with the qualities you actually need.

The qualities you need include the following:

  • A person who can see both sides of the issue and isn't afraid to challenge the developers-Live team developers tend to get too close to the game and forget that proposed changes won't just alter the game, but also affect the experience of the players. If the players are a vocal and not particularly complimentary lot, the developers may actually come to resent the players and unconsciously make changes designed to irritate them further.
  • A good CRM knows the game inside and out and is willing to take a stand for or against changes that will affect gameplay, both publicly to the players and privately to the live team. This doesn't mean the CRM denigrates the live team to the players; it does mean the CRM is willing to be vocal privately about proposed changes and, if overruled, still "owns" the change publicly with the players.
  • Someone who understands the unique sense of humor of online gamers-Players have a somewhat twisted and dark sense of humor, full of sarcasm and double innuendo. If your frontline CRM doesn't understand the humor, it will be impossible to make a connection with the players.
  • Someone who understands the power of the word "us" - The players want to be involved in the game as members of the community, not just as anonymous players who send in $10 each month to get access. As such, they want inclusion, and responding to them with the word "we," meaning the live team, just draws a line in the sand that some of them are more than willing to cross. A CRM who can include the whole player base by making the whole into "us" already has half of the potential "bad actor" problems solved.
  • A person who understands that you don't argue or get snappy with the players - Some players are barracks-house lawyers and will endlessly debate the fine points, if you let them. To them, this is just part of the game and part of the fun. Nothing pleases them more than trolling for a CRM on the message boards, getting the CRM to take the bait, and then making a fool out of him/her by frustrating him/her to the point where he/she snaps.
  • The CRM should be a person who maintains an even keel, remains polite in the face of the most horrid or derogatory posts, and knows when and when not to continue a debate and how to close one off gracefully. This is someone who understands that expressing disappointment over a rude message and apologizing for not being able to satisfy the offender sends a far stronger message than lashing out and getting into a fight.
  • Someone who understands the player bias on issues and can sort his/her player contacts accordingly-The vocal minority of any PW tends to come with built-in biases. Some are self-serving; everything they say or do will be focused on improving their personal role in the game. Others are subject matter experts; they know the subject (the game) in minute detail and will continually argue for more hard-core game mechanics and options at the expense of other players.

A CRM needs to be able to identify and track the bias in discussions and posts and weigh and respond to them accordingly.

Obviously, good CRMs don't fall off trees. Finding one and keeping him or her on your team is one of those vital necessities that developers often miss or ignore.

Daily Activities

The daily activities of the community relations team will revolve around the message boards, email, and maintaining the community relations portion of the web site.

Message Boards

Message boards, often called forums, are a vital part of the community relations team's online presence. Much of the team's daily interaction with the players comes through this medium. There are pros and cons to offering open message boards to your subscriber base. On the pro side, having open forums gives the team access to a broad range of player opinions and affords them the opportunity to build compromises and consensus around sticky issues.

On the con side, fewer than 15% of a subscriber base ever posts on forums, and that <15% represents the vocal minority of the game. They have their own agenda and, by answering their concerns publicly, you tend to get more of the same, a sort of vicious positive feedback loop on the concerns of the biased few.

Even facing these potential pitfalls, if you don't have open forums, how can you expect to communicate effectively with the players or correctly manage their expectations? Even rude or uncomplimentary message posts can contain a grain of truth; it is important to acknowledge those and make certain they get into the right hands on the live team for consideration.

The community relations team's daily activity surrounding the message boards mainly consists of reading the new messages, responding to them, and collating and forwarding interesting or important threads to the various members of the team for answers to questions or clarifications.

At some point, the community relations team collates those answers from the live team and posts them in the proper message board threads. Unless you want the live development team spending a couple hours a day just responding to posts, you'll want to establish a regular routine of one or two days per week in which those answers to player inquiries are posted. If the response days are clearly noted, the players' expectations of answers will be managed to those days. It also makes sense to have a dedicated forum category or thread titled "Answers from the Team" or something similar, so players know where to go to get the responses.

The community relations team should not necessarily limit itself to just those message board activities. Players like to banter with team members and know that they are human and have senses of humor. Indulging in some of this goes a long way toward keeping the vocal minority under wraps.


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