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Sony Online's three rules of engagement for community management

Sony Online's three rules of engagement for community management

August 19, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Sony Online Entertainment has a huge need for community and a tiny team, says Linda "Brasse" Carlson, who heads community management up for the company. Like many community managers, she's a veteran player of the games. At her GDC Europe talk, she outlined the importance of openness and honesty as much as possible -- and recognizing that players are all individuals.

With a team of nine full-time community managers at SOE HQ, two contractors who handle Wikia and social media, and enough contracted forum moderators to make sure one's available at least 24 hours a day, she gets a very big job done.

Over the last few years, the company's games have gone through very big changes. But the thing about sea change, she said, is to remember that "it's often for the better."

Developers, she says, view players like sharks. "The developers are terrified, because they know they're out there in the water looking for blood." The thing is that players have the reverse impression: the developers are attacking and "ruining" their game with changes.

Here are the three things Carlson says developers need to know about engaging with the player base.

1. Empathy and Understanding

"It's not something you can fake and it has to be genuine," says Carlson. Players are deeply attached to the games they play, and in dramatic cases -- such as a total shutdown of a game -- their emotions can be very real.

Her advice for developers: "You cannot make any assumptions about the people you're dealing with."

Developers can tend to look at players like a hungry mob: "They use up your content very quickly, they always want more, they can be really pushy."

The thing you must remember, says Carlson, are that players are individuals -- not groups. "In truth, there are so many different types of players and customers playing our games that you cannot really categorize them. They all need to be spoken to differently, need a different communication style."

"You have to make it personal. If you have a game with a couple hundred thousand subscribers and you only have a couple of community managers... if you're active on all of your communication channels, if you make contact directly with one or two or three individuals, that then reverberates out and gets seen by a lot of individuals."

"One stunning successful contact with one member of your player base can affect hundreds or thousands of people," says Carlson.

But with a small staff, obviously one-to-one contact with every player is impossible. As a community manager, "learn to divide the players into groups for the purposes of communication. The good thing is the players sort of self-group themselves." Different types of players post on Facebook, on official forums, on Reddit, or on player fansites -- look for them in all of these places and more.

This takes "a lot of patience and repetition. You may see the same question 10 times on Facebook but you need to respond every time the same way," she says. "It does take a tremendous amount of effort."

2. Protect Your Developers

"Sometimes you have to ask them to step away from the fire," says Carlson.

There have recently been discussions of developers quitting studios because of abuse from players, for example. Things can get nasty and even disturbing, warns Carlson, even going as far as death threats.

But even when things don't get that serious, there can still be friction. "We have long encouraged developers to go out there and communicate with the players. Sometimes they feel they can trust the players and then they get stabbed in the back," she says.

Carlson's policy is to "encourage the devs to be friendly, and be open and honest, but remind them they are not best friends with these people."

"And be sure everyone in your company guards their personal information well," she cautions. "With the advent of social media, it's much, much easier for us to get information on each other."

And "when devs really get a lot of hate, you need to be there for them, and you need to help them because it's extraordinarily painful," she says.

In most cases, things are not so serious. It's another byproduct of developers and players viewing each other as faceless groups.

All developers have had the experience of "putting something new into a patch that you think players will just love and they hate it," Carlson says. "Why are they reacting badly? Because the first reactions are always negative." People hate change -- even good change. It's human nature.

"A lot of teams get severely demoralized because of the negative feedback. And when you quantify it, it's very small, and it's from people who are not happy with the change... It's not personal. If they say the dev who worked on this should be fired, it's because they don't know you."

3. The Curse of Knowledge

When you're too close to a project and know every decision that went into it intimately, it's hard to understand why the players don't react well.

"It's hard to explain things -- we know how things go internally, we have all the information, we have all the financial information and have been to all of the meetings," says Carlson. "The players have no idea, and it will be hard for you to explain quickly what you came up with it."

The antidote to this is SOE's Community Council: 60 players drawn from across its games, who serve as a sounding board and ad-hoc focus group for decisions before they're communicated externally.

They are not the best-known players -- chosen not for their profile in guilds or on forums, but for their communication skills, notes Carlson. "They're pulled for their reasonable feedback and their ability to see situations," she says.

They're also extensively NDAed, and the team shares info about games that they may not even play to get rounded feedback. "Even if the game change is specific to EverQuest... they're looking at it with fresh, new eyes, and they become a tremendous litmus test for what we're doing and why we're doing it, and how we're explaining it, and how we're going to present it to players. This has saved us all sorts of agony," says Carlson.

This initiative arose out of the disaster of the Star Wars Galaxies New Game Experience, when the game was profoundly changed without much advance communication, shattering its audience's faith in the developer.

This changed SOE's whole approach to community. When EverQuest II went free-to-play -- SOE's first subscription game to do so -- the community team began talking to the player base at large seven months before implementing F2P, to let them vent and ask questions.

"We wanted people to understand we were there," says Carlson. "Advanced discussion works and it's worth the ridiculous amount of effort involved. You cannot substitute that for anything."

"There's no such thing as too much information," says Carlson. "There's often an assumption that the players (a) aren't interested or (b) won't understand all the minutiae that go into all of these decisions. But I would encourage you to share as much as your corporate hierarchy allows. They are people just like you, in many cases smarter than you, and they appreciate the information."

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