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"Love the Player, Not the Game"
Image In the March 2004 issue of Ziff-Davis Gaming Industry News (publication has since shut down), Jason published an article about the role of onling gaming communities in the modern industry, looking at both developer-run sites and large-scale independent sites. Industry figures from outfits such as EA Nation, Stratics, Firaxis, and NCSoft sound off on the true benefits--and risks--of hanging out a gaming community shingle.
The published version differs only slightly from this, the original draft.

The online gaming communities that serve hundreds of thousands of players daily are a natural outgrowth of the speed of communication afforded by the Internet, and the ever-growing desire by publishers to grab and hold customers by any means necessary, whether for franchise repeats or monthly re-ups in a persistent world.

Community development is widely credited in the MMORPG world for keeping players engaged—and paid up—after the allure of the game's mechanics has faded. "When there are so many players online, players will hang back and won't quit the game. They will still be around in the community, and their role will change," says Ryan Findley, founder of independent gaming site Stratics.

Although gaming communities don't serve all players, "Those are the most extreme, most dedicated fans that you have," says Chip Lange, VP of marketing for EA's Nation communities. They are part branding exercise, part self-selecting market research forum, and part free-for-all. At their best, they provide a valuable place for gamers to reinforce their interest in a title, and a direct look at what makes the vocal minority of players tick. Taken for granted, mismanaged, or expected to act in anyone's interests but their own, communities can become embarrassing liabilities.

Recent dismal failures at publishers both large and small illustrate the problem. Lost in the noise that came with the Fallout 3 cancellation is the fact that Interplay suffered an arguably worse PR disaster over Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, the title that did manage to reach the shelves. Eager for a sure-fire hit with a built-in customer base, Interplay revived its dormant Fallout PC franchise for the console F:BOS, and aimed pre-launch hype at eager Fallout veterans.

The materials failed to amuse the players, and the resulting torrent of criticism overwhelmed Interplay's largely volunteer community management staff. Eventually the company shut down all discussion of F:BOS on its site—in effect, engineering its own buzzkill because it failed to rein in the fans it counted on to boost the game.

Volumes have already been written about the trouble stirred up for The Sims Online after the game's under-performance and underbelly were given extremely high profile through the exile of now-infamous Alphaville Herald operator and University of Michigan professor Peter Ludlow. The site has only become a more effective chronicle of the game's unique foibles, and pundit after pundit has lined up to write TSO's epitaph as a result, aggravating the problem. "It's almost always a really bad idea to try to stomp out people discussing your game," says Amy Jo Kim, principal of SocialDesigner.net, a web community consultancy.

Both of these missteps stem from the same problem: players did not say what publishers expected or wanted to hear. Short of laying down basic rules of conduct, it proves incredibly difficult to steer any discussion among thousands of individuals, even if they share a common interest in a game. "The player base determines the tone of the player base," says Findley. "The more you try to lock down what a player does, the less fun they're going to have."

In Interplay's case, "It sounds like they were trying to leverage an existing fanbase but didn't consider whether that fanbase would be amenable to the 'stretching' of the brand," says Dan Magaha, associate producer at Firaxis Games. The company asked what it thought was its best seed market to love a new title, but the verdict came back that it was unlovable, and the company was unprepared to respond.

"When you have a boring game mechanism, people are going to get into trouble," says Kim of TSO. She contends that Alphaville Herald generated so much buzz simply because it told people how to have more fun in with the TSO experience than they could with the official game rules.

Ludlow attributes the disorder that distresses EA to a shortage of both official oversight and trust in the community to police itself. Setting things right "might require setting up institutions within the game that gamers could use to resolve disputes. It's been done since the days of MUDs and MOOs," he says.

The awful truth is that communities are exactly what the name implies—a large, loose collection of individuals who can't be counted on to have more than a few things in common. The good news is that just understanding that fact is a huge step towards making community management both feasible and rewarding.

Make no mistake—community sites are often chaotic and noise-filled, and the costs of digesting and responding to each and every word uttered by your gamers in cyberspace would be staggering. But there is also a growing realization that community management actually requires some genuine skill, not only in communication but in conflict resolution as well. "You're basically in the business of being a high school counselor at some point," says Ludlow.

Navigate those conflicts, however, and it becomes possible to identify how individuals and groups will move in and out of a community and make their buying decisions. "By recognizing that all gamers will eventually come to the end of their experience with your game, and by making some predictions about when that is likely to occur, you arm yourself with the ability to provide new content... or even [identify] a point to introduce that customer to a different game entirely at important moments in that player's life-cycle," says Staehlin.

She compares learning the ropes with a gaming community to a lawyer preparing for trial. "You should never ask a question you don't know the answer to."

Independent gaming communities represent an entirely different sort of challenge because there are no direct tools to guide discussion or sanction misbehaving patrons. Many publishers will embrace certain fansites run in a level-headed, respectable manner, and often employ a carrot-and-stick approach with advance content and access to developers. "Think of them as part of your ecosystem, not something to be controlled. They will want to be in your good graces if they love your game, and they will want to keep getting that flow of [exclusive] information," says Kim.

Some have developed so trusted an inner circle of fansites that they forego their own operations. "We don't run our own sites because we don't want to compete with [fansites] for users and, frankly, they do a better job of it than we could," says Magaha.

It remains to be seen what the American game publishing market will learn from the Korean experience. "We haven't started to leverage fansite operators as strongly as PC room operators have been in Seoul," says Staehlin. NCSoft in Korea conducts face-to-face training and outreach sessions with PC room operators since they rely on them to act as the first line of support in the field—just as many fansites are the court of first resort for American gamers. "It's economically quite infeasible [in the US], but we can leverage that same mentality through online media."

Gaming communities are not guaranteed to be self-maintaining grassroots marketing machines. But given the right nudges, and the right oversight, they can be revenue-positive. "We have found that by promoting the community, it gives the game a longer shelf-life," says Caryl Shaw, manager of web development for Maxis. "People that are passionate, the fans, are going to write [content] beyond anything we're going to create. You hope they'll go out and propagate the message."

Ultimately, the community is an investment. "It's not altruism," says Kim. "Setting up an online community is a tactic used to achieve a goal, and it can turn on you."

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