Recently (as covered in a previous entry) I picked up a copy of Planescape: Torment, the best game you probably never played.
I've probably sunk around 22--26 hours into it so far, and the deeper I get into the game the more astounded I am by how ambitious Black Isle were.
I've never liked Paul Barnett much. Between the funky sunglasses and the not playing MMOs I really had no idea what he was trying to achieve, considering his position as a nerdy MMO designer.
With the recent shuffling around at EA, Paul is now creative director of the Bioware/Mythic MMO division. (Dead god I hope he keeps his filthy mitts off SWTOR.)
VideoGamer.com got 15 minutes in a room alone with him at the Develop conference in Brighton, and dammit I think the man is growing on me.
A blog article by one Eric Heimburg has been floating around my circle of online amigos over the past few days, with rather mixed reactions. Some have hailed it as a realistic and well grounded take on forum communities, and naturally others disagree.
I got into a discussion with a friend about the content of the article, and decided the topic merited some serious thought and ultimately a write up here.
Over the past few weeks I've been experimenting with the available iPhone games, getting an idea for the capabilities and constraints of the platform. Having spent some time with the best looking games on the app store I thought I'd put up some mini-reviews of my favorites so far:
Tower Defense Strategy from Subatomic Studios, LLC.
Fieldrunners is by far the most enjoyable tower defense game I have found, and there are quite a few out there. It only has three maps, but the diverse selection of enemies and weapons helps add a lot of replayability.
It's about as by-the-book as a tower defense game can be, but that's really no bad thing. The formula works, so Subatomic just gave it a good looking coat of paint. If you are looking a fun little strategy game with a bit more depth than the competition this might be for you.
At last! After many years of procrastination I finally scraped together enough pennies to order myself a new copy of Planescape: Torment. (My original copy is somewhere in Australia...)
For those of you whom aren't familiar with Planescape: Torment, I pity you deeply. It is the crown of Black Isle's career; one of the greatest single player games ever created. When I say one of the greatest, I mean one of about three.
The motivation behind finally purchasing another copy was mainly drawn from stumbling upon this marvelous little resource. I can now run PS:T at widescreen resolutions with a scaled up UI, and enjoy a plethora of bug fixes to boot.
I'd strongly reccomend everyone give this game a shot, if you can find it for a reasonable price. Some people are charging twice the original box price now, as it is considered a rare classic.
In my previous post I talked about the inability of some community managers to shrug off old clichés and start customizing their practice to the needs of their community.
The inability to recognize those needs runs in parallel to the inability to innovate for your community. If you can't recognize and meet their needs in one area, what makes you think you can in another? If you aren’t independently minded enough to create your own guidelines can you really think outside the box and get creative with new solutions?
The potential for new tools and upgrades to old tools is massive, yet moves at a snails pace. Community management shouldn't just be keeping up with online communications technology, it should be a driving force behind it. A prime example: Many of us complain about traditional forums being archaic, yet have made no real effort to upgrade the experience or experiment with alternatives.
Innovation doesn't stop at tools either. Now is the time to be pushing the envelope and building the role of a community manager to something with real impact. The benefits of hiring and empowering a CM need to be much less subtle, and that is the responsibility of community managers, not the employers.
Another drum I bang quite frequently is the pathetic lack of involvement most community departments have in the design of the game. You have expertise that (unless you are particularly lucky) is going to be completely absent from your design department, and you should use it. Every MMO has a plethora of community features, and most could have been significantly improved (and often simplified) with the input of someone who knows the area intimately. That is but one additional area where a community manager can show how indispensable their field is.
Another easy example: How many community managers have a strong working relationship with their QA department? How many really understand the needs and priorities of QA? Why has no CM (to my knowledge) ever run a competition in beta in which everyone who finds an unknown crash/blocker bug gets a free copy of the game? Probably because it's not on their mental list of responsibilities.
There are so many areas where community management can do wonderful things for development, and most of them are unrealized. There shouldn't even be a metaphorical community management box yet, though somehow people are still struggling to think outside of it.
It's not just about doing what everyone else does, even if you do it well. As someone in a role with little definition and few limitations you should be pushing the boundaries as much as possible.
Stop being satisfied with the same set of tools, when you absolutely can and should be improving them to meet your needs. Stop being satisfied with the imagined limitations of your role, when you can and should be doing so much more. Stop complaining about low pay and lack of recognition or impact when you aren't making the effort to change the perception of the role.
To help illustrate my issue with stagnation in community management, I'll offer a frustrating cliché as an example:
Don't talk about things in development, because should they change (and inevitably they will) you will only disappoint and aggravate your community.
This is a fine rule of thumb for the inexperienced, someone in the first few months of a new job, or when dealing with a game in pre-release. Beyond that it's an unnecessary constraint on the relationship you can have with your community. It's hammered home as one of the ten community commandments, which makes it a struggle to break away from when the situation calls for it.
How do you gather feedback about a potential change when you can't talk about it? How do you polish the design of new content to meet the needs of your community if they don't know what it is you are doing? That's just two examples of common situations where you need to be flexible.
The argument that it always comes back to bite you in the ass is not without evidence. From personal experience I can think of many revolts against developers that 'broke a promise' to the community, but how many of those examples actually sprouted from mismanagement of the situation?
These days virtually every MMO forum has a 'Dev Tracker', keeping tabs on every post you make. Gone are the days when they could reference some comment you might have made at some point and enhance what you might have implied. If they can draw more from your implication than you intended then that is probably due to your wording.
It also has a lot to do with how comfortable you are with your community, and the health of your relationship with it. If you are three years into the job and still can't stomach talking in hypotheticals or maybes then there is probably a much deeper issue.
Not least of all, your community can tell when you are being cagey. Eventually they are going to start asking themselves just how much you care for them to be informed.
Still, there are those who persist in following the rule because they simply can't think independently enough to do otherwise. These rules were outlined by the few pioneers of community management, and there is little else to follow as an inexperienced CM. It's been so ingrained that most fail to realize when it is doing more harm than good.
There comes a point in your relationship with a community where you should be throwing out the default CM handbook and writing your own. Every community has different needs, tolerances, and motivations. Trying to apply the same rules every time is an exercise in futility and only serves to make you seem weak and insecure in your role.
You can't have a strong and healthy relationship with your community without building trust and respect. You will find it very hard to attain either if you stick to the same old set of stringent rules, and don't bend to meet their needs.
Continued in Part 3 - Innovation
In my last entry I talked about an article on user feedback by Sanya Weathers.
In the article she stresses the importance of transparency and a flow of information both ways between the developer and community. As someone with experience handling online communities I could appreciate the point, but it was nothing new. I wrote the entry, and mentally moved on.
About ten minutes later it started playing on my mind again: It occurred to me that I know quite a few community professionals who would benefit from reading the article I'd brushed off. So why are people with equal or greater experience letting the side down?
It appears the answer is stagnation. Too many people in the community field feel like the trail has been blazed, and the foundations laid. They believe community management is now pretty well established and outlined, as they cling on to the coat tails of those who came before. It takes a firm prod from someone they view as role defining to shift them out of their comfort zone.
Community management is still entirely in its infancy, not least because the basic tool set is still evolving and growing every day. Why there is so much emulation and 'community by numbers' is beyond my comprehension. Where is the innovation?
Over the past couple of weeks I've been tossing ideas around with the fan-site managers I correspond with: Community oriented smart-phone applications, advanced 'karma' style systems, modernizing forum software, better use of internet radio resources... I can't help thinking that were I working for a big MMO studio right now I would be pushing for some seriously cool new community features.
Without wanting to sound too vitriolic, community management in the games industry has held some significant dissapointments for me. There are a very small number of community managers (or ex-community managers) I consider role models and truly talented individuals, and all too many who seem to be in the field for the wrong reasons. Community management is misrepresented and undervalued for this reason.
Continued in Part 2 - Old Rules
World of Warcraft didn’t get a billion people playing because of their wonderful communication, but in spite of it.
The gist of the article is 'hey guys, communication is cool'. Surely that should be paltry advice to a Community Manager? Sadly not.