If you’ve been reading these Community Series articles that Kristen and I have been writing, then you probably saw my previous post about how communty professionals deal with the shit hitting the fan in terms of situations out of their control, the example case being the compromising of the Burger King Twitter account. While I do mention that this kind of snafu can be minor, there are times when the tiny fire created by something bad happening can become a roaring avalanche of flame and in very special cases, a complete meltdown incident. The criteria for such a worst case scenario for a community person is an incident that is highly visible, extremely volatile, and one which has in essence snowballed or is snowballing out of action to completely reverse course.
Such as it was with Amy’s Baking Company, which was featured on an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and which resulted in revealing some of the most disturbing things ever about restaurant management, from taking service tips away from wait staff, to verbally abusing and threatening customers, to having difficulty taking any kind of criticism, and more. It got so bad that Ramsay pulled a first in the history of the program, and walked out on the restaurant that asked for his help.
This was bad enough, but the focus of my writeup will be with what happened afterwards, when the owners apparently went on the offensive on their Facebook page. Shelled with criticism and negative posts from people who’d viewed the episode, the Facebook page’s official communications exploded, posting verbal attacks that they later claimed were the result of their account being compromised by hackers. Given their behavior on the show and in prior review responses on Yelp, however, it gets a little difficult to believe.
While it would have been ideal for this situation to never have happened, when it’s unavoidable here are some of the things a community person has to consider doing when they don the radiation suit after a meltdown:
Information gathering needs to be done – In any meltdown situation, it’s human nature to be tempted to try to fix it all, all at once, but panicking and going into an impulsive, reactionary communication stance will do nothing to fix the problem. While community folks have natural empathy towards their communities and hate to see them suffer through a meltdown, and might be tempted to just do something to appease them if they’re demanding things, they have to be the cool, rational head in the situation, especially if the source of the meltdown came from someone else in the company.
In this sense, the very first thing that’s done when a community person gets wind of this situation is information gathering. What’s the nature of the meltdown (a developer’s angry lashing out at fans, release of supposed internal documentation, an terribly inappropriate tweet, etc.)? How did it happen? Who are the principal players or drivers, if any, from both the company and the community? How far has the damage gone? A good community person will know with close to 100% certainty as possible, the who/what/where/when/how of a meltdown and have had a brief talk with the appropriate people to formulate a plan, as efficiently and quickly as possible.
In the Amy’s Baking Company situation, I’d skim and pick up all the articles written so far, figure out where and when in the Facebook timeline the communication meltdown started, find out who made the posts, and have a brief meeting with the person(s) responsible as well as management (in this case, they are contained within the same two people) to try to fill in the gaps. I’d also do my best to calm tempers and emotional responses. It’s here that the community professional’s ability to empathize and understand people is turned inward, and where the thick skin needed to continuously deal with others is tested. After all, they may be assaulted on both sides by a dissatisfied community and an emotionally charged company, both of whom may be demanding you fix the situation.
The short-term priority is to contain the damage from the meltdown – The really cool thing about the internet is that you can spread something around in literally seconds if it’s visible and intriguing enough to the average bored person that happens to be browsing. This is also the really scary thing about the internet, too, and it’s why community professionals put such paramount importance on watching what is said, both by themselves and by others who represent the company. When there’s a meltdown and this fails (and fails in extravagant fashion), the first, short-term priority is to contain the damage.
I say contain, and not fix, because by its very nature a meltdown can’t be reversed. There is clearly going to be long-term damage and effect, and no matter how much you try, you’re not going to be able to completely reverse things to what they were before the meltdown with your community. Whether it is screenshots taken before deletion, or continuous re-posting of removed meltdown-related content, or news outlets picking up on and reporting on it, the internet ensures you’ll never be able to put a complete lid on it. This is why most of the time it’s a mistake to compound the problem by trying to deny that it’s happened, or putting forth the pretense that you’re denying it. You’re already going to get some of this by default, as one of the things that is appropriate to do in most of these meltdown situations is remove any content having to do with the meltdown from official channels.
This isn’t done to hide what happened, but to start re-establishing control over the consistent message and tone that you’ve built as a community professional. But this won’t be helped if the first communication after the meltdown attempts to make excuses for what’s happened. By all means you should take back control of the communications by removing content, temporarily locking or restricting access while doing so, and post messaging, if appropriate, that states that you’re aware of the situation and plan to address it in the near future. But you definitely shouldn’t come out on the defensive.
In the Amy’s Baking Company situation, I certainly would have removed the offending posts, and ensured that no more of them could be made by the person(s) responsible. I would have taken temporary sole control over outgoing communications to ensure that no other messages of an inappropriate nature are posted. I make assurances inside the company that I will handle the situation (but that in order to do the job I was hired for I need to have the appropriate means), while the message I post to the Facebook page, after locking new comments from being posted, acknowledges the situation with the appropriate language and that a response is forthcoming. The language is as generic as possible as the meltdown situation is a continuously changing – and the community will be hyper-sensitive to dissecting anything coming from the company so I give them the least amount of ammunition to compound things further. I certainly do not post that we were “hacked” – because of the nature of prior communications from the company, their appearance on the show, and the community’s resulting perception, there’s no way it gets taken at face value.
The long-term priority is to build back trust through realistic communications and appropriate action to accompany them - A post-online-meltdown situation, just like with an actual one, has long-term effects and healing that gradually needs to occur over time. The main issue with any kind of meltdown situation is that on some level, the trust the community has in you and what you do has been shaken, and needs to be restored. The restoration can take a variety of forms, and isn’t always about appeasing community demands (though when appropriate, doing so on some level may be the best or only recourse you have to building back trust). Most of the time, however, it starts with a re-establishment of communication channels and a message from the company that both explains the situation as it unfolded and clear and concrete actions to prevent further problems. This message is then observed for community response and addressed as needed on a dynamic level (for example, if your message’s response contains a common question, that’s answered, or if the community desires a realistic goal to achieve, it’s looked into).
The point is that community professionals are both realistic in acknowledging what’s happened and what they plan to do about it – because unrealistic goals in combination with a loss of trust make building things back up nearly impossible to do. This goes for internal communications as well – trust in the company’s representatives to properly talk to their community has inevitably been broken and needs to be re-established, with changes, policies, and procedures to how the company talks to its customers implemented to prevent further incidents.
Given what’s happened already with Amy’s Baking Company, it would be pretty hard to rebuild the trust, but doing so could take a variety of methods, from putting forth a carefully prepared statement with the appropriate amount of realistic acknowledgment and apology for actions taken to re-launching the Facebook page with a stated set of standards or efforts to draw people back to the restaurant with discounts or complementary services (this last one not being something you always want to pull out of your pocket but would be appropriate here, given the damage already done to the restaurant’s reputation). Internally, I’d do my best to emphasize the necessity of consistent, professional, and appropriate communication, and ideally, I restrict the people responsible from posting the meltdown content from putting things up without my approval – at least in the short term, and as best as possible (hey, even internally, your goals have to be realistic).
The appropriately optimistic silver lining in this nuclear cloud, is that after such a meltdown any sort of appropriate trust re-build effort can only help instead of harm things. It seems that Amy’s Baking Company has hired a PR firm to help them and a re-opening is upcoming. The nature of how successful it will be, given the damage already done, is hard to determine at this time, but the important thing is that there’s an attempt to make it happen.
One thing’s for sure, however – whether it’s with a beleaguered restaurant with a tarnished reputation or a gaming industry studio that’s made a ton of repeated mistakes,a community professional has their hands full balancing damage control, goals to be achieved both inside and outside the company to build back trust, and trying not to lose their own sanity dealing with the situation. It’s compounded by the fact that every one of these meltdown situations is different, which means what I’ve said isn’t always what the community person does to best address the situation. As always, community folks need to be agile and adaptable to what’s happening to their customers – even if that means trying to adapt to a nuclear meltdown. They deserve every appreciation for potentially having to do so at any one time.
Recently on Reddit I got to being one of the moderators for a smallish but growing subreddit of around 7000 or so. I found this to be an interesting new opportunity, honestly. I think if you’ve been reading my blog by now you’ve gotten an idea that I know a little bit about online community management both inside and outside of the games industry, and have a lot to offer in terms of building them from the ground up. But I’m always on the lookout for more ways to expand knowledge and becoming a reddit moderator seemed to be one of them – that, and this way I’d maybe feel a little more productive with my reddit time, right?
I’ve learned a few things about how reddit moderators cultivate their communities in my brief stint so far, but one of the most curious was the idea that passive community management was the preferred method of building community. By this I mean that there’s a policy of non-interference in most cases, and importance is placed more on what the community wants, builds, and posts rather than what the management of that community does in order to make things better. There’ve even been a couple times I’ve suggested more active presence and initiative, only to encounter a bit of unease and confusion about the value of it versus simply allowing the community to take care of it by themselves.
In many cases, this is totally in line with the Reddit spirit. Redditors tend to value freedom of information sharing and communication above all else. Subreddit moderators on the whole are more willing to let the community express that freedom and shape themselves, rather than establishing hardline policy that might restrict things. There’s some care and feeding, to be sure (rules restricting controversially divisive topics like religion and politics are commonplace, for example), but for the most part, the community is treated like an organic entity – left to its own devices and evolution, and in many cases, what it chooses to ultimately become. I’ve noticed that those who don’t seem to agree to like what a particular subreddit has evolved into tend to start their own – /r/gaming, for example, has spawned a ton of other subreddits with different standards, communities, and practices (/r/games, /r/ludology, and /r/truegaming are just 3 offshoots). In that sense, it’s like one organism having differing evolutionary paths and creating new versions of itself.
Part of me gets a little twitchy at this sort of “wait and see” practice. I’m sure you’ve read what Kristen and I have posted for Community Series articles and a worthwhile assumption to make would be that we and our peers come from active community management stock. We like to post actively, encourage people to have good discussion, work with others to create collaboration opportunity, and be there visibly building what we obviously care about. But in the end, it’s just something interesting for me to observe about how people manage communities, and one I have to respect. After all, Reddit is definitely successful and well-traveled, and its organic, laissez-faire ways are part of its inherent charm. I wouldn’t be so addicted to it otherwise.
Community Series – The Non-Disclosure Agreement Cake of Games, And Why You Don’t Eat It Before It’s Done0
Recently I’ve been seeing a lot of posts fly around about NDAs for games, why they do or do not have merit, and various other opinions about their value. It’s kind of funny sometimes, because you see so many extremes about what you see in leaked footage, from “OMG THE GAME IS CRAP THEY’RE HIDING SOMETHING, CONSPIRACY” to “OMG THE GAME IS FINE LEAKERS ARE MAKING IT LOOK BAD, CONSPIRACY”. What I’m going to be addressing today, however, is more along the lines of how people don’t think the developers want to communicate something about their game’s progress to the players if they have an NDA in place, why an unfinished product isn’t a a good basis for judging it, and how Community teams typically deal with leaks of that product – sometimes without uttering a word at all.
First is dispelling the myth that developers, and especially people who are in Community, don’t want to talk about their game. If you spend any time in a studio someday, either as a member of the industry or touring it as a visitor, you’ll see that this is most definitely not the case. On the contrary – most people who spend their time in a studio putting together a product that they hope a player will find fun are bursting at the seams to be able to show you and tell you how awesome it is. They want you to experience what the game is for yourself and want you to feel like you’re going to have the best and greatest experience ever. For Community people, who have to read about speculation and opinion from players about the game without seeing it on a daily basis, it’s even worse. Community people worth their salt have a natural empathy towards the people interested in playing a game they represent. They see something awesome behind closed doors that they know players will enjoy and want players to get their hands and eyes on it right away – especially if it quells a concern or a negative feeling people have about the game.
But what everyone in a studio that has an NDA realizes is that they want that moment of experience for the player to be in as an ideal, polished state as possible.
The way I always like to explain it to someone is it’s like being a baker and baking a cake, and allowing some people into the kitchen to watch it being made. Then someone takes a photo and runs out of the kitchen and shows a picture of a cake base, bowls of flour, and an unattached cake topper, claiming this is what the cake is like and how it’s going to taste. People get all worked up over the unfinished cake and flour and call it a failure even before it’s done baking – and even if they eventually understand it’s not done, now have an unfair expectation of how the cake should look when it’s done – all based on the fact that they saw a bunch of flour and a portion of the cake, and zero visibility on how far along the bakers are in making it.
This is how reactions to NDA leaks in games unfold these days. It has a potentially harmful effect on how people choose to judge the game or how its progressing. The NDA isn’t in place to hide problems, like some people think it does. It’s in place to ensure that the first impression is a fair one, based on seeing a product in a publicly viewable state – and not a bunch of flour and ingredients strewn all over the kitchen.
Community teams are actively working to ensure game content under NDA doesn’t leak, ensuring that unfinished cake doesn’t get into the mouths of hungry players. Most of this is done silently, with things such as:
- Working with fansites to discourage leak proliferation – Fansites sometimes have difficulty maintaining loyalty or a relationship to a developer in the face of a freshly leaked NDA cake. Community teams work with loyal fansites to help get leak links taken down and reported, and the give and take of a fansite-developer relationship sometimes pays dividends to both parties (the fansites get to maintain a pipeline with the developer and later reap the benefits and the developer gets their eyes into places they normally wouldn’t to get rid of leaks).
- Analyzing the reaction to the leak and communicating internally - While a leaky NDA cake will certainly be taken down, that doesn’t mean the community sentiment doesn’t have value. Community teams are always on the lookout for feedback and impressions regarding the game, even if it shows up when it’s unintended. This doesn’t mean leaks are ok – but rather that a Community team will make the most out of what inevitably gets out there.
- Reinforcing the value of feedback given by beta testers, not beta leakers – An NDA violation tends to anger beta testers in some way or another, and it’s important that a Community team manage expectations among them when a leak happens. While attention is certainly given to a leak, especially if it’s very public, the value attributed to beta tester feedback is usually communicated (along with reminders about the consequences of NDA-violating conduct). The privilege of providing internal feedback based on closed testing is definitely one that is communicated.
These are just some of the things that Community teams do when managing a project still under NDA. More visibly, you might see something as subtle as an official video or interview that never mentions the leak but addresses sentiment or concerns raised from it (for example, releasing gameplay footage following a leak decrying sloppy gameplay mechanics). The information flow can also be managed by official communication about current state of the game, or even by taking away the insider track of most leaks by releasing the info themselves. Again, this doesn’t mean that forcing the developer’s hand like this through leaks is needed, but rather that good studios and good Community teams are adaptable to situations that aren’t ideal.
I think the point I’d like people to walk away with is simply that Community teams and the developers they represent want you to have the cake that is their game. They want you to be able to eat it, experience it for yourself, and of course, enjoy it. But they don’t want you eating a bunch of flour, or a cake without frosting, or one that’s still baking in the oven. When you have the cake, it should be as its intended to be had – finished, polished, and with the right utensils (unless you like devouring it with your hands, you barbarians out there). Respect your NDAs, folks – it’s still too soon to say the cake is a lie.
I don’t watch TV that much these days, but when I do, I’m a fan of shows that break molds and don’t follow formulaic tropes that I’ve seen, though I can make exceptions for strong characters or favorite actors (the new Hawaii Five-O is an example). One of my favorite shows that I’ve found smart and witty and thinking very much outside the box is the NBC show Community, which follows the misadventures of a diverse study group that become friends over the course of attending a community college that’s a caricature of life in higher ed. The show’s been lauded by folks for its fearless writing and quirky characters, not to mention episodes filled with satire. One episode, for example, was a Law and Order parody filled with all the camera angles, contrived zingers, and procedural oddities that have made the show famous. Another took on corporate product placement. Yet another was done entirely in 8-bit. The show’s misfit nature has given it quite a faithful following from geekdom for these reasons and more.
But fandom can sometimes turn on a very sharp dime if the formulae they’re used to is messed with. In this case, the show’s creator, Dan Harmon, left the show before this season’s beginning, for reasons and dramatics that I won’t get into here. Fear and trepidation about how this season’s Community would feel without its creator at the helm were rampant, and as I’ve watched the reaction to the latest episodes unfold, I’ve seen a distinct attachment to “how the show was” and a lot of comments about how “it was better when Harmon was running it” and of course, “bring Harmon back, the show is ruined”. As a result, there’s a disinct aura of negativity surrounding each episode and a greater attachment to the nostalgia of the show’s rise to fame among its fans. In games, we see this most commonly when a franchise changes developer hands, or when a prominent member of the team leaves, or when sequels are perceived to change mechanics and gameplay to try to attempt to improve the experience for players.
I’ve never really understood this attachment to the way things used to be being better as a reaction to someone not feeling right about what they’re currently experiencing. Don’t get me wrong – I think that it does have legitimacy at times and it’s perfectly valid to feel that something isn’t quite the same as you want it to be (the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra). But I think it gets a little detrimental when you get attached to the nostalgia and the idealism you hold onto to what you’ve watched or played before. This is where communities get in trouble, because the nostalgic attachment of how a previous title in a game series or a past season in a TV show is contagious – and it tends to create an echo chamber of criticism tinged with grumpiness over how things don’t seem right. I know that the /r/community subreddit for the show is rife with “this doesn’t feel like Community” commentary that has pervaded every discussion, with the requisite accusations of fanboyism towards those liking what’s being done (and I thought I only saw those in game communities, heh).
I try not to get sucked into this mentality, and I think the reason why I’ve mostly succeeded is because I’ve learned to accept that by its very nature, when you change something that appears to be core or fundamental, what’s left is inevitably going to be different. No matter how hard a developer or a writer, or someone else who inherits the existing property works to try to preserve the aura of how something used to be (and they should, if for nothing else respect for what’s come before), it’s going to have their touch, their flair, and their flavor. Duplicating what something was with someone different is pretty much impossible – all you can get is the general preservation of what was plus some of what’s new, and see what happens. When you think about it this way, it gets a lot easier to be open to the new possibility of a direction for a show or a game that might actually be good for it in the long run.
I get that there are times when a changing of the guard hasn’t worked, and I’m sure there are a litany of examples someone could rattle off to me. My contention is with the people who attach themselves so firmly to what something was that it clouds their judgment when trying to figure out what they think of what something is. I would hope that these people try to detach the claws a little from the rug and let themselves be dragged a little more into how someone or some other entity changes something that they’re used to. I think they’d be surprised, perhaps pleasantly, at what they might find within. It seems that in the case of Community that folks have been easing up a little with the nostalgia attachment with every passing week. I can only hope that the mentality of accepting what’s different and judging on those merits without excessive comparison is something that more people will adopt.
Today’s crazy top news item in social media was just the thing needed to continue on with the Community series of posts Kristen Fuller and I are crafting.
In case you hadn’t heard about what happened to poor Burger King’s Twitter account today, what we saw when the account was compromised was a classic example of what would be one such permutation of a Community Manager’s worst nightmare. While there are variations on a theme, the overarching commonality is that the Community Manager is dealt a hand in which they temporarily lose control of the posting of, and thus the reaction to, the content that they normally are responsible for overseeing or putting out into the ether. Nothing will make a community person reach for their trusty bottle of aspirin more than having to suddenly find out the reaction to something that’s been thrown up online is ballooning out of control and getting worse by the minute. In these situations, when the shit is threatening to, or already has hit the proverbial fan, a Community team can be tested in a variety of ways, and how they decide to react to the news and how they address it ultimately dictates what the community does about it, and whether or not it has far-reaching effects.
Of course, it doesn’t always have to be an immediately dire situation. From a games perspective, the threat of shit hitting the fan can come in the form of a server maintenance gone wrong, the introduction of a bug or two into the new build that is noticeable and not easily solved, or a misstep or a misspoken word on the part of a developer towards the community. Regardless of the degree of difficulty here, the steps for the Community folks remain the same – analyze the situation, come up with a plan of attack, craft and approve the messaging, post up the initial response, and adapt and re-respond if necessary, keeping the community up to date while working behind the scenes to acquire the latest information and a realistic timeline to resolution. While the process varies from company to company, there’s a few things that people would do well to understand when they see a Community person or other authorized individual responding to a crap-hitting-the-fan issue.
1. Response time to the issue may vary – so be reasonably patient.
The way that I see some people react to a server down issue or a patch oopsie or a mistaken set of content being posted, you’d think that the reaction to the issue should be faster than it takes to warm up a Pop Tart. While there’s something to be said about fast or near-instantaneous response – and trust me, those responses are posted (more on that next) – there’s also something about intelligently and methodically addressing the faux pas in question. The response isn’t always as simple as “roll back the server” or “delete the comments” or “apologize”, as the damage that’s already been done needs to be assessed, looked at, and attacked properly. Combine this with the fact that a company or a studio will need to ensure approval is acquired for a course of action, and that all the gears and wheels of that action need to play their parts, and you get why sometimes you might not see a response to something going on right away. I subscribe to the fact that the reasonable time in which a Community person should respond to something going on is highly variable, dependent on how severe the disruption to normal service is, the complexity of the solution (for example, “roll backs” or “reboots” can require a lot of teams moving at once to respond to an unexpected problem), and the sentiment/temperament of the community at large. A Community team needs time to help bring a messed up situation to a successful conclusion, and aside from that, I can’t speak to how those situations are handled specifically, as your mileage varies by company. So don’t worry – a good Community team is out to ensure its customers know they’re doing everything they can and are aware. This brings me to my next pointer.
2. The first response is not always meant to be the most detailed, or only, response to the issue.
Sometimes a single, detailed response to a crap-hitting-the-fan issue is all it takes in order to bring things to a successful close. For example, a developer or company representative misquote or misrepresented implication of what they said might require a single post clarifying matters. But in many situations, the first response is not always the one that contains all the answers. Sadly, this does not stop the amount of unsavory comments being said about a first response like :
Oh what a surprise, another patch another ton of errors…This is terrible tech work.
I’m sure they’ll get on here soon and say we should check our internet connections or our router is faulty and we need a new one.
In many cases, the first response is meant only to make the community aware of the fact that the company and its team know about what is happening, know that there’s a certain amount of dissatisfaction or otherwise non-ideal service, and that they are working on it. This kind of messaging is easy to approve, is meant to be an acknowledgment, and displays the common sense that basically says “of course we see what’s going on”. Because of my first point, and how long a confirmed resolution/plan of action can take, quick first responses that most commonly start with “We’re aware of the issue customers are experiencing with…” pay dividends in calming sentiment that the company is either unaware or not listening. Some people like to call out how “empty” and “fake” these responses are, or (my personal favorite) say that “this response does nothing to fix the issue and is insufficient, fix it now, you are losing customers”, but when you understand the intent of a first response is to notify and give courtesy to customers, rather than solve the issue outright, it gets harder to say such things.
Any Community team posting a “we’re aware of the issue” first response isn’t brushing its customers off due to lack of detail. On the contrary – posting such a response is meant to communicate that they’re absolutely not doing so. Most community folks worth their salt will almost always be working on a follow up or update with more detail (or a resolution notice) by the time you’ve seen a first response.
3. The plan of action/resolution to an issue ideally attempts to balance the reality of how the community perceived/reacted to it and the reality of what the company can do about it.
When there’s a crap-hitting-the-fan moment, I’ve seen all manner of recommended solutions to “fix the problem” or “save face” that have come from a community. I’ve seen people ask for refunds based on time lost, complete rollbacks of patches, selected benefits extending to only a specific group of affected people, a detailed breakdown of how the issue occurred or how to prevent future issues in the interest of “being open and honest”, and more. Don’t get me wrong – there are many people who understand, suggest, and should expect reasonable resolution to the fact that an unintended issue has occurred. But what many fail to realize is that any solution or resolution to an issue that the community and development team helps put up is ideally a balanced one – one that gets and understands how the community reacted to it (and their mood, no matter how out of control it gets) but which also takes into account what a company can actually do within their power to fix things. I say “ideally”, because admittedly there are times when a company sets out to make things right but ends up not creating a satisfactory response.
Mostly, though, what I’m trying to say here is that what’s asked is not always so easily given, depending on how the company operates. Yes folks, that refund you want based on increments or minutes of time does take a lot of calculation and analysis to dole out. That rollback that you want for a patch that was planned for two months can’t easily happen overnight and not without consequences. Giving only select people compensation into perpetuity may or may not be within the bounds of possibility given the impact it has on the community as a whole. And while you may want all the details or have the complete story, sometimes what you do get is just what can realistically be approved to be talked about.
If you want an example of one of these “balanced” responses, I’ll end this post with one that many gamers remember – Sony’s PSN outage of 2011. Regardless of how you might feel about how this was handled, it’s a good example of how responses for crap-hitting-the-fan issues sometimes take form.
Sony’s Jack Tretton knew he had to address this admittedly embarrassing breach of security at E3 2011, which happened to occur during repairs to fix the outage. When he stepped onto the stage during Sony’s press conference, he delivered the following, of which I’ve cut and excerpted for the most relevant parts:
This isn’t the first time I’ve come into an E3 press conference with an elephant in the room. Of course I’m referring to the PlayStation Network outage. This is my first chance to personally address everybody and discuss it a little bit.
So my friends who are reporters tell me that there’s absolutely nothing in the world that makes their editors’ day like controversy and bad news. So to all our esteemed members of the press I say ‘you’re welcome’.
To our third-party publishing partners – you guys have been with us for over fifteen years making tremendous games, and I know the network outage was costly to you. What’s been incredibly inspiring is your support, and your offers to help get things back up to speed, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for you, so I thank you very much.
…Which brings me to the audience that I’m most interested in addressing, and those are our consumers. You are the lifeblood of the company. Without you, there is no playstation. And I want to apologize both personally, and on behalf of the company for any anxiety we’ve caused you. I know we took you away from doing what you enjoy most -connecting in gaming with friends all over the world and enjoying the many entertainment options on playstation network…Network activity is currently at 90 percent of the original levels before the network outage, and that is something we absolutely do not take lightly. We are committed, more than ever, to ensuring that the playstation network experiences are both entertaining and secure for everybody.
While the cynical among folks will conclude this was carefully planned and crafted (it was, probably, and for very good reason considering the circumstances), it’s interesting to note that Jack Tretton acknowledges many “real” elements of the perception/reaction of the PSN outage, from the fact that the press generates a ton of reaction to bad news that is both visible and painful to companies, to the fact that publishers have lost a bunch of money, and of course, how it’s sucked for players not to have what they consider a core purchase feature.
There were a lot of demands from Playstation customers about how to deal with making things right. Ultimately, 30 days free subscription to Playstation Plus along with the offering of two games free from a selected library may not have been what some of these customers had in mind – but it was what was realistic to Sony to grant, given what happened. It’s this, coupled with the above acknowledgment of what was certainly a screwed up situation for everyone involved that form the “balanced” response I referred to – a bit of a compromise. Whether the compromise is enough is up to folks to decide for themselves – but its important to know that much more is at play when Community folks decide how to help guide reactions to bad happenings, which was of course, the point of writing this.
My empathy goes out to the Burger King community and social media folks. Hopefully, this writeup made people understand just a little bit better how they have to deal with the splattered crap of an unexpected issue.
Recently I’ve been feeling a bit rough around the edges with games. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen my frustrations with groups of people I simply haven’t had the best luck with in Guild Wars 2. It got to the point where I was getting a bit turned off from playing games altogether, and I was definitely getting burned out. So when one night I literally injured myself putting my face to my desk after a particularly bad dungeon group (don’t ask, it involved dying a lot and that’s all you need to know), I decided I needed to figure out why this was.
What I found out was that I was just playing one game all of the time – Guild Wars 2 – and while I do like the game and give props to ANet for putting together something solid, it’s like having chocolate or pizza every day for every meal. Eventually, you’re probably going to get sick of chocolate and pizza – at least I think MOST of you would – and you probably wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of it, much less eat it. All the things that would have been passable and able to be dealt with suddenly become more annoying than a splinter in the skin.
So over the last couple weeks, I’ve tried to shift my gaming taste a bit and become more of a connoisseur. Thankfully, a backlog of random games acquired through Steam as well as a couple PSN purchases I’d made over the last couple years meant I had a bunch of games I never really had any interest in playing. I played shooters and strategy games, and older games like Final Fantasy X. I played free games and facebook games and mobile games. And when I finally got back to playing Guild Wars 2 a day or so ago, I found it quite a bit better. Maybe not entirely so (I promptly got into a group that couldn’t kill a boss if they had bazookas and a nuclear bomb).
Heck, I even learned a few things about myself as a gamer:
- I’m a terrible shot, and most of my shooting in games with gunplay ends up with me Ramboing up to enemies and meleeing them with my gun as a blunt object.
- My thumbs are way too large to properly touch-click anything with reasonable accuracy.
- I’m still addicted to Triple Triad.
- My cats insist on climbing all over me right when I’m about to do anything important in any PC-based game, no matter what it is – but especially with You Don’t Know Jack.
I think there are times that we gamers get burned out and sometimes cold turkey is the best way to go. But other times, it’s not that we don’t want to play games, but that we’re looking for a different taste – something different that might be a break from the usual genre we’re used to playing. If there’s anything that games have gotten better at over the last few years, it’s presenting more variety, more types, and more ways to consume them in all its glory.
I think I could go for some chocolate or some pizza now.
Kristen and I have written a lot about feedback, specifically how we break it down into usable chunks and also process and compile it into useful information for developers. In both of these posts, we refer to the idea of shaming developers not really being an effective method for eliciting change, so we thought it would be a good idea to expound on the topic a bit and show people why, even though it seems like it works, it really doesn’t.
You’ve probably all seen a developer shaming post before. They’re the ones that attempt to “call out” developers, posted under the most benign circumstances as an awareness announcement, and in the most malicious as a way to showcase developer mistakes and create mass dissatisfaction. You might see them on fan forums when official channels get denied to the poster, or submitted to press sites as a way to shine harsh, Internet light down on a perceived issue.
Let’s look at a couple examples, shall we? The most common forms they take are:
When a corrective action like a ban or suspension has been given to a player and they disagree:
I am making this post to bring some real data to this situation. I want to share the insane double standards being used by the support team, and send a potential warning to players who craft and salvage any items in the game.
When a player is frustrated with design decisions or direction and decides to find evidence of the developers being contrary to previous statements:
Now the game has been released, it hardly feels ready. And as eager as I was to start playing at the stroke of midnight on the head-start weekend, after a few weeks of play time, I now feel like I’ve been lied to.
On top of all that they just released posted in a forum stating that they “weren’t going to release a perfect game…”.
I am nay saying the god complex that is running amuck. I know you guys think you have a perfect game and that your manifesto was on par with Marx but you have seriously reached the height of arrogance when you don’t set any deadlines for yourself, yet expect your paying customers to wait on you to fix a game that was released in a state of disrepair. I really really appreciate the talent, but I believe it’s gone to your heads. One only has to read their haughty forum posts to see that.
There are more instances, but these are the two most common we see come up.
Occasionally, threads and posts like these actually elicit a response from the developers, and in some of those cases, you might see action taken that matches what the player is posting they want done. This unfortunately leads to a mentality where “if we complain about it enough and draw attention to ourselves, we’ll get our way” – that for some reason the developer will want to save face by bowing to the demands of the player out of shame or fear of being seen negatively. This thinking couldn’t be more wrong, and here are some reasons why this is a myth.
Every action the developer takes is supported by a combination of sentiment and hard data.
It stands to reason that when a developer puts in an agreed-upon fix, builds a new feature most people like, or updates the game in general that they’re using supporting evidence to do so – metrics from internal and external testing, feedback from players and surveys, and so forth. Why, then is it that the argument made for when something isn’t done correctly in a player’s eyes that a developer is somehow “out of touch” with their game, or somehow “doesn’t play their own game”? Why is it that when a developer rolls back a change players dislike or they reverse a ban, that it is simply “the will of the players” or “they listened to the players”? No, the same data, metrics, evidence and internal processes used to implement a change are the same methods used to ensure a rollback or a removal are the wisest courses of action.
When someone purports to “shame” the developers by presenting an angry counterargument or personally insulting feedback to the developers in a TMZ-like tell-all format, that evidence is usually taken back by Community to the developers to see if that Fizzlebit Destruction Kittystorm ability really isn’t performing the way it’s expected to perform. If the data, and the (more constructively presented) sentiment/criticism from players supports action, then action will be taken. If a mistake was made (because they do happen sometimes no matter how much QA you put on a patch) and the evidence internally supports what players present, then it’s corrected.
This doesn’t always mean that how players feel doesn’t matter – it does, trust me, which is why Community teams look at trending sentiment and perception from players as justified metrics to at least investigate an issue. But very rarely is the rollback, change, or fix that the players want a direct and sole result of angry players looking to shame the developers into action by flooding forums and sites with rage-filled posts. In fact, if the data doesn’t support what the players think or are presenting as evidence, a developer will sometimes come right out and say it doesn’t (with the right massaging from us Community people, of course).
In short, if you want to correct an action a developer has taken with their game, you’re better off with intelligently gathered data coupled with constructive criticism – because we’ll be looking at those as the real feedback to take back to the developers instead of the pitchfork-wielding, call-to-angry-mob disdain that some players wield as weapons in an attempt to force a developer’s hand.
It isn’t the quantity, but the quality of the feedback that elicits change.
A typical shaming technique I’ve seen leveraged from players towards developers is the idea that if they post enough complaints, or overload the forum or fansites with enough dissatisfaction, that this will somehow move the developer towards corrective action that they agree with. And sometimes, when the developer does respond to this out of necessity or does something to calm the masses, it seems that it’s justified. But given the fact that we’ve explained that Community teams gather feedback in very specific ways and filter it, it’s really not the way to go. Primarily, it just causes the forum moderators on the Community team a headache as they seek to consolidate threads, remove duplicates, and take action against troublemakers.
When we take a look at an issue that is generating this much traffic, the fact that there is a lot of it out there is at most peripheral. Our primary objective is to gather the quality of feedback needed to illustrate to the developers to investigate a perceived player issue. The assimilation and gathering process you’ve seen us write about is performed multiple times, within minutes, on many posts, threads, and tweets, and more often than not, it’s not the original post of shame that gets referred to but the more rational, yet critical posts that either respond to it or are put up elsewhere. Sure, you might think that shame posts are thus justified because they’d actually generate attention where it’s needed, but honestly, we’d rather you start out with a post that was constructively critical with no shaming or insults attached to it, because providing feedback is supposed to be the prime motivator, not making the developer look bad – and it’s very obvious which ones are the former rather than the latter.
Saving face and good service/relationships are important, but aren’t the only reason to take action.
Community teams are tasked with managing service and the x-factors of human interaction when it comes to players and developers. In this respect, it is important to maintain good relationships with players. It is important that when we need to do so, we save face by publicly acknowledging mistakes when they are made, or explaining as much as possible the circumstances behind actions taken in response to player feedback. But it is by no means the only thing that is taken into account. This is why when multiple shame threads on a subject are removed or consolidated, it isn’t because a developer wants to hide the issue – another myth that is a bit silly considering the internet usually knows what happens regardless of whether something gets hidden or not.
When action is taken, it’s not just to make a show of good faith to ensure that we are listening, or that we’re embarrassed by what happened. There’s also the idea of being consistent with actions being taken, of understanding that design sometimes doesn’t pan out as intended in the live game, that players should be acknowledged as having a viewpoint that the developers may sometimes not have considered. That’s why when something happens in response to massive feedback, it isn’t because the developers are ashamed of being called out on their mistakes, but because it’s important that the experience as a whole is satisfactory and fair – and a lot more goes into that than just player feedback and the relationship players feel towards developers.
Hopefully this helps bust the myth of trying to shame developers into change. Trust us – there’s more at stake at fixing something than player dissatisfaction, which is why it’s important to communicate more than just that when you’re giving developers feedback.
Today is Community Manager Appreciation Day, which means that tireless, sleepless, slightly insane Community folks the world around get to have their tiny little day in the sun. Sure, CMAD isn’t really as well known as any of the other work-type holidays out there (you should see the loot that our Secretary folks get on Secretary day for example) but the way, I see it, better late than never, right?
I think some people get wrapped up in the things that they actually see when they interact with Community Managers. They talk about what the Community Manager tweets about, what the Community Manager posts on a forum, and even, sometimes, what the Community Manager has for lunch. It’s safe to say that whatever a Community person says and does externally is under a microscope and gets taken apart.
But what about what the Community Manager does that people don’t see? The things that you might not know about the Community Manager’s job that aren’t really necessary for you to know, but which go on every day? My partner in crime Kristen has a really great post about how Community people assimilate content, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg and just one of many things Community teams do. In honor of Community Manager Appreciation Day, here are some things you’ll probably never hear regarding Community Managers:
- The patch notes you are currently tearing apart and devouring were lovingly baked and put in the oven through many, many revisions and edits and last minute changes by a Community Manager who may have wept at how many pages it was in Word.
- The night before a big day for the Community or a milestone, the Community Manager didn’t really sleep. They probably edited a document, put out a fire, made sure a developer was available early morning, or wrangled with the press.
- 20 threads about that one annoying issue were read, catalogued, filed, and pored over for sentiment by a Community Manager. And then they put on their battle gear and went to war for the change with the developers.
- That developer post you really liked and thought addressed your concerns was curated by a Community Manager who understood what was common sense to the community, and thought needed addressing.
- Compromise? Rollback? Even refund? If something that was done got changed, a Community Manager was there, beating down developer and executive doors behind the scenes, pointing to your feelings and sentiment.
- Dissatisfied feedback reports, bugs, or people who are suffering through mistakes? The Community Manager was mailed about it, notified it was an issue, and quietly escalated it to be resolved quickly.
and perhaps most of all…
- The specific things you probably that probably get you mad, annoyed, happy, passionate, sad, and dissatisfied with are the same things a Community Manager gets mad, annoyed, happy, passionate, sad, and dissatisfied with. And that’s because they love and hate the product or game or service as much as you do.
Community managers are more than just a public face. They are your knights in shining armor — despite how often you might dislike them and make that fact very well known — who always are ready to strap on the armor, pick up the halberd, and charge into the fight for you. And despite how caffeinated they might be at the time, they are tireless commanders who are always there to make sure you are enjoying every moment of your game-playing experience. All of the things I’ve listed are things that we Community folks do, but would probably never outright tell our communities we do – and that’s because it isn’t about us. It’s about the people and the communities we serve to represent and listen to every day. It’s about making sure that at the end of the day, people get what they want and are satisfied and content. It’s about being advocates not just for people, but for the feelings and ideas and experiences they want to have.
But maybe now you know a little bit more about what else goes on. So keep that in mind the next time you go to talk to a Community person, yes?
News is starting to come out of what happened at last week’s meeting that US Vice President Joe Biden had with members of the video game industry and researchers about violence as it relates to games in general. By and large, Biden does not believe there is a link between video games and violent behavior, something that is sure to be a bit of a relief to both gamers and gaming industry folks alike. After all, the industry has had its fair share of having to weather the violence in video games argument before. My good friend and co-host Kristen Fuller and I discussed this on The Netophiles podcast on video games and violence, so to have at least one prominent politician come out at least in a neutral stance is a bit of a small victory.
But Biden also seemed to issue a little bit of a warning to the industry, telling them that perception is a very powerful thing, even if reality doesn’t actually support it. Researchers also seemed to agree that there could be more done to actually improve the image of the industry, and that the assembled executives would do well to do more to ensure it wasn’t an easy target.
But why is this solely the industry’s responsibility? I find it odd that the primary burden of proof that violence is not connected to video games seems to rest on the shoulders of industry executives and developer studios. Sure, they’re the creator of the medium, and would therefore be the most credible source to improve its perception, but I don’t really think it’s something that they have to be solely responsible for. No, I think that when it comes to disproving the violence and video games connection, that everyone who’s involved needs to do what they can.
Parents need to educate themselves about the rating system of games, of the types of games their children play, and get in the practice of telling and teaching their children the difference between playing in a game and acting in reality. The industry needs to facilitate access to more credible research, emphasize and improve the rating system, and provide what notice about content they can to gamers, both inside and outside of games. Gamers themselves need to take responsibility for their own hobby, understand the stigma it can somehow create, and work to help others understand that the stereotypes don’t always apply. And all of these groups can work together to identify someone who just happens to be a gamer who teeters on an emotional cliff and get them the help they need.
The most dangerous thing I see about this whole debate on violence and video games is the notion that someone isn’t responsible for it, whether that is narrow-minded parents, overly defensive industry executives, or regular, disdainful gamers who’d rather be angry at being mistreated or misrepresented rather than doing something to change it. Until people realize everyone has to play their part in preventing things like Sandy Hook or Columbine from happening again, we’ll always be at greater risk than we need to be at such tragedies going down.
When I was growing up, I went through a period where I was pretty bad at the twitch-based shooting and action games that seemed to dominate the rise of PC gaming popularity near the last decade. That was me crashing my plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator within the first 5 minutes, and me who seemed to get killed by the easy Nazis and demons of Wolfenstein and Doom. And it was definitely me who made themselves the worst X-Wing pilot since Porkins in STAR WARS Episode IV, though I suppose that anyone having to deal with the dreaded Escort The Freighter missions probably wanted to tear their hair out, too (but I bet they didn’t accidentally shoot their own ships or crash into the freighter as many times as I did).
Scratching my head at all this, I turned to two genres of games as solace for my terrible mouse and keyboard skills. One was the RPG, and anyone who knows me knows that RPGs became a staple in my household with love of such classics as Final Fantasy IV-VII, Lufia, Lunar, Xenogears, and more. One of these days I’ll probably try to expound on my sordid and obsessive history of leveling wayyy above things in RPGs and steamrolling monsters while cackling evilly, but what I want to focus on for this post was the other genre in which I sought solace, and that’s the adventure game. Games like Myst, King’s Quest, Police Quest, Companions of Xanth, and even Zork were the other source of my gaming entertainment – and they didn’t require me to be a pilot or a soldier or a demon hunter. They just required me to be, well, me – and through a series of intelligently constructed puzzles and point-and-click forays I felt a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment that I hadn’t felt dying repeatedly in action games. As the adventure game lost its popularity and drive and made way for more active genres of games, so too did my interest in them – but really that was because no one really kept up with making them. Thus my appreciation for the genre lay dormant – until now.
The Walking Dead, Telltale Games’ foray set in the grim reality of a zombie apocalypse (based on a story told in comic books and a TV show), is the latest darling of the gaming world. Set before the events of the TV show and a bit after the first mass outbreak, the game’s 5 episodes put you in charge of Lee Everett, a man with a secret and a bit of baggage that gets caught up in the beginnings of a world gone wrong. His finding of the girl Clementine in the midst of this chaos and subsequent fall of human civilization is the start of a tale that will change them both forever.
If you’ll pardon the cheese of the analogy, the game itself has reached into the grave of Adventure and Point-and-Click gaming and given it new life on many levels. There’s a lot of hype that surrounds an out-of-nowhere, critically acclaimed hit, so I’ll try to give a few specific reasons why this game in particular has hopefully made the adventure genre viable for the future.
It combines the core gameplay of adventure games with modern game elements.
What’s really great about The Walking Dead is that at its core, it’s a traditional point-and-click Adventure game that will bring back fond memories. You’re expected to solve a few puzzles along the way – not terribly difficult ones, but ones nonetheless – in order to proceed, using the environment and objects to achieve goals. The elements of examining your surroundings, picking up what you can, and figuring out what use it has for you are all parts of a bike that’s easy to get back on and ride, if you’ve played the genre before. But what’s really great are the modern game elements that players have found appealing – active action sequences, a morality choice system (more on this later), and a supporting cast of varied characters. There’s also the much-loved-to-be-hated quick time event, but even if you despise these they’re never terribly difficult so as to be frustrating and are easily repeated if failed. The point is, the marriage of classic and modern game elements makes for a new facelift for an old genre, and I was personally pleased to see it all blend together nicely.
It has a deep and multi-threaded plotline that evokes emotions…
If you value story and plot at all in your games, The Walking Dead will certainly appeal to you. I can’t get into too much of the nitty gritty detail for obvious reasons, but I will say that the missing piece and criticism made of adventure games, that of a relative lack of a plot or told story, has been added to this game in spades. The game’s action is told over “episodes”, with “previously” and “next time” segments that create the sense that you are not just watching the story but also living it. Fully voiced sequences have actors convey the right amount of fear, paranoia, desperation, anger, and everything else associated with a world-changing event like walking corpses who eat the living. Just watching the story unfold over these sequences was a treat in and of itself.
…and it pushes your buttons through the mechanics of its morality choice system.
But the story and appeal of The Walking Dead has always been its depiction of the human condition in the face of disaster, the drama and emotional stress that goes with simple survival goals, and the forcing of that through tough, life-threatening situations. We’ve heard the line delivered that choices made in games with a morality system impact later action, but never has it really been done in a way like this. You’re basically pushed to make decisions quickly through enforced time limits that match the situation in real-time, and some of them aren’t so easy to hash out, especially when you are made aware that the things you say and do are things that are remembered and referred to later by your companions – sometimes as little as a few seconds, or as long as several episodes later. I usually play evil bastard, and like it, but the combination of story elements and a few particularly heavy emotional choices made me change my normal gameplay. It made me make the choices as me, not really as Lee, but me playing as Lee. Sure, there are ways to go back, replay, and even pause the choices you have to make, but they all come with a bit of penalty to repeat sequences without being able to skip dialogue. Besides, it was much more fun to play through making decisions within the time limit and acting as I felt I could if I was a survivor in a world gone mad.
These are just some of the ways in which The Walking Dead is well worth your money, at least to play through the first episode or so. As long as people understand it’s an adventure/point-and-click game and not an action game, I think they’ll enjoy The Walking Dead – and its potential re-invigoration of a long dead genre that deserves more exposure and appreciation.