Today, after 5 years of operation, Warhammer Online is shutting it’s doors. As far as MMOs go, that’s not a bad run of it, and it’s probably a good a time as any to drop a blog post update here at Overly Positive.
For many of us who followed it, worked for it, and were otherwise involved in the community, WAR has a bittersweet taste to it. It’s bitter because in many ways, WAR could have been a more solid title and had a better consistent following than it turned out to have. As a forum moderator and later Community Manager for Curse’s Warhammer Alliance fansite, I was at its frontline following its news, rise, and eventual fall from grace amongst the MMO playing public. While the development team certainly must feel a more keen sense of “what could have been” and 20/20 hindsight, as a fan who had invested many hours into helping build the fan community for WAR I really wish things could have turned out differently for the EA Mythic/Games Workshop project.
But dwelling on the difficulties of the past is never really something that has as much value unless you understand you got something good out of them – that you have treasured memories and lessons you’ll never forget.
I’ll never forget the first quests of the Greenskin area, where you throw mud at dwarf statues and roll dwarf barrels down waterfalls.
I’ll never forget the first time I took down a giant Chaos beast in a public quest with my fellow players.
I’ll never forget the network of industry and studio contacts I would make, or that Community Coordinators Andy Belford and Jess Folsom would help me follow a path into the games industry, where I still walk today.
I’ll never forget the guildies I grouped with, the rush of a keep and city siege and the freshness and excitement that accompanied many months of playing.
…and I’ll never forget the team we’d assembled at Warhammer Alliance, or the pride I now feel at seeing them move on to places like Google, and Bungie, and BioWare, and EA, that they’ve become teachers and doctors and parents and community professionals, and much, much more.
For a lot of the people I know, WAR has become a memory, ashes on the battlefield from guns long silenced and swords and wands long sheathed and shelved. Yet from these ashes, I think many of us have risen, paid homage to WAR in the best way that we can – by remembering the good times, the lessons, and the cautionary tales – and have applied them as best as we could to our subsequent endeavors. And that, I think, is the best way to remember Warhammer Online. Not as an MMO that was, that could have been, that failed to meet expectations – but as a milestone by which in some way small or great, made us better as game players, as developers, as professionals, and as people.
Here’s to you, Warhammer Online. Sweet dreams.
Every so often you tend to find the sort of things that happen online that are, essentially, “popcorn” events – the sort that you watch from a distance, wonder what the heck happened, yet are intrigued simply by the insanity and personalities involved. Such as it was when developer Phil Fish abruptly cancelled Fez II after what could only be seen as a highly visible internet slap fight with podcaster Marcus Beer, aka Annoyed Gamer. I won’t repeat the entire exchange here, if only to say that the words “wankers” and “tosspots” were used and that Fish at one point told Beer to “kill himself”.
I’m late to the party, so by now there have been a fair number of people defending Fish against an increasingly hateful stream of internet commentary, or criticizing him for being too close to his work and not being tough enough to survive the online jungle grind of flames, trolls, and other malcontents. If you screen the more emotionally charged reactions, there are legitimate points for both sides of the argument. The issue has been debate to death ad nauseum online, and so I won’t really focus on who was really in the right in this post.
What I will say is what this and many other instances of online flameouts can and should teach when it comes to being an internet denizen in a dangerous online city of participants – and that’s being responsible for what you do, say, and read. Being responsible about what you do online seems to be a fairly obvious protip for anyone with an email address and a web browser, but you’d be surprised, more often than not, about how people forget about the personal responsibility they owe themselves when they’re on the internet. The reasons are myriad and have been hashed in many previous blog posts I’ve made, from the lack of consequences to the lure of anonymity and many other explanations. But it all goes to taking responsibility.
So what does that mean? A lot, but if I had to boil it down to its two salient points it would be:
Being responsible for what you say when online. If you walked into a crowded bar, and told someone they were a “fucking hipster”, or flew off the handle in a meeting or in someone’s face, you’d probably regret it most of the time, and people probably wouldn’t think too well of you. But the lack of this immediate consequence is what enables people to say the kinds of things that Beer and Fish said to one another online. The thing is that you reap what you sow, even online. If you’re prone to emotional outbursts, trolling, inflammatory comments, or other such behavior, people see that. They remember that. And the more visible you are, the more they will see you as that. You’re always crafting a persona online, whether you intend to or not, and those that don’t take responsibility for what they say are a half step away from a foot in mouth moment that could define how people view you. Not caring about this isn’t an option, as everyone makes mistakes and the veil of anonymity is not always ironclad.
Being responsible for what you read and react to online. If you know you’re the kind of person that is emotionally invested in, say, Legos, you probably wouldn’t read threads that bash the Lego company or Legos in general. If you feel emotional invested in the things that you create online, you probably wouldn’t go heading into a thread where people are sure to be saying you suck. Yet many people, including Fish and Beer, are unable to do this. They’re obligated to read what they know isn’t going to be pretty and worse yet, exacerbate the situation by reacting poorly instead of constructively, continuing a nuclear salvo of online warfare that ultimately leads to nothing productive. A lot of people want everyone else to change their behavior before they’re willing to change their own, or if not that, the choices they make when navigating the internet shark tank. Understandably, the more visible and famous you are, the harder this is to do, but no matter how “e-famous” you get, you can always control how you deal with what you see posted. It’s like making sure that before you set out in the jungle, you know what to do when a tiger, a lion, or a poisonous snake does something. You wouldn’t set out without being prepared there, and you shouldn’t do so online, either.
People have posted thoughts that said the Phil Fish/Marcus Beer story is about the state of emotional investment in development, or the issue of how press analyzes and ultimately criticizes that development. But I think it really points to a larger issue – one that shows two people who, in one way or another, failed to take responsibility for their online behavior. It goes far beyond a highly visible developer and a podcaster having it out on the internet for all of it to see, and in that sense, it touches every one of us. We can and should be obligated not to shrug our shoulders and hide behind the excuse of “it’s the internet”. We should realize what we’re heading into every day when we read our Twitter feeds, post on forums or Reddit, and watch video commentary. We should understand what it means when we type something, or say something, or show others something online. And we should assign blame to others less when we inevitably wander in an online minefield and step on something dangerous we didn’t see buried.
We should have responsibility for ourselves online – because if we don’t, the only real consequence will be a lot more than internet popcorn devouring or the development of a game that many looked forward to.
I’ve always said that Community people will read and take in any feedback that’s shot their way, and that’s the way it should be. After all, one of the main things that Community folks do is to read and sift through the things that people are saying about the product or service or game. It’s something we’re obligated to do, and it’s part of our job. And that also includes praise as well as criticism. There’s a common myth out there that I see posted from people where someone will say that we only want to hear positive feedback, and that’s silly. I mean, if all I heard was that everything was peachy keen and 100% perfect, I’d probably be A)wary of what was put into the water and B)very, very bored at my job. So yes – all the feedback, no matter if it’s positive or negative, gets read. It may not always be something the team responds to, but it is definitely seen at some point.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t feedback that simply doesn’t serve a use. It’s the kind of feedback that a Community person will read and simply scratch their head over, and which doesn’t serve a real purpose as a matter of telling us something needs fixing. I think it’s important, however, to draw up a definition of what I mean by “useless” feedback, because I can just imagine people wondering if we look at some of the feedback we get and shred it without looking at it, kind of like the picture on the right. Useless feedback is feedback that a Community person can’t really do anything about, other than to communicate a sentiment up the chain that something sucks and people don’t like it. It’s feedback that we cant substantiate into a mechanic, design element, or a service issue that can be concretely dealt with, and it’s also something that can’t be taken back and solved with specific steps and effort. Usually, if I see useless feedback, I’ll try hard to read between the lines to see if there’s something driving what’s being said, but most of the time, if the person is just letting off steam, there’s not much I can do about it except shrug my shoulders and move on.
So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are five useless bits of feedback you can give to Community people.
1. “The developers are lazy.”
It never fails that when someone posts this bit of feedback to one of the channels we use to take it in, that it’s after a particularly brutal crunch period where a significant portion of the development team was working long hours with little sleep, fueled only for their masochistic love for the game and unhealthy energy drinks. It’s especially mind-boggling when you consider that development of say, games is a multi-year project, filled with many man-hours, meetings, and late nights, so to say that “Devs R Lazy” is just not something we can take back and tell teams. It’s not often that a regular person gets to see behind the scenes of a development studio, but if you do get a chance to experience it, if not just read about it, you’d quickly find that the workday is far from being lazy about design.
Now if you’re saying the developers are inefficient due to rushing their code or QA isn’t holding to a standard, that’s another story. But laziness is not the issue.
2. “You lied to us.”
Whenever I see this come back to me as feedback, I immediately check my calendar a couple days back, just to see if I’d inadvertently scheduled “Lie to Community” for 1:00pm, followed immediately by “Cackle Evilly” at 2:00pm and “Put Lockbox of Kittens on Railroad Track” at the end of the day. I never find these appointments.
The problem with accusing a developer or Community person that they’re a liar is that in pretty much all of the cases, no one, especially a Community person intentionally intends to be dishonest to their players. It’s not just a matter of moral or ethical behavior, but practical as well. The way that dirty business practices and underhanded behavior spreads these days on the Internet, it would be extremely unwise to tell people something that wasn’t true. Maybe all the corporate scandal of the last few years has jaded some people, but in just about all the companies out there, dishonesty is the worst, not the best, policy to adhere to from a business standpoint.
Telling us that we lied is just a misnomer anyway – what someone is really trying to say is that we didn’t keep a promise – a milestone or deadline slipped, a design change was made that contradicts what was stated earlier, or something else changed circumstances. It’s legit to feel that the developers should stick to their design decisions, even if there are tons of circumstances that can dictate otherwise – it’s just not legit to assume or purport that development teams are villains intent on stealing your money.
3. “The person in charge of this should be fired.”
Granted, it’s a bit easy to read between the lines on this useless bit of feedback – someone is dissatisfied with the way that a specific area of responsibility handled a situation. And yes, most times, people giving this feedback will take the time to specifically point out the situation that led them to this opinion. A lot of times, I can sort of extrapolate what the real issue is, track it down, and escalate it if necessary.
But that doesn’t mean this statement is any less useless for Community people. Primarily, it’s the whole rather silly notion that the Community folks have the ability to fire people in the first place. How can I really put this into a report to be dropped to our design leads? It’s not exactly something I can say – “so, people feel that item scaling doesn’t extend into endgame, we have a couple balance issues with the Scissor-Cutter class, and oh, by the way, they don’t think you should be employed. Can you get on all of these by the end of the day?”. It’s just not really something I can do much about – not to mention that were we even to entertain the notion, the task of re-aligning resources and delegating responsibility to a sudden black hole in a position or positions is extremely difficult if not unrealistic. It’s just not going to happen.
4. “This was clearly a cheap money-grab.”
This one’s sort of in line with the “you lied to us” bit of feedback, in that it’s not particularly intentional that companies or dev studios are stealing money from your wallet in an unsavory way. The implication, however, is that the company’s priority is to make money by any means necessary, with the loftier goals of high quality and fun experiences for customers a secondary, even bonus, outcome. It’s hard for a Community person to really formulate this into something other than a non-ideal user experience where people feel cheated out of their cash, and even that is vague. And there’s also the notion, however people don’t want to hear it, that companies, especially game companies, are also businesses – that making revenue to stay in business IS a priority to keep the company funds solvent and in some cases prove viability to publishers or investors. There’s a lot of things that factor into cash-making initiatives.
But if you’re going to just imply that we wanted your money before we wanted your loyalty, that’s hard to dissuade or deal with – especially if you think we were unethical doing it. Really, the issue is not with money-grabs, but the way in which you feel you are obligated to spend your hard-earned dough. If a mechanic involving cash is intrusive to the point of it being necessary or “pay2win” towards others, that’s one thing – but telling us we swindled you is entirely another.
5. “I hope everything fails/the devs get hit by a bus/die in a fire/get laid off and learn their lesson about being bad.”
Most times, the person who resorts to this kind of feedback is frustrated, angry, or just plain in need of getting their bad feeling about their experience off of their chest and somewhere else. I get that. When things don’t work out, when you just need to let it out. It’s cathartic.
But taking it out on the development team or on the Community folks just isn’t the way to do it. Really, one has to stand back and think about what they are saying when they wish harm on other people, want them to suffer, and basically have their lives destroyed over what is essentially frustrating experiences with games and services. There’s a limit to what should be tolerable in terms of the type of feedback that’s given, and an intense need to experience the schadenfreude of watching people or companies be ruined is equivalent to using a nuclear bomb as retaliation for a bump on the head or a bloody cut on the arm. There’s nothing I can do about someone wanting to make a cautionary tale out of an entire company, especially when today’s economy makes it difficult to be employed in the first place.
Besides, company or employee or product failure is only the outcome of what’s happened, not the lesson. The lessons are learned in examining what was inefficient, what design decisions were made that hurt things, and constructive criticism about what could have been done better. The complete meltdown of a company is just not worth the value of the deterrent it serves to others in an industry looking to succeed.
In short, there are better ways to frame your feedback than the short-sightedness and lack of priorities it takes to want someone else to suffer or be harmed for bad entertainment experiences.
And that’s that. Hopefully, this will help frame feedback a lot better. Remember – Community people aren’t out to hear all rainbows and unicorns – but what they do hear, needs to be useful enough to do something about. It just makes it all the more likely that what sucks about your experience will get fixed, and fixed properly.
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.