So You Read Message Boards For a Living?

MMO community managers have an ugly job. Public relations is never the cakewalk that it seems from the outside, but dealing with the teeming internet hordes is not always as pleasant as eating bees.

I have never had the job, but let us pause a moment to consider some of the things we put our poor community managers, board mods, and developers through. Anyone can feel free to add horrors that I have missed in the comments (or via e-mail). (If this is your job, we understand if you feel the need to use a pseudonym and censor specifics, but we will not be releasing IP addresses and we understand that any example does not relate to specific people, but rather is a statement of general tendencies or extreme cases, probably exaggerated for effect. Or maybe you want to make an example of someone.)

You are the first point of contact for the company. You are the first line of defense. If there is a problem, you will be its public face. If someone disagrees with a balance decision, you get the e-mail. If there is an unhappy announcement, you get to say it.

On the other hand, if there is a positive announcement, someone else might want that one. The company president gets to announce “free respecs for all!” in the anniversary newsletter, while you get to explain that characters created after the anniversary do not get a respec banked, even if they made them during the anniversary month. (You also get to deal with the “this is a slap in the face” post that accompanies most positive announcements.)

Those non-PR trained developers can be a problem in general. They say things that will take you two months to clean up, and people will still bring up beta comments from a developer who does not work there anymore. Yes, it is helpful to have someone who can explain technical details, who knows the system intimately and can explain it rather than your needing to re-explain it after they explain to you. And then he makes a joke about elves that comes off as an ethnic slur to your Korean players.

Thousands of players feel free to call on you personally to answer every question and complaint. Every single thing. You personally. When you get back from lunch, you have a full screen of e-mails, including ones from 12:49pm asking why you haven’t responded to the 12:01pm messages. The tide of private messages on the boards is unrelenting, and two-thirds of them are asking things in the FAQ. At least one front-page thread on every board will have your name in the title.

Innocent statements get taken out of context or distorted by wishful thinking or malice. “What did he mean by ‘we don’t plan anything like that’? Is he saying that they have no plan for the game and are just doing things randomly? Or do the devs just not tell the PR people what is going on? Hello, people, we need information here!” “So when you said, ‘we don’t plan anything like that,’ you were basically lying because changing enemy resistances is practically the same thing as changing player accuracy. They both slow down how quickly we level. Why are the devs always nerfing everything and then lying about it?” And then there are the fine details that really are hard for people to get, such as the separate accuracy and to-hit bonuses in City of Heroes.

Idiots attack you. They attack your game and your company, but they attack you personally. We all have seen enough examples of these.

Idiots defend you. Stupid fanboys and groupies can be rather counter-productive, especially if they are defending one thing by impugning another. “Don’t blame her! It’s not her fault that the game sucks and the devs have sold out to the carebears. She’s on our side.” Great, that post helped the public relations campaign so much, thanks. Also, stop stalking her; the board mod is not turned on by level 60s or poor grammar.

Moderation is not the same thing as censorship. Deleting a post about how elvish necrophiles are corrupting the game, with lurid detail, does not make you a jackbooted thug. This point is non-obvious to a surprising number of people. Shouting “What about free speech?!” does not make anyone’s statements important or even coherent. Yes, geniuses are never appreciated in their own times, but neither are jackasses. How many irony points do you get for being called a nazi after deleting someone’s screed about how all the game’s problems are caused by a Jewish cabal that is controlling the company (along with all the oil companies and OPEC)?

You cannot say anything because it might not be true twenty minutes later. An unexpected bug delays a patch for a week: “OMFG LAIRS! ur so dishonest!! I planed my hole life around that new quset goign live on Tues and i took off work and everything. u owe me a free month and a days pay from my job.” Yes, you took their jerbs. Someone down the hall from you changed something and forgot to note it. The guy next to him reported a bug fixed, but there is still a problem he does not know about. As you are explaining that there are no plans to do X, there is a meeting elsewhere in the building where they are deciding to do 2*X. You are the microphone for a hydra that is joined at the backside to four or five hydrae of other MMOs, parent companies, and unrelated things that will be attributed to you.

That point may bear a bit of drawing out. Cryptic and NCSoft are not the same thing, nor were Turbine and Microsoft, nor are Turbine and Wizards of the Coast. Bringing your game to market involved a bunch of companies, possibly with conflicting long-term goals, and people will blame you for things other companies did, possibly for things they did that have no relationship to your game at all. Or maybe “to your company at all,” since you the community manager might work for the publisher in a different state from the developers who made the game, and it is an entirely different group of people running the game than the ones who made it, while another company hosts your servers, and someone else’s cable break is the reason why no one west of Utah can connect today (“but y can i get on the boards if the servers r down”). All your community knows is that something is wrong, FIX IT NOW.

You do have something definite to say, but you cannot tell anyone until the official announcement next month. Until then, players will complain that X does not exist. Once you can announce the expansion/update/patch/whatever, half the complainers will think it was their idea and decide that complaining in thousand-post threads really works. We need more thousand-post complaint threads! Title them all “Official thread: X is Overpowered”!

Of course, the players know best. Just ask them, they’ll tell you. They know what is broken with the game, where the fundamental design decisions went wrong, and how easy it would be to fix them all before next Thursday if only you guys didn’t just care about money. Yup.

Did I mention that players will extensively make mutually exclusive complaints? This can be funny when the same person is making both, but you really can never make everyone happy about even one issue. “Tanks are too weak, I keep getting killed in PvP.” “Tanks are too strong, it takes forever to kill them in PvP.” “Tanks are too boring, all they do is soak up damage.” “Tanks are too essential in PvE, we shouldn’t be forced to have them in the group.” “Tanks are so borked in this game, I am going to go play WoW.”

What are we to say about people who make protective whines? That is, if a class is perfectly balanced, the only complaints will be from underpowered classes that are comparing themselves to it; people playing the forum game will then attempt to balance the whining by placing complaints on the other side of the scale, for fear of nerfs if the boards are filled with one-sided complaints about who is overpowered.

Players who are actually happy and playing the game may never appear on the boards. Remember, we the blog and board readers are the severe minority, the obsessed fans who are probably more trouble than we are worth. A casual player visiting the official boards might become less satisfied with the game, discovering dozens of potential problems he had never considered. “I thought I liked my paladin, but if I am that underpowered…”

And what about those annoying bloggers? Mouthy self-important jerks.

: Zubon

[/edit] Many community managers have chimed in to say that we are not more trouble than we are worth. I thought you should know.

33 thoughts on “So You Read Message Boards For a Living?”

  1. I am the sole moderator for a forum of 3000+ people (unrelated to gaming). It is not a forum to support a product or service so people don’t generally have a complaint about “me”. Mostly it is a discussion board and the topic (I’m purposely avoiding getting specific here) is what people rant about. Sometimes people hear a rumor about a certain company involved in my forum’s topic and the people go off ripping into this company. Then I get the threats of lawsuits because I allowed this discussion to occur. I also get the self-important members that take how people view the topic as a personal vendetta and are always complaining to me about how these people badmouth the topic. I can only imagine the horrors of having to support a product and/or service. I consider myself lucky since I’m only providing a place for open discussion.

  2. Great article. You pretty much nailed it. :)

    Still, though, I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.

    -Meghan “Patience” Rodberg
    Community Manager, The Lord of the Rings Online

  3. Gotta say,

    Extremely well written and absolutly right. I don’t run a large forum but I interact with those that run gaming forums on a regular basis. I’ve seen the whole thing from both sides and it changed how I usually post on forums.

  4. I didn’t write this – but man, everyone thinks I did. :)
    What Meghan said – So true, but… It’s the best job I ever lost sleep and hair over.

    CuppaJo – City of Heroes/City of Villains Community Manager

  5. Nicely said. I agree with the rest. Despite the negatives the positives far outweigh it and just that one ‘good job” from someone in the community can make up for alot of the negativity you can encounter.

  6. On consideration, I’d like to comment on this line:

    “Remember, we the blog and board readers are the severe minority, the obsessed fans who are probably more trouble than we are worth.”

    I definitely don’t think that keeping a good line of communication with the most dedicated portion of a playerbase is more trouble than it’s worth. Nobody knows the game better than the players, and we are constantly getting excellent information from the forums on various issues around the game(s).

    Still, MMO forums tend to have particular patterns in common, and you nailed a lot of them. :)

  7. I got nothing, I’m just here to badger CuppaJo and Tisirin. ;)

    Seriously though it certainly rings true to me as well. I imagine it’s like being caught in the middle of two entities on two completely different schedules that are months apart. The developers (and the other companies involved) with their internal decisions and overall plan of action that’s probably laid out at least months in advanced versus the community that’s just now starting to respond to something that they decided on months prior. And as pointed out, because of the regular and intimate fashion in which the CMs interact with the players, there seems a sense of sometimes unfounded familiarity and subsequent empowerment as if X player is buddy buddy with Y CM and so that means X is talking straight to the devs and X can make things happen. Or vice versa, when a CM drops some negative news, a perception of being punched in the face by a close friend.

    Still, from the perspective of my position as I get to interact with CuppaJo and crew regularly, I also imagine its’ a job with unique rewards. That same familiarity and friendship, outside of just promoting good community relations between company and community, it’s not something that every job gets to have and develop.

    Makes me more appreciative of CMs to be sure.

  8. *wave* Obviously lots of names we all know commenting here, since we have the public faces of a half-dozen games already. I feel weird having the CoX team show up less than 24 hours after that last post on the free weekend… As ever, we love our community team. The CoX boards are full of love for CuppaJo, _Castle_, and WarWitch, for all the lovely things they do and the fact that they talk back.

  9. What? CuppaJo didn’t write this? :) Well, it’s damn funny – but true.
    This job is worth the hair we lose and the nightmares at night.

    If it would be easy all the time it would not be a challenge anymore. Come on, more Dots…

    Amboss
    German Community Coordinator City of Heroes/City of Villains

  10. Well, like Meghan said before, it is true, but I wouldn’t trade the job for anything (apart from being a Billionaire maybe) ;)

    Martin Kerstein
    German Community Coordinator Guild Wars

  11. I picked this thread up off a link on Ashen Temper’s site (ashentemper.com).
    Having spent a good deal of time on the player end of this subject I was happy to note that most of what Zubon said was in line with my understanding of the relationship the fans and the managers have. I did, however, have a little question for the managers who seem to have flocked to this one in force.
    In Saggitary’s post he goes into the idea of the buddy buddy relationship that can occur between fans and managers but seemed to think that most of this was an illusion created by the fan’s expectations. From my time online I’ve found that this relationship actually goes both ways and have had several moments where things I have said to a CM in a private note come back out into the public conversation through said CM or even wind their way into implimentation in the game. This seems to belie the idea that these types of (for lack of a better word) more intimate communication are illusionary or even that they are ineffective at getting things accomplished from the player’s perspective. So my question to the mods here is: In your experience, do these types of relationships exist, and if so, does this type of more focused, player to manager communication bear any fruit which is unobtainable through public avenues?

  12. That was well done. After cruising around the CoX boards for some time I have to agree. :) Sometimes I’m not sure if I want to sympathize or envy them – so I settle for a healthy dose of respect.

    Mialiah – CoH Warcry Columnist

  13. I don’t believe the relationship is illusionary. My relationships with fans tends to be as genuine as possible without compromising my position or the company I work for. I do my best to truly listen and take ideas or issues that I believe have merit back to the team.

    There are some people that may sometimes attempt to be overly familiar in nature but they generally are just trying to push the envelope anyway to see what they can get away with. Generally though once they realize they are dealing with someone that genuinely cares they will back off and become ‘real’ with you. Thus a very real relationship can occur out of that initial facade.

    These relationships also help as a CM in that if something comes up that may very well not be understood well by the playerbase it can be explained to the few that have a good rapport with you. They in turn can help spread things via word of mouth and hopefully help assuage fears or apprehensions of other players about changes etc.

    I’m sure some CMs might not feel this way but I couldn’t possibly tell you who. From meeting many others, we’re all pretty much cut from the same cloth and genuinely love what we do and interacting with the players.

    There is much more to the CM end of things as well but as far as the surface things this is a really good article and fairly accurate.

  14. I’m not a community manager, but I’ve worked tech and customer support desks for a wide variety of web products and services. Unfortunately, it’s the same wherever you go. Whenever you are the face of the company; not the pristine public face of the exectutive, mind you, but the one that sits down in the trenches with the teeming masses and rolls up your sleeves to deal with the horde of incoming information/requests/threats/etc…It’s always tough.

    This article nailed a lot of it, and I forwarded it to my old crew at one of my jobs where the 9 of us were the face of our organization to over 150, 000 customers. We were the first to be cursed out when things went wrong, and the last to be praised if we took care of an issue before it ballooned out of control. On top of that, if you cared about your job or your customers, then there are the times when they bring up an issue that you’d really like to be able to fix for them, or at least provide an answer for; and the engineers/devs/management wouldn’t back you up.

    I’ve got nothing but respect for those in Cuppa and Tisirin’s line of work. At least our customer base had a modicom of expectation for proffesionalism. In gaming… well…let’s just say you don’t.

    Hat-tip to the author of the article, and all you out there to whom it applies.

    Cheers.

  15. @Ebentariel:

    It depends…

    First of all a CC / CM is a human-being with all failings and strengths. Most of the time “the Community” is just “a bunch of people”. But sometimes you read postings that strike a chord.

    When it’s the usual rant, complaint, suggestion, whatever-a-user-writes, you’re the professional caretaker. But sometimes you read a couple of comments / talk to someone in game (be it officially or not) and you build up some kind of relationship to this person.

    You’re both gamers talking about the game you’re playing. And of course that influences something – but in the end there’s a couple of people who also have their say on where the game’s going. Sometimes someone on the boards says something that is picked-up, sometimes the games changes the other way.

    That’s the moment when we have to be professional managers and tread some toes.

  16. Brilliant article :)

    @CuppaJo: come on, we all know you wrote it ;p

    Julien “Midoh” C.
    French Community Manager for CoH/CoV

  17. Snicker.

    I would add that one needs to actually be a gamer and like gamers, and if those two qualifications are met, the bullshit is as water on the back of a duck.

  18. I plan on writing a formal entry on my website at some point to give this from a community guy’s perspective, but I may as well chime in too. Most of this is accurate. One of the few points I disagree with (though you didn’t commit to the opinion) is that keeping in communication with the minority might not be worth the trouble. Tisirin made some good points, so I’ll just add something real quick:

    Though the players who post regularly on forums, maintain blogs, or run fansites are the overwhelming minority, they are often those who have the greatest influence over the mindset of members of the rest of the community. Many people who fit these categories are highly social beings, meaning they have a large network of friends inside and outside of the game who listen to them.

    If we keep the minority happy (rather, as happy as is humanly possible) in the psuedo-game that is the forums, the attitudes and information flow that are a result of our interactions will bleed into the game. The obvious result is that more of your community (minority and majority alike) is relatively happy.

    It’s a careful balance, as you mentioned–giving too much information can actually lead to misinformation, you can’t commit to certain things because they could (will) be taken as lies if you don’t precisely follow through, etc. I’ll go more into the specifics in a later post on my site.

    Anyway, great post. You nailed a lot of points.

  19. Howdy Blackguard! Long time no see. =P So I think you are correct that bloggers have a good influence over the mindset but I would argue that most posters do not. (Here comes the part where people on forums take what I said and over analyze it.) Bloggers are usually an independant voice in a sea of their own making. They control the message and it is usually, although not always well thought out or reasoned. Forum posters are often drowned out and it is a rare few that can get past that to continually get their message out.

    Forums are a valuable tool and can often serve as the first warning of a problem, but they also are occupied by a great deal of noise. The community managers have to sift thru the noise and find the gems, the nuggets of truth. This is where, as Sanya mentioned, it is important to be a player as well. To know your product, otherwise you can becom1e mired in issues that are not the real meat of discussions.

    There are those who argue that forums are worthless, I disagree. A good community manager can get all kinds of useful information from them. When coupled with a good developer communication plan, they can help to keep the community involved and that they have a voice.

    Some ramblings from an old man =) Please forgive my muttering.

  20. Mostly true, forums are mostly very useful as long as the noise to signal ratio doesn’t get too high. Once that happens that message board is lost to you forever. Being active on a forum as a CM is both a benefit and a disadvantage. Obviously it gives you at least a vague overview of what players percieve as problems (although horribly distorted by the lens of the demographic who make up the majority of posters) and allows you to reach a large section of the player base with clarifications and semi-official stuff. On the other hand, players have a tendency to assume that because you’re there, the forum is the best route to reach customer service or the developers (via you natch). The dreaded 1000 post whine thread (sometimes accompanied by a poll to ‘validate’ it… ugh!) crops up because some people honestly believe that saying something 500 times will make it true and that game companies make decisions based on messageboard polls.

    Requiel. Euro DAoC CM.

  21. I was going to reply but Requiel nailed it already.

    I wish I could be more active on the forums but for every post we make we spawn 10+ whineposts.

    I also do agree with Tisirin. As long as we can filter through the mindless whines, forums are a great way of getting input from our community.

    One thing left for me to say to Zubon: Thanks for saying so many things I could never get away with saying ;)

    Xalin. Euro DAoC CM.

  22. Well, our game might not be as large as CoX or DAoC, but even on smaller games this rings true.

    I’d have to agree though that listening to the posters, even if they are a vocal minority, is a good thing. Opinion makers and community leaders on the player side of the fence always look for ways to make a positive impact on the game; but lack the tools to do it. As CRM (CM/CC) we need to really make the community feel wanted, and informed. They’ll pass it on to their friends, and the messages will get out there.

    Even if they don’t always believe that you’re doing what you say you are. Or worse, believe everything but what you’re saying ;).

    Oh, and I’d like to thank a Realm player, Shaitan, for pointing me in this direction, it was a fantastic read (and I almost choked on my tea!).

    Chris. Acting CRM, The Realm Online.

  23. It was a very interesting read. Zubon has pinpointed what some of the life is like for a CM/CR. Having done this for a living as a CM/CR for AC and then Anarchy Online I found alot of it rings true.

    Dai-Galean
    Old CM/CR for a few games.

  24. You nailed it, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else (except maybe lottery winnings)

    Hiro
    OCR for Freestyle Street Basketball

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