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This article is part of GamesBeat’s special issue, Gaming communities: Making connections and fighting toxicity.
Communication is important for every game studio these days. It’s important to keep an open line of dialogue with players, especially if you’re running an online and/or live service game. That’s where community managers come in.
Community managers do more than relay information, although that is part of their job. If a big update or patch is coming, you can expect them to help shape the language that explains anything that’s new or different.
For many, it’s a dream job. Liana Ruppert is the community manager and co-lead of accessibility for Destiny 2 over at Bungie.
“I know that might sound corny, but this is a community I have been a part of since the early Marathon days,” Liana told GamesBeat, referencing one of Bungie’s earliest titles. “It’s family. Being able to gauge what players are excited about — even what they may be frustrated with — and take that back to the teams here and watch it resonate with the people who make the game is nothing short of magical. The teams here really do love Destiny with every fiber of their being. We Fireteam up every single day, we laugh at the memes, we cry over the beautiful art, and it’s amazing. I’m telling you, there is no feeling in this world that matches watching live community reactions to what the teams have been working so hard on for months, sometimes even years, in secret. It’s such a moment of connection, and it’s so beautiful.”
Community managers also have to take the temperature of players. If they’re happy or upset, they can relay that to the rest of the team. And, yeah, sometimes the community can get pretty angry. That’s when a community manager’s job can become difficult, as that anger can turn toxic. The community manager is often a public facing person for the whole game. They can become an easy, if undeserved target for complaints, angry messages and even harassment.
“The hardest part of community management is that the internet never turns off,” Harris Foster, director of communications at indie game developer Good Trouble, told GamesBeat. “As the sole community manager at a popular indie game publisher, there were many times when I’d have to excuse myself from dinner or vacation time to handle a user acting up in our online spaces.”
Dealing with toxicity
Should problems or complaints from users turn into the responsibility of community managers?
“At least with my team, we generally know that being a community manager isn’t necessarily customer service,” Danreb Victorio told me. Victorio has worked at some major publishers, although he’d rather not name them outright, but he has worked at some large studios. “I have days that are easier and harder than others, and while I won’t snap at a player, I generally feed him or her the same energy back. You’d actually be surprised at how many players aren’t threatened by that. At the end of the day, a community wants to feel heard. It’s rare that a company can fully make that a reality, but players need to know that the devs are trying too. As for how I personally handle it — that’s why breaks exist. Go eat. Go workout. Vent to your manager about it. These are all fine options that won’t make you look bad.”
Being a community manager doesn’t mean that you just have to make yourself a punching bag for frustrated players. “The philosophy I always shared to combat fan toxicity is that every piece of communication between fan and dev should be held as if it is happening within your own house,” Foster told me. “The community I manage is my home online. It’s where I start and end my digital day. I want to welcome as many people into my home as possible, but if you come into my house and cause problems, you won’t be welcome for long.”
Destiny 2 launched a Twitter account, Destiny2Team, which gives the studio a way to communicate with players and deliver news without having to rely on community managers to post on their personal accounts. But even then, any interaction that a community manager might have on Twitter or on other social media platforms can matter.
“Outwardly, I try to lead by example,” Ruppert told GamesBeat. “I put my kindest foot forward in interactions with players and with the teams I work with. I hope that kindness comes through and inspires others to also be intentional with their reactions and interactions.”
People skills are important for the job. A community manager has to listen and, potentially, defuse contentious situations.
“Being a community manager is an extremely context-based profession,” Sebastian Faura, who is the social media and digital content manager at Amplifier Game Invest (a part of Embracer Group), told GamesBeat. “Having a strong sense of emotional intelligence is vital, because it allows you to discern when someone has a legitimate grievance, or if someone is there just to cause problems and otherwise not conform to the space you’re trying to maintain. This is why, in most instances, it’s best to let trained communications professionals handle precarious community situations. Without the level of tact required, a statement made on behalf of or as a representative of an organization can exacerbate already existing issues, and further strains any sense of goodwill.”
Dealing with unruly players is just one aspect of the job. According to Faura, managing player expectations is a big part of his role.
“People have a lot of feelings about what they want, which is a great thing because it means they’re engaged!” Faura told me. “But there’s a lot of care and focus that goes into making sure people are acutely aware of the actual aim of the developers as they make the game. This process is repeated ad nauseam as interested audiences join communities but is generally alleviated by making information easily accessible or alleviated by other community members who are more familiar.”
Faura explained that it’s important he help both sides, developers and players, understand each other.
“Helping communities understand the realities of development is a unique challenge,” Faura said. “Acting as a go-between is important; being able to express the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of a particular design decision in a digestible manner is tough, and at the same time, taking feedback from the community and summarizing it into key, actionable points is also tough, but necessary. Even community members who can feel negatively about a particular decision or communication might have something important to say, it’s just buried under potentially emotional language.”
Games are complicated. They are difficult to make, and very few outside of the development process actually understand what goes into creating and maintaining a game. That can lead to a lot of frustration. Let’s say a character in a fighting game or shooter is overpowered after the release of a new patch. For players, this is a huge frustration. They’ll want that character nerfed immediately. But there are processes and realities to game development that make that process happen slower than they expect.
“The secrecy and closed-off nature of game development leads to very little customer understanding of how these things actually work,” Foster explained. “I’d say a vast majority of irksome interactions a community manager has to deal with come from a fan who is operating under a skewed assumption or misunderstanding of how game development works. If the games industry were more transparent, I think we’d have happier community managers.”
“On social media, everything is lightning fast,” Ruppert told GamesBeat. “We ask the question now, and we demand an answer now. That’s understandable, but it’s often just not possible. Sometimes, investigations are needed. Sometimes, it’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday. Sometimes, the situation is far more complicated than it may look on the outside.”
But what exactly are community managers allowed to say and not to say? What are the guidelines?
“There’s actually a surprising amount of freedom in regard to direct community interactions,” Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege community manager KC Nwosu told me. “We have a small team of community managers, so there are guidelines for the sake of keeping a consistent tone, but largely we’re trusted to interact in ways that feel natural.”
Of course, each team and studio will have different guidelines. But often, there is a level of trust given to community managers to make the right calls.
Feeding teams the feedback
Community managers deal with a deluge of player feedback. It’s up to them determine what’s important.
“While a lot of great feedback from the gamers is given, there’s also some feedback that isn’t so great,” Victorio explained. “I manage a community for a free-to-play mobile game, and the whales/VIPs demand a lot of attention, but I still have a lot of other responsibilities to juggle.”
As you probably gathered by now, the job comes with a lot of responsibility. Sometimes, it can be too much.
“Companies need to know that while community mangers generally know they’ll be wearing a lot of hats, it’s extremely difficult to handle the job alone and still be sane,” Victorio noted. “A lot of companies only have one community manager assigned per game. Some even have one on multiple titles, and it’s a lot of work especially when you have to put on plenty of hats. In my current situation, not only do I have to personally deal with user feedback and social media management, but I also have various live-ops duties that include producing content like push notifications, setting daily login rewards, helping with marketing by taking full ownership of the asset submission process with our licensed partners along with all of our e-mail communication and subscriber upkeep. I also coordinate studio swag. I’m one of those guys that’s a community manager, a marketing coordinator, a social media manager, a customer service agent, an office manager, and all sorts of stuff rolled into one, and I need help. A lot of companies hire community managers on six-month contracts, with job descriptions even more complicated than mine — good luck with that.”
For the companies that employ them, the community manager is a vital part of the team. But that doesn’t mean that they have absolute power. Studio heads don’t have to listen to what they have to say, which can lead to frustration.
“If they understand your business and they’re getting really bad signals, you need to heed what they’re saying and work internally to find other solutions,” Faura told me. “If decisions are being made against their recommendation, then you need to keep them apprised so they can plan for what to say and how to respond; personal accountability for a decision is also incredibly important as well and will show your community manager that they’re not just there to be a meat shield for abuse.”
And when things do get a bit heated? Nwosu said that a little patience can sometimes go a long way.
“Both the community and our internal teams could benefit from taking a beat every now and then to see how a situation plays out rather than rushing to comment or respond,” Nwosu told me. “Often times the volatile situation that demands immediate attention from all sides is actually something that gets handled and forgotten about in short order, so the energy spent on hitting the panic button is just a waste.”