Most of us who've spent time in the service industry either run screaming after a few years or find that it's part of your soul. Most run screaming. Chris "Binky" Launius has been in community relations in one form of another since the advent of online communities: he began his tenure at Origin with Ultima Online.
I'm hard on community managers; I set high standards for them. I'm harsh in my opinions of the policies set by the companies that employ them. This is just me (your mileage may vary). I have to say, I admire and respect what Chris (I just can't call him Binky!) and Perpetual are working to achieve with Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising.
::: CLIMBS UP ON SOAPBOX :::
First, it would be prudent to state that I have opinions about how community management should be handled. I've spoken about it at conferences. I gave lectures on customer service when in retail. I wrote detailed reports about entire store staffs that resulted in people losing their jobs. I don't believe the customer is always right; but I believe they should always be treated with respect. I believe in admitting when you're wrong (though tactfully). I believe in being human, not an automaton.
I don't, at all, believe that the state of the game industry as it stands today thinks of the player when it designs games. I believe the player is an afterthought and it shows in the game design. There are no community tools in the design. Community Managers are part of the customer service or marketing budget, and as such are part of cuts when things get tight. An MMO is a service first, a game second – and as the person/team that manages the community gets cut first...I have opinions on this.
::: CLIMBS OFF SOAPBOX :::
Ten years with Origin/EA. That's a long time to stay with one company. Yet Chris unequivocally states that he enjoyed his time there. He was always learning something new, doing new things. He loved the UO players. "It was just time for something new."
Having worked with many of the principals at Perpetual Entertainment in the past, he was aware they were looking for someone with his skill set. And you know you've got a good Community Manager on your hands when he interviewed the CEO during his hiring process and asked questions about the direction the game would take regarding community. Chris wasn't taking any chances. If Perpetual wasn't building a game that supported the community in a fashion he wanted, he didn't want to be a part of it.
Of course, the month he decided to leave EA he received an Employee of the Month award and an offer of promotion...
"Community goes further than when you log out. It really begins when you log out. I look at it as "a stage for your 15 minutes of fame". We want to have listings of who discovered new and exciting things; who's got the best skills – sort of a mix between MySpace, the WoW Armory, Blogs, and a BBS... anything we can encompass. And we want to make it open to the players to use."
I asked about concerns with achievement data. The game has PvP elements and without toggles, this could quite easily be abused.
"There will be both personal and public views and the player will have the ability to turn off anything they want. This is for player functionality only.
One of the things I work directly with the designers on is making sure that we've got tools inside and outside the game that are easily useable, even by volunteers. It's important that the community be involved in the game itself.
And my team and I sit right next to customer service. They're not in another room or building or state. We know exactly what is going on and when. Communication flows directly from us to them and from the developers as well."
Chris is full of energy and at this point he was really excited. It's infectious!
But my next question is where my experience has left me disheartened. How involved was Chris in the design of the tutorial? Few games ever get it right on the first pass and none that I'm aware of consider it part of Community; yet, it's the most important part of getting your community to stay past the first 15 minutes!
"I get final sign-off on the tutorials. I also get final sign-off on all of the text.
There will be a manual in the box, not a strategy guide but a basic manual that will give you an overview of what everything is and how it works. More than your standard 5-6 pages of installation instructions. Enough to get you playing the game.
And, on our community website, there will be a BIG obvious button that says "What do I do?" It will contain a 30-page .pdf of how to get involved and move forward step-by-step.
We'll also have more than one site. There's the Selling Site: where you go to learn about the game and buy it. There's the Community Site: the boards, patch notes, the place where all the players meet.
Then, one step further there will be a Data Site for those who want it. We know that eventually players will develop data sites of their own; but this way, we can ensure that the data is all correct and up-to-date and there when they want it. And it won't be "in your face". You can choose to visit it, or not to visit it.
Oh! And we're going to have community arcs that tie into the back story. But that's all I've got on that now. *grins*"
Chris McKibben jumped in the room at this point all excited and a'flutter to explain about their server technology. He drew some pretty pictures and spoke in codespeak that my IT guy (who was with me) responded to in their special language. What I got out of it is, they can make portions of the game portable to other platforms.
Chris (Binky) chimed in, "Think of it this way. What if you could manage your entire minion inventory on your cell phone on the way to work?"
Yeah, that would rock.
I had to ask, why does he still do this? Community is hard, it's unappreciated work not only by the community but by the company.
"Well, there's two stories I like to tell. There's the "rock star" story...you know, my ego booster! I went to this UO fanfest in Japan, the fans didn't even speak English. And they were so excited to see me. They wanted to see my tattoos and kept crying "Binky! Binky!" Some of them even wept! It's was weird! But, it also made me know that I made a difference, ya know?
And then there was this letter...oh, eight years ago. Before UO had even sold 10,000 copies, when everyone was saying it wasn't going to make it. It was this 3-4 page hand written letter. And in it this man was telling this story of how he went off into the woods chasing this deer...it was all in character. And I'm reading this letter, thinking, "Ok, this is cool and all..but??" Then I get to the end. The guy is a parapalegic. And he says, "In this game, I can run." That's when I knew that these games could change lives and I really wanted to be a part of that."
There's no way of knowing until they try if they're going to be able to provide the support to the community that they intend. But, in the seven years I've been writing about games this is the first time I've talked to a company and a Community Manager that put the community first and the game second. It was refreshing, surreal and a little unnerving. I want to see it happen and not because I like the game (I do like what I've seen to date); I want to see it happen because we, the players deserve it. If they don't succeed, will the correct lessons be learned? Those lessons being what they did wrong? Or will it be assumed that putting energy into community was the failure?
After talking to Chris, and Chris, and several other members of the Perpetual team, I am of the belief that if anyone can teach the industry what it means to have good community support they can. I only hope the industry pays attention.
My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.
I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.
I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.