TERA Online's community team lead opens up about balancing the needs of developers and players.
In its purest and simplest form, a Community Manager is a brand advocate. In the world of online game community management, Community Managers are in charge of not only promoting the brand but also for being the liaison between developers and the community. And when the community you’re in charge of happens to be an extremely vocal fanbase, life isn’t exactly easy. That much is clear to Donna Prior, Community Manager Team Lead at En Masse Entertainment.
The life of a community manager is fast, furious, and frenetic.
“I try to keep a list that’s different every day to just keep track of the things I promised the community I’d follow up on,” Prior tells me during our conversation at GX3, a game convention held this past December in San Jose, California. “Generally, the things that touch the community the most are what I regard with the highest priority and make a point to take care of them first.”
With how active Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game communities are, identifying and attending to those high priority issues is extremely important. Most MMOs are always-online and many of them serve a global playerbase, meaning they need constant, round-the-clock attention. “While we do have Support teams to help keep things running smoothly, not everyone is always in the office 24/7,” Prior explains. “We’ve got processes in place, but keeping everyone happy all the time is basically impossible.”
There’s a lot of pressure that goes along with being a Community Manager for a game like TERA Online. A lot of that pressure often goes unseen or unnoticed by the large majority of most players. “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t spend all day on the forums,” Prior laughs. “The first thing I usually do each day is check in. That means everything from checking email to see if there is anything I need to know about right away, [to checking] on server status, looking into upcoming patches or hotfixes, all that sort of stuff.”
And rightfully so, as all of those things touch the community directly. If your server is down or needs to reset for a new patch, then you’d probably like to know and plan accordingly. In most cases, it’s the Community Manager’s job to make sure that information is communicated accurately and clearly.
Beyond keeping up to date with any high profile issues, Prior’s work can differ from day to day. One day she might be dealing with a major stability or networking issue in the game, trying to make sure the community understands what’s going on and what the timetable looks like. Other days she could be orchestrating a marathon of streams and videocasts. “I just kind of figure out where my most productive launching pad for the day is and I get started from there,” Prior says. “A lot of this stuff is ongoing throughout the day, so it’s not like I can check off ‘Check emails’ from my to-do list and never revisit them.”
Being the public face of a game
With so many moving parts, it even becomes a bit difficult to define what exactly a Community Manager does.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that Community Managers, Social Media Managers, Public Relations Specialists, Forum Moderators, Marketing Associates, and everything else -- while interrelated and potentially similar in some aspects -- are all vastly different jobs that require different skillsets and areas of attention. One of the biggest ways a Community Manager might differ from, say, a Social Media and PR person, is that it’s much more about being personable and involved. “I personally lead a lot of our streams. When people see me in-game, they know it’s me. I post on the forums as myself too,” Prior says. “And above all else, players need to know that it’s okay to come to me with issues. They need to know I’m approachable. I can’t always solve their problems, but at least I can be their advocate and they know that.”
Beyond just listening to player concerns, Prior has to understand the game from their perspective. For instance, in player-versus-player (PvP) combat. “PvP often has a lot of people with very strong and loud opinions about PvP and how it should work,” Prior says. “So if I don’t play the game and don’t participate on a micro-level, how do I know if something is actually overpowered or broken? Is this a very vocal group of players, or is there truly an issue? That’s the core of my job: playing the game and becoming the community’s advocate.”
Prior also spends time in areas like the forums, since that’s where a lot of dedicated players flock to the game. “When it comes to the forums, I love seeing people have big debates,” Prior says. “I think healthy, intelligent conversation can only be a good thing.” But she also made sure to draw a line between healthy, intelligent conversation and toxic posts that do nothing other than incite issues. We’ve all seen that type of stuff on forums and Reddit -- it’s unavoidable, but manageable.
And luckily for Prior, her work and her impact doesn’t go unnoticed. Since she has that level of visibility that allows players and the rest of the community to know her and see what she posts, it provides for a platform that she can really take advantage of in fostering beneficial and long-lasting connections. “I’m as transparent as I can be,” Prior admits. “I can’t give away special surprises and things that are coming later down the line, but I do my best to be as open as possible.”
In the end the burden falls primarily on developers and publishers to not only recognize the need of having good Community Managers like Prior on their team, but also to put them in positions to make a difference. “One of the biggest challenges is getting the community itself, and by extension positions like mine, to be seen as a value and as a part of development,” Prior says. “I get told a lot that Community Managers are not developers, but that’s just not true. Everything that we do is based on development. So if companies want the things that they do to be important and impactful to the community, then they must consider Community Managers as part of the development team.”
You can keep up with Donna Prior and her thoughts on the MMO and gaming industry by following her on Twitter @_Danicia_. In addition to her role as Community Manager Team Lead at En Masse Entertainment for TERA Online, she is also the founder of OrcaCon, an analog-gaming focused game convention and works with Green Ronin on tabletop roleplaying game publishing.
David is a freelance writer and full-time nerd that has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter: @David_Jagneaux.