Community Management: Why You Need It, and How to Make It Work
November 3, 2020

From your homegrown Discord server to the YouTube comments on a Let’s Play video, your community reaches far. The observation, moderation, and utilization of these users is what community management boils down to. Once you develop a following, it can become overwhelming to manage such a large and distributed group of people. 

At the end of the day, you want everyone in your community to remain safe and supportive. It’s a daunting, rewarding endeavor that can not only help your game succeed now but also give you and your studio a safety net for negative press down the road. There are plenty of benefits to having good community management practices, and plenty of downsides to going without.

Why Communities and their Management is Important

Marketing

The first and perhaps most important aspect of having a managed community is the marketing potential it brings. Wendy Fritscher, who worked with Muse Games as PR & Marketing Manager, and is now working with Revolution Software as their Communications Manager, aptly describes the benefit of a community: “Your community is the best PR marketing can’t buy.”

Word of mouth is powerful. You can view an Ad hundreds of times, see commercial after commercial, but your friend’s recommendations are what swings you to try a product out. Even before developing a strong culture around your game or studio, having others do the talking for you not only saves you time and money, but it’s much more effective than a hefty ad budget.

The more you localize and consolidate your community in this regard, the better. Unlike announcements on Twitter, where you’re competing for people’s time and attention against thousands of other tweets, the members of your Discord server or subreddit are there for you. You have their undivided attention and they’re waiting for updates on your game. You have direct access to your fans.

Your success on Kickstarter or Early Access success heavily depends on the following you already have going into it. It’s incredibly difficult to market your crowdfunding campaign to no crowd. Sometimes, the reception and feedback you receive from your early following can propel your Early Access or Kickstarter to success. Plus, not only can your fans financially support your campaign themselves, but they’re usually excited to see your project realized. Your community has the power to signal-boost your campaign to their peers, and you’ll see both your game and community succeed.

You can read more about Early Access here.

Technical Feedback

Communities provide a great way to instantly poll your players about how your game performs on different machines, internet connections, etc. You’ll have people playing your game on office laptops and water-cooled PC towers. Having access to hardware information will be valuable to your game’s development.

The amount of information you can gather is infinite. Keep in mind, the members of your community are there for a reason — they want you to succeed. Your community can be a better source of technical information than even Valve’s hardware survey if you ask the right questions. Twitter polls, Google Forms, and direct discussions with players each work in their own ways, but some offer more granularity than others. Don’t bore your players with overly specific and lengthy questionnaires; try to strike a balance between informative and quick feedback. Their feedback is important, but don’t send them a 20-minute survey.

Your community can also be your beta testers and bug finders, and may even find bugs that your internal testing team couldn’t. Having your community be open and welcoming discussion will encourage users to come forward with issues they’ve experienced while playing.

Ysbryd Games handles this well, posting a Google Sheet to their Steam Community page to track bugs that the players of their game, World of Horror have experienced. This way, those that want to contribute have a convenient place to do so, with the opportunity to be as detailed as possible. 

Stylistic Feedback

If you’re torn between two stylistic choices or considering the inclusion of potentially sensitive topics, asking your audience is a great way to make the final decision. Asking fans about sensitive cultural or religious references in your game, political correctness, accuracy, and other emotional aspects is perfectly fine. It shows that your studio is empathetic to its players. 

Plus, the choice to accurately include a piece of culture in your game instead of ignoring it won’t go unappreciated. Simply reaching out to your fans and asking them how to include an aspect of their culture inoffensively can make that demographic of fans feel noticed and acknowledged. 

Overwatch’s new inclusion of Ramadan lantern sprays is a good example. Spearheaded by Nazih Fares, the added sprays were appreciated by a big chunk of Overwatch’s Muslim community. Although Blizzard had the resources to hire a consultant (if they didn’t already have a full-time employee to ask), and it’s recommended by Osama Dorias in his 2018 GDC talk about Muslim representation in games to hire someone for research, the same information can be supplied willingly by your Muslim fans.

Consulting your fans about cultural inclusion is an effective, cheap, and appreciated way to positively represent a group of people without fear of offending them.

Developing trust and understanding between your studio and your community is a great way to develop player advocacy. Your community already wants your game to be great, and allowing them to help with that strengthens their appreciation for your game and showcases your studio’s attention to its fans.

If a feature proposed by a user is getting a lot of attention, you might be able to implement it to earn a few brownie points among your players. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, but when a feature is requested and backed by many people, look into it. This goes for the technical side of things as well. If a large pool of your users are on Mac or Linux, you have a new market to explore.

The Problems With Not Having Community Management

If you don’t have community management, not only will you miss out on the marketing potential, you’ll lack the ability to respond to criticism, hate, or suggestions. Whether or not you have a community manager, your community can turn against you for any number of reasons, so it’s wise to have the structure and preparation of proper community management.

Studios of any size experience backlash or concerns, and how they handle the situation usually makes or breaks their reputation. It’s no guarantee that having a dedicated person or team will solve all your community-related issues (as even AAA titles have suffered due to the mishandling of public issues), but proper community management mitigates the risk and gives you tools to deal with negativity.

Community management is a delicate balancing act between improving the public perception of your studio and keeping your community friendly and safe. Dropping the ball on either can spell disaster for your game or studio and often go hand in hand with each other. If the story gets out that someone in your community is being bullied, it can be taken that your studio tolerates this behavior at best, or encourages it at worst. If crowds of people are speaking ill of your studio, and you don’t deal with the negativity in a professional way, you will seem unattentive or apathetic.

Now that we’ve covered the benefits of having a community, it’s time to start one. Chances are, your game or studio already has a community per se, but it’s up to you to wrangle your fans into a controlled and safe environment.

Starting Your Community

Even before your game launches, your community has started. People that like your teasers on Twitter, commenters on your YouTube videos, and anywhere else you’re getting attention counts as your community. These are good starting points, and it’s wise to go with the flow before forcing fans to join a different social media platform for you. If you’ve just finished your Kickstarter campaign, start with your backers. If you’re up on Steam as an Early Access title, start with your Steam Community page and users who’ve shown interest. 

On the topic of social media and different places for communities, it’s ideal to focus on one main location. You can create and focus on a Discord server, a forum, or a subreddit, but it’s hard to manage all three.

This doesn’t mean you should only pay attention to one location while managing your community. Regularly check up on where people are discussing your game; this will give you the opportunity to answer questions or address issues before they get out of hand. They are still valid concerns even if they’re outside your official managed avenues.

To aid in this, direct questions and concerns to your preferred platform. You should still answer a commenter’s concern on YouTube, but gently guide them to your Discord in case they have more questions or want a longer answer. This will make your job much easier, and give you one solitary avenue for official announcements to your fans.

To sum it up, your community is everywhere. Have one social media channel that you focus on, be it a Discord server, subreddit, or Twitter page, but don’t neglect other locations where your fans reside. Invite your Twitter followers to join your Discord server, or release a YouTube video to tell your subscribers about your subreddit, as it’s wise to try and consolidate. Obviously, for marketing endeavors, you want to reach as many people as you can. When managing a community, having fewer social media platforms to closely manage will benefit you in the long run.

Local vs Global Communities

You should already be aware of where in the world your game is popular, and chances are you have a community there, too. You may have anticipated this if your game was released in more than one language, or targets a specific culture or heritage. If that’s the case, you know how to manage that community like any other, since you speak their language or have a relation to them. 

If your game’s success or following is unexpectedly growing in a foreign country with a different language, an easy way to facilitate this growth is having a chat channel, forum page, or subsection for that language. For example, tinyBuild’s Discord server has an official announcement channel in English, but they have chat channels for Russian, Portuguese, English, and Spanish. 

Obviously, it’s hard (or maybe even impossible) to moderate a community in a language you don’t speak, so don’t facilitate a community in a foreign language until you have the proper means of managing and moderating it.

Growing Your Community

When expanding your community, some basic housekeeping rules are important. Wendy Fritscher, mentioned above, recommends reserving a “consistent URL and account name across all social media platforms, whether you want to use them or not” as “people need a consistent way to identify you across the web.” This also prevents fake imitation accounts with your official name from wreaking havoc. Your studio might not be in a position to upload YouTube videos just yet, but at least you’ll have the channel name reserved.

All social media platforms have their pros and cons, and it really boils down to what you’re comfortable using and where your community already is. For example, Twitter has a lot of game development-adjacent circles with plenty of users, but it is still a massively used social media platform where you’ll be competing against many others. Reddit is widely used as well, with the ability to manage your own subreddit, but it lacks the real-time feedback other platforms offer. Discord has become one of the most popular gaming social media platforms, and its programmable bots, real-time chats, and voice channels make it a great platform to manage a community.

On the topic of Reddit, AMAs (Ask Me Anything) are a great way to grow your community and strengthen your relationship with Reddit users. Butterscotch Shenanigans, the studio behind Crashlands, has a healthy community on Discord, yet never mentioned it in their Reddit AMA. They simply used it to have an open discussion with their fans on Reddit. 

On the other hand, Brian, the community director at 343 Industries, used the studio’s AMA to push their Halo Insider Community Program. A small, two-person team behind the game The End Of The Sun used theirs to promote all of their social media accounts and Kickstarter. 

These examples showcase the potential ways to grow your community. Platforms like Reddit can be used to bring people’s attention to another platform while growing a fan base on Reddit itself.

Wendy Fritscher recommended a few more pieces of advice for building your community.

Consider cross-promotion. If you have other games, you can access the community around those older titles to bring attention to your new project. You can learn more about monetizing your indie game back catalog here.

Host physical events and showcases. At press time, this is both unsafe and likely illegal for the time being due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the point still stands. Given that word of mouth is an exceptionally effective way to sell your game, in-person interactions make a memorable experience for your fans.

Prepare and polish your digital presence. Touched on before, make sure you have a consistent appearance across all social media platforms. If your trailer starts gaining traction on YouTube, but your channel features an outdated logo or name, users can be misdirected. As Wendy states, “You have a few seconds to make an impression,” so make those few seconds count.

Make your community easy to find. Along with traditional avenues for marketing (social media ads, Reddit posts, game trailers, etc.), your promotional material might make its way into a roundup and you’ll find yourself in front of a larger audience than expected. Having a well-made trailer, with links to all of your relevant social media platforms, comes in handy here, so make sure you’re easy to find by someone who’s never heard of you before. Learn more about making video marketing materials here

Now that your community is established and growing, it’s time to look at how exactly to manage such a large group of your fans.

Managing Your Community

Who’s Responsible

Depending on the scale of your community, you’ll either need a dedicated person for this role or have to assign certain responsibilities to a current employee. This isn’t a small undertaking, and the position holds a lot of responsibility, so the role is better suited for someone who’s dealt with press releases or fan interaction before. Having a developer accidentally spoil something too early or handle a situation poorly isn’t ideal. There’s a reason this is often a dedicated role at larger studios, so tread with caution. 

You can’t take back what you say, so make sure the person representing your game, studio, and community acts professionally and knows what they’re doing. If you already have someone doing marketing, chances are they’re managing your community in one way or another, so turn to them first. 

Whatever you decide on doing, make sure it’s sustainable. An established community that diminishes overtime is just another black mark against you, so use your community wisely and make sure it’s operating well. 

Management

Before getting into the utilization of your community, it’s important to cover the fundamentals of running a safe and expressive community.

Content Management

One starting point is making sure to separate discussions into dedicated channels or forums. This allows for discussions to go on uninterrupted by new users or off-topic questions and will make your moderation job easier. Basic organization allows for the natural flow of conversation.

This helps with sensitive topics, too. Having a safe space to talk about touching parts of your game’s story, or a place for fans to help each other through hard times, is beneficial and removes the ability to unexpectedly come across such topics. Sensitive themes and discussions should have their own channels, with rules regarding content or trigger warnings if warranted.

Upkeep and Interaction

Regular communication and updates between you and your community are the glue that holds it all together. Don’t let your community dwindle into private chats between users; at the end of the day, your community is there to hear from you. Give them updates earlier than elsewhere, share tiny tidbits on how your development is going, and in general, give them a reason to stay. Regularly interact with them, engage in conversation, answer their questions, and listen to their feedback.

Defined Language and Tone

Have a defined tone and language that you use when interacting with fans, and one that you use for public announcements across official channels. Generally, a more casual and friendly tone is welcome inside your own community, but don’t get too lax.

This might let users interpret it as apathy, and might make them think you’ll be lax about rules and guidelines as well. Use your best judgment to communicate in a way that’s appropriate for the situation and your audience.

This also gives your audience a feeling of friendship and trust, that they aren’t just something to market your game to, but a valued person. Using dry, commercial language in the confines of your community benefits no one and defeats the purpose

Take tinyBuild’s practice, for example. In their Discord server, they use fun, personable language to showcase a new title, even using their CEO’s personal account to do the talking.

Whereas on their official Twitter account, to a broader audience, they lean towards using more neutral and official wordings for the same game.

Moderating Your Community

Along with the general guiding of content and discussion facilitation, it’s equally (if not more) important to establish and enforce the rules of your community.

Rules and Guidelines

Laying down clear rules and guidelines allows you to remove unruly people from your community without too much backlash. Having rules to cite makes this not only easier but fair. 

Examples of possible rules are: 

  • Do:
    • Treat others online as you would treat them in real life
    • Be tolerant towards others’ viewpoints; respectfully disagree when opinions do not align
    • Respect the privacy and personal information of other users
    • Communicate with courtesy and respect
  • Please do not:
    • Make personal attacks on other community members
    • Use defamatory remarks or make false statements against others
    • Post prejudiced comments or profanity
    • Bully or make inflammatory remarks to other community members

Remove threats fast and often. Vigilant moderation is important, as it adds meaning and importance to your guidelines. If bad behavior isn’t immediately removed, your community might see that behavior as acceptable or call you out on double standards.

Dealing with Negativity

If you’re faced with public outrage over an announcement or update, apologize first before offering explanations, excuses, or fixes. Acknowledging you were wrong about something is empathetic and human, and starts off the dialogue between the offended person as friendly and understanding. 

This way, you’re able to work out the issue with the person, and they will feel validated. When companies rush to release official statements defending their choice, it rarely turns out good. “We’ve offended our community, and we’re working towards a solution, stay tuned for updates on the issue.” for example, is a simple and unoffending apology that buys you more time, while immediately acknowledging and addressing the issue. Do whatever is needed to remedy the situation — consult the relevant parties or hire help — but at least you will have time to think before you act.

In a case covered by Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra, Mitu Khandaker of the game Redshirt faced a backlash from one offended user after a few negative interactions within the game. Mitu first apologized, then explained her design decisions while providing a solution for the player at the same time. Mitu even received immediate claims of over-sensitivity and backpedaling, but her decision to both elegantly stand by her game while making it a safer environment for the player in question didn’t go unappreciated.

In this case, Mitu did everything right. First, listen to the critique and apologize. Next, explain your side, not defend it, then immediately provide a way to fix the situation. That way, no one’s experience other than the affected players will be affected, and the player will feel listened to.

When facing negative criticism, be careful to avoid removing it outright, for any reason, as it may come across as censorship. Remove posts if they break rules, not if they hurt your feelings. Establish clear guidelines as mentioned, and explain why a controversial topic was removed. If it warrants it, talk to the person in question, let them revise their use of language or subject matter, and let them post their argument again so it won’t be removed. It’s important to be transparent with your reasonings and actions.

It’s bad for marketing if your players act poorly to each other or to other communities, so set clear guidelines and don’t be afraid to remove people if they break the rules.

At the end of the day, these are real people. Make sure you’re facilitating a healthy and friendly community, be reachable in case harassment is occurring, and listen to feedback.

Offloading and Outsourcing the Work

Volunteer Moderators

Jupiter Hadley, a games journalist and YouTuber, says, “Moderators come from active players who are, on their own, helping out other individuals. If you see a player that is often helping new players or dissolving situations when nobody else is around (correctly), it’s worth thinking about giving them the role of moderator. You’ll want someone who can positively represent your game.”

Streamer Trisha Bytes shares her thoughts on hiring moderators and the concerns that come with it. “Moderating is a tough job! Before you ask or let anyone become a mod – become one for a friend’s channel or community for a bit. It’s much harder than it looks.” This puts you in the moderator’s shoes; you’ll have to make tough calls yourself on behalf of someone else. Moderating a channel or chat quickly becomes stressful and sometimes boring, so it’s best to find those with previous moderating experience.

Moderators aren’t the only position fans can hold, either. Spotting advocates for your game or studio and working closely with them is a great way to extend your marketing reach. Word of mouth is invaluable, so encourage those who show interest in your game’s development to invite more people to your community, share content, and help out in your social networks. These advocates can show new members around your Discord server, for example, which is a low-risk position that saves time you can spend developing your game.

When to Hire a Community Manager

Developers can and have in the past, split their time up to act as community managers. This can be a great money saver for your studio. Especially when your community is just starting out, you can get away with having one part-time person being the admin for your forum or server. However, don’t underestimate the importance of a proper, dedicated community manager. Not only can they grow your community much faster and utilize it much better, they’re also professionals who are trained to deal with the backlash, controversy, and sorting out issues between users. 

In the early stages of development, marketing, and community management focus on the same things: who your target audience is, and how to cater to them. Your marketing manager may already be managing your community, so ask them if they would be able to take this on more formally.

According to the Game Industry Career Guide, the minimum salary for a full-time dedicated Community Manager is around $34,000. Since the person in this role should have an intimate understanding of your game, studio, and existing community, this shouldn’t go to a freelancer or contractor. A community manager is more than someone who removes swearing or bullying, as bots or volunteer moderators do this job well. If you think your community’s size constitutes a freelancer or part-time employee, you can get away with spending less, though you’ll benefit from finding someone who’s dealt with video game communities before.

As mentioned earlier, make sure your community is sustained, active, and working well. If engagement is slipping, or priorities shift and you’re unable to keep up with the community you’ve built, it’s time to look at hiring a dedicated person for the role. Plenty of studios do fine without a community manager but don’t neglect this important aspect of marketing and development just to save a few bucks if you’re in need of one.

Conclusion

Knowing what benefits a healthy community brings, where to start, and how to grow, you should be well on your way to creating and facilitating a successful community. Keep in mind the double-edged sword of responsibility: the regular provision of content and vigilant moderation are equally important in keeping your community alive and safe. Be ready to deal with negativity, engage your current fans, and make a good first impression across the Internet. 

Your community wants you to succeed as much as you do, so work with them to propel your games and studio towards success. Thank your fans, treat them as valued people, and they’ll return the favor. It’s a relationship that benefits both parties, and an effective relationship at that.

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