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Redefining community management for games-as-a-service

Rebecca Ford's multifaceted job at Warframe studio Digital Extremes underscores one of the industry's most dramatically changing roles

In the age of games-as-a-service, players are increasingly being given a voice in development. So it stands to reason that the role of the traditional mediator between the developers and the players--that of the community manager--is changing as well. Digital Extremes' Rebecca Ford is one example of this adaptation, serving as both the community manager and the live operations and community producer for the studio's free-to-play co-op shooter Warframe, which just celebrated its four anniversary with Octavia's Anthem, its biggest content update of the year.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz last week, Ford noted that it's becoming more common for games not just to embrace the feedback-first community-minded development approach, but to actually market it, as PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has been doing.

"Because of that, I think the community role is becoming more and more nuanced, depending on which studio you're plugging into to check what their philosophy is," Ford said. "It used to not really be a huge thing. It was a lot of online moderation and asynchronous communication with forums. But it's certainly turned into more, in some cases a bit of a spectacle."

When Ford says "spectacle," she means it in the positive sense, like developer-hosted live streams intended to entertain an audience as much as they are about informing people what's going on with Warframe. But as should be obvious to just about anyone involved in community management, things becoming "a bit of a spectacle" can happen in a bad way very easily when dealing with a passionate player base.

"When you have a game-as-a-service, people get used to a certain thing," Ford said. "And if that thing changes or ceases to be, you have a duty to explain every decision, and everything needs to be communicated so clearly because you don't want to erode any goodwill you have. It turns out people can get mad and leave if they don't like what you're doing. So on the one side, you have to make sure you're the owner of your product, and you want it to be your vision. But you also need to respect that players will find meaning and interest in your game beyond your control, and probably beyond what you intended."

When there are the inevitable flare-ups within the community (Ford refers to them as "pitchfork moments"), they need to be handled differently because they all started differently. Sometimes it really is the developer's fault. Sometimes the anger is coming from a group of people who don't have the full context of a situation. But one constant, Ford said, is that "you can't lose sight of the general respect you still owe the players, even if it seems they're not giving it to you."

"We've had our fair share of toxicity and moments where players let emotions get the better of their constructive feedback. And you have to deal with that head-on on the community side of things."

"We've had our fair share of toxicity and moments where players let emotions get the better of their constructive feedback," she said. "And you have to deal with that head-on on the community side of things. You have to filter through it and sort it out, and it's really important you don't let it cloud the creativity within the office."

If the pressure is really high in the community, Ford said it will find its way into the developer's office.

"If they feel stressed because we're not giving them enough content, or frustrated because we've made seemingly anti-player decisions, they're not afraid to speak their mind, and then our devs see it and they start to question everything as opposed to focusing on the solutions."

It would be difficult--and potentially antithetical to a game-as-a-service--to shield developers from the opinions of the player base, so Ford said it's important to put negativity like that in proper context. Make sure the developers know the community by and large does appreciate them, try to focus them on the more positive aspects of fandom, whether it's people getting tattoos related to the game, writing fan novels in its setting, or anything else besides the pitchfork brigade.

"It doesn't make it any easier to see hateful things about you and your game, but it does allow you to know that, 'Ok, it's been happening for four years, so if we really were these awful people, we wouldn't have made it this far.'"

One area many games-as-a-service developers are likely to run into pitchfork moments are in how they prioritize their development resources. Do you cater to the desires of the highly engaged long-term player base, apply a coat of polish to an unappreciated corner of the game in the hopes of making it finally click, or work to improve the new player experience?

"We have all these different suburbs of content that some are in worse conditions than others, because the players don't play it," Ford admitted. "So if you invest in developing that, the players might question your judgment because, 'No one's using it so you should be focusing on something else.' But you've got to rationalize: your choice to make it better could change the fate of that dilapidated area. That happens a lot with us, and it's always a matter of explaining our perspective of focus and why. And if players think we're doing it for the wrong reasons, we really try to hear them out for what they think is a better alternative. At the end of the day, as we look to what resources we can put where, we have to be conscientious to communicate clearly which areas we're focusing on thanks to their feedback."

Ford said it helps that the Warframe community has generally been open to newcomers, with veterans often taking the time to guide fresh players through a potentially intimidating early game experience full of complicated systems and make them comfortable with the basics. It also helps that the developers have tried to cater to as much of the player base as possible. For example, when they remastered one of the game's areas designed for entry-level players, they've also updated them with some new content for players of a much higher level, giving them more reasons to come back to that area that hopefully won't just make them jealous that their favorite parts of the game haven't received a similar overhaul.

"Your community person, in my opinion, needs to have a visible impact on the game for the player."

In dealing with any pitchfork moments, Ford has one key advantage. Beyond her community and live ops roles, she plays another key role in a very literal manner.

"When we first started this game, we were so duct-taping things together that they actually put me in the role of a voice actress in the game, and that character is now known as Space Mom," Ford said. "She's kind of the Cortana figure that turns out to have saved you and all this good stuff in the lore."

That constant presence in the game itself lends Ford an unquestionable authenticity for the audience.

"They knew that I knew what I was doing because not only was I sitting there typing in the forums, but I was also a visual part of the game in every mission, all the time," Ford said. "As a community person, I had an ever-present role in the game for our players. So they trusted me right off the bat. And that trust has grown and grown to the point now where I feel more confident in my advocacy for the players because the trust they put in me from the start has been really empowering."

That's great for Ford, of course, but what's the lesson to take away from this for other developers? She said it's not necessarily to just go hire a voice actor as your community manager.

"Your community person, in my opinion, needs to have a visible impact on the game for the player," Ford said. "And that can happen in any number of ways. They don't need a skillset in acting, art--nothing like that--but something tangible that is a trust-building bridge. How you choose to do that is kind of endless, it's an open book. But I think it's important that there is some tangible way the community team is represented in a game-as-a-service."