Reading a great dialogue on The Brainy Gamer from the other day about NCSoft’s apparent naiveté when launching the Mission Architect feature for City of Heros and City of Villains. Many users started making stories that were giving big attribute payoffs for little effort. Many of the commenters were incredulous that NCSoft didn’t think through these fairly obvious user scenarios before launching and build in some catches.
I think there are a couple lessons to be learned from this, some of which those of us in the kids community space are fairly familiar with:
- Some users will be bad, very bad. Sometimes that means inappropriate behavior, sometimes it’s blatantly breaking the rules or gaming the system. Rather than throwing your arms up in the air and damning those users, think of them when you are designing and plan for them. It’s useful to first design the game play for the optimal setup, but be sure to factor in a brainstorming session where you think through all the possible OTHER ways someone could play your game. This exercise usually helps make your ideal game play even better too, plus you will be able to start patching up obvious audience weak points sooner.
- Have your PR and Community staff ready for anything that could happen. Maybe you won’t have a crisis, but what’s wrong with having your staff ready for one. Proactive verbiage on your site that acknowledges your aims for gameplay, while subtlety explaining what is NOT desired can be very useful. Run through scenarios with your community staff (or customer service, etc) on how they would handle certain situations. You won’t be able to prepare for everything, but going through the exercise of tackling worst-case-scenarios keeps your team agile and poised to handle any situation that they are presented with.
- Try to stay positive – Those of you who know me personally know I have a knack for summoning the dark clouds at times. But I am strangely the opposite at work. Try to figure a way to spin a bad situation in a better light, like the game is much better now that your users have found that whole, etc etc. Helps your users, game and your staff morale too.
- Use experts. Everyone thinks they are a community engagement specialist. And sure, that anecdote about your kid, brother or friend who you feel is an example of a model player may give a bit of insight as to how community efforts could be designed. But there are those of us who do this for a living, who have honed our professional instincts in various situations and have information and resources to help projects run better when you are dealing with audience feedback loops. They will know how to handle filtering of content, when to jump in before it gets ugly (and after) and why certain choices might be better than others. It’s their job, let them do it so you can be even more awesome at yours.
I often warn people that attaching community to your brand (whether that is a virtual world, chat/im, or ugc, etc) is a poor choice if you are not ready to support it. And support is multi-faceted, usually involving many teams – marketing, audience, customer service, IT, design, etc. This is not to discourage people for starting a community or adding these sorts of features, but just a friendly warning to not underestimate the resources it takes to run a community.
I think NCSoft’s idea for Mission Architect was great, as was Little Big Planet’s level designing and all the other gaming titles being inventive about how to give their fans a deeper experience. Hopefully the missteps at this stage can simply be treated as cautionary tales that we can build off of, instead of scaring people away from the possibilities that engaging your fans on that level can offer.