The Soapbox: Abusing MMO community reps over design decisions is not only toxic but futile

Stop harassing the help

    
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Recently, an online video game community rep was run off Twitter by “fans.” The CM’s fellow game dev shared how upset she was that said employee friend had been harassed. It’s sadly not uncommon in our industry – and it needs to stop.

Social media brings down the barrier between game developers and fans. When you’re frustrated that your favorite hobby is threatened, you don’t want to just scream into the void; you want to feel seen and heard. Heck, I often feel the same way, despite being able to occasionally talk to devs!

But there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way. And one of the worst ways to do it is to harass the people in the middle.

Before I go on, I want you to think about your own job. How far up the food chain are you? How much change could you really enact if an angry customer were to come up and yell suggestions or complaints in your face?

I’ve held various positions, but even when I was an editor, there were things that I had no say over – I could only pass it along to the higher-ups. Getting mad at me, personally, changed nothing except made me less able and willing to pass it up the chain. Yes, upon reflection I may be able to see a point in the vitriol, but I’ve certainly seen co-workers miss those opportunities because the presentation attacked them. I can’t change the way the airline sells tickets, tell you why the online order you put in has the wrong flower arrangement, or retrieve your MMO account info for you. (Yes, people really email us for this.)

So when a player yells about class nerfs or how much a new sword is ruining the game to, say, the social media handler for the company, I have to wonder what they’re expecting to come of it. Does the fan simply not know whom else to turn to because the community managers who often serve as a link between devs and fans seem to be fading into the background more and more? I do get the frustration when the CM disregards community concerns, but far more do I blame game teams/companies/publishers for stifling direct conversation with fans. In neither case is harassment justified.

Devs, I know there are a million ignorant voices often yelling at you. Most people have never coded a simple quest scenario, much less made a whole game on something as basic as RPG Maker, and even I know that what people say is often at odds with what they do. But having that outlet at least helps people feel heard. Your CM can at least bring you community concerns and write them up as your replies. Yes, you may look bad. Yes, it may make people even madder. But we all know how often a developer has listened quietly to social media and tried to come up with a solution in secret. Yes, we’ve all been surprised, but tone deafness is a big deal.

CMs aren’t supposed to be punching bags, but that’s how it often ends up. If the executives and leads at the top of the decision-making process can’t put out statements that at least make it look like they want to hear from fans (even if they simply hide behind piles of profits built by an angry community), then maybe they don’t deserve to be in those positions. I have personally seen multiple games crash and burn, not because they were bad, but because angry players who never felt heard spread the word that the game was trash. (Endless anger over the NGE and SOE’s mismanagement of its own community was actually the big reason I didn’t experience Star Wars Galaxies until its final years.)

Connecting decision-makers to fans is hard, but it’s also where PR and media come into play. Let me mention two “interviews” I had with Bill Roper in 2018 about SpatialOS: the PR version and the direct version. The questions I directly put to Roper in person got some good answers I felt like we as a community could really talk about. He’s one of the best devs I’ve ever interviewed, despite how some members of the community feel about him. However, the PR-sanitized email interview we got back sounds like something from a totally different person. That’s the stuff that annoys both fans and press. Something like a quarter of my questions often come directly from seeing fans repeatedly ask questions the company won’t answer.

Then again, I’ve talked to devs who’ve really been a bit more forward than they should have. Some get too far into details most readers probably don’t care about, or they share personal stories that should have stayed personal. PR handlers can help them from getting overextended and making promises studios can’t keep. But over-sanitization can do a lot of damage, not just in angering fans but in irritating the very media and influencers who are honestly covering the story. When devs throw up smoke and mirrors to hide the blunders of their bosses, no one wins. So believe me when I say that this part of the game industry annoys the heck out of me.

But gamers need to understand that PR people aren’t there to make changes to games. The community manager can’t revoke the upcoming class changes. The marketing department can’t change monetization. That customer support lady will always have to escalate your ticket to technical support for those weird bugs, and sometimes even then you won’t get help. There’s no point to treating someone as hostile from the start, especially if that person handles non-technical, non-monetization aspects of the game. It’s not just toxic, which is bad enough; it doesn’t even get you the result you want.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t voice your concerns. You should. But remember who you’re talking to. Don’t forget their humanity. I have gained immense respect for many of the devs who are willing to honestly engage in critical discussions with me, especially because you, our readers, give us some really tough questions to bring to them. So remember that many of the game reps don’t have a lot of power but will do what they can to help. It may just be wink or a nod to show that they’re on our side and are doing what they can to pass the message along, but they exist and they make themselves known – if you treat them with kindness.

I know it’s the internet and this will always be a problem, but really, harassment doesn’t help. Insults, threats, spam, brigades, all of that is counter-productive, especially when it’s aimed at an individual community rep. It’s hard to want to help someone you perceive as the enemy, even if you’re wise enough to understand that it’s not you but your bosses they’re mad at. Even your Change.org petitions get seen by devs and CMs – it’s just that the decision-makers don’t care.

So at the end of the day, what’s an angry fan to do? Talk. Calmly and rationally. Even if the company heads don’t know about a critical bug causing the final raid boss’s health to reset, yelling at them on Twitter about not knowing their own game isn’t going to make them want to help you. They’ll just want you out of their face. They’ll just make themselves even less approachable in the future.

Now imagine pulling that on a community manager who doesn’t even work in the same building as the executives and decision-makers. Why would they represent you to their bosses when you’re harassing them? Here’s what they’re thinking when you stalk them to Twitter and screech about design decisions: “The community is toxic. I don’t know how much longer I can put up with them.” That’s how we lose good people from the industry. So fans, try to have a dialogue. You might even learn something, especially if you can get your message to the right person.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

I generally treat people with respect/civility up till they treat me poorly in response. I have had a few ‘words’ for some people in charge of things a few times, because they got snippy/mean with me, so I returned said favor.

But saying a CM can’t do anything is kind of silly, because they are precisely the person who, if enough people bring things to their attention, turn and report to bosses and get said thing changed. I’ve watched it happen on multiple things (Some that I’d pointed out multiple times and been blatantly ignored but the chorus of voices who agreed as I kept pointing it out grew…and it eventually lead to their realization that it wasn’t just me…) on multiple boards.

But, no, what irks ME, is when moderators just silence your voice/block it from even BEING a voice/remove your comments because they didn’t agree with it, and so it was never said to begin with. That’s offensive. That doesn’t lead to an issue being dealt with. That leads to bad press/trash talking/spreading the word. So in effect, them censoring you lead to their own downfall. Maybe stop and think about that before you next go and hit that ‘delete’ moderator button. Some things really just do need to be said, even if they aren’t always palate-able/stomach-worthy. Some things, you silencing it, leads to you showing complicity, you being OK with. Maybe that means you begin getting badmouthed next…think about it…

Saluka
Reader
Saluka

That dev that admited to taking drugs and has relations with his cell mate shouldn’t have went into details about that. (Think it was a bliz dev? Not sure though.) Although honest it doesn’t help about why X raid boss is bugging out or w/e.

We have staff meetings once every now and then for issues and they just turn into near riots each time. Doesn’t help or solve anything and as the section leader have to forward any useful suggestions. Alot of stuff doesn’t even get mentioned unless there is a legal requirement to do so. So, it’ll just keep getting bumped back or passed on to someone else who will pass it back again. Same / similar if the community complains to a rep on a forum. It won’t solve anything and usually will stop with the rep especially if you annoy them too much.

You can poo on HQs doorstep which might vent some frustration but that won’t solve the problem either unfortunately.

Reader
David Goodman

Thankfully, I am not a PR or community person for my company (which, again thankfully, is also not a game development company either.) What I do however, is technical support, and I interact via email, chat, and phone with just an absurd number of people daily. I’ve been the target of a certain level of ire that warranted me stepping away from my computer a few minutes after to cool down.

And let me preface this by saying that I in no way condone toxic dumpster-muppets behaving in this way. If any company that said “Support is the backbone of our organization” ACTUALLY believed that, these “customers” would be ejected and those “we can remove you for any reason” terms of use bullet points would be much more liberally applied.

But the reason why CMs and customer support gets targeted like that?

The companies we work for are designed and built to shield the “important” people from it, and we are thrown under the bus.

You cannot speak with a developer. You cannot speak with a network tech. You cannot speak with a database admin. You cannot speak with the product managers, you cannot speak with the product design leader.

All you can do is call the number, or go to the Twitters, and scream into the voice at the lowest rung on the ladder. The only teams they can ‘escalate’ to are higher support teams, not ones with better access. Even if you “speak with a manager”, you’re not talking to someone with any ACTUAL authority to make changes. If a bug has a low priority in our system, talking to my manager isn’t going to move that needle one damned bit. Talking to HIS manager wouldn’t move that needle. His manager’s manager? Maybe, but you can’t talk to them. They don’t take external calls.

So i sympathize with CMs because I know how this is. Anyone who has ever worked a service industry job does. These jackasses hurling abuse and literal threats of violence should be muzzled, tied to a wall, and have jumbo shrimp catapulted at them for 3 hours in the middle of particularly hot summer day. (some may say “these people should be beaten!”, I say those people lack imagination.)

But I reserve an equal amount of scorn for the companies that throw them under the bus and force them to be the only point of contact they have. It’s intentional. And they rely on people saying “Well you have to have a thick skin!” to justify it. Really? They do? Why doesn’t anyone else? Why doesn’t the person who actually MAKES the decisions have to have a thick skin? They’re protected. Also, get back to your shrimping, you ‘aint served your penance yet.

Thornhide
Reader
Thornhide

In some games the CM position is a plus for the devs & community, in others not so much.

The mmo I’m invested in the CM’s are a waste of funds that could be better spent on the game.

They don’t play, they have little to no knowledge of the game, and can’t even produce patch notes w/o errors.

What’s the point? I pass on all Cm community engagement, just give me patch notes.

Good write-up though, no need to be rude to CM’s.

Reader
Bryan Correll

They may take the job knowing that they will have to deal with assholes, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior of said assholes. And it doesn’t help get their problems solved either. Just the opposite. A CM is going to be more likely to go above and beyond the basic requirements of their job for someone who’s polite and and doesn’t make dealing with them an ordeal.

Reader
Bruno Brito

That’s an awful take and you should be ashamed of thinking this is anything but insane.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

By that logic, if you hired a house cleaning service I would then be allowed to throw my garbage through your windows.

Reader
TheDefensior

That’s irrelevant. Harassment and toxicity isn’t OK in any walk of life.

Reader
kjempff

I suspect this problem is exagerated by game companies trying to be more open, involving normal players early, and/or crowdsourcing.
In most cases, this openness is fake .. and by that I mean players think they have an actual say in something, but they really don’t (and they really shouldn’t).

That is where the CMs get pinched; they are the only line of (fake) communication, and they become the point where all the players hopes and frustrations gets directed to the bin. That is the unfortunate situation of a CM’s job on “open” projects.

Obviously some players will always take things too far and too personal, but also the openness is inviting more players to the (communication) table, thereby increasing the chance of it happening.

The question is, should developers maybe start much later on the hype mechine so that normal players see a more finished product first time?
Should they maybe downplay community and its influence during development, and be more upfront about the fact that players can’t affect design decisions instead of putting up a “fake” promise that they are part of development.
Of course crowdfunded projects are kinda married to the community idea, so that one is harder to manage.
But in general I think they hype machine starts way too early for most games, and the same goes for community building. I don’t think that I am the only one, who burned out on a lot of games long before they actually launched? Holding my interest for half a year, sure .. 1 year, yeah if it is something special … longer than that, good chance that I will loose interest.
– And in all cases, the longer the hype machine has run, the bigger chance that I will be disappointed with the result.
– The earlier I get access to the game, the less wauw factor it will have, and the more likely I will be to dismiss it even if it improves greatly (first impression matter)