PAX East 2021: MMO community building – on a budget

The rarest resource of all is body coverage for women, and they seek to steal it.

Any community managers or indie devs in the audience? This year at PAX East 2021, a few well-known community managers – Linda “Brasse” Carlson of SOE/Trion fame, Margaret Krohn of SOE and Ashes of Creation fame, plus Stephen DuCrest from GREE and Skycrest Games – participated in a discussion described at building communities on a shoestring budget.

But wait! While that may sound most applicable to devs, Krohn noted that guilds are also communities, so with that in mind, we’ll discuss the panel in a way that will hopefully benefit you guild leaders and recruiters out there (though you devs may find a few kernels of truth in here too, especially if one of the above CMs banned you from your own game forums).

Let’s first start with getting everyone on the right page. All the speakers noted that from day one, a community manager, especially in small, indie setting, is going to wear a lot of hats. While a professional may act as a CM, GM, PR, marketing, and mod, your guild recruiters may also be officers, tanks, or possibly even the guild leader. Make sure everyone on the team understands the group’s values and beliefs and represents those in public. Just because someone isn’t helping with recruitment doesn’t mean he can’t affect it!

While guilds mostly don’t have to worry about legal teams, public tantrums will affect your guild’s image and ability to recruit. A raid leader doesn’t need to be a jerk to get people to read chat or bring consumables. To help balance this, be prepared to potentially mute even fellow officers should they act in a toxic manner. Two of the speakers noted doing this to their own devs, and those folks are professionals. If fellow guildies want your group to be successful, make sure everyone is clear on what is and is not proper behavior. It makes it easier to extend those expectations to regular members!

Next is being seen. Yes, PR is meaningful to game devs. You can’t sell a game no one knows exists, and your guild is the same. While you can spam chat and invite randoms, numbers don’t necessarily imply engagement, which is also why you may not want to simply bribe people into joining your guild. DuCrest noted that while it’s nice to show people big numbers, those numbers need to translate into engagement. Having a roster of 10,000 players means nothing if only 10 are guarding your fort.

Much as in advertising, Krohn suggests avoiding cookie-cutter approaches. Do something unexpected. Obviously if I could tell you what that was, I’d have a lucrative job at an advertising firm, but Krohn helpfully reminded the audience not to sell themselves hard. Passion shines through. I actually got started as a blogger partially through guild advertising a cult-like group that thematically worshipped a blue, time-and-space travelling vegetable that sought to bring about balance through any means necessary. Yes, it was weird as heck, but people notice when you can easily overwhelm the opposite faction and instead break out into a dance party. And don’t forget, Brasse herself often dresses up as a female bearded dwarf! So, be unusual and be kind, especially as a group.

That’s where another piece of advice comes in: let go. Don’t be afraid to let others shoulder your burdens. While all the speakers have felt protective of the communities and roles, they also noted that finding trustworthy people to handle the day-to-day tasks let them and their core teams not only relax more but do their jobs better. For a CM, that might mean more meaningful player interactions, but for your guild, it could mean officers have more time to run events rather than screen applicants or moderate chat.

Similarly, if you need help, talk to other guild leaders and get their advice. The CM community may be a bit different, but especially in niche games like hardcore PvP MMOs, you’ll see the same names again and again. Talk to them, get to know them. Not all of them bite. It’s frustrating even as a regular member to be in a guild where it seems your team exists in a vacuum, even if you’re one of the best guilds in the game. Allies, even in a PvE game, can help bolster your ranks. Yes, you may lose some members to allies, but you may gain some too. Heck, you might even be able to move up the virtual food chain in the future. And a friendly rivalry can really motivate not just you but your guildies as well!

Be aware of toxicity, though, not just from within but from without. Krohn suggested that, to combat trolls from toxic communities, be able to reply quickly with facts that counter the trolls. It’s not perfect, but can help blunt any potential negativity within your own ranks.

Finally, don’t forget about streamers and influencers. Even low-level 10-follower streamers can be helpful. In marketing, DuCrest noted that low-tier streamers are hungry for attention and content, but I’ve seen that with streamers who feature guilds too. Circling back to the “be weird” suggestion, having unique content for someone to stream can really help them get followers, but it helps you attract people too. Much as with marketing, Brasse notes that live streaming is great for long content, but you can chop out the boring bits and remix them into shorter YouTube clips for snappy marketing or guild recruitment. A passionate streamer can do a lot of advertising for little to no pay, but you do need interesting content to begin with.

Admittedly, community building for a game is a bit different from building a guild. Your budget will often be nil (though I have seen guilds spend money on both advertising and even attempting to hire community managers!). The thing is, money and large communities only work well with the above advice. You can toss $100 at each recruit, but paying someone to play won’t necessarily get you players who want to be in your guild. Having a ton of officers won’t mean much if they all have different ideas on how the guild should be run. So, make sure everyone is clear about group values and beliefs, advertise yourself with unique content, bring in similarly minded people, don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers, and consider finding a streamer to help create buzz.


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Hikari Kenzaki

Oh boy. Well, this is definitely an article tailor-made for me to respond to. :)

So, I’ve run small to mid-size RP guilds in City of Heroes and The Secret World.
I’ve also got a couple of decades in restaurant, call center, developer community, and technical support management.
All of this experience comes in handy as the CM of a small indie game.

Let’s just say what I always say first. If you are a small dev team, the first person you should hire is a Community Manager. Preferably one who is already familiar with your community.
No matter the size of your project, your CM is going to naturally wear many hats, as was said. It’s just in our nature to be facilitators and to get at least a surface awareness of every part of the business. We end up as customer service, technical support, game testers, the voice of reason, the voice of support, marketing, streamer relations, and more.
We also are able to distance ourselves from all of that. For most small (and large) dev teams, the project they are working on is very personal. It is their blood, sweat, and tears (often literally on all three accounts) that they have put into it. They’ve probably stayed up for days straight working on a bug, skipped family gatherings, and often given up financial security for the project.
When you’re that close to something, it’s really easy to lose your temper when someone is in your face. That’s where your CM comes into play. We say the things you need to say and find a different way to say things you shouldn’t say.

And yes, I’m sure many of us have also run communities, like guilds, outside of our profession. I’ve run fan fiction websites, art communities, and more. All of these experiences share common threads:
How to organize, what to say, what not to say, when to listen, when to speak, when to delegate, and when to do something yourself.
To paraphrase Grayson Death Carlyle (points if you get that reference), “No [Business] is a Democracy, but everyone should be heard.”

Everything above can apply to any community. It’s no secret that RP communities can be the most fun and the most drama-filled. Sometimes the drama is in character, sometimes it’s out of character, but usually, it’s a bleed between the two. Having someone outside the leadership or connected to it peripherally who holds the keys is often a good way to handle that sort of turmoil.

As a game dev or guild leadership, this all has to be addressed before you’re big. Before it becomes a problem.

I’ve been a part of guilds where we tried to do this sort of restructuring once our membership was numbering towards 100. People don’t like change. It didn’t go well. Conversely, I joined the League of Maidens community when there were only 300 people in the entire discord and about 1/2 of them had access to the game. I worked closely with the devs as a tester, mod, and admin to set the tone and rules of the community, and when they got to the point where they could pay me, they did. :)
Now we have hundreds of thousands of players and tons of content creators (large and small) and we are still one of the most polite, friendly, and helpful communities you’ll ever meet. I like to think I had a hand in that.

On the subject of content creators and indie devs. Yes, the dream is to get a large content creator who loves your game and spreads it to millions. Everyone would love that. But just as you are a small indie team who needs support, so do your content creators. Support them all. If they are passionate about your game. That’s what matters. They may not have a ton of followers. Heck, streaming your game might be the first time they’ve ever streamed. The point is that they want to support you and you need to support them back. Tweets, Discord announcements, game codes, in-game giveaways, cost you nothing, but mean the world to a budding creator.

Hikari Kenzaki

Maybe I should have included the last paragraph here instead, because Content Creation applies to your Guild as well. If you set yourself up to be the sole source of entertainment for dozens or hundreds of people, you’re going to go nuts.

Encourage and support when your players want to run missions, dungeons, events. Help them organize, but also let them run and be on stage.
Support community radio stations. Support streamers. If someone wants to stream your guild events, even if it’s an in-character RP event, let them.
If you have artists in your community, encourage the group to support their work. Ask them if they have a commission page.

As a guild leader or community manager, the goal is the same. To help others do what they are passionate about.