PAX East 2021: MMO community building – on a budget

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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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