Postcard: 'How to Manage a Large-Scale Online Gaming Community'
Developers of massively multiplayer online games know the term “viral marketing” well. At the Montreal International Game Summit last month, Rich Vogel,
VP of Product Development at Sony Online Entertainment, gave a talk to address how to manage the marketing of an online game community (“How to Manage a Large-Scale Online Gaming Community”).
Think Different For MMOs
Vogel, an experienced veteran in this area because of his work on Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, among others, made clear that traditional marketing tactics and PR speak simply don't work for most game players. Marketing in MMOGs, he claims, has to be both entertaining and informative, and those who drive the marketing need to balance those two aspects.
In a massively multiplayer online game, marketing can take a variety of forms, including text written by the gamemakers and displayed in or before the game, newsletters (written by the gamemakers also), forums connected to the game, forums not connected to the game, and the content of fan web sites. All these outlets provide ample opportunities for viral marketing at its best. However, the reality is that marketing written by someone other than the content creators could (intentionally or otherwise) subvert their objective.
What MMOG owners need to learn, in order to maintain control over their marketing, Vogel suggests, is to better manage the relationships they establish with their community, especially the outspoken members.
MMOs As Communities
Vogel says an MMOG is foremostly a place for people to gather. “That's what communities are,” he says, adding that they are “a place to vent passionately,” too. People play because they want to be listened to. Discussion areas, like forums, give the players a direct link to the developers, says Vogel, which is important both to the content creators and the players.
In an online game, the developers get instant, automatic feedback from the playing community, though, “you need to be pretty proactive on the boards,” he says. Vogel recommends that MMOG developers define their mission or goal, which needs to be somehting that inspires passion. Early adopters of the game will be equally passionate, and the developers need to be in tune with them. The goal can be contained in a simple, short slogan.
Vogel also advised making use of the good fan sites that are out there,
for example by mentioning them in the game's newsletter, or by giving the players who write them in-game rewards. MMOG owners can centralize the viral marketing by only promoting the best fan sites, not steering the community to ten or eleven fan sites, but two or three only.
Viral MMO Marketing
MMOG viral marketing managers also need to control the flow of information, keeping it at a slowed pace. They'll also need the assistance of moderators, a dedicated webmaster, and a handful of small, but creative and valuable, ideas. For example, Vogel mentioned how Google keeps its users happy and entertained by changing its homepage art on holidays and special events. A little goes a long way.
Vogel insisted that separate game-related web sites be run by developers, not marketing or PR personnel, and that the writers try to keep their style very human and accessible, joking now and again, and seeming informal and down to earth. Another piece of small advice that added to the sum: color code the writers of forums to their status, be they player, moderator, or developer. That way, readers of the forum can easily scan the boards for pertinent information from appropriate people. “You need to have clear lines of responsibility,” he says, noting that a clearly color-coded community manager on a forum doesn't have the same powers that a dev has.
Vogel says MMOG owners do well to admit their mistakes. “Win over your community so that they are forgiving of you when you really screw up,” he said. He also gave some advice about distracting the players when making a change to the game, not answering controversies that arise, as it just feeds them, and not taking too seriously the forum rants of hardcore players, who don't represent the silent majority. You can get feedback from the quieter majority, however, by simply administering surveys. However, the hardcore, verbal players are the people who generate word of mouth marketing, Vogel admits, “so keep them happy, too.”
On hackers, Vogel says “most are prideful.” Developers can make use of their abilities by finding "the people who have the best hacks in your game and [hiring] them.” Or, “find them and reward them for telling you how they did what they did,” so that you can acknowledge their ability, make use of their talent, and not pay them an employee's paycheck.
Equally, player-created content can be leveraged in the MMOG owners' favor. Anyone planning to allow (or reuse) player created content needs to first investigate some possible legal issues that might arise, such as players who incorporated trademarked or copyrighted material in their creations. And like good fan web sites, good user-generated content can be showcased and leveraged in a viral marketing fashion.