Supercharging Community Management with PULSE

Evan Berman at E3
Evan “Scapes” Berman demonstrates TERA at E3 2010. Source: Youtube

Evan Berman knows how gamers think. A veteran community manager with credits on HAWKEN, TERA, Dragonica Online and the infamous Hellgate: London, Berman (aka ‘Scapes’ in the forums) has spent many hours thinking how to best react when faced with community troubles.

In the process, he’s devised a system – called PULSE, which stands for Persistent Userbase Lens for Socialization and Evaluation – that grants large publishing and development teams unprecedented access to the trends, thoughts and pulse of a game’s community (Full disclosure: I worked with Berman at THQ*ICE).

But before you can implement the system, Berman says, you have to understand the underlying aspects critical to success in community management: Timeliness, speaking the same language (aka knowing how to ‘speak producer’ when bringing up community issues), and reporting your findings in a way that’s useful to the team.

The last aspect is vital to success. While some companies prefer to disseminate information over email updates, others may stick to brief metrics reports presented strictly in weekly meetings. As someone in charge of advocating for the community, the challenge here is in finding a way to deliver the needed information while still having the production, marketing and business departments take community issues seriously.

In the case of HAWKEN, Berman initially sent email updates on community trends to the team, only to find them glossed over for more pressing matters related directly to the game. “People have very limited time to read an email that’s more than a couple of paragraphs,” says Berman, hence the popularity of the executive summary.

First the Forest

To work around this issue, Berman decided to try an experiment. Since the production team was using JIRA internally for project management, he set up an instance of JIRA paired with the Confluence plugin to create a community ticketing system to track issues. Much like how developers use JIRA or other programs to stay on top of task backlogs, this system would do the same for community trends. He calls this setup PULSE.

“You have to find a way to communicate in the language and the format that has the highest chance of getting your consumer’s attention. Why not present it in the project management solution they’re already using?” –Evan ‘Scapes’ Berman

Since the setup used existing tools that were already being used by the other teams, the addition of a dedicated community thread meant developers were more likely to take community issues seriously as they came in. “Anyone on the development team with a Confluence account can see at that moment what the community’s top issues are,” says Berman. Ignoring emails is one thing. How could the rest of the staff ignore persistent, high-priority community issues in good faith when they were constantly being reminded of them?

Regardless of the specific tool used, the takeaway is clear. Whether your team uses JIRA, DevTrack, Hansoft, Google Docs or crayons scribbled on graham crackers, adopting the methods your team already knows and uses to convey community issues maximizes the chances of it getting seen and addressed.

Then the Trees

For monitoring and tracking general trends and sentiment, PULSE is a very useful innovation. However, for specific issues that require immediate attention it falls short.

Destiny Concept Art
In late 2012, concept art for Bungie’s upcoming Destiny was leaked, but the damage was mitigated.

These cases, says Berman, can be classified as ‘sparks’ or ‘fires.’ Most emergency-level game issues can be classified as fires – with source code leaks, press leaks and server outages among the most common. Sparks can be anything that has the potential to become a fire, but hasn’t become one yet.

To handle these situations, teams need to develop a set of contingency processes to deal with as many issues as possible. Berman advocates group brainstorming sessions to generate these scenarios; essentially gathering the dev team into one room and asking them to “have nightmares together.”

Of all of the terrible things that may befall your game, Berman says, most fall under three categories:

– Marketing (game-related information leaks)
Tech (server outages and issues)
Business (internal financial information leaks)

Having plans that detail out next steps for problems in each of the above areas can help immensely in cutting down response time and preventing further damage to the game.

But the process doesn’t stop there. Once an issue has been tackled, Berman advocates postmortems after every issue to find out if it truly mitigated the problem, if it identified new issues, and how the team can modify the plan for the future. Much like in game development itself, iteration is the key to improvement.

Only You Can Prevent Sparks and Fires

Once you have both of these systems in place – a monitoring stream embedded in your dev team along with customized contingency plans for as many disaster scenarios as possible – you’ll be in an vastly better position to spot and resolve community issues as they occur.

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