As online gamers, we have come to expect a certain degree of community regardless of our play styles, whether we are solo artists, guild fanatics, forum trolls, or casual browsers. No matter which of these we are, we will eventually encounter a breed of industry professional that stands out amongst the gaming crowd that delves further into the gaming world than perhaps any other profession. I’m speaking of community relations personnel, those courageous souls who not only brave the front lines as the rest of us, but go behind the scenes, in between the scenes, to the sides of the scenes, on the outer limits and twilight zones of the scenes and back again in order to bring us closer to our goals of reaching a common ground where we can all enjoy ourselves.
We caught up with one such professional, Richard Weil (pronounced “while”), the Online Community Relations Manager for NCsoft, based in Austin, TX, during our coverage of the Austin Game Conference. Richard was not only affable and good natured, but he and the NCsoft Community team even ponied up for lunch at the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill, where they offered several great gifts to the attendees, including signed artwork and my personal favorite, City of Villains Capes, which I’m wearing still in spite of complaints from my loved ones. Afterward, Richard was kind enough to grant us an interview before his panel on “Community Relations – An Untapped Resource.”
GamerGod (GG): Anyone can recite a job description verbatim. The question for you is, “What are you here to do in this industry?”
Richard Weil (RW): What I’m here to do is coordinate the efforts of a variety of community relations teams. All of our various products have a community team associated with it once they reach a certain stage; of course, those that are very early in development do not. My job is coordinating those teams through personnel and resource management, making sure they have everything they need.
When a team gets as large as the City of Heroes/Villains team, they then have their own “Lead,” such as EM Stock, who does a great job coordinating that team. So, in practice, I would talk to the Lead and they talk to the team. But since not all teams are large enough to justify having a designated Lead, I manage many of them directly. On the flip side of that, it is very important to me that these teams be plugged into their products.
I don’t want to say the community teams serve two masters, but I feel that it is very important that community teams are plugged into their product. This means talking to the project team, the producers, and the developers as well as me. In addition, I strongly believe in self-management, so that if you are hiring the right people, giving them what they need and getting out of their way, they are going to do a good job. This has been my experience in my entire career, not just the two years I’ve been in the game industry.
I see my job as giving my staff the resources and support they need to get the job done and I believe they are doing that.
GG:You have a background in Human Resources within the software industry. Do you find a noticeable difference in your previous job duties compared to your current duties? Also, how do you bring your previous experience to this job to give it that extra boost?
RW: Well, I think there is a significant difference. When I was doing Human Resources at a software consultancy, I wore a lot of hats: recruiting, general HR work, even business development. So, while that experience set doesn’t directly apply to my current position, it is still useful experience, such as when we’re going through a hiring process. The things I enjoyed doing at Athens Group, which is where I was before NCsoft, was making sure we had correct processes in place. Everybody knew how things worked, which can be a real challenge when you’re dealing with different products, different developers and studios where everybody has their own way of doing things. While we can’t force processes down people’s throats, we can have good processes within our own group. The City of Heroes/Villains team is very strong on process, so everything is 1, 2, 3, done! The other thing that is a great help is to have inter-departmental processes, which although we know there will be differences in the teams, we definitely like to encourage.
GG:You brought up a very interesting point in that you don’t believe in what many consider to be micromanagement. How does that translate into your hiring practices? Do you allow your team managers to deal with that or are you hands-on in that regard?
RW: I do like to oversee that process because of budgeting, and ultimately, this is a person who will be working within my department, and they have to be able to get along with the rest of the staff. Having the right cultural fit is important. Anytime we do hiring for a particular product, the existing community staff associated with that product is involved, as well as the developers and producers both in-house and third party. We like everyone to be involved and to reach a consensus.
Consensus is an issue on the other side of self-management, and I firmly believe in it. I think you can get everybody in a room, come to a decision, and move forward without having people on the sidelines trying to kneecap you because they disagree. Consensus doesn’t mean everyone agrees on the issues per se, it just means that everyone agrees we are going to do it in this particular way even if there is some disagreement. Consensus in the hiring process is also very important. For example, somebody who is new and coming into an already fragmented, hostile audience will not tend to do a good job. Since Community Relations needs to be plugged into so many parts of the organization, consensus is vital.
GG:In speaking with you earlier in the day, you mentioned that you do not favor the term “fansite,” that you prefer “community.” Are there any specifics techniques you use with your staff to try to and bring this mindset to the mainstay of staff thinking?
RW: Well, I don’t have anything “against” the term, but I’ve heard that some of the people who run community sites, affiliate sites, or networks sites don’t like it. So if your audience doesn’t like the term that you are using, we have to realize that names have power. If you are referring to someone in a way they feel is derogatory, even if you don’t, then that relationship is not going to be as strong as you want it to be. I don’t impose a doctrine of “You Must Never Refer to Them This Way (fansites)” because that term has been around for so long that it has become second nature for some people to use it. However, it is important for me that we refer to people the way they want to be referred to, especially in a way they never feel is derogatory. That goes way beyond community as well. Having a good working relationship with these sites is a very high priority for me and the department.
GG:You stated that you’ve only been in the gaming industry for approximately two years, after having been an avid gamer for many years. Have you done anything in those two years which you believe will leave an indelible mark on the industry and what plans do you have for the future?
RW: You know, I don’t think so. The position I’m in is a relatively new position, even within Community Relations, which is itself a relatively new phenomenon in the game industry. I don’t have many colleagues who do what I do. But I also don’t think that I’ve done anything that will necessarily leave a mark yet; we shall just have to see. If anything, the emphasis on the community team being plugged into the product team is one of the most important distinctions to be made that I follow through with. I think that as we expand to link with more games, and as we build a multi-disciplinary community relations department here at NCsoft, and then we may have something to point to. So ask me in a year and maybe I’ll say yes.
GG:How closely do you work with the communities to accept feedback which will ultimately result in affecting the products?
RW: It is very important, not only from the baseline of how the community is reacting to changes in the games, but to determine whether or not the change is doing exactly what it was expected to do in the first place. We go through the process of designing it, creating it, testing, but until it really goes “Live,” you don’t really know what it’s going to do from a mechanics and a feedback point of view. For example, you make a change that is supposed to make a certain type of character have a certain type of reaction, and you find out that it works differently for different types of characters. To use the City of Heroes example, we could make a change that works well for Tankers but doesn’t work so well for Scrappers. Well, those Scrappers are going to tell you, “Hey, you said it was going to work this way and it doesn’t.” So we have to carry that feedback back to the development team and determine whether did what we intended it to do.
We also have to look at the perspective change of the community. I remember an old Dilbert strip where someone says, “Let’s give the customers what they want” and the reply is “What the customers want is better products for free.” So the retort is, “Let’s just sell them what we have and call it a strategy!” So there is obviously a middle ground because all customers do not want the same thing, and there is no generic make-everyone-happy button. So community is important in helping the developers figure out which changes need to be made, can be made, which are practical and impractical, and lastly that the changes that have been made are actually having the desired effect. Some of the changes aren’t popular, but some are necessary for the integrity of the game. You can’t just give everyone a million gold just because they would like it.
GG:It is approximated that only 10% of any game’s population makes its voice heard on the forums. Do you believe that and if so, how do you feel it is justified to make changes based on a minority constituency?
RW: This is a question that comes up a lot, which has a number of different viewpoints. There are those that feel that the feedback of the players on the boards, while valuable, does not represent the majority opinion of the players, so that while it certainly cannot be ignored, it’s not necessarily actionable. I’ve always disagreed with that. I’ve said a million times before, along with Sanya Weathers, so it’s not my phrase exclusively, that the players who are taking the time to be such an active part of the community represent the most dedicated players. If they are unhappy, it’s a canary in the coalmine situation. If the canary is dying, there is something wrong in the mine. So for every player who has a plausible reason for wanting to leave and who actually posts, “I’m going to quit,” there are probably a significant number of players who are not going to bother posting and just push the cancellation button.
So it is very important for us to pay attention to the feedback on the forums, especially in a wonderful, active community such as City of Heroes. They are so in-depth and so into the game, that it would really be a huge mistake to ignore them. And we don’t ignore them. We spend a lot of bandwidth paying attention to them. We’ve made countless changes and adjustments to changes in the game based on forum feedback. When you have dead forums, you have to ask yourself why that is. Forums are a reflection of the player base in general, and while their perceptions might be slightly skewed because of their passion, you absolutely have to pay attention to them. If you fail to do that, you are slitting your own throat.
GG:What traits do you look for when hiring community relations staff, and what advice do you have for anyone looking to break into the business?
RW: The main traits that I look for are the ability to operate independently, to share our view on consensus, to be able to communicate very professionally, and to be an advocate for the community, which is very important. What I always tell people when I’m speaking to them about their career progression is that community managers need to be able to potentially sit in a room with NCsoft executives and professionally communicate an adversarial view. You have to be able to speak on that level, and if you can’t hold your own in that environment, then there is some special development called for or maybe you should be looking at something else. I hate to sound harsh, but that seems like the end product. So if you look at someone like EM Stock, the City of Heroes/Villains Lead, or Valerie Massey, our Auto Assault Community Coordinator, who are very capable of doing that, you can just throw anything at them and let it go. Other than that, written communication is a very key trait. If you can’t write a cogent email to anybody, than you are going to have problems doing a community relations job effectively. You have to be able to write process documents, event documents, etc. as well. I mean, we don’t get to do in-person interviews very often, most of what we do is indeed writing.
As far as people getting into community relations, well, the first things we are looking for are people who are independent, who don’t need to be micromanaged, who are bright with good experience and with broad background of skills that can carry over into this field. You have to know games; having a historical background in games is important. Knowing what came before and what lessons have been learned can give you a step up. You have to be able to be objective, a fanboi doesn’t make the best community relations person; while they are passionate for the game, they can easily spin themselves into a position that is untenable.
GG:Last question, what are your favorite games?
RW: My favorite game of all time is Ultima Online; it was my first MMO, and I played it for a very long time. I loved it. I’ve played just about every MMO that has come down the pike since then. Of course, as you get older and do crazy stuff, like get married and have kids, you have less time to devote to them, though I have tried almost every single one. Xcom was one of my favorite games in general. For my geeky historian side, “Great Naval Battles” was one of my favorite games in that genre. I can go back even to text based games, such as one made by a company named Infocom, “A Mind Forever Voyaging” made by the same guys who made Zork. I thought that was one of the most fantastic games I’ve ever played.