Community Direction: Trion Worlds’ Elizabeth Tobey on Defiance and the evolution of community management

5 Posted by - May 3, 2013 - Community Moderation, Opinion

Welcome to Community Direction, our new series of interviews with leaders in the gaming community space. Trion World’s Director of Community Elizabeth Tobey spoke with Raptr about how a community teams need to work closely with all departments (complete with Venn diagram!), the incredibly ambitious transmedia project Defiance, and more.

Raptr: How has your approach to community changed in the last few years — what are you doing now that you didn’t do before?

Tobey: One of the things I love most about community is that it’s ever-changing. Honestly, the only constant in the job is how I describe it (in a very general way) to folks who want to knowwhat I do: Community is the direct communication between devs and gamers. Anything that is a conversation is our domain – be it social, community, or whatever other word you use to describe that interactivity.

I think it’s absolutely crucial to keep changing and trying new things in order to be successful in the realm of community. If you fall into a routine chances are not only are you falling behind, but you are doing it wrong. We are living in a time when the idea of community is absolutely exploding: people have tons of new ways to communicate. Fans have the ability to be heard, loud and clear, and are taking control of conversations to effect real change. Likewise, as devs, we now have so many more powerful ways to talk with the right people: we can listen and give meaningful responses.

When I started in community ages ago, people thought that the job meant “be on forums and post cool blogs.” And while those tools (blogs, forums) are still hugely important to the job, they are just a fraction of what community is today. A community team reaches out to new people (some who might not even know about our games) and gets them interested. We then bring them into our world and give them what they want, where they want it – whether it’s on a live stream, a community hub, a social network, a live event…

I’ve always asked myself “do I think this is cool?” when creating an idea for community. We’re all fans, too, and while I’m not advocating doing only what I personally like, if I think something is interesting, chances are the people I work for will as well. Beyond that, my guiding principle is to continually change what I’m doing; be it swag, a web show, or an alternate reality game. It’s okay to be a little afraid and uncertain – those feelings come
with the territory of doing something new and when you are doing something new, you are usually doing the best work for your community.

Raptr: The Defiance game and accompanying TV show is an incredibly ambitious project;
how important is community to Defiance, and what are you doing to support it?

Tobey: The community isn’t just important to Defiance – it IS Defiance. One of the things I love most about Trion is our unwavering dedication to our community. Our games aren’t just products that you buy, play for a handful of hours, and then move on from: we’re a living and ongoing world and our teams are constantly changing and adding to that experience. Without gamers, without the support of our fans, we don’t have a game.

Our support really and truly comes from all our departments and the community team is pretty much the circle sitting in the middle of the org chart Venn diagram that talks with them all. We meet with the devs on a daily basis to go over improvements and changes and make sure everyone knows about what the community is saying and what gamers want. We are in pretty much every meeting with our marketing and communications teams to figure out how we’re going to reveal upcoming content. We have a 24/7 line to our customer support team and work hand-in-hand with them on literally every issue that comes up.

When I was interviewing at Trion someone told me a story about the company’s dedication to community. During the first week of RIFT, a lead in customer service actually helped a gamer while getting a tattoo.

Community isn’t a 9-to-5 job and for me, that’s a bonus. Some of the biggest victories from my job happened during the “off hours” while I was browsing reddit and could help someone or at the crack of dawn on a Saturday when I got to do something cool and meet a bunch of fans. Again, it’s that guiding principle of “is this cool? What would I want from a company if I were the customer?” Be real. Be human. So far that philosophy has worked out really well
for us.

tobey_headshotRaptr: How do beta players impact and help shape Trion’s games?

Tobey: Before game launches, an Alpha that runs 24/7. We also have numerous Beta events to allow an even larger group of people into the game to give feedback and, in the case of RIFT, we have a Public Test Shard to continue testing new things and getting feedback even well past our launch. As I said, our games aren’t just a product you buy, play for a while, and move on from – they are constantly growing and changing and more a service than a product in many ways. Because of this, we need a lot of channels for feedback and to empower our gamers to tell us what they think (be it good, bad, or ugly.) So even if you aren’t in an Alpha, Beta, or PTS, we still hear you.

We have GMs and the community team scouring in-game, customer service, and online channels for feedback and starting conversations wherever possible with gamers. We tier all the sites that are “core” for us and they don’t just include or official channels: you’ll often see us posting on the Steam forums or on reddit. I’ve also found that replying on YouTube can create fans for life. I’m kind of surprised more companies don’t do it – I think they’re finally catching on, now, but when I started regularly replying on YouTube a couple years back, it was a huge shock to people there. There were more than a couple “holy crap!” reactions when I answered a question. That still tickles me – why ask people to comment if you don’t want to let them know you are listening?

Raptr: What do you do when things go wrong?

Tobey: Roll with the punches, listen, learn, and adapt. We do a lot of things live so that we have the most direct and real interaction with our fans possible. The only downside to this is that when things go wrong while you are live, you don’t always have the luxury of a plan B.

Luckily, I have a great team and we all know how to laugh at ourselves and the situations and keep on moving forward. I am not afraid of things going wrong: that’s just life. It’s all about how you handle yourself, and the people watching and listening, when it happens. If you are honest and speak frankly to people, people will respect that. And we always do that, whether it’s on a live stream and the server went down unexpectedly for maintenance or it’s a more serious situation where our Executive Producer, Nathan, is writing daily blogs during a rocky launch week to make sure everyone knows exactly what is going on and what we’re doing to make things better.

Raptr: What’s the best tip or advice that you would give developers and publishers looking to grow and nurture their own communities?

Tobey: Don’t shackle your community team with procedures and protocols. To be effective, a community has to be able to react quickly and speak with their own voices. I’m not saying you should let us go rogue: I count the lawyer from my first gaming gig as one of my mentors (and I use his teachings daily in my work.) That being said, you have to trust the community team and let them do what they do best. These people are your front lines and to be great at what they do they have to be empowered. Train them, trust them, and let them get to work.

Raptr: How do you see community management and gamer communities in general
evolving in the near future?

Tobey: I see the lines between marketing, PR, dev, and customer service blurring even more until that Venn diagram I talked about earlier is pretty much an amorphous mass with the community and social teams sitting smack in the center. In this day and age, with constant connectivity and how easy it is for everyone to be able to get out there and talk, community and social isn’t just one department within a larger company. My team has a specialized skill set that can, and should, be applied to everything we do – from game design on down. Companies who get that will succeed, not just with their products but with the people who use them. This isn’t something that is happening in the near future, though: it’s already happening. If you haven’t already begun breaking down those barriers between community and everything else, you better get started – today.