While it’s common to bemoan the state of online communities for games, battling a toxic one might be more straightforward than you think. According to Grace Carroll, developer Creative Assembly was able to turn around its own communities simply by being present. Just by taking part, she said, they were able to make a huge difference in the span of just a week.
At the Develop conference at Brighton last week, Carroll gave a detailed and illuminating talk on community management, which she said is more important than most studios and developers believe. "A lot of studios will think of community as kind of fluff," said Carroll. "It's kind of important, but it's not making the game, right?
"But community is very important. The community is literally your players, the people that buy and play your games. They're who you're making it for, so you want to value them and you want to have a representative in your studio.” Carroll added that the subject nature of Creative Assembly’s Total War series, things can “can get quite political, and our forums were just not a very nice place to be."
"If people are interested in your game they're going to Google it, and they're going to find your Facebook, your Twitter, your sub-Reddit, and if they see a Reddit that's dead or a forum that's full of angry comments they won't want to buy the game and they won't want to engage. They're going to think, 'that's a toxic community that I don't want to be a part of.'"
And according to Carroll, that’s exactly where the forums were for Total War. Left to their own devices, they were a “toxic” and “awful place to be.” But by dedicating resources to put out such a trashfire, things changed quickly. “Just having that visible presence of moderation, knowing that someone was deleting threads and banning people, turned it around in about a week,” she said.
“People start to self-moderate. They tell each other off. They start reporting things.” Suddenly, there were consequences to people’s actions. They weren’t hollering into a void anymore when they were angrily making demands of developers, either. People started apologizing for their mean comments.
Later in her talk, Carroll said that banning people is "a last resort" in her usual practices; It is rarely applied to trolls, she said, "because I feel like trolls are still pushing conversation and pushing engagement." And in that spirit, she emphasized the usefulness of divisive threads and dissenting topics as “lightning rod” spaces for opinions rather than allowing negative to spread into other threads.
At this point, the community is still by no means perfect. But those issues are systematically and consistently managed now. And more importantly, by showing the community that the developers are there to listen and respond can make all the difference.