Community and video games / by Simmon Li

I don't often post about video games, but it seems to me something that's worth talking about. It has such implications beyond the video game world. I recently have been involved in a game community for the game Civilization V. It's fun, but there are a lot of problems that plague the game. Needless to say, I've been posting on the official forum to try and provide help, suggestions, and all kinds of stuff. And something bothered me that I didn't quite put my finger on until today. There is a lack of community engagement from the developers/publishers. I mean, that is not to say that they don't have people posting and providing help. They do, but there doesn't seem to be that level of engagement that makes the forums worth visiting. It's all so token, and in some cases, the official posters simply engage on a very superficial level, or for administrative reasons (calm down, etc, etc). I don't know how an organization like Take Two works, but I would imagine that there are specific community representatives for each game. At least, that would make the most sense if community engagement was something actually valued by the company. At present, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of community engagement by 2K (the subsidiary of Take Two), but rather community management. To me, those two types of interaction are fundamentally different. A lot of the management seems to address the blatant rage or anger with the game. There are token responses, much like those that you hear when you're put on hold after calling the customer service line. "Your feedback is important to us." "We listen!" but what's missing is the vital next step. The part where we're connected with a guy who speaks bad English. Now, that seems like something odd to say, but at the very least, on the phone line, someone attempts to *help* you. Often times, they're not genuine, and the whole experience becomes frustrating in ways unknowable (I'm sure we've all been there), but at the very least, there is an institutional attempt at engagement. This is what's missing from the community focus at 2K: that extra step of treating the community like a competent entity, and engaging on a level that's beyond patronizing.

Let's start with a few examples of the canned responses that I've seen, and I'll also provide some examples of responses that really don't add value to the discussion.

Thank you for the feedback; as always we are listening to what you guys like and don't like about the game and are taking it in to consideration for future patches.

Certainly; we try to investigate all of the issues people report. But saves with reproducible crashes will save a lot of time!

We are aware that some users do experience crashes; after all, we do read these forums!

We are still working to improve the game and more patches are on their way, and we always include stability improvements and bug fixes alongside the regular balance changes that our patches have.

That being said, if anyone is experiencing a reproducible crash in a save game (this means, the game crashes every time you try to continue a particular save) please email it to me at [an email that's not important]. These saves are helpful to the devs for identifying any lingering issues.

We have our community managers here to get information to and from the developers. You can see from the past and upcoming patch notes that your concerns are definitely being listened to, taken into consideration, and in many cases addressed in patches.

Now, none of these responses provide any meaningful engagement with the community. What am I after? A good example is the second last quote. "We are aware that some users do experience crashes [...]" Great, so what issues are you working on? I'm not expecting a laundry list of specifics, but it would be nice to see some general area of crash pointed out. For example, I would have simply stated: "We are aware of some users experiencing crashes related to the rendering engine on certain setups. We're investigating the rendering engine with regards to typical crash hardware environments, and hope to have something concrete soon." Or, "We are aware that some users are experiencing crashes related to specific unit upgrades. While these crashes are important to us, they are very hard to pin down, and would qualify as rare crashes. [insert the appeal for gamesaves]"

There is just more information we could be given on the process of addressing community concerns, rather than the ends. "Here are the patch notes!" It just seems so superficial. What exactly is the action plan for addressing these (it seems) multitudes of issues that your user base is experiencing? I understand that, as a firm, 2K and Firaxis want to make money. I don't blame them for simultaneously looking to create DLC content, but because the bugs management of the outfit seems to be lacking so dearly, the impression is that the publisher/developer is simply looking for a quick buck. What I'm saying is that there is a lack of meaningful chatter with the customer. The culture of community involvement seems to be that of management, as opposed to engagement. Not to mention that recently, the lead designer for Civilization V left Firaxis. As a result, the future of the game is even more cloudy. Without a strong shift in culture to engage and address the customer in a meaningful way, the publisher and developer continue to hemorrhage reputation and trust.

This one's a kicker:

We're committed to Civilization V - you don't have to worry or speculate about that.

I'm glad that you can say that, but from where I stand, it certainly does not feel that you are committed to us. Perhaps it's a semantic trick, but I'm sure the company is committed to Civilization V, after all, there is still money to be made. And let's be clear, I don't mean to personally attack the employees of 2K, perhaps they are just doing as they are told. This problem seems to stem from the attitude of senior management, and from the lack of a strong culture of transparency, or at least, one of involving the community. I'm not saying the community should decide the direction of the game, or have a say in how the company should run, but at the very least, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the frustrations of the community, and a plan of action about how these problems are to be addressed. At the same thing, there is nothing stopping the developer from developing additional content, but at the moment, the effort seems to be balanced incorrectly. Comments like this one add zero value to the discussion. How are you committed to Civilization V? How can you show to me that you have a vested interest in addressing the issues that we, as a community, have brought up? I'm not saying everyone has a valid opinion (some people just don't like aspects of the game), but at the very least, it would ease speculation if there was some sort of formal plan that we could all look at, and say "Well at least they're trying." The patches in recent memory have not really done much to address the problems of the game in any meaningful way.

At the end of the day, the level of "engagement" with the community amounts to apologetics, defence of an action, or "wait and see, we have something great around the corner." More or less, management of the community. I have yet to see any engagement with the community that leads to any value. And that, more than anything, is what bothers me when I consider the future of Civilization V.

For those interested at all in the ensuing discussion, the thread can be seen here: http://forums.2kgames.com/showthread.php?101152-Community-and-2K-Firaxis