Community Management with Nick van Vugt from Uken Games

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Nick Van Vugt, community manager of Uken Games. Uken is a mobile-oriented indie studio based in Toronto that’s known for titles such as Kings of Pool and Bingo Pop. Nick has been operating as community manager for roughly six years, and has seen pretty much everything you can experience as a community manager at any scale.

Moderating audiences, keeping users happy, language barriers and leading a team which simultaneously manages dozens of communities, are just a few of the challenges Nick has had since graduating from McMaster University in 2011.

While our conversation ranged across a number of topics both professional and personal, here are some key takeaways on proper community management, straight from the source.

Vanilla Forums:

I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of evolution over the last six years. With social games like yours, what do you think are the main differences for community management on an indie scale versus the AAA level?  We’re talking about a three-figure audience versus a six or seven-figure audience. What should you keep in mind?

Nick:

I think community management is largely a universal thing, and I think that regardless of the size of your audience, there are core beliefs and core structures for how you can better handle those people.

For mobile gaming, the biggest challenge and biggest difference between AAA and indie is the fact that for the majority of mobile titles, they’re all free to play. What that means is that 95% of your userbase are non-spending users, so there’s an expectation of equality amongst the users. But at the end of the day, it really comes down to the fact that feedback from the users who spend a lot of money is technically most valuable to a community manager.

Vanilla Forums:

Right. Whales really dictate the bottom line because if you build a community and product, and they don’t sustain themselves financially, you obviously run into problems.

Nick:

Absolutely. A lot of AAA titles have been in development for three to ten years, and the buy-in for those users is around 100 dollars now, with the cost of next gen systems. All of those users have equal footing until something becomes free on Steam, or the Playstation network has a sale, or something along those lines. That introduces new users and breathes new life into gaming communities. But for mobile, it’s definitely a lot more challenging, because you have to balance that toxicity based on users who haven’t really contributed anything other than their time.

The Takeaway: Community management is extremely different between mobile and PC/console gaming. Taking player investment (buy-in) into account is critical to establishing a baseline value, but whales can only account for so much when dealing with general player disposition and the state of your community.

Vanilla Forums:

What do you think about canned responses? I feel like they are uniquely frustrating (or even aggressive, in some cases) because they challenge your identity, or the idea that there’s a person behind the company. Your audience may lose the trust that you’ve built in them over time, that they’re dealing with a real person. Ultimately they distance themselves, hurting the overall community.

Nick:

Absolutely; I completely agree with that. I think a lot of these AAA studios rely heavily on outsourced support, but they’ll have a community manager in charge of the forum interactions. Largely speaking, support is really the most frustrating part of a community manager’s job.

At Uken, community managers still manage email, forums and social media, so we’re hyper-aware of our users’ input. Believe it or not, for the past six and a half years we’ve sent out every email by hand. Sure, there are minor shortcuts we use, such as macros to expand questions and functionality and stuff like that. That helps tremendously, and it helps us flush it out a bit more and add more personality to the emails we send out. But it’s something that is already unmanageable at times, and if we were to scale further we’d need to reconsider.

Because what really happens is this: a user will send us ten emails in two days about the same issue, even though we’ve told them over and over again that we’re looking into it. It reaches a point where have to draw the line and let the user know that you’re unable to provide them with additional feedback, or even a response, to the same issue. There’ve been plenty of emails escalated to me where I’ve had to say “this is the final communication we’ll have about this issue; I’m sorry this is still frustrating you but there’s nothing more we can do about it for you until we fix it”. I’ve noticed this a lot with some of the more canned responses.

The Takeaway: As a community manager, you often find yourself faced with frustrated users who make you want to avoid interaction. But firing off a generic response can be one of the most dangerous things you can do for your reputation. Prepare to spend additional time addressing every kind of communication.

Vanilla Forums:

Let’s talk about designing community-driven events. When trying new things to capture and maintain your audience, the biggest question for me was (partially from a game design perspective): how do you design content and mechanics for players of all skill levels? A

And as a community manager: when creating these community driven events, how do you decide which player demographics to target? If you design for the mean when there’s a clear bell curve of player progression within the game, you’re designing for only one metric, and it may not accurately define your players. So what’s the thought process behind focusing on certain subsections of your community?

Nick:

Fortunately for us, when we’re designing events and tournaments and stuff like that, a significant amount of data has already been analyzed. So what we do is expand on that and change the ranges of who  the tournament is best suited for. Those numbers and input ranges can be changed on the fly, and we can properly estimate how well different things will perform based on our existing data.

Usually you don’t need to try something new in those terms until there’s stagnation. So if you’re working as a community manager on a project with a bit of design implemented into the game, it’s really important for someone to look into those designs and keep an eye on them. Don’t let them go on autopilot. It’s important to understand how successful they actually are, and whether it is or isn’t worth tweaking level restrictions or designs.

At Uken we say we should only try something new if we know what the results are going to be.No-one’s going to suggest to turn on a new feature that’s going to give everyone a bunch of free premium currency, or something like that.

So to answer your question about who you should cater to, we kind-of try to strike a balance. We tier a lot of our tournaments, so not only can you get to a certain place, but you can hit certain thresholds and receive certain items from them. By hitting those thresholds you get better and better items, and bigger and bigger rewards. We understand that given a certain amount of energy (or whatever the player currency is) most players can reach a certain threshold at a specific level, and receive a suitable reward. They don’t have to push themselves further than necessary, and we avoid frustration.

Then, the players who gain much higher levels can go even further than that, getting bigger things that are appropriate to whatever their level is.

On top you have the upper echelon for players who reach an even higher level. They want to push themselves further to reach the next threshold. e Remember that these are free-to-play games. If they want to make additional purchases to reach that top tier, then they’re more than welcome to make those choices on their own. We still offer enough freebies to help them along, as long as they’re actively participating.

The Takeaway: Designing community-driven events is really hard. Avoiding pay-to-win is never a strong move, but knowing when to introduce segments that inspire purchases is critical to strong design, revenue and community satisfaction.

Vanilla Forums:

It was an honor to conduct this in-person interview with you. You really helped me gain a better understanding of community management. Specifically:

  1. Community managers aren’t just smiling faces on forums. They must have a serious understanding of player metrics, game design and revenue.
  2. Being honest about language barriers can uniquely connect fans with a community manager. When both parties acknowledge their challenges, they don’t just become more willing to work together, they become more aware of the real person behind the computer, too.
  3. Data is king. Without player metrics and detailed reporting, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create successful content in the mobile space.

Thanks again Nick, it was a pleasure.

Nick:

You’re welcome. Thanks for speaking with me.