The following article is based on Janet Ebsen's "Crisis and Opportunity" GDC talk.
Shortly after I became Kongregate's community manager, Kongregate had one of the biggest community crises in our history. One of our games had a cascading series of problems involving last-minute changes to events, insufficiently described odds of winning a very rare item, and some support missteps. By the time players came to us, their community was in chaos.
None of us had any real idea about how to handle the situation, and so we made a lot of mistakes. Quite a few of those mistakes made things worse instead of better.
Nonetheless (this is key), not everything we did was a mistake. We figured out what worked and then kept doing more of that. It was expensive and took a lot of effort, but at the end of two weeks or so we had learned a lot; in fact, the things we learned at that time have formed the basis for how we have handled every game crisis since then. Moreover, many of the players involved in that crisis are still active on Kongregate, years later. All things considered, I'd say that the information and relationships we gained were worth the costs.
Since then, I have had a front-row seat as many different communities have experienced many different kinds of crises. Developers and their representatives handle day-to-day issues on their own; things only come to my attention when everything is hitting the fan. At their core, all community crises come down to one issue: loss of trust.
For some reason, in some way, players are disappointed. Something did not go as expected. This may be because there was a bug in the game, because you couldn't meet a launch date, or because they had a problem and couldn't find help. It could also be because they had unrealistic expectations. That disappointment, if it's big enough or goes on long enough, will result in two things: anger and loss of trust.
To resolve your crisis, you need to build trust -- a confidence that when things go wrong you'll do the right thing. This is possible! And after you have built this trust, there's a good chance your community will be stronger than ever.
When things go wrong, you have a problem. But you also have an opportunity to make something dramatically better than it would otherwise have been.
Understand the Issues Thoroughly
When you first become aware of a crisis, you won't immediately understand every single aspect of it. Even if you understand the overall situation, take time to make sure you understand the implications and resulting frustrations. For instance, "the game went down hours ago" is not precisely the same issue as "the game is down and we're missing an event," and neither of those is the same as "the game is down and when we wrote to support they insisted everything was fine." In the latter two situations, you have a secondary problem that will also need attention in order to get your community back on track.
I ran into an interesting situation a few years back with one of our highest-spending players, whom I'll call Steve. There had been a bug regarding a particular event and most players were affected and complaining. Steve had run into an entirely separate issue that also occurred during the event, but it affected only the very highest-ranked players. Steve had opened several support tickets with the developer, but each time all he got was a canned message that explained how the developers were handling the main, widespread bug. He finally contacted us in frustration because it was clear that nobody was actually reading his support tickets enough to realize he was describing something entirely different.
So: make sure to ask enough questions (and listen long enough to the answers) that you fully understand the nature of the problems.
Apologize or Express Regret
Don't forget this step. It's an easy thing to take for granted; it really is. You may think, "Obviously we're sorry. We would never have done this on purpose!" Nonetheless, players are human beings, and when human beings are hurt or affronted, they want to know that they have been heard. Expressing regret or empathy is an important way of doing that.
Even if you had no role in causing the problem, you should still express regret. If someone's grandmother dies, you (of course) say you're sorry. Saying you're sorry doesn't mean "I killed your grandmother and I apologize"; it means "I regret that you're experiencing pain and loss."
The same goes for handling community crises. These sorts of statements will let players know that they have been heard and that you sympathize. And of course, if you (or a member of your team) had a part in creating the problem or making it worse, you should take it a step further and apologize.
Explain Your Next Steps
Educate players about what to expect from you. If you personally can't reboot the server, let them know that -- but also assure them that you'll contact the person who can. Perhaps you cannot immediately guarantee that the event will be extended, but let them know that you think it's a reasonable suggestion and that you'll talk it over with the rest of your team.
Also, keep in mind that vague timelines are best. Phrases like "as soon as we can possibly manage" and "all our engineers are focused on fixing this" work better than specifics. If you promise a particular time but then can't meet the deadline, it will further damage your credibility instead of rebuilding players' trust.
Stay in Contact
Post publicly (forum, social media, whatever makes sense for your game) at least once or twice per day, even if you don't have anything new to report. If there is no visible result of your efforts, tell them a bit about what is happening and where things are.
If the issue is serious or prolonged, it's wise to consider some form of compensation. Let me begin with a cautionary tale about the possible downside of offering compensation. I was once working with a very high-spending player who had had a valuable item inexplicably disappear from his inventory. The game devs were dragging their heels a bit, and I gave him some Kongregate currency (Kreds) as a good-faith gesture. It was never intended to be a full compensation, just a "sorry this is taking so long" gift. Unfortunately, he was enraged. He felt the compensation was insultingly small, and was far more upset than if I had given him nothing but prompt attention.
When thinking about compensation and how to structure it, bear in mind that players who spend in your game will expect more compensation than those who do not. Unless the issue is something that affected everyone equally, consider spending history when designing compensation. It's intuitive, really: If someone spends $500 to prepare for an event that ends up not happening, they will feel entitled to more compensation than people who spent nothing on the event.
Remember, too, that players talk to each other. Assume that the whole community will know all the details of the compensation plan. If you don't feel confident enough to defend your structure and decision-making publicly, revise it until you do feel that confident.
Do Better Next Time
Don't make the same mistakes over and over. Users will forgive you the first time, particularly if you make it right. After about the fifth time or so, they will have stopped trusting you no matter how well you handle the crisis. Have a post-mortem, or a five-whys, or whatever format works for you. Schedule an actual meeting, not just some random conversations or email threads that don't go anywhere. Make a list and take notes. Plan for what to do differently.
Remember, your players are in a situation where they had some expectations that were (for whatever reason) not met. Try to take their frustration as a compliment; it's directly proportional to how passionately they care about your game. The way to begin rebuilding trust is:
- Be attentive
- Be clear
- Follow through
I'm confident you'll be pleased with the results... and so will your community.