Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Developer Tales: Aggressively Moderating Aggression

One of the things that I loved about my work on Eon Altar is it taught me a lot of other skills and brought to me many different experiences that I didn't really get to experience at a larger company. On the other hand, sometimes those experiences weren't always positive.

Today I'm going to talk about forum moderation. How I attempted to build a community, and keep that community positive. I'm going to do that through a story of one time I had to banhammer someone with vengeance. Despite having receipts, you won't find names in here. The purpose of this story isn't to shame, but to illustrate. And maybe a small amount of catharsis.

When you ban someone on the Steam forums you get a private thread between the banned person and the moderator, at which point you as the moderator can explain why you banned them, and they can reply, possibly to explain themselves or beg your forgiveness. Of course, in this case the banned got even more aggressive than they were on the forums, and accused me, the dev and moderator, of being biased towards long-term community members.

Me, after dealing with someone aggressive on the forums.

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Surprise, yes, as a dev and moderator I am totally biased towards long-term community members in good standing. Now, caveat, if a long-term member had done what the banned person had done, I'd have similarly banned them, too. But there's really good reasons you as a developer and moderator would actually want to be biased towards long-term community members.

First of all, part of the reason why forums exist is to develop said community. A group of people who identify and enjoy your game, want to help each other out, and communicate with the developers. It benefits us developers, because it lightens the workload with respect to helping customers out in a timely fashion, and it benefits the community members, because they get to have the developers' ears in terms of criticism and feedback.

That's not to say I ignored feedback from people who weren't long-standing community members. Fresh eyes are always useful feedback. But at the same time, it was usually easier to understand where someone was coming from with feedback if I'm already familiar with them. History breeds context, and context increases communication throughput in my experience.

And the other interesting part about said bias is that when a prominent community member brought me feedback to disseminate among the team, if it was hyper-critical, it was often done as a labour of love. They do enjoy our work, and they understand that we're people too, and so reading that hyper-critical feedback is easier on our feelings. That said, you can still tell--even with new community members--who's there to shit on your sandwich and who's there because they truly want to make the game better for them and others; by the language they use, and the specific approach to criticisms.

How Do You Get Banned From a Community?

I know the previous section was a little vague, so here's some meat and potatoes to give some precise examples of the things you can do to get bushwhacked from forums.

1) Accuse the Developers of lying about a specific feature. 7 times in 7 different threads.

One morning I woke up to check the forums, as I was wont to do, and lo, we had like 7 new thread replies. Checking them, they were all by the same person, and they were all variants of, "Your Kickstarter said there'd be an online mode, and now there's no online mode, y'all are liars."

Okay, first of all, that Kickstarter failed. It had failed 3 years before those posts, no less. Sorry, not sorry, but we can't be held accountable to promises made in a funding drive that didn't get us the funding. We had to radically alter the game after that failure to accommodate the fact that the game in it's Kickstarter format wasn't viable, so anything in the Kickstarter barely could be applied anyway.

To top it off, after the ban, the poster accused us of being shady about it, keeping it behind the scenes. At which point I linked about 4 different interviews of us talking about the failed Kickstarter and what it meant.

I mean, really, if you're going to accuse the developers of lying, make sure you've done your research, and make sure you're not making any unreasonable assumptions. And then on top of that, approaching it more diplomatically rather than aggressively spamming the forums would have left things more open to conversation. I don't have the time or lack of emotion to deal with someone who's going to argue with me in bad faith. Not going to happen. I've got video games to make.

2) Slag others on the forums with personal attacks.

After being given a warning about forum spam and a warning (and post deletions) about unfounded attacks on the developer, attacking others on the forums is a Bad Idea™. Now, these attacks were on long-standing community members who were in great standing: they'd contributed significantly in a positive manner, including criticism. And to be fair, said community members didn't hold themselves perfectly in return.

However, as mentioned in the section above, I'm willing to give said long-standing members some leeway. Yeah, it's blatant bias, but frankly I didn't give a damn. They were still a net positive to our forums, whereas this newcomer throwing shade and slagging people directly was a net negative. Each individual action by an individual doesn't get evaluated individually; it's all in aggregate. Eventually we decided it wasn't worth it.

3) Continue to be aggressive in the ban thread.

After we banned this person, they wrote an essay about why we were in the wrong for banning them, and how precisely we were liars, and how this other forum member wronged them so they should be banned too.

The first essay I responded to, with the logic about the Kickstarter failing, the counter-evidence of us being "shady", and why the personal attacks were the last straw.

A few days later another essay came through on the ban thread, conceding some of the points and then getting aggressive again. At which point I switched off and stopped reading the thread, and didn't return until said poster added a 3rd essay months after the fact. Which I also didn't read. Again, I don't have the time or emotional capacity to deal with someone who clearly has a smear agenda against us. I never heard from them again after that, and it was blissful.


At the end of the day, we as developers eventually decided this person's contributions were a net negative on our business.

From a community building perspective, as they were being extremely negative and extremely mistaken about the accusations they were making. Something like that would turn our community into a bloodbath. The good thing is we had already done a decent job of cultivating a community that many of this person's posts were reported for moderation many times, and quickly, even as we were discussing what to do about the situation.

From a morale perspective internally, it was a very stressful situation. It ate a lot of emotional energy dealing with this person, and time we could have been using to develop features. This is partly why bigger companies have community managers: that level of indirection is extremely helpful to reduce the negative effects of jerks on your development team. The cost of community managers is not being able to directly interact with customers in good faith. Direct interaction is amazing for getting unfiltered, honest feedback, and being able to ask follow-up questions and have a legit discussion is incredibly useful. But sometimes, eventually, it's just not worth it.

From a monetary perspective, if they requested a refund of the $15 they paid, I'd have happily given it to them--who knows, maybe they did, it's all automated. Not every customer is a blessing, even in cases where we're desperate for customers. The customer isn't always right, and a customer holding your forums hostage isn't really a customer anymore. If you walked into the GAP and started yelling loudly about how you were promised cardigans because it's fall, and there's no cardigans this season, you would be escorted from the premises. Just because it's online doesn't make the scenario different.

However, our quick and decisive response paid dividends, quickly. The negativity was quarantined, and our community got to go back to talking about the game, the good, the bad, suggestions, interests, ideas, and so on, instead of having to babysit someone who was slagging them. The total negative effect was quite muted. The ban thread was draining, however, and I regret putting so much time into it, honestly. While I wanted to make sure our butts were covered, it was an unnecessary shadow over our developer team.

There are real world productivity and monetary consequences to trolls in your forums, and you need to deal with them quickly and decisively. Bias isn't always a bad thing when it comes to cultivating your community: there are very good business reasons to feed that bias. It was a lesson I had to learn that day, the hard way.
#IndieDev, #EonAltar, #DeveloperTales


  1. I believe being biased towards longstanding community members is the biggest fail a developer can do. "Longstanding community members" are rent-seeking, self-serving nerds who are often into some form of making money off the dev's work (RMT-ers, streamers ...). Their goal isn't to make the game better, it's to make themselves more powerful compared to other players. Their deep understanding of the game helps them figure out suggestions that are harmless looking enough to be implemented, but create huge power gain for them and a huge damage to the other players. Most players are not engaged with the community, just want to play. They have no voice and their interests aren't represented in forum talk. But they are paying 90% of the dev's income.

  2. You’re certainly correct in that most players aren’t engaged in the community. The ever-vaunted silent majority is definitely real—but if they’re not engaged, the only feedback we can use from them is metrics.

    Metrics are totally important. Well-designed metrics let you answer questions in a data-driven way that’s more objective than subjective. But metrics don’t give you the why, and you as the developer have to know to ask the question in the first place.

    So raw feedback from your engaged users? It’s gold, generally regardless of the ultimate goal of said users (assuming they’re not just there to troll, anyhow).

    Also, “more powerful compared to other players” in an offline game isn’t really useful. Certainly, motivations are different depending on the context of the game. If I were to put my cynic hat on, more powerful in a meta sense where having the ear of the developer feels good, perhaps, but at the same time, as mentioned, there’s a symbiotic effect—both players and developers benefit.