Age of Conan: Interview with New CM Shannon Drake

Funcom recently hired a Community Manager for Age of Conan. The former Escapist/WarCry staffer Shannon Drake took over in Norway a couple months ago and we had a chance to do an interview with him about his new job.

WarCry Q&A: Age of Conan
Answers by Shannon Drake
Questions by Dana Massey

WarCry: Let’s begin with the simple introduction. Can you tell our readers who you are and what you do?

Shannon Drake: My name is Shannon Drake, and I am the Community Manager for Funcom, dealing with all community aspects including AO, Dreamfall/The Longest Journey, Age of Conan, and whatever dark conspiracies we may (or may not) be involved with.

WarCry: As the Community Manager of a soon to launch game, what are your immediate priorities for the community in advance of that launch?

Shannon Drake: My immediate priorities for Conan are contributing to the beta process however I can, especially by getting the community involved with it, and whetting their appetites for new information about the game. I also work with Marketing on promoting the game and letting them know the current mood of the various forums and communities, and I sit in on meetings and bug people around the company as a general voice-of-the-player.

WarCry: In some ways, CMs are of the company, but separate. You’re that bridge in between the two. How do you hope to help the community get the game they want?

Shannon Drake: The big thing here at Funcom is access. If there’s a problem with Anarchy, it’s a short ride in the elevator to bug the guy in charge of it. If there’s a problem with Conan, it’s a short walk to bug the guy in charge of it. I go to the meetings and talk to them daily, and everyone is usually aware of what the community wants. I serve almost as the empowered player type, synthesizing the feedback of thousands of people into “This is what they want.” Now, sometimes, there’s a very good reason (technical or otherwise) why they can’t have it, but finding that out is part of the “player advocate” side of being a community manager. I also have to balance my knowledge of what the players want with what the company is able and capable of providing, as well as the needs of the business side of things as well, which, again, is all about balance.

WarCry: On the other side, how important do you feel community feedback is to a game’s development and evolution?

Shannon Drake: I think community feedback is tremendously important, within reason. Part of synthesizing all the viewpoints represented on the forums and various other places is figuring out how to present that information, and fitting what everyone says into the larger picture. For example, “Funcom totally favors Race X over Race Y” is, on its surface, a silly comment. However, “Race X fighters are significantly underpowered compared with Race Y fighters” is something that merits investigating. Now, it could be as simple as Race Y being the weaker of the two for story or balance or character reasons, but it could also be something someone mistyped in the database.

At the same time, I think staying true to your vision and the game you’re trying to make is extremely critical. I think the recent pushback announcement, while painful, is a good example of the way we want to listen to community feedback, making sure we make the game we want to make, but also making sure we make a game that our players are going to love.

WarCry: How have your past jobs helped you prepare for this challenge?

Shannon Drake: Considering all the stuff they have me writing, the writing experience was tremendously useful. I’ve worked on front-line support as a GM and in events, so I know the in-game side of thing, and other community management work in both pre- and post-launch communities prepared me nicely for dealing with all the games I cover, and the different needs of each.

WarCry: How much of your job crosses over into in-game events? If it does, what type of things do you hope to do?

Shannon Drake: At the moment, I don’t have a lot of involvement with in-game events. As we move into the live phase, that may change as we finalize plans.

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WarCry: Some companies believe every developer with a keyboard should post on their boards, while others hope to tightly control access through one person (you). What’s your philosophy?

Shannon Drake: We have several developers active on our various boards. The Game Director for AO is all over the place and reads just about everything, and some of the Conan staff like to post, but pretty much everyone in the company reads the boards and wanders up to me with random questions about what players are talking about.

As for posting, I like that we have active developers, I think it’s a good thing. At the same time, though, I try to keep an eye on the guys and girls who are active. When you spend your work-time (and even some of your personal time) working away on something, and someone flames you, it’s only natural to get defensive and take things personally because, well, it’s your life’s work being insulted, it’s something that you’re proud of. Part of my job is being able to say, “You’re getting trolled, take a step back and don’t talk yourself into a corner.” Because no matter what you say, it’s always taken as you being a developer about it, to paraphrase something I once read on another forum. Ultimately, I am extremely happy that they’re posting on the forums, but I also have to keep them apprised of what they’re getting into. On that note, my job is actually managing two communities-the community of people who play our game, and the community of the company itself and the way it reacts to the customers and feedback it’s getting–and constantly working to balance the flow of information both ways.

WarCry: Are you personally prepared for a coming influx of dart board hangings bearing your resemblance and an increased production of Shannon Drake voodoo dolls that is bound to follow the first “balance” patch? How do you intend to deal with such hot button issues?

Shannon Drake: Naturally. Some days, you’re the hero, some days, you’re the goat. As the face of the company, you’re the one who gets the blame for everything that goes wrong and the credit for everything that goes right. I’ve been through some rough launches, some good launches, and everything in between, and I’ve dealt with some of the prickliest crowds in gaming. I don’t plan on having any hilarious meltdowns or snapping and telling everyone off should things get rough. When it comes to patches and post-launch stuff, we’ve usually tried to give plenty of previews about patches and updates coming up on Anarchy, and I definitely want to do the same thing with Conan.

WarCry:I was just wondering what your thoughts were on NDAs? Why is it so important to abide by restrictions outlined in a non-disclosure agreement? Thanks!

Shannon Drake: NDAs are important, because we can get actual feedback from actual players before the game is complete. If you let everyone talk about it beforehand, well, one leaked beta video inspires a month of threads on the forum about something that isn’t final and was fixed a few weeks ago. NDAs are a way to let us start the “real world” testing process before the final version is complete, because with something as complicated as an MMO, you simply can’t test everything in-house.

Sometimes it takes a thousand people playing in ways that nobody ever intended before something comes to light. I’m reminded of a story I heard about one of the first MUDs. The game kept crashing and they couldn’t figure out why. They eventually traced it to a player who had 10,000 of a fluff-type item-I think it was roses-in his inventory. They’d never considered that someone would keep 10,000 of what was a largely useless item, because, well, who’d keep 10,000 useless things in their backpack? People would, of course, and allowing that sort of human element into our carefully plotted system is extremely valuable, while making sure that we can show them a “work in progress” without getting burned by the fact that it is just a work in progress, not the final version of the game.

WarCry: Please give a brief treatise on the benefits of European socialism so far. Or conversely, how’s Norway?

Shannon Drake: Norway is a lovely country of beautiful women, fine chocolate, and reliable public transportation. I wake up every day and find I’m extremely glad to be here.

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