I Built a Community | Lessons Learned at Ferrous Core, Part 1

I Built a Community | Lessons Learned at Ferrous Core, Part 1

A restrospective, lessons learned series about the gaming community I started and ran for four years. This part focuses on the context, the opportunities I saw, and how CORE came to be.

Featured image credit due to Ferrous Core member “Luna”

In June 2017 I started an online community in preparation for the release of the video game Destiny 2, named Ferrous Core, or CORE for short. In the course of two years it had scaled to over 1000 all-time users and a range of 300-500 monthly active users. I proceeded to operate CORE for four years, stepping back from a leadership position in 2021 due to new (but welcome) demands on my time and a loss of interest in the underlying game.

Over the past five years, several current and former members of that community, several close friends, and even some in my family have registered interest about the hows and whys of this pet project. How did it come to be, what were the foundational ideas and ideals? What did I learn from it? What would I do different?

Running this organization was, in inadequate summary, a learning experience. One that I hope to better process by writing about, and in doing so hopefully give back somehow in guidance to the stewards of that community as they steer it into the future, and to random internet passers-by who may be able to pull from my experience to inform the organizations they run or will run someday.

To set expectations, this topic would be far too lengthy if done as a single part.

  • This part, Part 1, covers the context in which CORE came to be, and the motivating factors and ideals that I felt would give rise to the environment I wanted to foster.
  • Part 2 will cover things that worked, largely structural, organizational decisions. Take them as good ideas for other such gaming communities.
  • Part 3 will cover what didn’t work, or otherwise went askew. Where Part 2 is more specific to gaming communities, this one has more relevance to a broader spectrum of organizations, both online and otherwise.
  • Part 4 has not yet been drafted at the time of this writing, however I expect it to take an introspective tack, to examine what I would do different were I to do it all again.

Perhaps the most important learning was that my girlfriend at the time, turned fiancée, turned wife, somehow put up with my ramblings and frustrations throughout all of this. ❤️

Motivation

In early 2017 I was fed up with the gaming communities I had participated in over the past five years. Most had been good experiences, a few had been actively negative. Universally, all featured some blend of organizational and cultural issues that I felt dampened the experience or atmosphere they were trying to provide. A surprising majority of these issues rendered down to the cruel simplicity of both leaders and members in these organizations failing to treat the other people in the communities they participate in as people. Not surprisingly, control freaks, megalomaniacs, and toxic managers in day jobs tend to also be so in virtual spaces.

I wasn’t satisfied with recent experience, and with hype rising around Destiny 2, I decided that I didn’t want to experience this game with a group where I would see the same mistakes and errors repeated. By building my own community, I could set the tone and expectations and steer it to what I felt would be the right place.

The Landscape

I think it necessary to first explain the context around why this game and communication platform, because it did appear to me at the time that a confluence of game, platform, and my own skills (or lack of) made creation of the community and scaling it not just possible, but relatively easy. The financial aspect is discussed in finer detail in a previous post I had written while I was still actively running CORE.

Destiny 1 had released in 2014 and developed what might be best described as a cult following. The players chasing the hot, new, flavor-of-the-month game had all long since moved on, but the remaining player base was highly invested in the endgame gameplay loop(s) and in any future iterations of the story. This seemed certain to repeat itself with Destiny 2, this time with the promise of being playable on my favored platform, the PC. I was certain that D2 would be a game that would hook me, and many others, for years on its own.

Destiny had an added benefit in the strength and depth of third party support provided by its player base. Destiny 1’s player base had already done the metaphorical heavy lifting to create large, unofficial public forums; most relevant to COREs origins and growth being subreddits /r/DestinyTheGame and /r/Fireteams, both of which were our initial sources of members and growth. Similarly, robust third party tools such as Destiny Item Manager had come into existence under Destiny 1, with support expected (and delivered) for Destiny 2. This gave me some hope for third party tools that would assist in and ease the burden of day to day management of clans/guidls/community entities in game.

In a macro sense, at this same time I felt that the barriers to entry for creating and growing a gaming community had reached their lowest in the history of the hobby. Search engines and social media platforms had both made discovering groups, clans, guilds, communities for games quick, easy, and most importantly independent of the game client and infrastructure. Player preferences, at least in the PC gaming sphere, had swung away from the large, heavy, forum plus voice client based communities in large part because they hadn’t kept up with an increasingly mobile and social media inspired real-time communications style. Admit it, using Tapatalk to read a vBulletin or phpBB3 forum on early versions of Android was an awful user experience, but it was all we had at the time. Similarly, the PC voice communication clients of the 00s and early 2010s such as Ventrilo, Mumble, and Teamspeak had not made the jump gracefully to mobile operating systems.

My emphasis here on mobile functionality may seem out of place with the predominantly desktop-bound PC gaming environment, which I do acknowledge. However, I strongly believe that these platforms’ (and the communities that relied on them) failure to embrace mobile devices in a timely manner is a major factor in the user preference shift we saw by the mid 2010s. The users expected, in an ever-increasingly mobile and internet-connected world, that they could remain connected while on the go to their gaming friends and the communities they participate in. When the forums, voice clients, and gaming infrastructure born of the 2000s didn’t meet those demands, the users shifted from (e.g.) vBulletin and Teamspeak to (e.g.) Reddit and Discord.

I will be the first to admit I am not technically gifted. I’m not a good developer. I am adequate at best at systems administration. I knew well from past experience helping run other communities that hosting and configuring a traditional forum would take more time, funds, and maintenance than I wanted to commit (I was still very early in my IRL career at the time), and by its nature would be very limiting as to who would take the time to read and participate in that environment, with that format of communication.

For those unfamiliar, Discord is a Freemium text and voice chat application originally marketed towards gamers and streamers + their communities. Think of it like Slack but with dedicated “voice channels” alongside the text channels. Because a user could create one Discord account and participate in multiple “servers” or communities, Discord made it exceptionally easy for users to participate not just in game via voice and out of game via text, but to also do so across multiple games and interests, multiple communities and circles of friends, and with a unified experience across devices. At the time I started CORE, Discord was on what felt like a meteoric ascendancy in user adoption and made perfect sense as the preferred communication tool for a new community. Even with the relatively limited server settings available at that time, it met or exceeded what we would need in functionality, made new user and technology-challenged user setup simple, and did so for free*. We could easily stand up, configure, and tear down channels myself, and with the rapid IRC-esque nature of conversations and feel of the space, if I messed something up it wasn’t a big deal, it wouldn’t be a show stopper on those present going about their business. Discord will warrant further attention in parts 2 and 3, but I wanted to give the platform its due up front as I believe its ease of use and flexibility was one of the major reasons for COREs growth.

Foundational Ideals

Once committed to this course of action, I wanted to pull together a concise set of principles that could serve as a guide for community conduct and future structural decisions. I’ve included the finalized set of principles which CORE still uses today at the end of this post. That said, lessons learned in past communities informed the creation of these principles, some of which may not be clearly visible in the final product, but might shine through when viewed with this context.

To understand where some of these points originate from, between 2010 and 2014 I had been a member of a large multi-game community based around the monolithic website, forum, and voice client model I explained previously. I met several wonderful people via that organization who I still keep in touch with to this day. But especially in hindsight, the organization itself had several faults, and is one of the key examples of leaders failing to treat people online as people. That organization no longer exists, and I will take this brief aside to spit on its metaphorical grave. If you know, then you know; for all others I promise that I shall avoid further diatribes of this manner.

Treat people like people. Don’t add another chore to their lives.

The most fundamental point that I can drive home here is that if you are running an organization of any type, you must treat the people who work for you, consume your product, or participate in whatever your thing is, as people.

I wanted an environment where people could hop online after their day to play the game or just hang out and have a drink and a chat with some internet-friends. A place that wouldn’t add unwanted complexity, obligations, or stress to their lives. At the most basic level they’re here to have a reprieve from those stressors already present in their lives, to decompress, to do something for themselves that they enjoy. This is their hobby, not their job. To that end we would not create requirements or processes that would be burdensome on the user. I even stated this clearly to our community in a message I kept pinned in our general channel: “We’re about playing games and playing them well. If doing that here ever feels like a chore, then I have failed somehow.”

This approach was driven by having participated in communities that did have hard requirements based on availability or in-game metrics, which when purpose-built and well scoped do work well for communities oriented around specific progression, performance, or competition goals. I expected that such criteria would not be appropriate here if the goal was to attract and retain members with a laid-back environment that would not inherently place additional demands upon them.

Once money changes hands, the expectations change

This was a saying that I reiterated often whenever the topic of giving back to help with expenses or a “tip jar” would arise. Especially early on as the community was forming, I was very averse to accepting donations or payments of any kind from the members and participants, because in doing so I believed that they would inevitably come to expect a higher quality of service for having done so. To my mind, if I could run the community with low overhead, low expenses, the need to accept funds from the community members could be avoided. This in turn would keep the membership’s expectations lower and thus easier to meet or exceed.

None of this should be taken as saying that your time is not valuable. Rather, that this community was to be as much the environment I wished to play in as for it’s members and participants. For me to accept payment for an environment with intentionally low overhead, and to accept increased expectations therefore, felt to me at best not worthwhile and at worst inappropriate.

Of course, then we went ahead and provided a high quality of service anyway for free. Like a bunch of suckers. 😛 That said, I do believe that because we were running a tight ship, one that was welcoming, active, very responsive to incoming new members and guests, and actively taking in and acting on feedback and issues, that quality of service in turn fed word of mouth as new members would pull in their friends to this fun game and chill group they had found.

Try to take the best of both worlds.

Perhaps indicative of my own style of play and my own mentality, I think that gaming communities that at the very least discourage “scrub logic”, that emphasize learning, understanding why the game mechanics work as they do, yield the best environments overall. I’ve found that gaming communities that sit by silently and allow within their ranks the derision of valid in-game tools, techniques, or simple knowledge as “cheap”, unrealistic, or otherwise undesirable, quickly cede ground to the aforementioned scrub.

A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about. A scrub does not play to win. … The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up by an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevents him from ever truly competing.

For most communities, failing to directly address scrub logic yields an environment that is socially draining at best, and at worst actively toxic. It foments derision of those who do not fall in line with the scrubs’ artificial expectations. It drives away both otherwise-staunch regulars unwilling to deal with the “drama” of repeatedly justifying playing by the incentives and mechanics of the game, and both gatekeeps and discourages newcomers who have neither the time nor inclination to learn a set of artificial and unnecessary norms and mores. Scrub logic excuses substandard performance and the lack of knowledge, growth, or progression, all traded away to satisfy one person’s definition of fun.

To counteract this, we emphasized CORE as a community based upon learning and self-improvement. I intended to enshrine “game science”, and/or the hacker mindset, within the community with the intent to encourage and foster not just discussion, but tinkering, testing, understanding, and learning from both the game and whatever topics the members saw fit to discuss. I staunchly believe this yielded better performance in an in game sense, attracting and retaining (mostly) players who would not just want to regularly complete endgame content, e.g. raids, but seek to understand the raid mechanics, learn from mistakes, be understanding of wipes if a bad night happened (albeit with understandable frustration if oft repeated), and ultimately give back to the community in advice and helping others clear that content.

If I could have enforced David Sirlin’s “Playing to Win” as required reading, I would have.

This approach is not without its own problems. I’ve seen such performance-oriented environments breed egos, conflict, and toxic competitiveness that values performance above empathy and understanding for those not (yet) at that level. It was vital to recognize going in that this environment emphasizing both a relaxed environment, but also one rooted in improvement and learning, could yield such conflicts in personality and outlook between the casual and performance oriented players.

While I understand and in many cases agree that what is optimal is not necessarily fun, and vice versa, the worst of each go to a reactionary extreme, lashing out at those merely explaining the other position. This I would not tolerate. I would contend that these outcomes, both scrub logic and performance-above-empathy, can arise in any gaming community, even simultaneously. If abstracted, variations of these viewpoints can occur in any organization that lacks firm direction by its leaders and stewards, that lacks clear tone from the top, and that lacks timely intervention to identify and act upon the issues. These mitigating factors are not optional.

If you create a ladder, someone will try to climb it

One of the most problematic behaviors I observed in other communities occurred in organizations that had a highly segmented hierarchy or structure, especially where paired with clearly defined criteria for advancement. This would inevitably create an effect where the membership would feel obliged to “climb the ladder”, if not out of their own interest then out of a compulsion to keep up with their peers in social standing.

Communities that borrow from military rank structures are especially prone to this issue, though these are more often found in * -simulator or realism-oriented multiplayer shooters such as ARMA, Red Orchestra, etc. Some organizations may benefit from rigid structure, but I felt a stratified hierarchy to be both unnecessary for this game and the desired environment.

In organizations with such structure, I had observed individuals pursuing advancement purely for the sake of advancement, a way of collecting more imaginary internet points. This would occur even if the behaviors that they would engage in in doing so were detrimental to individual or team performance in game, or actively toxic and harmful to the social environment of that community. The worst offenders would leverage their place in the imaginary internet points hierarchy for influence over others. This suppresses the voices of newcomers and creating an atmosphere ranging from stiff apprehension to adversarial one-upmanship over nearly all interactions. Remember too that these interactions are taking place in the free, personal time of the participants.

The solution as I saw it was to minimize the ranks or hierarchy built into the organization, and where necessary orient towards temporary, contextual responsibility, such as for raid leaders / event organizers. Doing so would both prevent these hierarchy based issues, while still granting authority to those who needed it where and when necessary.

Your community is not special

Bluntly, any given online community, especially in video games, is not a unique experience. There are, have been, and shall be multitudes of clans, guilds, organizations of whatever name, that are just some guy and his buddies and some friends they made online hanging out and having a good time. Even in the days of those large gaming organizations that hosted their own forum, voice server, and game server(s), nearly all provided the same fundamental experience of a monolithic website hub with some form of “don’t be a jerk” rules that provided a (loosely-)common experience over one or more games. The names, voices, server settings, and alphabet soup in front of the names might be different, but you largely sought and received the same type of enjoyment from playing at {=BC=} BigClan[dot]com or at Joe Bob & Friends TF2 Server. What differs org to org, what makes or breaks the experience, is their execution on providing the environment they say they want.

Running an online community “with an iron fist”, so to speak, does not work. If you can’t or won’t provide a setting where people feel they will be respected and treated fairly, they will just leave, and they won’t lose anything by doing so. Thanks to search engines, social media, and third party services, (e.g. The100) they can, and will, find another place to spend their free time and derive enjoyment and satisfaction. They can find said other place, register for their communications platform of choice, say hello, and be all set up and good to go within minutes. We actively leaned into this effect in CORE’s public postings: “If you’re not having fun in a given group, then why are you playing with them?”

Similarly, people will come and go from any community at their will, most often as their free time, availability, and interests dictate, or even just based upon the presence of their friends. If and when they step away, if they return to find you have erected barriers to their (re)entry, such as resetting their place in an imaginary internet hierarchy, or haranguing them about participating in more than one group, they simply won’t bother returning next time. Consequently, I wanted a low friction environment. One where players could come in with minimal barriers to entry, and if they ever stepped away for something else they could return at any time with no fuss.

You must understand that your community isn’t special just by virtue of existing. You need to make it special by the quality of the environment and quality of the service you are providing.

Ferrous Core’s Four Principles

These ideals, or rather the simmering stew of things I’d seen done wrong, coalesced into four principles that remain as CORE’s ethos today. I’ve included these below, copied verbatim from our Discord, for those who’ve not been involved in Ferrous Core to further understand the distilled, final product.

  1. Games are meant to be fun. Games are an escape, an entertaining and challenging diversion from our day to day lives. Thus, if you’re not having fun playing in any given group, why are you playing with them? At Ferrous Core we’re about mutual respect among adults while playing for good fights, good loot, and more tally marks in the win column.

  2. Teamwork is overpowered, so USE IT. We are unashamed tryhards. We play to win, because victory and personal success in these digital realms is always more rewarding and fun than the alternative. We will joke and laugh and screw around, but all players here are expected to put on their game face and play hard when the caller says it’s time to be serious.

  3. Maturity, Responsibility, and Self-Improvement. We seek to foster an environment in which players identify and take responsibility for their own actions and defects, and seek assistance in improving both their level of play and themselves at and away from the keyboard. It is only in cooperation and pushing each other to be better that any of us may reach our full potential, both as gamers and as human beings.

  4. Real life always comes first. There might be some good-natured ribbing if you have to go tuck in your kid, kiss your SO, or let the dog out, but as much we love the games we play our meatspace lives and responsibilities always take priority.

Part 2 Preview: Things That Worked

Expect to see the following topics, among others, addressed in Part 2.

  • Administrative transparency as a differentiator.
  • Automate as much day to day moderation work as possible.
  • Imaginary internet points deserve to be ridiculed.
  • When competing for eyes, a little bit of honesty, polish, and professional veneer goes a long way.