The random ramblings of a French programmer living in Norway...
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  Random notes about Community Management
Thu 14th October 2010   


I was really not planning to write anything about Community Management, mostly because I did not consider myself as a Manager, and certainly not a Manager of a Community.

I more or less revised this position few weeks ago when after having released 13371 and posted messages on the various relevant message boards and forums we then started to receive messages and comments asking how Defence Force was working, how such a small community managed to release such large and polished games (compared to for example the Thomson and Amstrad communities), and if we could help them by making games on their own machines2!
I cannot talk for Chema or Twilighte, but for my part I have no intention in doing that.

What I can provide is some insights about how we managed to do that. If they really have the intent of doing something similar it's perfectly doable: All you need is time and method.

What is Defence-Force

I guess I could have started by the dinosaurs and from there describe the chain of events that have lead to the current situation. I will not do that, and instead will start by trying to describe the current situation and what were the critical events and decisions that allowed us to reach this point.

As of today3 Defence-Force is probably the most active Oric resource on the web. There are other support groups like the Club Europe Oric which organize real life user meetings and publishes a monthly magazine, which is mostly known as the largest online archive of Oric software, with an active community of persons playing and reviewing games, plus numerous Oric sections on the various generalist retro-communities, but as a general resource used daily, I believe that Defence-Force is now the most active.

So what is Defence-Force? Well, it's nothing and many things at the same time:
  • A quite active discussion forum that requires almost no moderation4.
  • An FTP available for users of the forum to share their large related Oric data (like photos and videos of retro-parties, ...)
  • A Subversion repository where programmers can store the source code of their Oric projects, and allows other to learn and participate (for example by optimizing some critical routines)
  • The maintenance of the OSDK5.
  • A Wiki engine to share some technical knowledge.
  • Subdomains for community members who have Oric projects that deserve visibility but have no personal websites.
  • The Oric Library where a significant number of magazines and books can be downloaded.
  • The #oric chat where people can discuss together in real time.
From a search engine point of view, I admit I've been a bit lazy these few last years, if you type "Oric" none of the sites appear on the first page on Google. Now if instead you type "oric forum", "oric development" or "oric demo", the first link on the page goes to defence-force. If you type "oric books" the library appears on the first page of results, and "defence force" also appears on the first page of results between the New Zealand and Australian Defence Forces websites.

Could be better; could be worse.

Now of course, we are talking about a Community, and you have to realise that the important is the people, not the infrastructure.

I know plenty of people who wanted to create their own little Community about some particular interest of them who became bitter after failing at achieving it. The thing is, there are some rules to follow. Not complex rules, just rules about how people work. If you don't understand these rules you will most probably fail.

The human factor

I think the single most important element is that your offering need to address a real need. This need may be obvious or not, but the fact is, your offer needs to bring something to other people. Not to you.

If it brings something to you in the process, sure that's even better. But if you do something for your own sake, without considering what other people think, you will mostly be disappointed.

The second element to consider, is the trust factor. People want to know that they can trust you, that you are who you say you are, that you are going to be there for a while, that you are going to be reactive to the issues people bring, that your objective is to help others not just be a small king of your mini-empire.

The reason is that people are going to invest some personal time when joining your community, and they probably remember that in the underground of the web lies this gigantic graveyard of animated GIFs infested personal websites, failed opportunities, forgotten start-ups and other crushed hopes.

The last factor is really the quality of the offering. If what you provide is clumsy, ridden with advertisement links, hard to navigate, unreliable, etc... people will not stay, and most probably you will lose any credibility you may have acquired earlier which will make future efforts even more difficult to achieve.

Oh, and it has to be free, so expect to take a financial hit if you do it alone. If you expect people to pay for your services, you are also going to fail - even if you provided awesome services6.

So, how to proceed to achieve that?

Making it happen

First, you have to study the existing offering7. The existing community can range from one single personal website to something very large with hubs and mailing lists, and it can be from friendly to aggressive (like on some of the home-brew communities were it goes up to the point to the personal attack for using emulators and cease and desist letters sent by attorney because you shared some ROMs for a machine long disappeared).

Staying around for a while without trying to revolutionize the community has some advantages: You get to be known, you get to know the people, you get to know what works and does not work, you can point out what's missing as well, and if you try to see the situation as an outsider you can even see what people who've been in the community for a long while don't see anymore: The external visibility and how easy for people to find and join the community.

From there you can start to build a small something, offer it to the community, see how people react, fix what needs to be fixed, and see if people actually like it and use it. In the case of Defence Force it all started in 1997 as a personal website to host my own things, but since I had some storage space on my web hosting plan I offered to host some little things like the schematics for a better RGB cable, downloadable books and magazines, etc... When a website has been on-line for 13 years more or less continuously, people tend to trust the owner that the next offering is not going to disappear the next day.

At this point, when people know you, appreciate what you are doing, if you suggest to do something then people will probably accept to discuss about it, do some suggestions on what would be cool to have, etc...

When you have these elements then build/install a small prototype, and show it to some of the people you think are the most active or the ones you feel can be trusted by giving honest feedback, ask for their opinion, discuss the tweaks that may need to be done, ask them to test a bit more, and then when you are confident that everything works you can go for the grand opening: This is valid for forums, wikis, polls, everything online that can crumble due to database configuration, webserver problems, etc... but also for new software. Make sure things are tested and working before deploying: If you release non tested things, it will most probably blow, and people will lose trust.

Putting it all together

This last point is very important: Ultimately the quality of your offering will be perceived as the sum of all the little things put together: You start with some points, and every little detail that does not work removes some points. When the number of points is too low, you have lost.

Here is a list of things that will make you lose points:
  • A non reliable system which happens to be down most of the time. If your forum is down every two days, if people have two keep re-registering or re-logging, they will be bored very fast.
  • Something that looks like "pimp my website": Forget the animated gifs and the awesome flash intros, forget the CSS+canvas madness that works only on the latest version of your favourite browser. Make it simple, clean and compatible. Of course if you happen to be a web-designer who can do something awesome that works everywhere, go for it!
  • Difficult navigation, non-controlled number of sub-forums, anarchic wiki structure, dead links, etc... People don't like to get lost, it makes them feel stupid. And people don't like to feel stupid.
  • Not having your own domain name. People don't really care if you are using your ISP8's allocated personal home page to store all your data, but they will not like it when they will have to change all their bookmarks because you had to move to another ISP for whatever personal reason. As a bonus you get a fix email address that people can still use to contact you year after year after year. Think about it.
  • Not being reactive to people's requests, being hard to locate, not answering mails, letting your server down for two days in a row without providing explanations, etc...

In the case of Defence-Force, I decided early to have my own domain name. Since then I changed the web-host for the main website three times, I changed ISP at least 7 times, and I moved to another country, all that without anyone actually noticing any change.

The main website is now at Yahoo!, which has provided a pretty good service for the price for now quite a number of years9. I'm using a fraction of the possible bandwidth, and I have still some gigabyte free on the allocated storage. This main hosting is also used for the sub-domains pointing to the games Space:1999, Stormlord and 1337.

The secondary server is at home, on a small Linux machine called Miniserve 2.010. It is responsible for hosting the IRC bot/logger and the Subversion repository. The machine is accessed under the name using a dyndns daemon and a sub-domain redirect from the main hosting. Of course this works because I have a decent cable line with enough upload capacity to not impact users of the server when I'm using my internet line for my own usage.

Everything is backed up on-line using JungleDisk
How much does that cost?

Well, I guess it depends of how you do it. I'm one of these persons who think you get what you pay for. If you use a free hosting, or if you share a server with some other people, you have to expect issues, and you have to accept these because after all you are using a free service.

In my case the grand total (roughly using current prices rounded) would be something like that:
  1. Domain name, 13 years at $10 per year = $130 (Originally things where way more expensive...)
  2. Web hosting, 13 years of 12 month at $10 per month = $1560
  3. Miniserve 1, about $1000
  4. Miniserve 2, about $1000
So that's a grand total of $3690 for 13 years, which gives us $283 per year, or $23 per month. That's more expensive than if it was for free, but I believe it's stays in the acceptable range considering the amount of control I have on all the parts of the infrastructure.

Have fun, and good luck with your own project!

1. A new Oric game from Chema, based on Elite but with quite many improvements.
2. The source code of most of our games is available, so technically they could be ported to other machines by anyone who feels doing it.
3. September 18, 2010
4. I had to moderate TWO messages since I opened the forum in January 2006
5. A Software Development Kit specially targeted to the Oric, providing a C compiler, 6502 assembler, BASIC converter, tools to convert pictures, compress files, create virtual tapes and floppy images, and some sample code to get started fast.
6. I guess a small PayPal button is acceptable, but don't expect it to pay for your internet line and hosting costs
7. I'm assuming you are not starting something totally new that nobody knew about before you started it
8. Internet Service Provider
9. Except in the two last weeks where the site has been down at least three times without being informed before hand, which made me pretty annoyed. Note for you Yahoo!, you better find what the problem is else I'm going somewhere else.
10. Miniserve 1.0 died after one year, the new machine seems to work a lot better.
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