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Wizards Community Team
Spotlight Interview
Bart Carroll

Wizards of the Coast: Let's start by introducing the Wizards Community Team. Who's who (and since we are talking about the online community, can you link us to your community profiles)?

Jeremiah: I am Jeremiah Isgur, the Producer of the new Wizards Community. Our Web Producers work in the vein of entertainment industry producers, so we are ultimately responsible for the complete outcome of a project from vision and strategy to final execution.

Michelle Brunes is the Operations Manager of the community. That means she sets the operational standards for the site and is the ultimate administrator (she has demi-god-like powers). She also acts as project manager for the community site, controlling day-to-day resources.

Ilja Rotelli is the Director of the Web Studio. Basically this means three things: he sets the strategy and top line tactics for Wizards' Internet presence, manages the resources (people and money) to execute against it, and is eventually responsible for is successes and failures. In the case of the Wizards Community, Ilja led the creation of the original vision for the social networking platform for our gamers.

Trevor Kidd and Eric Sorensen are the Community Managers. They are in the trenches every day answering questions, providing support to our community and reporting on topics and issues. They also head up our amazing community volunteers, the VCLs (Volunteer Community Lead) and Guides, as well as supporting other community leaders like GMs and Scribes.

There are so many more people involved in our community in different ways it's hard to name them all. Wizards has a very open door policy to employees who want to participate. Everyone who works here is encouraged to get in there and mix it up, contributing in any way they like, so you're very likely to encounter our R&D staff and Brand folks as well as the ORCs—our front-line game support personnel with the cool orc badges.

Wizards of the Coast: On to the major announcement! Give us an overview of the new Wizards Community—what’s changed from the previous community? What new features are being provided?

Jeremiah: The new community is an evolution. Our previous community was an online forum, which was a great but limited tool. Our community members are very creative and they had figured out ways to make the forums do way more than originally intended, but it was still limited. The new community provides a much more modern set of features like wikis, groups, friends lists, a calendar and invite system, the ability to upload photos, blogs, personal pages, and a lot of little things that people have come to expect from an online community and a way better medium for sharing content and finding like-minded gamers, which is what our community is all about.

Wizards of the Coast: Going back to the genesis of the new community, how did the decision come about to completely revamp the existing community? Why such a monumental overhaul? What goals were set initially, in terms of creating a new community experience? And when exactly did the project begin, in terms of planning, and then in construction?

Jeremiah: This cuts right to the heart of a couple of issues. One is that when you think about our games, there are two things that make them unique and special: they are multi-player and they center around user-generated content—whether that's a D&D adventure or a Magic: the Gathering deck, it exists if the players create it. So a robust social tool is almost necessary. How better to find people to play with, organize your play group, and share your content? While any project of this size has layers of goals, the one that really mattered was to help our community accomplish their own goals. We can get caught up in features and styles, but in the end this community is about having fun playing games.

While planning of one sort or another has been going on for years, our mandate for this project was to actually deliver a robust site that worked, even if it didn't have every feature ever imagined. The construction was very quick. Working with our partner, ONEsite, we rolled it out in about five months. It is a monumental overhaul, and it has been both amazing and shocking to our community. But we are students of the social web and the direction that tools and technology are heading, and this is a natural evolution. It has been painful to those who loved our forums. In some ways, we rearranged the furniture in their living room in the middle of the night and that can certainly be unpleasant. We simply hope that this new feature set ends up making everyone's life easier and attracts even more people to the community. The richer the tapestry of our gamers, the more brightly our community shines.

Michelle: There has been a lot of speculation in the community about why we made such a big change to the forums, and why we chose to partner with another company to do it rather than just upgrading our forums or building our own site. We did consider all of the possibilities for our forums before deciding to move forward with the full community platform, and migrate our current forums over with it.

There were pros and cons to all of the options, but at the end of the day community tools Frankly, what it came down to is that we have a small web development team, and more projects in the pipeline than we have resources to complete while still maintaining the systems we already have. The forums downtime was unacceptable, the platform was badly in need of an upgrade, and some services (like chat) were completely broken and the people needed to fix them were working on higher-priority projects. At the same time, community tools in the World At Large were evolving around us, and our platform wasn't keeping up with all of the ideas people had for what they want to do.

We started looking for partners who could provide the resources that we didn't have, and the features that we wanted. We evaluated dozens of companies before making a choice. Here's what we looked for:

  • Performance, stability, and security: We needed a company that proved they could handle our traffic, respond rapidly to any downtime, and meet rigorous our security standards.

  • Feature set: We wanted a company who had a solid product out-of-the-box and a plan for ongoing development.

  • Partnership: We needed someone who understood our needs and community, and could be a real partner in developing tools to meet those needs.

Jeremiah: We found all of these things in ONEsite, Inc. Their community platform is powering some high-profile sites with traffic much larger than ours. They have a proven ability to meet our performance, stability, and security concerns. They have a broad set of features out of the box, and a development philosophy that allows us to customize some features to our needs while getting the benefit of ongoing improvements to the entire core platform. And—possibly most importantly—their team has lots of gamers just like us. Without outing anyone in particular, I can say that I have played one of my most enjoyable D&D games *eEv-Ar* when I sat in on one of their regular Wednesday sessions, DMed by one of their awesome developers. We are really excited to be able to finally move forward with new features on a more stable platform.

Wizards of the Coast: What existing sites (Facebook, MySpace) did you look toward, in terms of features and experiences you wished to emulate (or conversely, wished to completely avoid)?

Jeremiah: We looked at everybody. No stone was unturned, from standard social networks, to dating sites, to professional networks, from biggest to smallest. In terms of features, we wanted features that are familiar to users, such as friends lists and status updates, and also features that are geared around gaming, like robust groups and wikis. Don't forget that what we have rolled-out in beta is the basic feature set. The great thing about this platform is that we can layer-on the features as we have bandwidth to develop them. I'm not going to give anything away, but our community can expect specific features centered around our games in the future.

Wizards of the Coast: That said, and especially for D&D gamers, how do you envision the use of groups and wikis to enhance their gaming experience?

Jeremiah: For D&D players, groups is probably the most powerful feature on the site. First of all, there are already a lot of great subject matter specific groups you can join. Start with the Official D&D Group, or if you live in Europe, look for the Official D&D Group of your country. If you play Living Forgotten Realms, join that group. There are also great fan-run groups like the DDM Guild, Character Optimization Group, and Play-by-Post (check out the forums for the new location).

For your own game, create a group, find your friends on the site, and invite them to join it. You can set it to private, if you want, so that only the members can see it. You can use the calendar and invite function to arrange your game night and RSVP, which is really handy. For my own game, I use the group forums for player discussion of strategy and tactics. As the DM, I seed it with some food-for-thought that's pertinent to the adventure at hand. You can keep the adventure log in the blog. You can also set up notes or images on a blog post, and set it to "draft". That way your players won't be able to see it until you publish it. That's a great way to have a bunch of content ready to go for your game night, and you can reveal it as necessary. I use the group wiki for background information, quests, PC notes, NPCs, links to maps, etc.

If you want to see probably the best example of how it's done, check out Chris Perkins' (the world's best DM) Iomandra group and wiki.

Besides the group wiki for your own gaming group, the network wiki for D&D is more geared toward encyclopedic knowledge. You can already find information about editions, settings, history, etc. In addition, people are starting to migrate content from our forums that is really better suited to a wiki, like character optimization guides. It's already so cool to see all that great content, and it's just getting started.

Wizards of the Coast: For the community users, how are you soliciting feedback during the beta stage? Has there been any surprising feedback you’ve already received (or common feedback for areas you plan to work on)?

Jeremiah: We love feedback. We have a Wizards Community HQ group with forums for feature requests and bugs. Please use them. It's the most effective way for us to collect feedback in one place and actually be able to act on it. I don't think there has been particularly surprising feedback. Some people love the site, a few hate it. The biggest topic of feedback has been the forums because this is the main basis of comparison between the old community and the new. And it's understandable. The new forums do not have as robust a feature set as the old ones did. Some of the old forums features can be done on the new site in different ways, so it makes them obsolete, but some of the complaints are legitimate and we are working on improving the new forums.

Wizards of the Coast: Is there a timeline for the end of beta and the formal launch of the new Wizards Online Community? When can we expect the fully armed and operational site?

Jeremiah: Hopefully the rebels won't manage to blow it up before it's finished! Although, a Death Star analogy may not be the best one to use here. We're a benevolent community. There are still some bugs to be worked out and design elements in flux, we're also listening to the community's feedback and prioritizing feature enhancements. With a site this complex there is an endless list of tweaks and enhancements, so at some point we just have to call it "good" and push out the full release. If we took our queues from Yahoo or Google, we'd probably be in beta for two years, but we're not going to do that. We'll come out of beta when it feels right.

Michelle: Our highest priority right now is resolving some style and usability bugs, and working on developing some of the most popular forums features that were lost with the migration. Please keep posting your feedback to the threads we've set up for this. Most of all, keep exploring and *have fun* with the site.

About the Author

Bart Carroll is most frequently found underground, although he infrequently will lair in desolate wildernesses. The globular body of the author is supported by levitation, and he floats slowly about as he wills. Atop the sphere are 10 eyestalks, while in his central area are a great eleventh eye and a large mouth filled with pointed teeth. His body is protected by a hard chitinous covering. The author's eyestalks and eyes are also protected, although less well. Because of his particular nature, Bart is able to withstand the loss of his eyestalks which will eventually grow back (1 week per lost member).

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