An innocent post declaring official forums a necessary evil led to some controversy. Garthilk, a guy who actually runs very good fansites like WHA, basically called me out and asked me to list 3 things that official forums do that fansite forums can’t. I’ll do him one better by talking briefly about 3 things official forums can do that unofficial forums can’t, and 3 things unofficial forums can do that official forums can’t. I honestly believe both are necessary, and neither is actually evil.
I’ll start by answering Garthilk’s question:
What are 3 things I believe official forums can do that unofficial forums can’t?
1) Communication: Developers have full control over the forums, so they do the moderation, make changes to the forums, and organize the forums how they want to. You don’t have to rely on volunteers to reduce the noise and enhance the signal (some volunteers can do a better job than developers, but that is neither common nor reliable). Developers also tend to have a lot more money to dump into a forum than volunteers do, which helps in a number of ways. For example, you shouldn’t see official forums going offline due to high traffic more than a few times (after the first few, it’s usually fixed). This keeps the window of communication always open.
2) Ownership: The developers own and run the website. They are not volunteers, so there’s not the risk of a developer getting distracted by another game and losing their dedication to the forum or community (or any number of other things that cause fansites to go downhill). If a single developer loses his interest, she is replaced by someone else who will run the forums and community. There’s also 0 risk of a gold selling company (or any other company) purchasing their website. Things like that can permanently damage a game’s community, which harms the game and its potential for survival. That is too scary to put in the hands of volunteers.
3) Integration: By running your own forums, you can integrate them into your website and game. Given, this is rarely, if ever, done now. In the future (with terrible buzzwords like Web 2.0 and MMO 2.0), we’ll see significantly improved integration of forums, communities, and games. Game-centric social networks, tight coupling between the forums and armory, in-game access to forums and website information, forum and site-based access to certain game systems, etc. Though we could create hooks for fansites to use some of these features, there’s no reliable or safe way to get players connected to their game accounts through non-company websites or applications that I’m aware of.
Okay, I think that answers the actual question well enough. But, I promised to list off a few things unofficial forums can do that official forums can’t.
What are 3 things I believe unofficial forums can do that official forums can’t?
1) No Parents!: Official forums always have the “big brother” watching over the community. Anything you do or say on an official forum needs to take that into consideration, which can make a person feel less at ease. On an unofficial forum, you can say whatever you want, usually within looser restrictions than are imposed on an official forum. This is good both for the health of a community (it’s almost like going to a psychiatrist), and it’s also useful to developers beyond just helping the community: we can sometimes get more honest feedback from fansite forums than official ones.
2) Focus: Fansite forums are much more conducive to forming micro-communities within the game’s community-at-large. They can focus on something specific, like a Bard forum or a forum for members of the Povar server. This allows people to form stronger, smaller communities than an all-encompassing forum set usually does. Without forums like this, you can have a strong community overall. But, you also need communities within the community for the game to be a longterm success, and for the game’s community to be at its strongest. The hierarchy (in community size) of forum communities goes something like: Official Forums > Unofficial General Forums > Unofficial Focused Forums (class, server, etc.) > Guild Forums. All of them are necessary for the best possible community.
3) Creativity: Fansites are the origin of many improvements in communities and forums. Without trying to take credit where it might not be due, I didn’t see a dev tracker on any official forum until after we’d already done it on EQII.com. This was an innovation by a fan, not a company. There’s also a lot more room for a fansite to experiment with new, “beta” type ideas (remember earning money and XP for posting on another of my sites, VanguardLive.com?). Fansites know what they need better than developers know what fansites need, so they can come up with new and interesting ways of running a community than a developer, and they have fewer constraints for trying new things. This feeds into official forums, and also strengthens the community in many ways.
Official forums are not the only answer, nor are unofficial forums. You need both for Prescription Strength Communityâ„¢.