3 Things Official/Unofficial Forums Do

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„¢.

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15 Responses to "3 Things Official/Unofficial Forums Do"

  1. I would rename “ownership” to “stability.” It is in the game developer’s best interests to make absolutely certain that the core communication channels are not in the hands of someone who could shut the site down at any time and move on to another game.

  2. While I agree with everything you say, Blackguard, moderation is key. And I’m not talking about just having one or two beers at dinner time. Garthilk and WHA does a great job, as did you guys back at EQII. It’s in the best interest of a fan site and official forums to make sure the integrity of those communities is maintained, or they become a joke. It isn’t easy. But it has and still can be done.

    I would never imply, although I seemed to in my original comment to your ‘necessary evil’ post, that the opinion of the player community doesn’t matter. Community has helped to make some decent changes in games over the years. But it’s the way in which development interacts with a community, fan based or official, that is important. It’s a grave day when the community – especially a small part of the community – seems to be the one designing a game.

    Man, am I scarred and jaded or what?

  3. Ironically, games that start small (like some mods) very well may be helping design the game. But at a certain point, they cross a threshold where the desires of the community become too diverse and too conflicting, and the developers must abandon the community’s deisgn feedback more and more.

  4. er – the community very well may be helping design the game.

  5. My 2c: Official forums handle general discussion, tech support and Q&A for new players. Fan forums can handle class sections, trade sections, lore discussion… and whatever else.

    You keep your official forum sparse, so as to both make it easier to moderate, and not to make fan forums redundant. You give them a purpose by reserving only the most important sections for yourself. You have a centralized official forum for new players that will be well moderated and organized, and from there they can branch out to fan sites if they want more.

  6. I think official forums also create a better interface between technical support and customers.

    When I have something wrong with a product I don’t naturally think “let me go to the place ran by other customers.” I think, “I’m going to the official website and finding an official technical support person.”

    Beyond that though I like the narrow scope official forums. Just enough to get the message across and be the central point for general discussion.

    I like knowing that Blackguard will read what I’m screaming than guessing. Yes, I can go over to Mobhunter to complain. Chances are, he’ll see it, but perhaps not as quick.

  7. I agree with Ferrel in terms of Technical Support. If your game only has US-based tech support but you support say, Australia..? Yeah, you need a place for the Aussies to go without expecting them to pay international phone fees. And Blackguard on Mobhunter? NOOOOEEEEZZZZ! We should do all our complaining of Copernicus on the Nerfbat forums!

  8. I also believe in trimming down the official forums as much as possible. What that trimmed-down forum set looks like is something I’ve pondered about quite a bit, and I’ve never fully arrived at a conclusion. The ones that are absolutely necessary are: New Player Help, Technical/Customer Support, some kind of General Discussion forum.

    I’d like to keep all off-topic forums off the official forums, and instead link to fansite forums to let those flourish. Maybe give the community a rating system for fan forums to alter the display order of fansite forum links so they can drive the popularity of their sites.

  9. IMO, this would be a layout I would use:

    News & Discussions
    > Announcements (useful for developers or community members to post announcements to the community)
    > Official Threads (or something similar, but a place where people can comment on announcements without cluttering up the announcements forum)

    New Player Help
    > Welcome! (place for new players to post help threads and such– name is general can be changed based on game title of course!)
    > Free Trial Discussion (if you do have a free-trial, there should be a place for people to talk about it!)

    Customer Support/Technical Support

    Gameplay Discussion
    > General Gameplay
    > Combat (I think it’s important to separate combat from gameplay as a topic because combat can relate to a lot of issues that should be separately discussed from other gameplay issues, in my opinion).
    > Tradeskills
    > Dungeons (the WoW dungeon forum was pretty well used as far as I remember, haven’t read up on their forums in a bit).

    Then you can add a class forum area here.

    Community forums here.

    Server forums here (if you want to include server forums, of course).

  10. [...] there was a quite timely post today over at NerfBat listing the 3 things that each forum (Official versus Unofficial) offers that the other does [...]

  11. Lethality

    I think the lack of official forums may have nearly single-handedly contributed to the decline of Warhammer.

    Mark Jacob’s “McQuaid-esque” dismissal of something like having official forums put him and his company squarely on the sidelines while the MMO industry ran right by them.

    Jacobs should be held responsible for this decision.

  12. First, let me apologize for speaking bluntly. Second, Ryan, it’s not often that professionals of your stature speak so publicly about such things. It’s refreshing and I encourage you to keep it up. Third, I made a crazy long post. But the internet ate it, so I’m just going to respond to the 3rd point, or at least half of the third point right now.

    “There’s no reliable or safe way to get players connected to their game accounts through non-company websites or applications.”

    The fact that so many people believe this upsets me. There are about a dozen different ways to approach this issue. Each, safe, secure, reliable. The easiest way perhaps, would be a single use, unique generated key created by an account center, that is validated on a fansite. There are more invasive ways however. To put it bluntly and in plain terms, a script has a piece of data, checks it against a developers database (that contains no personal information), returns a value and then performs an action based on that value. Or even worse, a developer has an API which can do the validation securely and safely.

    Developer produced APIs the empower the external community, that’s crazy talk! I mean why do we want to empower a community we don’t moderate, control, or have the ability to spin the company line?

    “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.”

    So how much does a developer social network cost? 1 million? 5 million? 10 million? How much did sites like Wowdb.com cost the developer? This site, it has an API so guilds and link items, post guild rosters, character profiles, all on their own guild forums. Where are those kind of community empowering offerings? You don’t see them because of…

    Two words, Disney World.

    But more on Disney World another time….

  13. [...] Posted by Dalqak Actually, there was a quite timely post today over at NerfBat listing the 3 things that each forum (Official versus Unofficial) offers that the other does not. [...]

  14. [...] Shwayder, a game designer for 38 Studios, recently put in his two cents on the official vs. unofficial forums argument. He originally called official forums a necessary evil but when prompted by Warhammer Alliance [...]

  15. [...] post is mostly a critique of some points that Ryan Schwayder made on the pros and cons of official forums, but amongst all of that she makes some very [...]

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