Monday, March 24, 2008

Online Game Forums +

Following the example of Sigil's Vanguard, Mark Jacobs of EA-Mythic confirmed again recently that Warhammer Online from EA-Mythic will not provide an official discussion forum.

Jacobs, producer of Warhammer Online, went to the WarhammerAlliance fan forum to defend the no-official-forum decision with a great parody of the way gamers talk about a game (and its developers) on official forums. Earlier (in 2006), he had posted on that same forum a more substantive explanation of the no-official-forum decision, but it came to the same thing -- some gamers can be flaming rectal orifices.

He's right; it's often like that. Giving gamers an official place to talk about a particular game seems to embolden some of them to act in bizarre ways.

But you know what? As bad as it can get, having an official forum is one of the prices of doing business in the online game marketplace. An online game is, in part, a service, and providing an official mechanism by which the service provider and its saner customers can communicate is reasonably considered a part of providing good service.

Of course that's not a justification for allowing abuse by some customers who think that relative anonymity is a license to be a jerk. The contract goes both ways -- developers provide the forum for communication (and use it), and customers communicate like civilized adults instead of over-caffeinated savages. That is not an unreasonable expectation on either side.

Yes, the spewage from some gamers is sick, and (as Mark notes) can even get scary. But eliminating official forums completely is not a solution; it is surrender. It's letting the bad guys win in a fight that's worth having, because having an official communication pipeline is a valuable marketing tool.

There's no question that creating and maintaining such a tool imposes several costs on the developer, such as server hosting fees, technical support, and web development. It also requires finding people to be moderators who combine a low tolerance for abusive behavior with emotional maturity, good judgment, diplomacy, reasonably sound grammatical skills and a sense of humor. Having an official forum won't do you much good if the kind of person you choose as your face for communicating with the public is unfriendly, easily provoked, arbitrary, or unskilled in the effective use of language to communicate (all of which I have seen in moderators on official forums).

Finding people with good moderating skills isn't easy. But they do exist; their rarity is no excuse for turning someone (like a techie) into a mod because they happen to be convenient. That's just being penny-wise and pound-foolish -- who ever said that doing things right would be cheap? Again: this is a cost of doing effective business in the increasingly-crowded marketplace of online game services.

Choosing to do without an official forum was certainly not Vanguard's only problem, but IMO it was another in the series of decisions by Sigil that made the game appear to be less than a professional-grade product. The deliberate decision to provide official communications only on certain "selected" fan sites created an appearance of favoritism that did nothing whatsoever to help Sigil sell Vanguard as a high-quality online entertainment service.

I see no reason to think it's the right move for EA-Mythic and Warhammer Online, either, or indeed for any major online game.

I do acknowledge, however, that I'm speaking here as a wannabe developer, and not as someone who -- like Mark Jacobs -- has actually run his own online game service and has had direct experience with the bad kind of gamer. If I had his experiences, my opinion might be different; as it is, I stand by it: the advantages of providing an official discussion forum for a major online game outweigh the disadvantages.

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