Monday, January 21, 2008

Official Forums in an MMO Community

Or, "How Tabula Rasa Made Me Love WoW General"

Most of you who check this site probably know me from Maintankadin, the Paladin Tanking forums for which I act as moderator and community manager. What you may not know is that I've been cheating a bit. Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but I've been having an affair with another game, and another online community related to that game. I'm speaking of Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa.

Blame Ciderhelm, it was his siren song that lured me. I was weak.

Anyway, desperate housewife analogy aside, I enjoyed Tabula Rasa. It served as a pretty decent diversion from the farmed content blah's I discussed in my previous post, and the prospect of being one of the founding fathers of theorycraft in a new MMO was enticing. However, all was not well in Garriottsville.

Tabula Rasa has no official forums. It's not the first game to try this, but it's the first I've had any experience with. Instead, they have a fan site program which serves as a listing of sites that fit certain criteria, and a feedback form that players can use to contact the developers directly. Some employees browse some of the forum-oriented sites, and occasionally post random insights on some of the more popular ones.

"But Lore," I hear you say, "That sounds great! Fan-run sites tend to be more focused and closely moderated, and the official WoW forums are a pit of agony and despair that serve only as an exercise in masochism and mental destruction!" to which I respond in two ways. First, get out of my head. Second, that may be the case, but the official forums serve a very real purpose, and unfortunately there's some precipitation looming outside the silver-lined utopia of Tabula Rasa's community management stance.

For one, lack of official forums gives disgruntled or concerned members of the community no real outlet for their concerns. Yeah, there's the feedback form, but this is an MMO we're talking about. The goal is to nurture and grow a community around your game. You can send in your feedback, and that's fine, but you get no backup from the community. It's just you and the poor sap who gets to sift through all the incoming feedback and decide what's important enough to show to the developers and what isn't. It's not public. No one else gets a chance to weigh in on it, and regardless of how often they say "we read everything submitted through the feedback form" you still get the feeling you're talking to no one. This also has had the effect of creating "Feedback Form Campaigns" in which several members of the community submit the same notion through the feedback form in an effort to show the developers that there's a large number of people concerned about a particular issue. That, to me, seems at best counter-intuitive and at worst two steps away from spamming.

For two, the fan-run communities don't really serve as a decent stand-in like you'd think. I'm not even sure they could. The idea is that pointing people towards fan-run forums would not only promote fan-run community but let the community govern itself as it sees fit. This fails in practice. If you want to keep tabs on what Blizzard has to say, you check the official forums for blue posts in the categories you're interested in. If you want to keep tabs on what NCSoft has to say, you have at least 3 forums to keep track of, all of which have different structures and rules, many repeated threads on the same topics from other forums, and no easy way to tell if a developer has responded to any of the threads there. On top of that, since there's no real NCSoft "Community Managers" - just a couple employees who keep tabs on things - comments are few and far between.

You would think, at the very least, this would cause more activity on the fan-run forums. However, there's a problem. The 3 or so forums that get NCSoft attention tend to be where everyone goes, and fan-run forums tend to frown on posters directing people to other fan-run forums, even in a niche environment. After all, why not just talk about whatever it is you wanted to talk about at our forums instead of going to that other place? On top of that, the fan site listing is pretty much just a wall of text and makes it very hard for individual sites to shine. The result is the community becomes splintered at best and stifled at worst. Sub-communities like Maintankadin or Tankspot have become quite popular and beneficial to the health of the WoW community. Sites like that simply do not survive in Tabula Rasa's fan-run community.

At least there aren't all the QQ posts, right? I mean, the fan-run forums obviously have closer moderation, they lock or delete all the posts that serve no purpose other than random whining. Forum trolls and "Nerf Warlocks" threads just don't exist, making everything generally more pleasant and constructive, right? I don't believe that's true. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that QQ posts need to exist - in some fashion or another - for an online community to thrive. This is probably the biggest failing in Tabula Rasa's approach.

The general response on WoW fan forums like Maintankadin is "Keep the QQ to the official forums." Well, if there's no official forums, where does it go? Believe it or not, those threads aren't always worthless. If I post a thread about how "my guild gives all the tanking loot to the Warriors and doesn't let me have any qq" on the official forums, the community will weigh in and help me learn how I can convince my raid leader to let me loot tanking gear. If nothing else, QQ posts serve as an indication of how the community feels. Maybe 50% of the Tabula Rasa community absolutely hates the first zone. You wouldn't know this by looking at the fan-run forums; random bitching threads get locked or deleted immediately, without anyone at NCSoft ever knowing. Yeah it would be nice if every player would just list out their concerns in an easy-to-read and convincing format, but that's just not going to happen. Not everyone is an English major, and their opinions are valid regardless of how well presented they are.

Long story short, I think the purpose that the official WoW forums serve is often overlooked and taken for granted. Even if all you see is "nerf warlocks" and "casuals need epics" that's still good info. That lets you know, regardless of how nicely it's phrased or how productive the thread becomes, how your community is perceiving your game. This is obvious even on a smaller scale like Maintankadin - if I see the same question coming up over and over again, that tells me that I need to make that information more readily available (usually through a sticky). Yeah, those people probably should have used the search function. Yeah, those threads are just going to get locked. That doesn't mean I can't use what I learn from them to make the community stronger. I'd like to think WoW's community management team looks at those threads in the same way. If I locked 50 "AV is biased towards Alliance" threads in one day, that would, at the very least, tell me that there's probably something that could be improved.

Players' opinions are valuable regardless of the method in which they are presented. Ignoring them is foolish. Cutting them off entirely is just plain stupid.


Michael J. said...

We should all use the TR feedback form to send us the message provided by Lore.

Antuan said...

I tried this game in Beta it did not grip me at all. So I skipped on it, any other games you looking at down the pike?

Lore said...

Looking at Age of Conan (just because it's made by Funcom) and obviously Warhammer, and I'm very much intrigued by what Blizzard's unnamed next-gen MMO might be.

I'm gunning for World of Starcraft.