If somebody’s only interaction with a game were reading its forums, they would come away thinking just about any game in existence is terrible. Not just terrible… a blight upon the world, a source of misery and death, the reason video games should be banned. The game’s crime? Bad balance, down time, not delivering features on time, bugs… you know, life or death stuff.
It’s a frustrating problem for developers because so few of your users are actually using your forums. On Asheron’s Call 2, we determined that about 10% of the playing audience read our website or forums (it spiked on patch days, to a whopping 15%).
This small percentage of people are not randomly pulled from your userbase. They tend to be very similar to each other and not very representative of the rest of your player base. That means you can’t use them to judge the quality or merit of ideas or implementations. But of course, the ones who do post are your most vocal users, and it would be foolish to ignore them.
Every product in the world has forum issues, but MMOs have it worse than usual because forum-goers are often playing “the forum game”: they like the game so much that they want to keep interacting with the game even when they’re not playing. The forum game is so fun for some people that they keep playing it long after they’ve quit playing the real game. Part of this is because of the community of like-minded people. Part of it is caused by the relatively close level of developer interaction on most MMO forums. Whenever a developer posts something, it means the dev is reading what they say! That means they have sway over the developer, and they use it by complaining. Complaining is also fun because other people will join in, either to commiserate or to rebut them. Either way, it’s all content for the forum game.
Let’s go over some classic problem scenarios and talk about how to deal with them.
The Classic Scenarios
The Outrage Escalation: “This new improved quest reward is a slap in the face to the thousands of players who completed the quest last month but aren’t retroactively getting extra compensation!”
When players make comments like this, they aren’t being rational human beings. They are legitimately outraged, but they are so close to the problem that they can’t be reasoned with. Instead, their rhetoric grows and grows until eventually somebody likens the developers to Hitler, and the forum thread is closed.
This tends to make developers nervous, and rightfully so. The first time a player suggests you’re worse than a murderer you laugh it off, but the first time somebody threatens to find where you live and “teach you a lesson,” it makes you think twice about your choice of occupation.
The key here is to keep things from getting overblown in the first place. A well-trained forum moderator knows when a thread is starting to get out of hand and closes it. That’s the right thing to do. Don’t let people get frothy with outrage. Don’t feed the fire, either, with snappy comebacks or even well-nuanced explanations. Save your posts for another place or time: never post them in an outrage thread.
The pretend quitting: “This is the last straw. The new updates on the test server are a mockery of everything this game was supposed to be about. If this change goes live, I will be forced to cancel all three of my accounts forever. Since I am guild treasurer, I’m sure most of my guild will quit too, and we’re the only decent PvP guild on our server, so PvP on our server will entirely die out. I wish I didn’t have to do this, but they’ve forced my hand.”
This is a classic. On AC2, I did my best to correlate people who said they were quitting to people who actually quit. Almost nobody who said they were quitting actually quit, and the few who did didn’t stay gone long: they entered a rebound cycle and came back pretty quickly. Most often, they didn’t leave at all.
Here players are using the last ace up their sleeve: they are trying to appeal to the developers’ wallets. But developers aren’t in danger of falling for this gambit. After six months of somebody saying they’re quitting but never leaving, devs learn not to believe anybody who says that. And it’s not like most developers are involved with the money-making operations of the company anyway. The CFO does not read the message boards.
But this is noteworthy because it is a desperate act by a frustrated player. They feel like they have no sway over their game and they care about the game SO MUCH that it’s infuriating. (Most people who quit will just quit. The majority of them don’t even care enough about the game to fill out a “why are you quitting” questionnaire, so they certainly aren’t going to go to the forums to post this information.)
Treat these people as angry customers. Do your best McDonald’s manager impersonation. Give them small things if you can, or just be sympathetic if you can’t. Don’t encourage these people to “Go ahead and quit,” and don’t taunt them when they inevitably come back, either. Basically, you need to just ignore that they said that at all. Often times they have a legitimate complaint, and you should handle it just as if they hadn’t suggested that the game will crumble if they leave.
The unhelpful fanboy: “Yes it’s a slap in the face. I understand your pain — there’s no way that Feral Intendants are going to be any fun now that they’ve been nerfed by 6% of their damage output. But look at it this way: Turbine knows what it’s doing. This is for the good of the game! You’ve got to trust that they know more than you do.”
These posts are pro-developer, so developers automatically give these words more weight. But these fanboys are just as myopic as the people they’re responding to. In many cases, siding with them is going the wrong way, because they’re still pushing a devs-versus-players mentality… they’re just on the dev’s side. But falling into thinking about things in terms of devs versus players is a trap.
Forum moderators will rightly treat these as flame-bait. The thread will get locked and things will cool off. But the danger here is that developers will start to think in terms of black and white. We’ve all met devs who are “out to get” players. They’ve lost their direction. Fanboys like this help reinforce this stupid world view. A random suggestion: tell developers not to read locked threads. Maybe that would help. Aside from that, just be aware of the danger of turning players, who are paying customers, into your adversaries.
The burned out moderator: “Okay, if anybody else posts ANYTHING about the rogue changes, I am deleting the thread and banning their account!”
Being exposed to the forums causes real damage to developers and moderators. For instance, the QA employee in charge of WoW’s test-server forums is so badly burned out that he routinely deletes threads full of information and bug reports because users just sicken him. It’s obvious that he needs a vacation from forums. This one person seriously lowers the value of the WoW test server. I’ve watched as Sandra will spend hours testing and gathering data about a bug for them — basically doing their QA work for them for free, which is the secret goal of any test server — and then Hortus will delete the thread because he’s in a bad mood. I find it pretty funny, but Sandra tends to think it’s less funny…
Moderators face the most severe form of burnout in the game industry, so they must not be exposed to the toxic hell of the message boards too long. In fact, this is why most forums are a failure: the moderators are burned out.
In order to ensure they can sustain a long career as a moderator, they need to take on additional tasks part-time — for instance, updating web pages, proofreading game text, speaking at public schools about getting into the game industry. Obviously what they do needs to be tailored to their skills and interests. (Be wary of letting them create game content, because they may lose the last shreds of detachment they could previously muster. If they make content, it needs to be full-time: maybe a six month stint as content creator without any forum interaction at all.)
Don’t let moderators burn out. They will cause more damage than having no moderation at all.
Plummeting team morale: “Sometimes I just don’t know why we bother …”
The trouble with forums is that there is just enough actual value for developers that they can’t quit reading them. Somebody will post a really interesting bug, or give a really insightful view on balance, or post about a clever way to beat a quest that nobody on the team had thought of. But those are the gems in the big forum cesspit. The rest of the cesspit is full of cess.
If your developers read your official forums, encourage them to also read forums elsewhere. Players tend to whine and moan most loudly on the game’s official forums, because they are putting on a show to try to convince developers to change things. Behind closed doors in guild forums or fansite forums, posters tend to be considerably more upbeat. It’s very surprising to see the change of tone. It helps put things in perspective.
Don’t force your developers to read the forums. Instead, have the community send a weekly digest of posts to the team. Make sure the digest has as many upbeat or informational posts as it has complaints (even if the actual ratio on the forums is much different). Remember that forums are not representative of the user base so there’s no reason to expose developers to all the hate and anguish there. A taste is enough to get the idea.
The inappropriate dev post: “I see what you mean, TrollSlayer471, but you obviously didn’t read my explanation about WHY this change was necessary. I countered every one of your points in my first post, and if you can’t be bothered to read it, I can’t be bothered to keep responding.”
Most of your developers were not hired because of their amazing writing and speaking skills. You didn’t pick your engineers because they could moderate forums. You don’t expect your artists to have to deal with customers. But they probably think they’re pretty good at all these things. They are probably wrong. The most common problem is that developers will start playing the forum game themselves, responding emotionally or taking troll bait.
I don’t recommend banning all devs from posting, because the community interaction has many benefits. It can help keep the community happy, it has obvious PR benefits if done well, and it can make your developers feel like celebrities, which is an important perk of the job. But developers need training before they can be expected to post well. Have your community moderator run a course for all employees, veteran and newbie alike. Teach them the basics, and lay out ground rules. Among other things, it should include all of these rules of thumb:
- Never post while angry
- Never post when distracted
- Never post when a user dares you to respond to them
- Never post while drunk
- Never post when you don’t have all the facts
- If you have nothing insightful to say, don’t post at all — it’s better to be silent. (The only person who should post just to calm things down is the forum mod… not the developers directly.)
- If in doubt, mark the thread and wait 24 hours before responding. Odds are you’ll have a completely different response.
- Remember that your words will be taken out of context and posted on other forums, fansite news boards, and repeated in game chat. Act like you’re representing the company at all times.
- Make sure each post stands alone and tells a complete story, rather than being part of a thread’s conversation. (When your post gets copied to some guild forum, people will misunderstand what you said if you left out crucial details that seemed obvious to you at the time.)
Producers need to enforce these rules by removing developer’s posting privileges if they post poorly. Posts by devs are candy that feed the “forum game” players. It makes users feel special and loved, which makes devs feel useful and loved. But when developers get caught up in playing the forum game themselves, they aren’t representing your company well. Don’t let them become an embarrassment.
The Value of Forums
The early AC/AC2 forum moderators at Turbine had a drinking game they’d play sometimes when reading forums late in the evening: drink a shot for anybody who says “slap in the face”, chug if someone says their guild is quitting, and if somebody predicts the game will be dead in a month, the whole room has to drink. I’m sure versions of this game exist at many companies.
So if your forums are a cesspit, what’s the point of keeping them? Indeed, many game teams have come to the conclusion that it’s not worthwhile, and have shut down their forums for months or years at a time, hoping to “reboot” them into something more useful. This sometimes works, but it doesn’t look good to new players: “The forums are gone because people said too many bad things? I’m not playing this game!” So don’t close your forums.
The most valuable role a forum can serve is to let players get advice amongst themselves. It’s best to try to foster this sort of interaction. There’s a very strong temptation to use forums to gather information about your game, but you have to remember that forums are dramatically non-representative. Certainly you can spot trends in posts that can help you improve the game: forums are a great way to bring problems to light. But they are not a good way to tell how big a problem is. Even the most vitriolic topic may really only be affecting 10% of your player base, with the rest blissfully unaware of that issue. Reading too much into forums is dangerous.
A very skilled moderator can dramatically improve the value of a forum by plugging the spigots of vitriol, collecting the new ideas and complaints, and encouraging players to be helpful amongst themselves, rather than making every post an “I want this feature changed!” post. However, an unskilled or burned out moderator will make things worse, so be very vigilant about that.
Forums are dangerous because a tiny percentage of the player population uses them, and many of them use posts as a way to change the game in their favor or to get other people to react to them. It is easy to understand this on a conceptual level, but it’s much harder to keep this in mind when somebody says the new quest you made ruined the game and you ought to be drawn and quartered.
Treat forums with a healthy respect, like you would a tiger.