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Playing the Boards

As Tide spotted on his blog, SWG Creative Director Chris Cao unloaded with both barrels on the SWG boards re: the topic of, well, the SWG boards. The money paragraph:

Roughly 80% of the people who play SWG never read these boards. We know this from our own internal metrics and it poses an interesting question. Are we talking to people who play the game or posters who play the boards?

The boards predictably exploded in a fury of paradoxes, with players yelling “Here! Here! Don’t listen to Those Other Guys!” among the assuredly expected retorts of “I’d play your game if it wasn’t more boring than this message board.”

This is mildly interesting in an SOE-watcher sense (one wonders how much commitment post-Raph Koster SOE has to a vibrant forum community, especially given the unrelieved anger of disenfranchised pre-NGE players) but more interesting from a more general standpoint. Specifically: is Cao correct? Are MMO forums so high-volume and high-noise that they are useless as forms of usable feedback?

Well, it certainly depends on the game. Even within the same company, a game’s official forums can have a wildly different tenor: consider the Everquest 2 forums viz the SWG forums. Different games can give a different pitch to their forums. Whether or not the game is actually doing well is completely irrelevant: even though the game has struggled, the Matrix Online forums are pretty congenial, and the World of Warcraft forums, um, well, aren’t. It is probably not a coincidence that the MXO forums are much lower traffic than the WoW forums.

What becomes a problem is what Cao alludes to in his post; where meta-gaming the forums becomes a goal for being more powerful in-game. Some of the worst forums to read in any game are forums devoted to class balance issues, because many players see this as where they need to petition for redress at being too weak, or protest when they feel they’ve been nerfed unfairly for being too strong. It’s a vicious cycle, and one made even fiercer when players of competing classes chime into the chorus. Usable feedback? Nil.

Necessary feedback? Probably. Filtering it may be more of an art than a science, but it’s something that a developer has to be aware of. If a good portion of their users feel disenfranchised, then that perception can become self-perpetuating, beyond any measure of reality. A good illustration of that is in DAOC, a class was introduced in an expansion (I won’t mention which, though I’m sure DAOC players can guess) that was wildly, ridiculously overpowered in PvP combat. While other realms were complaining loudly, and with no little justification, that they were being steamrollered, the owning realm’s partisans on the boards protested every adjustment to the class with the somewhat surreal argument that since their morale was so low from Mythic clearly hating them and playing for the other team and nerfing them constantly for years, it was only fair that they have a wildly overpowered class. The really odd thing was that for many people, this logic made sense. Eventually, that class was adjusted into the realm of reality, and the players moved on to arguing about yet another clearly overpowered and justifiably so class.

Too much of this feedback can be harmful, to the point that it can directly harm your project. To illustrate this, I need only point you to the Sword of the Stars community. Sword of the Stars is an extremely ambitious 4x space strategy game crippled (in my mind, anyway) by wildly oversimplified game systems and a wildly overcomplicated user interface. The developers, however, have taken any criticism of their baby extremely poorly, and their community has cheered them on every step of the way. It’s an echo chamber within a bunker. Anyone with actual feedback on, you know, what might be wrong with the game is quickly shouted down. Not all feedback is helpful.

At the same time, the opposite extreme of just ignoring any feedback is equally harmful. If people are paying you money every month, it’s in your financial interest to keep them doing so. That means you should probably listen when they have problems. MMO forums tend to be canaries in coal mines. If they start dropping dead, you may want to check your air supply.

As Cao’s metrics stated, only 20% of MMO players access their official forums (and honestly, I’d say that figure was pretty high). But you ignore those 20% at your peril. And you listen to them at your peril.

Wow. If only there were professionals who handled community forums for a living.

(Edit 10/6 3:00p: corrected Cao’s title)