Saturday, March 29, 2008

Official Forums: Yes or No

Should MMOs have official forums? The question has been debated for years.

This is the most recent incarnation of the question, as posed at the Stargate Worlds forums.

And this is Darren's take on the situation, along with many interesting comments made by his readers.

Also, Jaye writes in defense of official game forums. Given my experience on the development side of Vanguard, and my pro-newbie stance, I generally agree with Jaye.

MMOs are huge, constantly evolving games. As developers, we need to complete the circle of communication with our players. And we can't expect to accomplish that by solely relying on fan sites.

When Vanguard launched, the beta forums were taken down and no official forums came up in their place. Players had been warned, and they were given a list of fansites to visit instead.

Players, now offered a score of potential communities, didn't have an obvious place to give feedback. Because the barrier to player entry increased, the fansite-only system weeded out those less familiar with using forums - people who could have given valuable feedback.

Designers now had a similar barrier. We needed to comb through dozens of fansites to find new feedback. In order to meaningfully respond to players, we had to set up dev accounts in multiple places.

Regardless, without the familiar official channels to post in, players offered less feedback. Players seemed to think that without the official forums, they weren't being heard. Many players posted on fansites as though their only audience was other players.

While 'noise' was reduced, so too was 'signal.'

My argument is this:

Encouraging good player-player and player-developer conversation is so important to the health of an MMO, it's well worth the publisher's effort to have official forums.

Official forums provide players with a familiar, safe and reliable place to find information, give feedback, and receive developer responses. They show that the developer cares, and is listening.

As well, compared with most fansites, game publishers are better equipped to take advantage of modern media and proper information design to avoid losing 'signal.' Also, they can afford responsible moderators (and search technology) to help bypass 'noise.'

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Are Designers Playing Too Many Games?

Game designers tend to agree that playing games helps you learn about how to design them.

For example, in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman write, "Students should play every possible kind of game, digital and non-digital, contemporary and historical, masterpiece and stinker."

They give several good reasons why, including the fact that designers need to learn how games function to create experiences, and they need to see what does and doesn't work about design choices.

Yet, Raph Koster offers a word of warning in his book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

He writes, "They [game designers] build up encyclopedic recollections of games past and present, and they then theoretically use these to make new games."

So what's the problem? Essentially, due to the way human brains work, designers are more likely to pull from their existing mental library of game design solutions than they are to try to innovate new ones.

Raph writes, "The most creative and fertile game designers working today tend to be the ones who make a point of not focusing too much on other games for inspiration."

So, the very library of knowledge that designers must build in order to understand and design games can prevent them from exploring new potential game designs.

How do we get around this?

Game designers, of all people, need to "stay ahead of the game." Not playing as many games probably isn't going to help.

Perhaps simply having an awareness of our 'mental game libraries' can help designers choose whether or not to select a solution from them.

Perhaps, too, we can be mindful of fun wherever it occurs. For example, it might be worthwhile to make note when you see yourself or others having fun outside of a formal game environment, and ask yourself how you could bring that experience into a game.
These postings are mine alone, have not been reviewed or approved by any employer or company, and do not necessarily reflect the views of anyone but me.