Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Funny Thing Happened...

As long as I've been playing MMORPGs I've been reading Forums. Longer. Back in 1999, when I was considering dipping my toe in the online gaming waters, almost the first thing I did was visit the Official Forums of the games I was looking at (Ultima Online and EverQuest) to get a feeling for what I might be letting myself in for.

Back in those days, forums tended to be lively. There were often frank exchanges of views. Some people became tired and emotional, as the tabloids used to put it.

Forums then were not for the faint of heart. Communication between players and developers could be... robust. Several of Sony Online Entertainment's so-called Community Representatives adopted tones more suited to a nightclub bouncer or the sarcastic host of a late-night panel show.

Games companies were very well aware of the impression their forums could have on potential customers.  They needed to be. Social media was in its infancy. There weren't a whole lot of other places to look for information on games you might want to try other than the company's website and forums.

Both the quality and intensity of debate varied enormously, forum to forum. Much depended on the skills of the moderators. I remember Dark Age of Camelot having surprisingly well-mannered forums, particularlyfor a PvP-oriented game, something that was most likely the direct result of Mark Jacobs hiring Sanya "Tweety" Weathers to run them.

EverQuest, in direct contrast, had first Abashi and then Absor. Things got so bad after a while that SoE became probably the first and possibly the only MMORPG to close its own forums because they were bringing the game into disrepute.

What's missing?
Even so, they had to return, albeit very heavily moderated. In the early 2000s no online game could afford to run without public forums indefinitely. It was reckoned at the time that no more than ten per cent of players ever visited forums and only one per cent posted or commented there, but those minorities were what we would now call "Influencers".

"Read the Forums" is a phrase I remember keenly from public chat. The forums were where you sent people to find out things you didn't want to spend ages typing out; then there'd be an argument about it and you - or someone - would end up typing it all anyway.

There was always someone in every guild who made a practice of reading the forums and relaying all the info in guild chat. Sometimes that person was me. Over the years, though, I did that less and less.

At some point Official Forums stopped being central to companies' communications. There were flashier, sexier, zeitgeistier options. At the same time, tolerance for bad behavior diminished. Moderation became stricter. Swearing and name-calling, something not always limited to players, fell out of fashion. Forums became anodyne, bland.

After a while, even official communications drifted away. You can probably still find the weekly or monthly Patch Notes somewhere on the official forums of most MMOs, but you're more likely to find the latest news releases on Reddit or, increasingly, on Discord.

Reddit was, for quite a while, the up-and-coming channel for hip developers to hang out with their fans. The crowd-controlled moderation there supposedly allowed for more civilized discourse. That was hard for some older players to believe, given Reddit's widespread reputation for vindictive flame wars and general bad behavior, but I have to say my own experience of MMO sub-Reddits has been pleasant enough.

The problem with all such third-party applications, though, is ephemerality. Social media is littered with the rusting hulks of former giants. It may seem cost-effective to avoid customer service bills by outsourcing communications to the current hot social media platform but how long before you have to move again? And again?

There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the MMORPGs I played were very keen to push their presences on Facebook. That's a name I don't hear so much any more. Reddit is still going strong, especially when it comes to Ask Me Anything, but increasingly Discord is the place to be.

Discord, the theory is, allows for both instant and asynchronous communication. It also handles both speech and text. You can chat in real time to game developers while you and they are playing the game. Or you can hold forum-style discussions that persist over days or weeks.

If only ten percent of players ever went to the official forums, though, how many visit the Official Discord? Based on numerous in-game conversations I've heard over the past few months, as various Guilds and Alliances in World vs World attempt to shore up their organizations, Discord doesn't yet have much of a universal recognition factor.

I admit I'm somewhat biased. I don't much like Discord. I find it over-fussy in appearance, fiddly in function and vaguely patronizing in tone. It gives every impression of trying too hard to be popular, like one of those teachers who insists the class calls them by their first name.

Even if I did like Discord more, though, what I would still object to is being asked to make an account with a third-party just to have access to official communications from the company that operates the game I'm playing. As an alternate channel I can put up with it but as the only one? That's a step too far. 

I don't play Revelation Online any more and I'm not likely to, so when I noticed today that has permanently closed the Official Forums for that game I didn't have to make any hard choices. And let's not get melodramatic: I don't imagine forum closure would immediately lead to me leaving an MMO I was otherwise enjoying.

It's a bad omen, though. Fortunately, it's not something that seems likely to affect the games I'm playing, or not right now, at least.

I've noticed over the past couple of years that Daybreak, who appeared very keen indeed to talk to players via both Reddit and Discord, have quietly reinforced their presence on the official forums. Discord is still the place to go to get immediate dev feedback but most of the answers I've found to issues I've been researching of late have turned up in developer posts on the the forums.

The Guild Wars 2 forums are also very lively. I would guess traffic is down compared to a few years ago, and ArenaNet developers are infamously cautious about what they say in public, but there's still plenty of to and fro going on. I visit the forums most days and find something to keep me amused.

Looking ahead, I was reading the Ashes of Creation Q&A on Reddit this morning and literally the top question in the comment thread that follows it is "Official Forums. When?". To which the next commenter has appended "That is the most important question of all".

If AoC turns out not to have any Official Forums it wouldn't stop me playing. It wouldn't encourage me, though. And when you're already on the fence about a game it doesn't take all that much to tip you off. I hope the devs have been reading Reddit.


  1. I've somewhat warmed up to Discord after refusing to install it for a long time - it now reminds me a bit of the instant messengers I used to use in the early 2000s (ICQ, MSN Messenger etc.), just a bit more open.

    It's so not an appropriate replacement for forums though - which is why I've insisted on our guild keeping its guild website and forums running in parallel to our new(ish) Discord server. Even if people don't use the forums for random chatter anymore, they are still the best place to make announcements, lay down rules and have deeper discussions. On Discord everything just scrolls off the page within hours or even minutes, and trying to find anything again, even with the search function, is a very poor experience.

    Also, I don't much enjoy most of the general discussion on official MMO forums, but they've been absolutely invaluable to me as first line tech support over the years. Whenever you run into some weird bug or problem, you can bet that there are people talking about it on the forums long before even the devs are aware of the issue. Sometimes the forum-goers even find their own solutions to those same problems. I wouldn't want to be without that.

    1. Yes, Discord reminds me of IM too, the difference being I never liked IM either. I think the combination of permanence and ease of access is what makes me happier with traditional forums than any other option. If they have a decent Search function (not all do, by any means) forums become really quite encycopaedic over time, but even without search, some intelligent use of "sticky" threads puts most of what I need in easy reach.

      And yes, I've solved a ton of problems over the years by scanning the tech forums. I'd really hate to lose that resource.

  2. I have always been mixed on the forums thing.

    I don't like how SOE pretty much kept everything in the forums for such a stretch. Important news wouldn't make the web site, wouldn't make the launcher, but would be hidden away in some thread among hundreds in the forums.

    But, when they suddenly decided to outsource forums to Reddit, that seemed like a big mistake too. Pretty much the worst of both worlds, where info still wasn't on the site or the launcher, but now was on some other site entirely.

    For all the toxicity complaints about forums and that guy who has to respond to every post whether or not he has anything to say, I think companies have to have them because they have to have a place for the community to talk and give feedback that the company controls. As we have seen before, when the company doesn't provide that space or restricts discussion such that people get frustrated, they will take the discussion elsewhere and it will really get out of control there.

    1. As I recall, EQFlames was born either when the official forums were closed or when some big guild leader was banned from using them. EQFlames vied for superiority with the official forums for years after that, and EQ2 Flames was pretty well-attended too. I'm not sure, as a company, you want something like that competing for the attention of impressionable newbies!

      Launchers are a whole other issue. You would think that putting information on the window all players *have* to look at before they log in would work but plenty of people don't seem to read that, either. In the end, whatever channels companies decide to use, I suspect most players get their information in game from either public or guild chat!

    2. Yes, I had EQFlames and Fires of Heaven in mind as I wrote that. Something similar happened with EVE Online as well where CCP suppressing somebody pointing out that a GM was helping out their own alliance led to a whole new forum going up that became the alt forum for much of the null sec hoi polloi. However, with the coming of Reddit, a lot of that ended up on /r/eve, which is now the most popular place to bitch about the game.

      As for it being on the launcher, yes people will ignore that as well. But at least the company has put it in front of people rather than hiding it away in the forums. CCP on a couple occasions has put up a warning on their launcher about the Burn Jita event (returning for 2019, post up soon) and that didn't seem to deter many from undocking and getting their freighter blown up. But at least it was up front and there to be seen, so maybe somebody was helped.

  3. The fans of H1Z1: Just Survive (and there were a fair number) blame that reddit-only phase of DBG for much of its demise. Their contention is that the mods in control of the subreddit were not representative of the player base, and the posts that surfaced for the devs to read were not where the game should have gone.

    Post-mortems are always subjective, but it is amazing how often the subreddit comes up from people ruing Just Survive's closure.

    - Simon

    1. That's interesting. I don't totally understand how Reddit works. I get the up and down voting part but who sets up and moderates subreddits is a bit of a mystery. I should go read it up...

  4. My days of perusing MMO forums as an active participant are long behind me. Well and truly burnt myself out of this particular past time during the waits (the long, long, never ending waits) for Shadowbane and Darkfall. Both of which... Um. Never really went places.

    Having said that I would be sad to see them go and think Discord (as much as I do actually love it generally) could never function as a suitable replacement for the structure a forum offers.

    Reddit might be better, but not by a great deal when you have everything from player introductions to technical support to guides to general complaints and compliments etc all in one major hodge-podge stew.

    My active days of forum posting are done (Hmmm... Hai2u blog comments though I guess) but I still really appreciate the ability to dive into the forums of an MMO (or game) I'm interested in and start looking through the class forums to get a sense for the general state, interesting builds, that kind of thing.

    I hadn't paid it much conscious thought honestly, but I am finding a slow movement of even this type of activity to Reddit, but now that I AM thinking about it in thanks to your post... This is no reflection of my actual preferences and more a following of what has been happening.

    1. As a quick sidenote -- I will say that my old guild (the one founded in the days of Asheron's Call to an extent, but came together more seriously with forums and all for the previously mentioned Shadowbane and Darkfall), has experienced a resurgence in life and activity in the form of Discord.

      Our forums still technically exist, but there hasn't been much of a boo there since the transition.

      The guild was dying by slow degrees before Discord, people drifting further and further away -- the simple switch revitalised the guild in a way I couldn't possibly have even hoped for.

    2. YOu're not the first person I've heard say their old guild was brought back together by Discord. It definitely has an immediacy that traditional forums lack. It's horses for courses, I guess.

      I still post on forums a bit but nothing like what I used to do. My progression was Forums, then commenting on blogs and then having a blog of my own. Before I moved to blogging, though, I used to post huge screeds on Forums. I never thought to save any of it and it's presumably all gone now. It would be interesting (to me) to read some of it, fifteen or more years on.

    3. Ditto - I occasionally recall posting on some topic or another and wish I could recall what it was I said in more detail.

      For example; I was made to think recently of my personal transition from Carebear to PvPer to PvEer, and the arguments I made in support of PvP back in the day. In my rose-tinted memories, these were great pieces of critical thinking, persuasive argument yet still being rational discourse using the empathy I had of coming from a similar position and making the jump myself...

      Perhaps they're best left to memory after all. ;)

  5. "Comedy Tonight--!"

    -- 7rlsy

  6. I'm in the same boat as most of you, been very active in game forums years ago, not anymore.

    If there was a good and active fan forum, like EQ2Flames or the german SWG forums, I mostly used that. I think I had almost a thousand posts on back in '04. Not quite as many on Flames, but I still was pretty active there.

    Barring a good fan forum I used the official ones. This was the case for SW:TOR, ArcheAge, TSW and others.

    Nowadays I pretty much only end up in forums when I'm looking for a specific info and Google sends me there.
    Manually browsing forums really doesn't seem to be worth it anymore, especially the official ones. For every thread that's actually useful or worthy of discussion there seem to be at least three that are just rants, demands or even hate towards the devs or some other crap.

    The alternatives aren't very appealing to me either, so I really mostly just read whatever specific post/thread/thing Google sends me to. Just 'browsing' seems to be a thing of the past, at least for me.


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