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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Pre-Alpha Forums Don't Build Community, They Build The Rod of Expectations

Posted by UnSub Thursday April 16 2009 at 3:31AM
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There's a nasty trend in MMO development to announce a title before the ink has dried on the IP agreement or a single line of code has been written. Following this announcement usually an official website soon follows and an official forums is opened on the basis that MMOs need to build a community around them. Although it is true that a MMO needs a community to survive, pre-alpha really isn't the time to try start building one.

Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWOR) is a perfect example of this issue in action. The worst kept secret in MMO-dom until recently, it is arguably the most exciting mainstream MMO property outside of a new Blizzard MMO. But it has started off its community building attempts in the worst way.

Take a look at the forums page. I count 19 forums - there is no way this number is needed before the game has even launched (and even after launch, for that matter, especially since this 19 number doesn't include a full list of class sub-forums). It's a popular forums, sure, but by opening up a Fan Fiction forum only encourages people to write fan fiction where they wouldn't have before. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on a forums with enough people - if you create a built it, they will come and write stories where they jump kick Boba Fett in the face. And are three guild forums really needed when the tools to form a guild don't even exist yet?

But worse than being unnecessary, it is creating a rod for BioWare's back. In the General Discussion and Character Classes forums players are taking what little information they have and spinning it off into the realms of (kindly) the wildly optimistic. Not even BioWare knows what SWOR is going to look like in its alpha form - things will change as QA and testing take their toll - yet space is provided for the "community" to endlessly spin off their hopes and dreams (or more realistically, attack others' hopes and dreams).

Within pre-alpha forums, every dev comment is stretched out until it is almost unrecognisable - "the dev said we can choose the colour of our lightsaber, so this must mean we can also customise its shape - I'm having a lightsaber-axe!" - because there is so little solid information about the title. Nature abhors a vaccuum, so pre-alpha forums fill that vaccuum with a heap of dreams, ideas and wishful thinking. This doesn't end well when the devs come along later and release more information (as they have with Bounty Hunters will be Sith only) that steps all over what players have projected on the official forums. In turn this creates a wave of animosity that sees some "community" members leave and others hold grudges that build as more information comes out.

Bounty Hunters being Sith only caused lots of flames on SWOR's pre-alpha forums. Hahaha.

Bounty Hunters being Sith only caused lots of flames on SWOR's pre-alpha forums. Hahaha.

I'm a big supporter of official forums, but they actually need something solid to talk about. Drip-fed information that is highly subject to change ISN'T solid. If developers comment in the pre-alpha forums they see potential players repeatedly disheartened that the game being developed isn't the game that players had planned in their heads. If the developers don't comment in the pre-alpha forums, it is complained that the devs don't care about the community. If the devs announce something that is later changed, it is claimed they lied to the community. It's a no win situation.

The reality is that pre-alpha communities mean very little (outside of hype to attract investment dollars) until the title is on the cusp of launching. It is at this point the pre-alpha community has been swamped by new members wanting to play the new game so their voices don't matter anyway, while a proportion of them won't elect to play anyway because the game isn't what they wanted. Pre-alpha "communities" aren't really communities at all - they are just a group of interested onlookers with time to kill.

Much like announcing too soon, MMOs also need to get away from trying to build communities from pre-alpha onwards. It will save customer service time and forum costs while also preventing devs from having to backpedal when they drop previously announced features. Instead community building should only really start when a MMO title is in closed beta - more features will be locked down, some vague release date will be known and players will have solid features on which to comment about. Those who aren't interested in those features can leave without complaining that they'd wasted their time on a title that isn't going where they wanted to go. Everyone wins.