Many actors claim to avoid reading reviews of their own work, for a variety of reasons. Likewise, if you go on video game forums, you will either see absolutely no official contact or it will be through ‘community managers’ like on the Bioware forums. Ever wonder why that is? SpiderWeb Games Founder Jeff Vogel (who has run his own ‘indie’ game company where he is the head programmer, designer, writer, and so on, since 1994) wrote an entry on his ‘Bottom Feeder’ blog about just that. Here is a quote:
It’s a little different on my company’s forums. But only a little. Even though it is mainly populated by my fans, it is still full of shots at my design skill, game quality, virility, and facial complexion. Remember, there’s a thin line between love and hate. Nobody will lash out at you like a disappointed fan.
Having spent more than a little time on the Spiderweb Forums I can confirm this. While his games attract a largely older audience, there is still plenty of immaturity and whenever a new game is announced you can be sure a small war will erupt between those who want it pretty much exactly like the last one and those who more or less want it turned into an XBOX360 action-RPG … with guns.
He lists three reasons to avoid your own forums:
1. It’s Not Productive To Read How Much People Hate You
2. It’s Not Going To Be Helpful
3. You Might Get Suckered Into Getting Angry
#1 and #3 seem related, and in a way they are – because you are reading people talk about you and the work you have dedicated your life to doing, in a place that you are paying for and is tied to your products. It is very easy to just click ‘reply’ there.
The second one is less clear, as it seems you should be able to get the best feedback on how to proceed with future games from those who have been playing for years, right? Not necessarily. Vogel is clear on this one – and I think he is totally right. He works with a small set of beta testers on his games, and I can speak first-hand that he is exacting in his standards of reporting and communications. If he doesn’t like how you work as a tester, you get booted, whereas if you are valued you are kept on …
For a while MMORPG companies thought opening up massive open beta tests was the way to go … then they realized that they were getting noisy free-loaders who would play, complain, and never come back … and certainly never pay! I remember playing a MMO (whose name I can’t recall now) after release and wondering exactly what the heck happened to it from the initial stages to the release – too many noisy voices stirring the pot!
I also have experienced something Vogel doesn’t mention – being a small shop with an employee on the forums. It was for the game Dungeon Lords, and legendary designer David Bradley was at the helm … and a guy with a forum name CHUK was a programmer & artist on the team. He took the role as the point of contact, and seemed to try to keep us informed.
But as it became more and more clear that the crap was hitting the fan, he was more and more ingratiating with the community, and it was only later after he had procured some references and help job seeking that we learned that he was being disingenuous at best with us about the state of things and the roles and responsibilities. Of course, that company should have tried listening as well – a number of us took time to craft a detailed appraisal of the game demo in terms of problems we saw and why the game should be further delayed. It was ignored, the game released, and was pummeled in reviews for exactly the reasons we stated, and is widely recognized as one of the worst game launches of all time.
As Vogel notes – and as noted in the comments – this sets up a difficult situation for him, but as also noted in the comments, he has been around long enough that he has a loyal group of testers and moderators who provide that buffer layer to inform him of important stuff while buffering from the folks whose comments could be summed up as ‘u suk. ur gamez luk liek 198o’s crap! omg welcome to 1990 lol’. Seriously.
He alludes to others who are involved in their communities, and I would point to Stephen Peeler at Soldak and Thomas Reikenger at Basilisk and Alan Miranda at Ossian as folks like that. But in the case of Basilisk and Soldak I have seen plenty of hate threads there … each of them upon releasing a sequel was lambasted for what they did / did not do. But since they are relatively new the level of vitriol is nothing like what I’ve seen at Spiderweb.
Of course, if anyone has spent time on the GameSpot forums, NeoGAF, or worse yet the WoW or other forums, visiting SpiderWeb’s forums would seem tame. Personally I tend to stay away from places that are full-up with loads of immature hate-speech, preferring more thoughtful discourse … but then again I already HAVE teens and have no desire to get into debates with hundreds of them on gaming forums, with constant thread-locks, bans, heavy moderator involvement and so on.
It is sort of like how they seem to turn off comments at Gizmodo once a month or so.
What thoughts or experience do you have on this sort of interaction? Do you think web forums have gone so far past decency that it is wise for the creator to steer clear? Or do they owe it to their customers to be involved?