Blog posts by indie developers Jeff Vogel and Cliff Harris always make for interesting reading for anyone looking for insight into the game-making process. Vogel is the chap behind Spiderweb Software and is perhaps best-known for the delightfully retro and undeniably epic Avernum series of RPGs. Harris is less old school and responsible for the ship-fitting game known as Gratuitous Space Battles. (If you haven’t at least tried Avernum or GSB, you should.)
Recently both devs wrote on the subject of player forums and how helpful they can be with regard to advancing a game and communicating with fans. Vogel revealed that from his experience devs would be wise to avoid their forums lest they be tempted to rashly respond to a troll, or get suckered into design decisions that compromise the integrity of the game. He’s not suggesting devs avoid forums entirely of course, merely to stay away most of the time – when things need to be done. Ideally, hire someone else to fret over the community.
Cliffski is receptive to Vogel’s plight, but effectively disagrees. Forums, say the GSB maker, can be full of disgruntled fans with no idea what they are talking about, but the advantages of having a forum far outweigh the dangers, so long as you treat them in the right way. Harris deals with his by deploying a ‘planet-sized’ ego. “You just need to have the confidence to know when you are right” he says. I suspect Mr. Vogel would concur, he just feels more confident by avoiding those who might insist he’s wrong.
The two code boffins seem to be on common ground in often finding it difficult to distinguish between people who have genuinely good arguments for resisting change and those that reflexively hate anything new. “Often there are issues where intelligent people can come to opposite conclusions” says Vogel. “You can read thousands of furious posts on either side of the issue without getting an inch closer to an actual decision.”
I mention this mini-debate as a belated addendum to the countless forum posts over the years where EVE players have charged CCP with not being as freely engaged with the playerbase as they used to be (when the ratio of devs to players was a little more even and the post counts more manageable). Reading the opinions of Vogel and Harris we can perhaps better appreciate just how difficult it is to deal with a gaming forum and the disparate forms that lurk within: Here we have two successful devs that use their forum for the same ends, but approach them in slightly different ways, neither of which is wrong or right. How CCP choose to administer theirs is of course very different on account of its size, but its methods are no more correct than any other developer.
The interesting thing to remember about game community forums is that there are a fairly small number of people who interact through them. A figure given to me by CCP many years ago was that 19% of EVE players regularly use the official forums. A chap I spoke to at Sony thought this to be a very high percentage. Whether that number has increased or not since, we can safely assume that at least 80% of EVE players are perfectly happy to not get involved. Whether they are well represented by the more vocal 20% is another matter entirely. As Cliff Harris says of his forum crowd “They are not the group that I should really take design cues from. Some of their ideas are truly cool, but the key is to knowing when you have spotted an idea that really is good, and when you are following the crowd.”
(I called this post Sunday Supplement with a heavy nod to RPS and their regular The Sunday Papers. I’m not sure whether to do something similar here on a regular basis by linking to various blogs and threads that have interested me during the week. Thoughts?)