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Default 1Up - Chairman of the Boards

April 28th, 2008, 19:28
1UP has an article up called Chairman of the Boards, which talks about how online forums are a vital component of gaming, and can influence players, game makers and marketers. It examines one particular site, NeoGAF:
The site is proof that, though ancient by Internet standards, message boards are a vital part of the gaming ecosystem, providing an outlet for passionate players to be heard by and influence industry tastemakers, creators, and deciders. It also allows them to indulge in that most cherished of Internet traditions: thumbing your nose at authority -- anonymously, and with as few properly spelled words as possible.
There's a certain negative element to all this:
Any regular GAFer will tell you that news is only part of the reason to visit. The thing everyone's really looking for (and this is where the bloodshed comes in) is a scandal, a batch of bad screenshots to joyously tear apart or a misspoken, out-of-context quote from an industry VIP ragging on the competition. Like chum in a shark tank, these occasional events can provoke impromptu swarms of violence, page upon page of whining, yelling, and piss taking, usually to comic effect. Sometimes, the GAFer army manages to make so much noise that the din reaches the upper echelons of the industry.
But all the fuss seems to be at least partially effective in getting attention. 1Up asks some developers and marketing figures whether they actually listen:
1UP: Do the game developers who participate in these forums actually take the feedback they receive into account when they close their web browsers and get back to work? Are they influenced by what they read?
Rob Fermier (game developer, Ensemble Studios, Age of Empires III): "Well, of course I'm influenced…. There's not much point in a discussion if you aren't going to be open to new ideas or changing your mind! Feedback certainly gets folded back into the churning mass of neurons in my skull, and that in turn fuels all kinds of different game development work."
Brad Wardell: I think of QT3 and NeoGAF as a 24/7 Game Developers Conference panel. The comments on the forums about our games are taken very seriously. Both Galactic Civilizations and Sins of a Solar Empire had significant features integrated into them both before and after release based on feedback.
Soren Johnson: Forums are a great way to get unfiltered feedback on your game, and I can think of many interesting ideas and suggestions for Civ that came from the forums. With Civ III, unfortunately, most of that feedback came after release, so the changes were only evident in the patches. To solve this problem with Civ IV, we pulled in around 100 of the best posters from the Civ forums into a private test session over a year before the game's release.
More information.
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April 28th, 2008, 19:28
Feedback is fine. It's a bit odd that it has to focus on a set of forums like NeoGAF and Quarter to Three. Bethesda developers post more on those forums than they do on their own official forums. That's getting a bit silly.

Don't get me wrong, I like NeoGAF, they send NMA oodles of traffic, but they're not exactly representative of the entire internets and all opinions out there.
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April 28th, 2008, 19:39
Developers have proven over and over that they are prone to ignore discussion at fan sites. As far as I can tell, that they read them at all is just a pitch being made by their "Community Managers" or "PR Directors" or "Senior Executive Online Administrative Relations Coordinators."

The one over at Bethesda admitted that his boss characterized him as some sort of "shield," and that sounded about right.

That's big developers, of course. The little guys seem to value our opinions (and that's cool).
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April 28th, 2008, 19:40
I've seen the QT3 forums before but NeoGAF was a new site for me. I just took it they were using it as an example of how forum feedback can influence the people that make and market the games. The world of boards is definitely a complex one.

Forums in general are pretty partisan and generally have a bit of a squint regarding one dev or game, or genre as just the nature of the beast perhaps?
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April 28th, 2008, 20:07
NeoGAF isn't just a board. I hate to admit it because their egos tend to be big enough as it is, but NeoGAF is pretty much the biggest active industry-fans discussion forum on the internet. Perhaps together with Something Awful (which is bigger, but has less industry activity). QT3 is more elitist.

I think what helps is that these forums tend to take a very pro-developer stand in most things. SA pretty much declared war on NMA at one point for quoting a developer outside the forum, DOSsing our site, attempting to hack the computers of our admins and banning all NMA-related accounts from their forums. Big mess, and all to protect the developer; right and wrong isn't the issue, but developer protection is. For the longest time, anyone critical of Fallout 3 on any of these forums (QT3, SA, NeoGAF) would be written off as an NMA troll. That seems to have changed, but it's very illustrative of these forums and, I guess, of why they're so popular amongst industry pros.

PS: Squeek, you wouldn't believe the number of times I read a line from Todd Howard or Pete Hines and thought "hang on, isn't that what we've actively been saying for some time now?" The only concession Bethesda ever made to NMA: adapting its PR-speek to us

And yeah, Gstaff is a good fellow, but he's only there to function as a distraction for NMA and like-minded sites. I like him, and I realise he's just doing his job, but I don't want sand in my eyes, either.
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April 28th, 2008, 21:13
Thanks for educating me, BN. I've always been put off by the subscription fee over at Something Awful, though I know a lot of people hang out there. (After the horror story, all I can say is that being a cheap-a$$ sometimes has side benefits.)

I've got contradictory feelings about how valid forum feedback is. On the one hand, I think the devs/gamer symbiosis can definitely profit from communication and understanding of what gamers want/what devs can and can't do. On the other, boards are not always the perfect storm of game visualization. As you mention, too often they become overly partisan and imo also often overly impressed with devs, while remaining quite full of themselves and their own sometimes extremely personal preferences. (Speaking very generally, not about any particular site, though everybody can probably think of a few.)

Best case scenario would be people influential in the games biz getting their input all over the net at a variety of sites--that to my mind is more realistic feedback.
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April 28th, 2008, 22:47
I find the Iron Tower model very telling in this sense. I don't think Vince cares much about NeoGAF users go "hella old graphix lulz", instead he has likeminded but highly critical people on his own forums. There it's not so much about feedback in the sense of "what pleases the consumer", it's about like-minded people, who agree with Vince's overall vision, giving feedback within that vision.

It might sound a bit narrow, but after all, you do need strong vision for a project or you just end up with a mess. I think Vince got a lot more useful feedback that way than…well…any developer I can think of. And AoD has been through a lot of changes thanks to valid feedback.

I think the BIS forums were much the same, especially around the time of Van Buren.

But there is a certain truth to the matter when you say this doesn't really work for mainstream AAA production, but it does make one long for the resurgence of mainstream AA production, like Troika, instead of just indies taking this over.

It gets ugly, of course, when developer vision doesn't agree with (a part of) the fanbase, like when Fallout fans burned the F:BoS forum into smoldering ruins, or the whole Bethesda thing now.

I'm not really active enough to tell what the function of the GAFs of the world is, but I do remember QT3 had a lot of valid criticism of BioShock. I get the feeling 2K didn't really care, even if Ken Levine did. That's the difference. GAF-likes are fine for circle-jerks, but turn to hell in a handbasket if criticism starts. Might be why people like Steve Meister of Bethesda post a lot more on NeoGAF than on the Bethesda forums.
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April 29th, 2008, 03:30
Originally Posted by Squeek View Post
Developers have proven over and over that they are prone to ignore discussion at fan sites. As far as I can tell, that they read them at all is just a pitch being made by their "Community Managers" or "PR Directors" or "Senior Executive Online Administrative Relations Coordinators."
Why should developers read fan sites or even the official forum? The typical developer is paid for developing a game according to the defined standards. He is not paid for browsing forums and interfering with the publisherīs marketing efforts by disclosing stuff. Marketing makes a marketing plan and decides about communication.
The usual "But we are your customers" argument doesnīt cut it. In the standard retail business the developerīs customer is the publisher, not the end user. The publisher pays the bills.
The one over at Bethesda admitted that his boss characterized him as some sort of "shield," and that sounded about right.
Yes. A CM has active, passive and often technical functions. Technical includes making sure the forums are moderated and working correctly. The passive part is shielding the dev/pub side from bad vibes or unwanted contact. He filters the feedback to make sure the devs can work undisturbed. Their active role is the part nobody is talking about in public. In short a CM has to keep the customers happy, in critical cases by being creative when selling the truth or by all sorts of distractions. Make a contest (-> G3 beer contest), blame somebody else (JoWooD <-> PB), censor the forum, stretched salami tactics (give them a thin slice today, promise the rest next week … and then forget it), etc.

That's big developers, of course. The little guys seem to value our opinions (and that's cool).
Bigger size -> full time marketing staff and developers with NDAs. They are not allowed to talk about the game.
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April 29th, 2008, 05:07
Originally Posted by Gorath View Post
Why should developers read fan sites or even the official forum?
I would say because those are places where their customers get together to discuss the game they're making.
Originally Posted by Gorath View Post
…The usual "But we are your customers" argument doesnīt cut it. In the standard retail business the developerīs customer is the publisher, not the end user. The publisher pays the bills.
So publishers see an advantage to their developers being out of touch with their product's end-users?
Originally Posted by Gorath View Post
Bigger size -> full time marketing staff and developers with NDAs. They are not allowed to talk about the game.
What does that describe best? The problem? Or some kind of big-business solution?

You obviously know your stuff, Gorath, and I don't mean to be overly clever or rude. But to me that sounds more like how things get screwed up than anything else.

There's more to consider than the fan's point of view, sure. But if you were to extend on that by hiring a lot more people, implementing a lot more policies and factoring in a lot more legal limitations, do you know what you would end up with then? You would have a business the size of the government where your employees would spend half their time just trying to figure out who else works there, what they're doing and why they're doing it.

IMO, everyone involved should be trying to cut through that kind of stuff in order to keep their eye on the ball.
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April 29th, 2008, 08:17
Originally Posted by Squeek View Post
So publishers see an advantage to their developers being out of touch with their product's end-users?
What does that describe best? The problem? Or some kind of big-business solution?
It was a description of the status quo in the publisher-financed business model, as I see it from my perspective.
The second a game gets signed by a publisher a marketing manager is assigned who acts as gatekeeper for all released information. Itīs standard practice to put an NDA in a developerīs contract. Of course it canīt be enforced 100%, but itīs enough to make him think twice about disclosing a key feature before marketing has allowed it.
Maybe the publishers see such a structure as "more professional". Everybody does the job he is specialized in. A graphics guy does colorful stuff, a designer thinks out the actual game and writes design documents, a CM manipulates the community and does additional work for marketing like coordinating the fan sites, and the marketing guys sell the game to the target audience. Feedback is also collected, filtered and compiled by the people who get paid for it.

So 99.99% of the time some big site or print mag reveals a spectacular new feature it simply means the marketing plan put it on "go" and the MM made a deal with the responsible editor.

You obviously know your stuff, Gorath, and I don't mean to be overly clever or rude. But to me that sounds more like how things get screwed up than anything else.
I didnīt perceive your post as rude. Itīs rather that I often come over as aggressive even if most things I post are meant to sound neutral. Maybe because sugarcoating stuff isnīt my style.
Whether or not the system is screwed up is hard to say. Every forum, no matter how big, only represents a small sample of the target audience. Often the most hardcore part. The publisher needs to sell to the masses though, simply because they need to sell, letīs say, 250.000 units for the typical Euro-RPG. Does he sell enough units more if he has to factor in twice the alternative costs for the devs who post in the forum? Hard to say. (Twice because the dev is (a) not productive while browsing the forum and (b) because somebody has to be paid again to do his work.)
There's more to consider than the fan's point of view, sure. But if you were to extend on that by hiring a lot more people, implementing a lot more policies and factoring in a lot more legal limitations, do you know what you would end up with then? You would have a business the size of the government where your employees would spend half their time just trying to figure out who else works there, what they're doing and why they're doing it.
To a certain extend this is indeed done. Did you read the full contract for that FPS which has been posted with comments by two lawyers on Gamasutra. The overhead is enormous.
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April 29th, 2008, 17:54
While I can understand the role of a Community Manager, I question the value of positioning an entry-level PR guy between customers and developers. Here is where that strikes a sour note with me:
Originally Posted by Gorath View Post
Feedback is also collected, filtered and compiled by the people who get paid for it.
Oh, yeah. Let's all pay attention while the assistant to the lady we don't respect tells us how we all ought to be doing our jobs.
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