A long, weird era in the game industry is coming to an end. BioWare is closing its notorious forums for all games and series but its Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO. That’s right, there’s no more official home for people to debate the Mass Effect 3 ending or post endless paens to Varric’s chest hair . BioWare’s official reason for the forum closure was that staffers had found themselves going to social media instead of the official forums more and more often these days, but we all know there’s probably more to it than that.
Frankly, I’m surprised the BioWare forums have lasted this long. From an eerily detailed analysis of the possible chemical composition of Tali’s sweat to a call for the ability to boink one’s own sister in Dragon Age II , the BioWare forums have frequently been called out as housing some of the creepiest, most bizarrely obsessive posts in gaming-dom. I’m not surprised that the company finally decided to burn the whole house down, but BioWare isn’t the only one. Fewer and fewer companies host their own forums anymore, and even some that run persistant games like MMORPGs don’t have official forums. Why’s that happening? I have a few ideas. We turn into whiny babies when we think we have a direct line to developers, it’s much easier for companies to leave moderation to somebody else, and companies are deciding more and more to control their message via PR and social media professionals.
Now, when I say we turn into whiny babies on official forums, I say it without judgment. I’ve been caught in that trap myself. When we think we have a chance to influence something we love, I think it’s just human nature to push to make that thing as close to our personal ideal as possible. So official forums tend to involve an awful lot of fights between people who are absolutely convinced that developers must implement their ideas right now or the game will totally fail and nobody will ever buy another game from said company ever again . These fights often devolve into personal insults against developers another forms of nastiness. Most companies have learned that it’s best to insulate their developers from that insanity, leaving their official forums in the hands of community managers. Taking customer feedback off their own servers entirely is just the next step.
Fights between honest fans are, of course, only the beginning. There’s an awful lot of moderation that needs to happen to keep any online discussion from turning into a horror show, especially with the legions of trolls just waiting to post graphically violent, racist, sexist, homophobic, hate-filled rants just to be a pain in the ass. Moving off official forums onto a social media platform means that somebody else gets to help take care of that moderation. Even if a social media platform (like, say, Twitter) isn’t very good at moderation, it’s easier for companies to ignore abusive users. It’s not their platform, so it’s not really their problem.
Finally, modern game companies want to spread and control their message as much as possible. These days, official forums only attract a small percentage of a company’s total fans, and it’s easier to reach different groups with different messages via various social media outlets. Official PR can take place on Twitter and Facebook, while developers can pop by places like reddit and NeoGAF for a bit of fun with fans… which they can walk away from any time without expectations that they’ll necessarily be back. These new strategies help keep developers out of virtual food fights (like the one pictured above) and a company’s message more heavily under the thumb of its official PR representatives. When BioWare says its people have been moving off its forums and onto social media more, I think this is a big reason why. For developers, it’s a much lower-stress form of communication with fans and for marketing and PR, it’s a more controlled one.
I’ve had some good times on official gaming forums in the past. I’ve even had a few interesting, fruitful discussions with developers, though they happened back in the days when the internet was smaller and the flow of trolls not quite as ubiquitous. These days, the game industry is too big and the internet too toxic for many companies to bother keeping up their own personal forums. Like it or not, the world is changing and the freewheeling world of the official BioWare forums will soon be a distant memory.