Sony Online Entertainment Plans for the Future of MMOG Forum Communities

Of all the things that SOE showed us during an extensive studio tour at SyndCon 2010, the non-NDA covered concept that generated the most conversation wasn’t a new game or expansion.  It was SO

Of all the things that SOE showed us during an extensive studio tour at
SyndCon 2010, the non-NDA covered concept that generated the most
conversation wasn’t a new game or expansion.  It was SOE’s
extensive plans to fundamentally improve on official forums across
their growing stable of games.

Designer Nathan “Hipshot” Pearce and his team have three prime
directives for the project with a working title of “Forums 2.0”. First,
SOE is going to great lengths to make the forums multimedia friendly.
Pearce explained: “Forums haven’t changed in a long time, but the way
people communicate has. Back seven to ten years ago, it was
heavily text-based.  Now people communicate with multimedia
and video, so that’s what we’re moving towards…  We
don’t want to do ‘just text,' text is too boring."

To facilitate this kind of interaction without lengthy production
chains or uploads, SOE will offer cloud storage of screenshots, in-game
video, and audio (for video voiceovers and for the headslapingly new
concept of audio posts) in real-time, as well as a built-in video
editor. The story editor is an online version of SOE’s surprisingly
versatile comic strip editor, and I can see how it will be useful for
annotated quest walkthroughs as well as fan fiction and storytelling.

style="width: 600px; height: 450px;"
alt="Hipshot explains the video editor of SOE Forums 2.0"

Hipshot explains the
video editor of SOE Forums 2.0

Pearce noted that the video editor is fairly barebones and isn’t ready
for the machinima crowd, but SOE views a more sophisticated
video editor as a barrier to entry for the average poster. Aspriring
videographers will be able to set ins and outs to trim down their
composition, then drag clips to a timeline, and (eventually) add a
voiceover, but that’s about the limit. With the story editor
and video editor, players can save and edit their work at any time
before (or after) posting. When players are finished, they can publish
their compositions on the SOE forums, YouTube, and Facebook. “Rich”
threads like these get priority on forums listings, as well as a larger
post icon.

Online storage by the petabyte isn’t cheap, and in an age of
microtransactions, we’re always looking for the price tag, but SOE
President John Smedley told us not to bother. “This is all going to be
free, we’re doing this Google style. There will be limits, realistic
limits, because it’s all free."

Second, the forums must be character relevant. Pearce noted that the
forums will be character relevant, meaning that the forums will be
aware of things like the class, level, server, and faction of the
character you’re posting as and deliver a landing page full of posts
pertinent to you, along with updated threads that you’ve recently
posted in.

Third, SOE is hoping to get rid of the “drilling paradigm.” Spence
explains: “For the last 10 to 12 years, forums have been category based
– you go down three levels, up three levels, then down three levels to
find what you want.  We call that drilling, and drilling is a
bad user experience.” Make no mistake, as the screencaps
show, categories are still in on the lefthand side. From what
we gather though (and the details are still being hashed out), the
categories will respond to your account’s unique characteristics.

style="width: 600px; height: 331px;"
alt="EverQuest 2 Forums 2.0 Concept"

EverQuest II Forums 2.0

Practically speaking, it sounds like SOE has their work cut out for
them, but we saw a functional prototype of the reenvisioned 3 column
layout in action The left column offered a number of tools and basic
navigation / submission links. The middle column contained a
long list of suggested forum threads. To avoid the massive pagination
that would naturally occur with a long list, SOE will implement
“infinite scrolling” – a scrollbar that grows in scale as a reader
scrolls downward.

From this list, players can “dogear” threads that they find of
particular interest, and dogeared threads appear in the right-hand
column. This allows forum dwellers to compartmentalize their experience
by plotting out a few threads to read and respond to. A blue mark in
these threads denotes that a developer has posted in the thread, and
clicking on this mark allows players to jump quickly to the dev comment.

If the category-less format seems made for peripherals other than a
mouse and keyboard, it is. “With these features, we’re doing something
else special, we’re bringing this over to the PlayStation 3. We’re
going to have the first forums on consoles, period.  I
mentioned audio – a lot of people have headsets, so you’re going to be
able to do pure audio posts, not just text posts.” He added, laughing:
“Those kind of posts will be mostly for adults, for obvious reasons.”

And if  the grammar hounds still aren’t sold on the feature
set, I’ve got three glorious words: built-in spellcheck.

Where will SOE forums 2.0 appear first? style="font-style: italic;">Free Realms is the
first candidate, both because it’s the most restricted forum (and
therefore the easiest to design for) and because tools like video
capture are already built into the game.  “We’re putting this
first into Free Realms as an alternate forum experience,” Smed
explained. “This is going to be an evolutionary,
over-a-couple-of-months thing. We’ve got to make sure it’s usable and
people like it.”

style="width: 600px; height: 449px;"
alt="A look at the Free Realms forums under 2.0"

A look at the Free
Realms forums under 2.0

From there, it’s clear that the SOE team is anxious to deploy forums
2.0 for older games like EverQuest
and Vanguard,
but also upcoming games like DC
Universe Online
. Eventually, this will be a Station level
service: “Any SOE game you’re a part of, you can jump to without re-log
in, ” Pearce explained.

But SOE clearly has bigger ideas for Forums 2.0. “For technical
support, imagine where you could go with this.  Here’s a bug,
submit a video of it, click, done.”  Mr. Smedley noted. “But
we can do more than that. You know how you’re reading bug reports on
forums and you have to read through these long lists of tech specs? We
can also have a button on the forums to show tech specs if they’ve
chosen to share that.”

One clear weakness at launch will be the usual forum bugaboo:
smartphone support. Smed explained: “Phones will hate this until we get
a phone version out, and by phone version I mean iPhone and Android,
that’s it. These forums are definitely heavier than some of the
java-based forums, but we’ll have a simpler text-based way to view the
forums. We will not have that at launch, though.”

Whether you’re an avid forumite or just find your way to oboards
occasionally via a search engine, you have to respect  the
intent. SOE is out to deliver a more robust, targeted forum experience
that may mean less scanning and more participating. The good news for
everyone is that it’s not just a wireframe mockup: Forums 2.0
demonstrably works. Whether it works for the forum community at large
remains to be seen.

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