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 wasnÂt a new game or expansion. It was SOEÂs
extensive plans to fundamentally improve on official forums across
their growing stable of games.
Designer Nathan ÂHipshotÂ Pearce and his team have three prime directives for the project with a working title of ÂForums 2.0Â. First, SOE is going to great lengths to make the forums multimedia friendly. Pearce explained: ÂForums havenÂt 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 thatÂs what weÂre moving towardsÂ We donÂt want to do Âjust 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 SOEÂs 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.
Hipshot explains the video editor of SOE Forums 2.0
Pearce noted that the video editor is fairly barebones and isnÂt 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 thatÂs 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. ÂRichÂ threads like these get priority on forums listings, as well as a larger post icon.
Online storage by the petabyte isnÂt cheap, and in an age of microtransactions, weÂre always looking for the price tag, but SOE President John Smedley told us not to bother. ÂThis is all going to be free, weÂre doing this Google style. There will be limits, realistic limits, because itÂs 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 youÂre posting as and deliver a landing page full of posts pertinent to you, along with updated threads that youÂve recently posted in.
Third, SOE is hoping to get rid of the Âdrilling paradigm.Â Spence explains: ÂFor the last 10 to 12 years, forums have been category based Â 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.Â 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 accountÂs unique characteristics.
EverQuest II Forums 2.0 Concept
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 Âinfinite scrollingÂ Â a scrollbar that grows in scale as a reader scrolls downward.
From this list, players can ÂdogearÂ 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. ÂWith these features, weÂre doing something else special, weÂre bringing this over to the PlayStation 3. WeÂre going to have the first forums on consoles, period. I mentioned audio Â a lot of people have headsets, so youÂre going to be able to do pure audio posts, not just text posts.Â He added, laughing: ÂThose kind of posts will be mostly for adults, for obvious reasons.Â
And if the grammar hounds still arenÂt sold on the feature set, IÂve got three glorious words: built-in spellcheck.
Where will SOE forums 2.0 appear first? Free Realms is the first candidate, both because itÂs the most restricted forum (and therefore the easiest to design for) and because tools like video capture are already built into the game. ÂWeÂre putting this first into Free Realms as an alternate forum experience,Â Smed explained. ÂThis is going to be an evolutionary, over-a-couple-of-months thing. WeÂve got to make sure itÂs usable and people like it.Â
A look at the Free Realms forums under 2.0
From there, itÂs clear that the SOE team is anxious to deploy forums 2.0 for older games like EverQuest II and Vanguard, but also upcoming games like DC Universe Online. Eventually, this will be a Station level service: ÂAny SOE game youÂre a part of, you can jump to without re-log in, Â Pearce explained.
But SOE clearly has bigger ideas for Forums 2.0. ÂFor technical support, imagine where you could go with this. HereÂs a bug, submit a video of it, click, done.Â Mr. Smedley noted. ÂBut we can do more than that. You know how youÂre 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 theyÂve chosen to share that.Â
One clear weakness at launch will be the usual forum bugaboo: smartphone support. Smed explained: ÂPhones will hate this until we get a phone version out, and by phone version I mean iPhone and Android, thatÂs it. These forums are definitely heavier than some of the java-based forums, but weÂll have a simpler text-based way to view the forums. We will not have that at launch, though.Â
Whether youÂre 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 itÂs not just a wireframe mockup: Forums 2.0 demonstrably works. Whether it works for the forum community at large remains to be seen.