Alright, so far we’ve taken a look at the ways in which players are important in online games and how competition between players can be used to build a stronger community (well, rather, we scratched the surface of that one). But, this is a community column! This is like those community managers, right? And they just stay in dark rooms, in dark towers, reading message boards all day (which are often dark-themed!) right?

Well, no, not really. But, it is true that message boards and such are going to be one of the first things many people think of when dealing with game communities and community management. Granted, this column is not just on community management, but also about community-friendly/encouraging game design, I can’t simply duck around this aspect. Simply put, message boards are pretty important for game communities. That’s why most game companies run official forums, and when they don’t, major fansites tend to get plenty of activity on their boards.

There is a reason for this, after all. People exist not just in the game world, but also outside of it (imagine that). MMOs have this habit of affecting the lives of people who play them in a fairly significant way. They will play the game a fair number of hours a week, they will likely make friends in the game, they will talk to people they know out of the game who play – either via message boards, internet chats, social networking sites, or even offline with people they know who play. While not everyone gets caught up in these games, plenty of people do.

Beyond the Basic Official Site
Every game has an official site for various reasons. The official site of a game is either an important hub of information and activity or it is simply a marketing page trying to draw players in. Or sometimes it is both, like how Sony Online Entertainment sets up their websites – the main page being a flash page used to draw players in, while also retaining forums and the Players websites.

Speaking of the Players sites, such as EQ2Players.com or VanguardPlayers.com, as many bad things as people may say about SOE and how they handle customers and such, they have probably one of the greatest websites out there for a game community. Web 2.0, everyone’s favorite buzzword/Internet phenomenon, was the talk of the town at last year’s Game Developer’s Conference. Richard Vogel over at BioWare was running a session that I had the pleasure of attending, about community management. One of his major points was all about official sites for games. Sites like EQ2Players.com and World of WarCraft’s Armory were brought up as prime explains. These sites were referred to as ‘Web 1.5’ as opposed to an actual ‘Web 2.0’ site, stating that they were close, but not quite there.

For those of you unfamiliar with these websites, they essentially are there to show off your character, their stats, their equipment, how they look, rankings against other players, etc… SOE allows players to share screenshots over the Players sites and several other features as well, including their own guild website creation tools. I personally have minimal experience with WoW’s Armory site, but it shares many of the basic features of the Players sites.

What is so great about this? Well, in games that are largely achievement based, what is greater than being able to show off all your great stuff to your friends? It is the beginning of a social networking site design based around the actual game itself – except it doesn’t quite go as far as it could. Many of these features are not quite enough to really draw players to them. Sites such as Dark Age of Camelot’s Camelot Herald, however, have been doing this for quite a while with some other added features, such as who controls what areas of the frontier which players battle over. It is content like that which can draw players back.

Yet, more can be done beyond useful information as well. This type of content are good for bringing people back to your site, which is handy as it can lead to extra ad revenue and such, but it won’t necessarily hook a lot of players to stick with your game. This is largely what Vogel talked about. A lot of lessons can be learned by community sites that allow people to network together, creating a large, strong community, which can hold players in.

Message boards are but one possible tool that can be used to draw players into a community site. It is largely about bringing players together, giving something to share, something to talk about, some way to transmit ideas, and doing this in a focused location. It is really about sharing information, sharing content, rating and commenting on that content, and allowing players to communicate with each other. If you provide these tools, you will begin to see more attention around your website. Sites like YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace took off for a reason, after all. They appeal to certain basic Human needs: social interaction, community, the sharing of ideas, and trying to make yourself stand out as an individual.

Breaking Away from Simple Sites
It is recommendable for game development companies to start looking toward web trends to see what clicks with people these days. In fact, game websites are largely behind the curve pretty far already, offering the same kind of content, the same kind of website, we could have seen years ago, save a few breaking the mold. What really needs to be done in the industry with websites, is to start being forward thinking, looking at trends in web design, and not just keeping up, but actually doing a bit of innovation there.

It is a totally different design team than your game designers (or should be anyhow!) so you shouldn’t be wasting developer time to come up with a ‘fancy website’. Yet, at the same time, it can be a mistake to not think of your website as part of your game as well. The two can be tied quite a bit together, and if nothing else, that site can add an extra layer.

So, all that is left is some specific ideas and to figure out how to implement them… And, no, I don’t give those away for free, of course.

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