There is a right way and wrong way to moderate forums and unfortunately the more people who use them the easier it becomes to do it the wrong way. In my experience, the largest games often fall into the trap of either heavy-handed censorship or putting up with too many trolls. There is a fine line between the two and it can be hard for a community manager to walk it. If they go nuts with the ban-hammer and censor every negative opinion, they're going to drive people away from using the forums. Even worse is if the forum moderation is too light and the trolls make it a collection of useless drivel and Chuck Norris jokes. There is nothing worse than accidentally falling into a toxic forum that the trolls have taken over.
I guess it's no surprise that I'll use World of Warcraft as the example of a forum that went too long with proper moderation. The sheer magnitude of the game's success quickly created one of the world's largest gaming forums and Blizzard was ill equipped to handle it. The ratio of community managers to actual posters was incredibly low and you could see this slowly have an effect on their sanity. One infamous example is the story of Tseric, who eventually lost his cool against a pack of trolls on the shaman forums. I think this situation finally convinced Blizzard they had a problem on their hands and I have noticed an increase in community managers since then. It's still not the best place to find insightful discussion about the game but it has greatly improved.
If you want to see heavy-handed moderation then you don't have to go further than the first wildly successful MMO in North America. EverQuest had growth that was much slower then World of Warcraft and as a result, it allowed management to better judge how many moderators they needed. However, their moderation policy has always been much stricter then World of Warcraft. Some people like having a clean forum that avoids a lot of the drama and rudeness that tends to develop around passionate MMO players. Others though find it too sterile and make use of fan run forums so they can be a little more forceful in their opinions. This unfortunately makes it much harder for companies like SOE to do damage control when an incident occurs.
Some companies see how hard it is to walk the line between censorship and promoting active discussion and decide to do without official forums. Instead, they provide tools for fan sites and make use of their forums. This way a single project lead can post upcoming news on several fan sites and the company does not have to worry about hiring forum moderators. This prevents players from developing resentment towards official community moderators and neatly bypasses any censorship issues. Mythic has used this method with Dark Age of Camelot, though they supplement the fan site communication with an official newsletter. It apparently works well enough that they felt comfortable using the same system for Warhammer Online.
There are still major issues that can develop by not having official forums. Mythic found that out the hard way with the European open beta for Warhammer. The publisher Mythic was using to release the game in Europe was having some technical problems with the account authentication process. Unfortunately, it was hard to get information out on what was causing the issue and the fan run forums filled up with a lot angry inquiries. Since the European publisher did not have the same relationship with the fan sites as Mythic, they had problems publishing updates on the issue. This caused a delay in the communication pipeline and left players in the dark regarding the status of the open beta.
I think the situation perfectly highlights how MMO players react to having their communication lines with a game cut off. It is a unique situation since most other video game genres don't have this problem. However, since MMO players pay a monthly fee they tend to see their game as more of a service then a product. Thus, they expect a slightly higher degree of customer service. In addition, game worlds are constantly changing and players want to insure that their game does not evolve into something they don't enjoy playing anymore. I believe these two reasons are the driving force behind player behavior on MMO forums. Companies should keep that in mind when designing their forum strategy. Whether they go with fan based or official forums they need to keep in mind that players just want to be involved.
||Gabriel Runfeldt has been following MMOs ever since he stumbled onto an EverQuest addiction by accident. He eventually managed to fight it off but caught a case of armchair designer syndrome in the process. Now once a week you can catch his mad ravings here at Player Consequences. You can even contact him with any questions at gabriel.runfeldt AT weblogsinc.com