Robert Ashley of 1Up recently wrote an excellent article on the relationship between game developers and online forums, focusing on the very popular NeoGAF and the less popular but better connected Quarter to Three. I had a couple quotes:
I definitely can’t keep myself from wading into a thread about Civ, especially when it appears on a non-Civ forum, as the opinions tend to be more varied in the wider world. I will post from time to time to answer questions. However, it’s hard to know what to say, as I don’t believe developers should ever post opinions about their own games. One should never defend a game in public. It’s OK to post facts, but it is too hard to be objective when discussing attitudes, opinions, and feelings about games, especially your own.
Forums are a great way to get unfiltered feedback on your game, and I can think of many interesting ideas and suggestions for Civ that came from the forums. With Civ III, unfortunately, most of that feedback came after release, so the changes were only evident in the patches. To solve this problem with Civ IV, we pulled in around 100 of the best posters from the Civ forums into a private test session over a year before the game’s release.
My first experience with gaming forums came via the Civ-focued Apolyton and CivFanatics sites. In fact, I first heard about Brian Reynolds leaving Civ3 to start a new company on the former. I’ve had great experiences over the years at both places, from either gathering feedback or meeting true Civ fanatics that became either private testers, development consultants, or – in the case of Jon Shafer (Trip) and Alex Mantzaris (Alexman) – full-fledged Firaxians. There were some hairy moments to be sure (the release of Play the World comes to mind) but the franchise would have never grown in the same way without this direct interaction.
Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling a little bit of regret that I can never just post my normal thoughts within these environments. Everything I say publicly is always – whether I like it or not – a reflection on the company I work for, the people I work with, and the products I work on. I wish I could post whatever I want, whenever I would, but human nature dictates otherwise. Some game developers solve this problem by posting anonymously, but I have always been horrified at the prospect of being discovered saying something I would not be comfortable attaching to my own name. A little-known fact of the industry is that a number of private forums and mailing lists exist to let developers vent without fear of public exposure. These groups can suffer from being a little insular – they are essentially cliques, after all – but a little free communication is much better than none at all!