Keen from Keen and Graev worries about Warhammer Online community management. Apparently Warhammer Online doesn't have official forums, only the WAR Herald to announce stuff. And the new WAR community managers aren't very visible on the various WAR fan sites. Which leads us to the question of whether a game *should* have official forums, or, if not, community managers *should* post a lot on fansites. How much does the fabled "community" matter?
In no way would I want to imply that community managers aren't useful or aren't doing a great job in many cases. Grimwell would kill me if I suggested that. :) But fact is that the so-called "community" is only a small part of the player base. A great many players, especially casual players, can play a game for months or even years without visiting the forums even once. And of those who do stumble into the forums and ask a honest newbie question, the typical response of a gaming forum (ridicule, flaming, derailing the thread, anything but a helpful response) leaves most scarred for life and they don't come back.
*Warning: I'm now going to cite a politically incorrect joke. My apologies to the handicapped community!* I once read a forum post stating that winning an argument on a forum was like winning the special olympics; you won, but you're still a retard. And while that is an extreme and nasty way to express it, jokes are only funny if they contain a kernel of truth. Do we really need a place for people to post "nerf warlocks!" threads on? Or are the kind of people who whine in a language that only faintly resembles English about minute details of the game to be considered as borderline obsessed and should better be ignored?
What games need is a community manager who keeps people informed about what is going on, especially when something went wrong. I remember when EQ2 had a 48-hour breakdown shortly after release, and the community manager posted an update every hour, just to say that the servers were still down, and they didn't know when they would be up. And that was the best community service I've ever encountered, most games fare much worse. World of Warcraft has the unique problem that when the servers are down, so many people check the server status page and forums that they add up to an involuntary denial-of-service attack, making it impossible to reach the server status page. Not that this page is very useful, because when there is a problem with the login servers, the server status page shows all servers as up, only that nobody can reach them. Having a dedicated low-bandwidth announcement page where in case of any sort of server problem the situation is described, including what sort of error message you are likely to see, and updated every hour, would be a great improvement for all MMORPGs.
I'm less convinced that community managers should argue details of game design with a few diehards on a game's official forums. I'm all for devs making public their reasoning for certain features of game design, especially when they change features. But that could better be done on some sort of developer blog, or a "Herald" site, or even in interviews. The "blue post" on page 17 of a thread on the official forums is not visible enough; why take time to explain something to so few people and leave the rest in the dark? There is a reason why some fans started "blue tracker" websites, extracting the dev posts from the surrounding mess.
I'm not even sure community managers or developers should *read* forums, official or otherwise. The people who post there tend to be a vocal minority, and tuning the game to follow the demands of that minority isn't in the best interest of the game. And it isn't even possible to please that minority; for every person demanding a change, you'll get two persons to complain about it if you actually change it. One key experience I had back in the days of Everquest 1 was when the devs after years of complaints finally made the underpowered hybrid classes more powerful, and then some paladins started complaining that they had leveled all the way up to the level cap under the old hard rules, and it wasn't fair that new paladins would have it much easier. And nothing drives a forum community into a frenzy like a dev saying "I read this idea here on the forums and I implemented it". Then everybody comes out of the woodwork to demand that their ideas are implemented too, and complain that whatever the change was about was less important than their pet peeve. Community managers are better employed as silent observers of many sources of feedback, without appearing to give preference to one. And they have to filter what they read through a reality check, and make sure it isn't just the opinion of a few crackheads.
So I'm not convinced the situation for Warhammer Online is that bad. If they want to have no official forums, and communicate very little on fansites, but instead concentrate on the WAR Herald, that might actually be a good idea. The game isn't even released yet, discussing too much of it's design already would probably not be wise. We are already fed enough information via newsletters and video podcasts.