The good and bad of using online forums for games UX research: a case study
While player metrics and stat tracking tell you what's happening with players, it can be difficult to determine why players do what they do.
So what better way to gain an understanding of player activity than with an online forum. With a populated fan forum you can:
Gather customer feedback on the direction of the game (focus groups while providing rich data, can be slow and expensive).
Promote upcoming updates, DLCs and cross-promote other games
Build trust and familiarity with customers, reducing player churn and increasing profits.
Increased customer loyalty
Reduce the costs of customer support (it's a lot cheaper than running call centres).
Types of forum users
Regular forum users for games mainly consist of hardcore players, they're passionate and want to see the game improve to their liking. They can contribute hours every day playing the game, some may even play full-time and make a living from it and expect the content of a game to fill up their time. They're also a minority.
The casual majority of players may post once or twice in a game's lifespan to ask a question on technical issues, if at all. But would rather spend time "lurking" for answers, before using less public forms of support such as email or telephone. They play the game once a day or once a week for fun, depending on other priorities, and might have not any intention of mastering the game or learning it's intricate details. Casuals don't desire much time commitment and can easily switch to another game, following whatever is popular at the time.
Destiny online forums
I've suggested Destiny as a case study as it attempts to cater to the conflicting needs of both audiences. This makes for intriguing conversations among the hardcore players that make-up the Bungie forums. Some fans even concluding that monitoring forum activity is more interesting than the game itself. Additionally, Destiny demonstrates the issues of both not-listening and listening to the feedback of forum users.
Destiny has been always been a best seller for its genre, mostly thanks to carefully crafted marketing strategies, well-timed release dates and the Bungie brand name. Out of the box, the game itself has been rather controversial. Destiny 1 released in September 2014 with near impeccable FPS (first person shooter) gameplay. However, once the 10- hour long story campaign was over there was very little for you to do but grind higher difficulty versions of the same levels for higher level guns and armour in order to become powerful enough for the raid. The raid itself rewarded you with better guns and armour, which required x number completions to acquire. I say "x" because Destiny's reward system relied on an RNG (Random number generator). This made it so getting the gear you need was based on luck, artificially extending the amount of time spent needing to play, with some players never getting the gear they need at all. Multiplayer was largely imbalanced, with a few overpowered (OP) weapons dominating each every PVP map, and different player classes having more advantage over others.
As you may imagine the forums lit up with complaints. Forums users tend to err on the negative anyway when it comes to comments, unless they see the developers implementing their suggestions, and then praise is dutifully rewarded. In this case, forum users demanded more content, more story, less RNG, more balanced weapons for PVP and better matchmaking to avoid uneven multiplayer matches where one team stomped the other.
Over several DLC's Bungie slowly began to address these issues, though not necessarily to the extent fans expected. Forum users voiced concerns over DLC content still being too short for the price tag, still not being able to access some weapons due to RNG, and despite weapons being retuned there were still several archetypes that made up a "meta" (i.e weapons that everybody used due to faster time-to-kill (TTK) than others). Bungie also introduced skill-based matchmaking (SBMM) in PVP, matching players with others with the same skill level. However, this only created a rubber-banding effect where if you win a certain number of matches, the game would pit you against players way above your skill level that were near impossible to beat.
Have developers addressed forum feedback yet?
The shorter answer is "Yes" and "No". Roll on Destiny 2 and most of these issues have been addressed, though as a result, this introduced more issues developers and perhaps forum community did not foresee. Forum users praised the game for having more content than vanilla Destiny 1 and the storyline being more substantial with more fleshed out characters. RNG had been reduced so while the weapon drops were still random, everyone got the same weapon perks. This later became a problem as more hardcore players quickly ran out of weapons to grind for. For multiplayer, weapons were near balanced with similar time-to-kills, however, this encouraged team shooting with players sticking together to win (the more people shooting at an enemy player the easier it is to win), this annoyed forum users as they were used to trekking multiplayer maps solo in Destiny 1, and now they couldn't in fear of being team shot. On top of this, Bungie implemented gameplay changes which forum users never really asked for. Perhaps it was a decision based on alternative data collection methods? Some examples included removing machine guns from the same, placing shotguns and snipers in the "Power Weapons" slot as they rarity of Power Weapon ammo means they could be used less. Developers also changed 6V6 in multiplayer 4v4 to slow the tempo of PVP games. Once again, players took to the forums to voice their concerns, all the while, the player base rapidly dwindled.
Now Bungie are addressing these issues one by one, with gameplay mechanics slowly returning to what they once were. 4v4 is back to 6v6, shotguns and snipers will be available in all slots. In fact, a recent error disabling SBMM lead to posters praising multiplayer as PVP returned to the "good old days".
There are many more controversies and wins for the game, in fact too many for a single post. In the meantime, based on this case study, here's some advantages and tips for using online forums for game UX research.
Good for Q&A, problem-solving and feedback or just generally getting a vibe on the customers' mood.
Detailed feedback helps you identify precise areas where improvements can be made in a game.
Most posts will point out the issues, rather than positive qualities of the product (when things are running smoothly nobody notices). However, when wishes have been addressed posters will make this clear too.
Do take on board forum feedback, they maybe a minority of the playerbase, but they're also your most loyal customers too.
Avoid making changes to the gameplay that hasn't been suggested by users.
It's difficult to quantify responses, however, the richness of data can provide a deeper understanding of player needs.