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Are forums a thing of the past, or your game's most valuable resource?

Gearbox is the latest in a string of companies to ditch forums in favour of Discord; but does the switch make sense?

Gearbox today announced that it will be sunsetting its forums at the start of next month.

In a message posted on its boards, the forums admin team said it's "noticed many of [the] community members prefer to engage on other social platforms" over the past year. The post indicated that the "team will continue to receive feedback and concerns" on its dedicated support website, but that the forums themselves would be shut down on August 1.

The discussion boards are already in read-only mode, before they disappear entirely "later this summer." The team said they would provide 30 days' notice to users, and invited them to join their various Discord servers.

Gearbox is the latest in a long list of games companies that have opted to close their forums in recent years. Activision shut down its discussion boards in 2020 with an expedited message, and Bethesda bid farewell to its own forums last year. On the media side, Eurogamer closed its forums in September 2021 as well.

"Twitter comes and goes. TikTok is going to come and go. The forums will always be there and they are indexed by Google"Hannah Flynn, Failbetter

Of course, the most dedicated fringe of a community will always pop up somewhere else, create new unofficial forums if the format particularly appeals to them, or gather on another platform. But games companies now seem to be dedicating their resources to newer social channels such as Discord or TikTok rather than old school message boards.

The topic was actually discussed just last week during the Develop:Brighton 2022 conference. In a talk entitled 'Building a Contented Game Community', Failbetter Games' communications director Hannah Flynn, Media Molecule's director of live service Abbie Heppe, and Future Publishing's CM Stevie Ward discussed all things community, including forums and their relevance in today's industry.

"We have forums that we've had for 13 years and the reason that we have them -- and in fact we updated that tech this year -- is that they are a wonderful record," Flynn said. "They are searchable. They are owned. Twitter comes and goes. TikTok is going to come and go. The forums will always be there and they are indexed by Google. So people who want help and support, they can get hold of all information they need via our forums and if everything else falls over, if Discord goes down or goes into crypto or whatever, then we're going straight back to the forums.

"We do have a Twitter, but we largely use that for being funny. And then we have a Discord but we developed the Discord much later down the line compared to these other platforms that we've had.

"The platforms are hungry, and they all want things in different ways. Instagram is a really needy platform. You have to post there a lot, it has to be photo content, screenshots from games don't do very well... It's becoming more of a shop front and less of a community building space. But forums: we love them!"

Stevie Ward, Hannah Flynn and Abbie Heppe discussed forums among other community-focused topics at Develop:Brighton last week

While many companies seem to think they can do without traditional online forums, others are launching new discussion boards even in the advanced year of 2022. Ward recently launched two forums for Future Publishing outlets and Live Science, and was also behind the PC Gamer forums.

"We launched the PC Gamer forums two years ago when I joined, from scratch, and we're up to 300,000 registered users. And it creates revenue. We are actually a community team that makes money," Ward laughed. "Our forums sell ads. People come to us to purchase ad space for these forums, so we can actually say we're bringing in this wedge of money, which you can then either use for community initiatives, or put it elsewhere in the company where it's gonna be useful.

"And I think that Discord and other sites [are] actually a lot harder to monetise. These things are ways that you can show value that's literally in black and white for people to explain why it's good to bring people to that place.

"[Forums] create revenue. We are actually a community team that makes money!"Stevie Ward, Future Publishing

"Like [Hannah Flynn] said with Google search, it can bring you up to the top, [with] simple things like game tutorials -- being able to say things like 'Stuck at X on the Witcher'. Search terms are way up there. And there'll be a forum somewhere that has exactly [the answer to] that question. And it'll be making thousands. And it's just having the right information where you need it, and it's never gonna go."

Heppe added that forums are a "massive retention tool" as it keeps people coming back and "essentially spending money on your platform or with the ads," which in turns keeps "your games supported and alive." But ultimately, all three speakers agreed that it's all about figuring out what makes more sense for your game.

"It's really about connecting to the platform that you know is a good platform for your audience," Heppe said. "So, for example, Twitter is great for us because we have a platform where people love to share. So things like Instagram, Twitter, we really over-index on engagement, and meeting our community there.

"We've been doing a lot of TikTok this year, which has been really interesting for me -- I've been doing this for 16 years and I actually don't know the first thing about how to be successful on that platform. But we have someone on our team who does."

"It's really about connecting to the platform that you know is a good platform for your audience"Abbie Heppe, Media Molecule

When it comes to Discord, the platform can be more difficult to navigate, with Heppe joking that it "terrifies" her. Forums typically have a more leisurely pace, whereas in Discord everything happens everywhere all that once. As Flynn highlighted, "if there's something for [the community] to talk about, they're in there all the time and it's a 24-hour thing."

Heppe continued: "The 'always on' nature of it and the conversations that are able to happen long after our team is off the platform asleep.... And actually, I think it's the amount of work that that would take, to actually dedicate people to that platform, to either engage people or moderate -- this scares me. Because it doesn't feel as scalable when I think about the other platforms that we support, and it feels very risky. But that might just be me, I've seen people use it very successfully for community building as well."

Failbetter has members of the community that have the power to mute and slow down conversations, with Flynn advising studios to really think about how they're going to moderate their Discord servers before they open them, likening it to trying to control a rolling river or a "massive waterfall of stuff."

Concluding this portion of the talk, Flynn noted that forum users, at least in Failbetter's case, usually represent the "hardcore, golden cohort" part of the community, and that "Discord people can't be arsed with forums" and the other way around. So ultimately it all comes down to different parts of game communities having various corners of the internet they can express themselves on.

As for community managers? "All we're trying to do is cut off all the shit and leave a middle [ground] that we can live with so we can moderate, love, and grow without getting sad," Flynn smiled.

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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