More interesting is that the game is going to support extensive and complex community functions that twine with the actual gameplay. A Google Maps version of Middle-earth will be accessible to subscribers. Each character you create will get his or her own page on the game’s official website, and you’ll be able to blog it. Minigames on the website will affect your real progression in (currently unspecified) ways. The site will also feature an online Wiki encyclopedia of info about the LOTR Online universe. All in all, it sounds like a very robust package of community tools.
Of course, there are others thinking in terms of marrying social web techniques to MMOs. A simple matchmaking service, though, or even a full-blown social network, do seem like last year’s solutions. What’s appealing about what LOTRO says they’re doing is that it’s basically next-gen community relations techniques.
Currently just about all the models for community relations are essentially broadcast-based. Yeah, we run forums — sometimes — but mostly, it’s about putting info out there, developer speaking to customer. Even on occasions when we want to showcase user activity, we do it by hoisting it into the limelight; a user showcase is essentially admitting that only one channel matters, the official one.
There’s an element of truth to that, of course; more visitors tend to hit the official site than the myriad of smaller sites. You want to get the ferment of creative activity into the public eye because it makes the product seem more compelling and content-rich, so you showcase it where it will get th egreatest volume of eyeballs.
But that only speaks to acquisition. And honestly, most of your effort really should be directed towards current customers. Of course, you want to grow your service, but cost of retention is far lower than the cost of acquisition, and the longer you have retained someone, the likelier it is that they will stay effectively forever.
The interesting thing about leveraging all the contemporary ideas like Wikis, blog pages, and the like, is that they are about user investment in user-owned channels, instead of about getting celebrated by the official channel. As such, they are naturally retentive mechanisms. People who invest time in building the Wiki or maintaining a blog are more likely to stick with the game. And of course, manually showcasing player activities by hunting them out by hand will seem quaint when instead you can host blogs and automatically index all sorts of data about popularity, common terms, tags, etc.
A lot of the current thinking on community relations has been about moving all this stuff off of the official site. But the datamining value of hosting all this stuff is probably worth it just on its own. Currently, deep statistical analysis of your forums requires hiring a research company to do intelligence gathering — and they’d get the data via crawls. But if you host your own blogs, then you can simply index tags as users use them — or even build in a bit of auto-tagging for common game terms.