Are you ready to have you mind absolutely blown open? Because I have an astonishing truth to lay at your feet: While doing this job, I visit a lot of official game sites. A lot of them. Pretty much constantly.
Here’s an equally astonishing truth: Most of them are terrible. And I’m sure basically every person out there who has been forced to navigate through official MMO sites would probably agree with me. Like designers of many other websites, the designers seem to be absolutely certain that I want one thing when I go to the site when what I really want is something entirely different.
Let’s codify this, then. There are a lot of features that every game’s official site should have that very few of them actually do; today, let’s talk ten features that pretty much every official MMO site ought to have… which a depressing number of them lack, sometimes for really incomprehensible reasons.
1. Business model explanation
It’s understood implicitly that every MMO is trying to sell itself to you, which is honestly part of the nature of things. What’s baffling is that frequently, it isn’t immediately obvious what the game is actually trying to sell. Figuring out the particulars of the business models for some games is an exercise in guessing at hints, like the studio behind the game is playing an elaborate game of Jinx and gets fired if it actually says “you can buy these items for cash.”
Sure, just saying that the game is free-to-play at a glance is easier than explaining that you can subscribe and get certain benefits as a subscriber but as a free player you can unlock those same benefits and so on. I’m not arguing that your game’s entire business model should be spelled out on the top of the page. But I should reliably have a way to find out the business model within a few clicks because otherwise I’m going to assume there’s a reason you don’t want to tell me what you’re selling, and it’s not because it’s super above-board.
On a related note…
When your game doesn’t have an easily accessible screenshot gallery, I assume that it’s for the same reasons that I don’t have a lot of pictures of myself online. But being ashamed to show your face in public works out a lot better when you’re a reclusive writer on the internet than when you are a graphical game that people will be playing for hours on end every day. If you want people to download the game and play it on a regular basis, it kind of behooves you to at the very least let them know what it’ll look like.
There’s also the fact that when a game is good enough, a lot of the superficial ugliness can be washed away. City of Heroes was a good-looking game despite its flesh-mask faces and hideous mitten hands on every single person. A lot of the games that lack proper screenshot galleries don’t even look that bad. Square-Enix has this weird aversion to proper galleries, and most Final Fantasy XI shots seem to have a resolution appropriate to monitors from 30 years ago at best, despite the fact that FFXI looks pretty good for a game that launched more than a decade ago.
I understand not wanting people to think your game is ugly. But not putting up screenshots just makes me more certain your game is ugly. Put up your screenshots.
3. Clear, unfettered news feeds
If your game’s front page does not include a news feed, put the site in a box and haul it back to the designer because it’s not finished yet. It is assumed for the purposes of this discussion that sites can be placed in boxes.
Yes, I undeniably have an agenda here because I write about MMO news on a regular basis, and having clean access to it is important to me. At the same time, the ongoing changes to your game are the sort of thing that 90% of players visiting your site actually care about. Every time I visit WildStar‘s official site, I’m confronted with a massive sales pitch for a game I already own, not a listing of what’s new and coming soon in terms of the game. Even if I didn’t already own it, when the first thing I see about a game’s front page is very old news or no news whatsoever, I wouldn’t conclude that’s because there’s too much news to talk about.
4. Basic guides to game mechanics
The official site should not be a place devoted to in-depth mechanical guides to games because of course it shouldn’t. Let’s not be absurd. But it sure is nice when I can go to the official site and get an immediate idea of how your game plays, what sort of things players do, that the starting points of the game and the end points look like, and so forth. Yes, you call your game a sandbox, but that can be shorthand for “everyone punches everyone else forever for no reason” or “be a pretend in-game accountant” or even “we don’t care, just mess with the world.”
Yes, I know, players can discover the game mechanics on their own through play. They can also never discover those mechanics because they don’t know what they’d be playing in the first place. I think emphasizing getting players into the game with some idea of what to expect takes priority here.
5. On-site account management
Final Fantasy XIV, I love you. But your account management setup is really bad. Not as bad as Final Fantasy XI used to be, where you had to register everything through the launcher and not a website, but it’s still bad. The more clicking I have to do in order to get you to take my money, the more likely I am to decide that some other game wants to take my money and give me my stuff in a less complex fashion.
Sure, security is important; I get that. But most of the more awkward account management systems aren’t any more secure, just more irritating for the end user. Let me handle my subscriptions and store stuff from the site, including just buying something on the site instead of being forced to go through the game client.
6. Sensibly arranged forums
If I have to scroll down at all to see the general discussion part of your site’s official forums, put that forum design in the same box you put the site in earlier and send it back. If I have to figure out what you call your general discussion forums, you should hang your head in shame. This is basic functionality.
General discussion is not a last resort when you have nowhere else to put something; it’s a way of ensuring that players can exchange ideas and opinions with the largest portion of the playerbase. I understand the desire to name it something cute so that it fits in nicely with the lore of your game, but I’m worried you don’t understand my desperate need to be able to actually see the forum at a glance. Calling it Ten-Forward and placing it near the bottom of the forum list was not a wise move, Star Trek Online.
7. Search tools
Star Wars: The Old Republic has a pretty good site that does a lot of this right, but heaven help me if I don’t have the URL for something that I know is on the site somewhere because there’s no search function. When you’re dealing with a dense web of important information, having a search function is, yes, pretty vital. It’s how you search for it! That’s the whole purpose right there.
Sure, you can use Google to try to narrow it down and serve as a makeshift search engine. You can also use your oven as a makeshift dryer. That does not make it a good idea, nor does it excuse the lack of an actual dryer.
8. Moderated use of visual flair
9. Links to useful external resources
This one is something I’m a little more willing to overlook, usually. Fan sites are changing things, and they aren’t always supremely reliable. I understand that the designers probably don’t want to link to a blog that’s as likely as not going to shut down in a week.
That being said, pretty much every game has a wiki somewhere, most communities that have lasted for a little while have regular haunts, and after six months it’s not hard to find out what stuff has stuck around for a while. The fan sites are there, and they deserve both recognition and the minimal courtesy of a link. Players deserve it, too. If a given site has reliable information about strategies and class tips that won’t be found on your website, point people to those sites; don’t expect people to just figure it out.
10. Download links that aren’t obtrusive
I generally don’t have a problem with free-to-play games and how they operate, but I sure as hell have a problem with getting a giant green button screaming in my face to download your game. Not only may I already have your game downloaded, which means you should really get out of my face, you could easily be crippling your site’s functionality to ensure that I know that game can be downloaded right now. Let me read about your game a bit. Relax. There is such a thing as overselling yourself.
Also, if your official site leads first to a splash page that encourages me to download the game? Find that box and send the site back again. I am willing to bet that I can see the download button fine without getting waylaid on my journey to see your game’s screenshots, which you probably also don’t have.