Unless you (A) live underneath a gigantic asteroid with no Internet connection or (B) are one of those journalism types who ignore the video game world, you probably know this week is Halo 3 week. In a huge way: $170 million-in-first-day sales kind of huge.
This third installment of Bungie Studios‘ epic, if convoluted, tale of cyborg supersoldier (Master Chief) vs. religious zealot aliens (the Covenant) vs. infectious galactic zombie plague (the Flood) picks up where 2004’s best-selling Halo 2 left off. Though the Xbox Live online features of the previous game were wildly popular, fans complained about the somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying ending.
Unlike say, George Lucas, Bungie was smart enough to listen to its fanbase and cranked out an unexpectedly moving finale to the Halo trilogy with many community suggestions incorporated into the final disc.
One such ardent Bungie fan is pillar of the Halo community Claude Errera, better known by his admin handle “Louis Wu,” (an apropos nod to Larry Niven’sRingworld) the founder of halo.bungie.org [aka HBO]. Though unaffiliated with Bungie, Errera’s site is the most widely-read fansite for the Halo series and garners a jawdropping 600,000 pageviews a day. (He doesn’t sell advertising, by the way.)
HBO’s recipe of game rumors, news, strategy, “machinima” (animation cinema made by video capturing Halo games), fan-made art, contests and forums are the focal point for the Halo community–so much though that Errera’s name appears in the Bungie “Thank you section” of the credits in Halo 3.
OJR spoke to Claude about what makes a vibrant fan community and how to run a good forum site for them.
OJR: You’re thanked in the credits of Halo 3. How long have you been involved in the Halo community and how did you get started?
Claude Errera: I was one of the people who kicked off blam.bungie.org when the first information about what was to become Halo leaked out of E3 1999. So… I guess 8.5 years. I got started because bungie.org covered ALL Bungie games; Blam (and Halo as it followed) was just the next step on the road.
Claude Errera: It’s active for a few reasons – Bungie does a great job of interacting with their fans, which makes their fans want to interact with them. Bungie’s inspired enough enthusiasm with the game that people want to create things for it (artwork, models, fiction, etc), and sites like HBO provide a place to show those creations to the world, which in turn inspires others to do the same. It’s a positive feedback loop.
The most rewarding part of being involved is seeing what people are capable of creating – and helping to get those creations out to the rest of the world.
OJR: How will Saved Films (built-in video capture feature) and Forge (built-in level editor) affect the quality and popularity of user-created content–machinima for instance?
Claude Errera: I think quality will go WAY up, because getting the shot you want will become much, much easier. (We might go through a phase of ‘every angle under the sun because we can’ filmmaking at the beginning, but it’ll settle down; it always does.) I’m not sure quantity will increase all that much; it still requires the ability to capture video from your Xbox to turn it into something that can be shared on YouTube.
OJR: What’s the best thing about the Halo fan base?
Claude Errera: For me, it’s the amazing creativity the fan base is capable of.
OJR: Where could the community improve?
Claude Errera: Well, that seems like a nebulous question. Where could the planet improve? Where could our nervous system improve? The community is made up of individuals – some are positive contributors, some are negative contributors. I don’t think the COMMUNITY can be blamed for either one.
Subgroups (like site forums) can improve their own little worlds by treating newcomers with kindness and respect, instead of scorn; on the internet, we’re usually too quick to flame. That is not unique to the Halo community, however, and the solutions are not different for us than they are for any other group.
OJR: Describe the culture that has grown up around halo.bungie.org. Generally speaking, would you say posters are well-behaved? What are some problems you guys deal with? How did you resolve them?
Claude Errera: In general, yes, the community is well-behaved. We occasionally have people who want to see if they can disrupt things; they actively troll to try and rile people up. We deal with them with warnings to begin with, and then bannings; often, what’s perceived as a problem is really only a misunderstanding, and some gentle guidance is enough to get things back in line. For folks who really ARE a problem, it’s just a matter of teaching the forum regulars that feeding trolls is generally a bad idea. If they don’t get a reaction, they leave.
OJR: Does HBO make advertising revenue? How many traffic do you get?
Claude Errera: HBO has a strict no-advertising policy. We get about 600,000 pageviews/day.
OJR: You could be making tons off Google ads right?
Claude Errera: When we started bungie.org, we had one overriding dislike, among the entire group of founders – we HATED banner ads. I still do. I’m willing to forgo the income to avoid subjecting viewers to them.
OJR: You are doing all the work for free–what do you do in your day job and how to you find time to run the whole site?
Claude Errera: My day job is web design/webhosting. Bungie.org is just a busman’s holiday. I find time… hmm. I don’t know how that happens. I think I must be cheating someone.
OJR: What lessons does the Halo experience teach for creating online gaming communities? What lessons have you learned about running a healthy secondary forum community around a game?
Claude Errera: I’m no expert – but my experience tells me that the keys to managing a successful community are consistency and fairness. Update regularly, give people credit for what they do, stay on top of issues that might build into problems, don’t overreact. If you give people a platform from which to spread their love for a great game, they’ll flock to it.
OJR: Newspapers still sort of treat Halo and other massively successful game franchises as underground or outsider. A lot of the reporting is like “Gee, games make a lot of money, who knew?” Why are journalists so far behind the curve? What would you like to see in mainstream media reporting about games that’s not there now?
I think journalists might be behind the curve simply because gaming became a successful adult entertainment outlet relatively recently. Not that long ago, video games were the domain of kids – I think there are just a lot of writers that haven’t noticed the change. It’s becoming clearer with every runaway success, though.
OJR: Big open-ended question: the future of gaming and online communities-where are we going? You’ve been hosting LAN games for years and have made lots of friendships purely online-how does something like Halo change the way we forge relationships in real life?
Claude Errera: Heh – you lied. You said there wouldn’t be anything long. 😉 I don’t know where we’re going – but I think that neither aspect is going away any time soon. Online gaming is getting more and more social; full voice communication, optional video communication, and now tools that let us relive (and share with others) the moments we enjoy together in a game. At the same time, getting together to play with friends in person is so enjoyable that no matter HOW good the online gaming gets, we’ll still find time to do this; there’s nothing like high-fiving the guy next to you when you score a particularly hard-fought flag cap, or throwing a pillow (or something harder) at the guy who just betrayed you for the hell of it.
10 years ago, the idea of teenagers traveling out of state to play games at the house of someone they’d never met in person was unheard-of; not only was the potential payoff unclear enough to make the risk hardly worth it, but parents would never stand for it. Today, however, it happens regularly; we often know our online friends better than we know our local ones, and the bonds formed can be pretty strong.
Halo is showing that even folks who don’t want to play competitively can enjoy companionship online – co-op is a great way to enjoy the campaign experience. All in all, I think that Bungie is lighting the way towards the future of social gaming – we’ll look back at Halo 3 as the beginning of a paradigm shift. (Heh – now THAT sounds a little pretentious…)