The Commandments of Official Game Sites


A random shot of the CoH front page

The front page of City of Heroes has remained fundamentally unchanged since the game launched seven years ago. There is no excuse for not getting this right.

After being forced to work with yet another site that doesn’t seem to work on a basic level, I’ve become convinced that MMO design teams actively hate people going to the game’s website.  Seriously, there are certain companies (I’m looking at you, Sony) whose sites could not be worse if they just took a photo of roadkill and posted it as an exclusive screenshot.

We all disagree about what makes the perfect game, sure, but I think there are pretty easy points to agree on for things that should be on every webpage.  Ten very simple commandments, you might call them.

1. Thou shalt not barrage the players with links.

Simple, right?  When I navigate to your site, I should see something clean and easy to read at a glance.  I should not see a whole cluster of links thrown directly in my face with the only real organization being that they’re in a rectangle.  And I really should not see a click-through page, because every additional click I have to go through to get to your site is another click that makes me wonder if I want to bother.  When this site is also the primary distribution method for your demos and payment system, I should not be clicking away.

Seriously, it’s 2011.  We’re past the click-through crap.  If I type in your URL, I should see your front page, and it should be organized in a reasonable fashion.  I’m not going here for a dynamic event or to have random pieces of information shoved into my retinas – if it’s for work, in fact, I’m probably going for screenshots.  Which reminds me…

2. Thou shalt have a regularly-updated screenshot gallery done competently

If your site’s design forces people to use a Flash interface to view screenshots, send it back to the designers because it’s not done yet.

If your site doesn’t actually have a way for people to download screenshots, send it back to the designers because it’s not done yet.

If your site’s screenshots are all from a mid-beta stage in development, are older than four months, or are at a resolution lower than 640 x 480, send yourself back to the designers, because you’re not done yet.

And that’s not even getting into watermarks.

This crap doesn’t make me think that the game is so cool I can’t download a screenshot; it makes me think that you couldn’t spend the bare minimum of time getting something as simple as an image gallery into a workable state.  Your profits and copyrights should not be significantly harmed by any of this, and if they are, you’ve got bigger problems.  Especially since screenshots are one of a handful of things people actually go to the site for, with another big one being some accurate information about your game.

3. Thou shalt have information, or thou shalt point to same

Here’s a hint, guys.  A page called “classes” should not have a small piece of art and a paragraph of text about each one if your game has been out for more than six months.  Give us facts.  Give us numbers.  Stop being a bunch of handwaving jerks and let us indulge in some useful data, instead of the millions of other official sites that don’t give any real information and force players to look at third-party sites just to find out how things work.

City of Heroes points people to Paragon Wiki all the time, and it actually has detailed and informative information about powers, archetypes, and lore right on the official site.  Guild Wars goes one better and gave players a full-on official wiki, thereby allowing players to skip the tedious step of founding a fansite and just share information.  Instead of giving us an official fansite kit, it’s much better to give us an official list of useful fan-maintained resources, or provide those resources yourselves.  I mean, why else are people visiting your site?

4. Thou shalt have a functional news feed

I think there’s some company that does the same web design for every single free-to-play game on the market, and that company should be fired.  Forever.  From everything.  There are four or five different news feeds on the front page, without any obvious distinction between the feeds so that players can actually figure out what’s new and what isn’t.  And then players wonder why we don’t always bust our backs trying to get games as much coverage as possible.

Include a simple way to permalink to any news story, and give us one clear and legible feed.  This is a very simple principle and requires almost no additional effort, which is why it baffles me that so many sites can’t seem to manage this.  Keeping your news organized and cleanly readable helps encourage people to come back and check on what’s happening, and it results in people feeling as if the site is being put together with players in mind.

5. Thou shalt not abuse Flash

I can’t guess for the life of me who thought it was a good idea to embed auto-playing Flash video into a front page, thereby annoying and/or freaking out all who were not expecting it.  Life lesson: this trick is no better now than it was back in the late 90s, when you could be browsing on a public computer in relative privacy until suddenly the wafting MIDI strains of Nirvana filled the air.  Or, if you were unlucky, the Thundercats theme.

Used properly, Flash has its place.  That place is not in site navigation, screenshot navigation, or really anything else that basic HTML does just fine on its own.  If your page starts loading slower on a machine that’s less powerful than my desktop, you probably have far too many shiny bits – and considering that Flash design takes a lot longer than site design, those shiny bits are almost certainly coming out to the detriment of the site’s actual content.

6. Remember the URL and keep it simple

To a certain extent, this is out of the hands of the company.  If is already taken, your options are pretty limited.  You can argue that’s all the more reason to make your game’s name an alphabet soup, but I can argue that if I have to sit down and think about how your made-up name is spelled more than twice I am sending you a boxed copy of your own game filled with my spit.

And even with that, Global Agenda manages to have a site name that’s easy to remember.  Ditto RIFT.  Heck, even Final Fantasy XI has a memorable name, albeit one that doesn’t direct to the game’s main news/community site.  But every time I have to paste a site URL in for one of Sony’s games, I roll my eyes and head to Google.

7. Thou shalt keep thy links clear

Partly related to the first item, but worth a note on its own.  A clean layout with offers and special items all in one place is much nicer than a linksplosion at some random part of the page.  Ditto keeping your sidebar organized in a reasonable fashion, a sin which EVE Online commits.  Their screenshots are under the header of “EVE Online” rather than, I don’t know, “Media” or “Screenshots” or “Pictures” or “LOOK AT ME” or anything else that might suggest screenshots when the menus are collapsed.

8. Thou shalt not bury thy news in thy forums

This is the one place where I can’t just point to the City of Heroes website and say “look, do it that way.”  The development team has on occasion been bad about posting important updates in the forums and then not bothering to post so much as a pointer on the front page.  And while it might seem like that’s not such a big deal – fans will be reading the forums, right? – it can be an issue for a number of reasons.

First of all, browsing the forums is a terrible way to get any actual information.  Sure, there are likely to be some posts scattered hither and yon that are of worth, but by and large they’re not a great place to slide in and chill.  Their organization is based on what’s being talked about at any given moment, so looking for relevant news is like looking for a needle in a can of paint as it’s being shaken.  Second of all, not everyone has the time or opportunity to go through and check the forums for news.  Thirdly, not every player will even know to check – they might just assume nothing is happening and move on.  And fourthly, if you want to drive players to your forums, pointing them directly to all the cool things the developers are talking about seems like a no-brainer, yes?

9. Thou shalt update that which is relevant

I feel really bad saying this.  It’s like telling the development team not to do a live web chat without pants on.  But I look at a lot of sites with half-updated information or barely-accurate facts that are the abandoned result of trying to provide some actual information on the site, and I just cringe.

Spreading no information via the official site is bad.  Spreading outdated or wrong information is even worse, because it means that players who don’t know any better will assume that it must be true due to the source.  So you’re essentially crippling your own playerbase because you couldn’t find a community manager with four spare minutes to go in and change a few lines about how a class mechanic works?  Why in the world am I going to assume you know how to run a game if you don’t know enough to keep track of your page structure?

10. If thou hath a mobile site, it shall not be crippled

This last one is pretty much universal.  If I click on a link to go to your site and you determine that I’m on a mobile device, you will direct me to your mobile site.  Okay, I don’t totally like it, but I get that it’s going to happen.  When you do so, send me to the article I was originally clicking on, not your front page where it might be buried.  Otherwise I’m going to have to dig for what I came here to see in the first place, and then there will be blood.  I own a mobile device to view websites, not to deal with the crappy version hacked together during someone’s lunch break.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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