By Kim Smouter, Co-Founder of New Worlds Project. See part 1 of the story of New Worlds Project here.
The website is the engine room of any decent play-by-post role-playing community, and as a result, it deserves as much attention as you give to the setting and game design process. In this chapter, I intend to cover in greater detail how the past, current, and future websites of New Worlds Project were designed and brought to life, in the hopes of inspiring greater deployment of efforts within our community.
Websites are important because they are the portals into your world, they provide the needed resources your heroes will need to know to participate in the community, and they are the platforms that keep people coming back and informed about new developments. As such, it would be ill advised to ignore them, or assume “people will come just for the content” and release a website that looks like it belonged in the Internet of the early 2000s.
Our communities need to provide as much eye candy as we provide content, and in the age of social media and instant gratification, this will only be an increasing challenge to find the right balance between text and image.
At New Worlds Project, our approach to websites has earned us awards in the past and has been an instrument to encourage more creativity from our members. From a very early stage in the process of creating the community, we spent a great deal of time reflecting on what we wanted the website to be. We wanted cool features, we wanted a site that grabbed people’s attention and had a natural wow effect to it.
Begin small and use simple tools to communicate effectively in the beginning
New Worlds Project has followed the evolution of internet design as it meandered through its stylistic phases. Our first websites were designed using Microsoft Frontpage and was a simple HTML-based website with a colour scheme that we had picked because of the militaristic undertone that we intended New Worlds Project to have originally. Green, blacks, red, the “Christmas” colour sequence was our first foray into the world of website design that we intended to have.
Our website architecture at this stage was very flat meaning that nearly all of the site’s content was accessible through one click. Additionally, the content that was available remained very basic – it covered the core elements of the setting, the gameplay, and a phpBB board installation.
One of the important tips to bear in mind is the importance of sustaining your colour scheme throughout, if you elect to integrate third-party add-ons on your website, these add-ons should be modifiable and allow you to incorporate the colour scheme of your website directly on their tools and solutions.
Think about content management systems as you start expanding
As communities of content readers and producers, you’ll quickly find, as we did, that having a basic HTML site will simply not hack it with regards to the needs of our community. We, as community leaders, wanted more – we wanted to automate systems, we yearned for the ability of users to contribute their own additions to our setting, we wanted user logins that worked across the whole of the site.
This expanding wish list spurred us on to look at different tools and solutions until we discovered the world of php-based content management systems (CMS). Content management systems are a godsend for our community leaders in that they offer an integrated solution for our website users, with one user login, they can access chat boxes, news, content, forums, and any other of the multitude of add-ons that each community offers.
Content management systems come in all shapes and sizes and it’s important that if you consider using a content management system that you shop around. Between the Joomla’s, WordPress, Magento’s, and e107’s in the world, the way they are conceived and the way the feel and interact with administers varies widely and appreciably. Test driving them using a baseline of content can allow owners to really get a sense of whether the solution will work for you.
Having a shopping list, what features you absolutely need, what features you’d like to have, and what features would be nice but not critical are useful things to have in the back of your mind as you begin your shopping experience. And it’s possible even with this filtration system that you get it wrong. Our first shopping trip led us to use PHPNuke as our content management system due to its features list and its ease of use. Today, however, we use another content management system which offers us a great range of flexibility and customisation that has increasingly become needed in our efforts to provide a unique and memorable experience for our users.
Keep the content, the colours… everything fresh
A website has a limited run period before it stops producing the desired effect, even the best known shops change their designs to keep up with the times. Leaders of the role-playing community must do better in keeping up with the times when it comes to website design. We often spend a lot of time fine-tuning a site skin to meet our exacting standards, to make sure users barely notice when a third party solution is being used to provide a feature, but then we let that skin on our site for years before even thinking of changing it.
When we look at how far the internet has evolved between when New Worlds first launched, and 2013 when we reboot the initiative, we had gone through 5 different versions of the site, evolving the colours from Christmas, onwards to the black and blue tones and their black and red equivalents, before granting users the choice of colours, and now moving towards a definition of purple, white, grey, and black for the main site, and blue to fit better with the dominant colour schemes of social media sites.
We also continuously questioned the positioning of our content, and the nomenclature used to help users find what they needed – even now, as we went back to our website after having dropped it for a few years, we realise how much this constant questioning, constant renewal, and surveying people outside of our community to “idiot proof” content is key.
Consider putting your vision together and draft a website development plan
For the last few versions of our website, we developed the very good habit of drafting a website development plan which analysed and expressed our vision for the look and feel of the website, for how we envisioned organising our website’s content, considered key features and conducted reviews of the solution providers that were up to the challenge, and considered the operating costs. These documents are really invaluable in that they provide a document that you can consult your community about to make sure everyone feels the same way, but it also provides a useful tool to review how you organise and present your content, and the bells and whistles that you offer to members.
We used our website development plan as the basis for negotiations with our current solution providers for the New Worlds Project reboot and it has proved an excellent manual to ensure that both the providers and ourselves are speaking the same language. And these can prove to be quite lengthy documents if the brainstorming and analysis is conducted correctly – our two plans are nearly 50 pages long! Nonetheless, these documents underpin the ethos behind how we’re approaching the Reboot of our community.
Develop a special relationship with your selected CMS’ user community
PHPNuke proved over time to be too difficult to use of those who hadn’t been part of the original design phase. On top of this, as one of the first generation content management systems, it quickly proved outdated with regards to what we wanted our website to offer and do. As our wish list expanded, we began to look for a new CMS that offered the flexibility, customisation, and ease of use that we were looking for.
e107 became that platform for us, we adopted it and have never looked back since. Equipped with our website development plan, we were able to push the CMS to its limit, offering users the ability to publish and edit articles directly on the website, an integrated platform for forums and news, a custom-made skin and custom-made artwork provided by our resident artists. In pushing the limits, both in terms of how we used the CMS and our customisation needs, we became acquainted with the development team who have since become close friends and are helping to drive the New Worlds Project’s rebooted website. They have also been there to help us develop new features as we needed them, or help us troubleshoot when we screwed up an upgrade or two. Such help, and relationships can really help to move your website forward without having to spend the same levels of dosh that a commercial outfit would.
In the next chapter, however, I deconstruct all the advice I have given out so far and explain how even when we did all of the above, we still managed as a community to hiccup leading to our need for a reboot. Join me next chapter as we discuss the recipes that led to the demise of New Worlds Project the First.
Be a perfectionist
If I had to summarise what makes a website great, it will tend to be a combination of careful planning and execution using some of the tools outlined above, a strong, sustained visual identity throughout, good organisation of the content, and above all, attention to detail. When it comes to website design and implementation, you can’t afford not to pay attention to every little detail and to spend the time to find the little things that together make for a package that makes your community want more.