Discourse Vs. Vanilla: Choosing the right forum software

This aims to explain our reasoning for choosing Discourse forum software over Vanilla, and how we found the initial setup and handling of the software.

 

By the end of 2017 we knew we needed our own forum. After years of inhabiting multiple forums (Reddit, PlayStation and Steam) with separate data streams, information consolidation would be crucial for future success. With many forums options it was hard to know where to start, but there were a few things that we were looking for:

1) Minimalist design with customisation
Our website is modern and clean looking. Seamless visual integration between our website and the forum is key for brand continuity.

2) Easy to use, setup and expand
Both for admin and for our users. We do not have a specific webmanager, so software needs to be managed by the Community Manager and/or PR and Marketing who may not necessarily have a deeply technical background. We also need to reduce barriers to entry for new users, with a simplistic yet meaningful design.

3) Gamification elements
To improve user participation and retention rates. Any tools which help achieve an increase in metrics is welcome.

 

What are our options?

vBulletin

While robust and still a widely used, vBulletin boards were discounted early on because of their outdated look and claustrophobic feel. We wanted something a little more modern and clean feeling.

vBulletin boards do not make the most of the onscreen real estate and there are no apparent gamification elements. Spending some time on colour schemes and tweaking the layout would probably make some difference. Unfortunately most of the examples I came across were boring and bland.

Worryingly, I noticed a lot of negative reviews mentioning technical issues and bad customer support. Most of the complaints were regarding upgrading software or having to switch to new versions. Overall this contributed to vBulletin being an unappealing candidate.

vbulletin
Example of vBulletin hosted forums

Zendesk

Zendesk is worth mentioning here because we already use their product to provide support for our games. The support suite comes with a “Community” option which is a basic add-on forum.

Delving deeper, it did look pretty neat and simple to setup. However it was much too basic to function as a viable platform for someone like us who needed space for complex discussions. I wasn’t convinced it could handle multiple forum instances for each of our games, and I felt that the branding and customization would be limited, at least for what we had in mind.

Overall I was not confident that the product would suit our specific needs, but I would highly recommend for a smaller studio to test it out if they only have one project and already subscribe to the Zendesk support package.

zendesk
Example of Zendesk forum software.

Discourse & Vanilla

In the end there were only two real contenders: Discourse and Vanilla.

Both are modern, customizable and have their own gamification elements. They seemed to cover all the basic needs we were looking for, with a few additional benefits.

Vanilla and Discourse were well received in reviews and had a large and/or well known client list. There were no obvious pros or cons to pick one over the other – what one could do so could the other.

All their client examples were impressive and it was very hard to know which one would better suits us.

battlefront
Vanilla hosted forums
Gems of War _ Forums
Discourse hosted forums

What was the deciding factor?

1) Budget

In the end the choice simply came down to budget.

It was apparent that we would require the most basic plan for our community. There was a big difference between the starting price plans and the upgraded packages. Vanilla’s basic package costs $600 per month while Discourse runs at $100 per month.

discourseprice
Discourse price plan
vanillaprice
Vanilla price plan

Discourse allows you to easily upgrade or cancel your price plan as required. This was extremely reassuring to know when making the decision. Not being tied to the service is a big plus – you are billed on a monthly basis and there are no year long contracts you are obliged to sign.

Should we go over our allocated number of page views per month, no additional charges would occur, however it may be necessary to review and upgrade our package. You also own all your own forum data, so forum migration should be simple and easy if you were to ever switch services in the future.

If, like us, you do not have a huge starting budget, Discourse is very appealing and was definitely the number one factor which swayed our decision. For $100 it is not a big loss if you decided the forums weren’t for you or wanted to change after a month. You could also decide to host the forums yourself and for a nominal one off cost, buy the software.

2) Discourse’s Mission Statement

Although secondary to budget, Discourse’s mission statement played an important role in our decision:

Our trust system means that the community builds a natural immune system to defend itself from trolls, bad actors, and spammers — and the most engaged community members can assist in the governance of their community. We put a trash can on every street corner with a simple, low-friction flagging system. Positive behaviours are encouraged through likes and badges. We gently, constantly educate members in a just-in-time manner on the universal rules of civilized discourse.

It aligned with what we were looking to create in our community and our common goals: empowering our users to have more moderation privileges (to minimise our workload during busy periods), to create a warm and welcoming space, and the additional gamification to help with participation and retention rates.

Whether this is clever marketing or not, it definitely helped sell the product to us. The promise of forums being specifically crafted and tailored in an organic yet well thought out way is extremely attractive.

 

Getting started with Discourse

Admin interface and setup

The initial setup is easy to walk through, you are told what is required and what is optional, such as logos and URLs. The most important settings already come pre-configured as standard, which you do not need to touch until you know what you are doing and have had time to adjust to the software.

While the admin interface is substantial, it is quite easy to understand and navigate once you are used to what the settings do and where they are located. There are handy tooltips on mouseover explaining what each setting does, should you require additional info. There is also a search function so that you can filter specific settings, which is extremely useful.

arrowheadforums
Discourse admin interface

Customization

Discourse have a very easy to use and simple customization interface. This includes basic options like logos, category images, layout and colour palette. It is also customizable using CSS.

I have no prior knowledge or understanding of CSS, but through reading Discourse’s own support forums, I was capable of customizing our forums within 2 weeks. If you have time and are prepared to spend a little effort on learning the basics of CSS, there is a tremendous amount of customization you can achieve.

Look out for the next blog post which will extensively cover all the CSS customizations for the forums.

customization
Discourse’s customization options

Gamification

The gamification elements in Discourse are simple yet addictive. You can earn badges such as “receive 20 likes for a post” and “share a post”. All the badges are designed to promote a better atmosphere or to add purpose to the community actions.

badges.png

You can also make custom badges for your users, which means you can incorporate any or all of your existing games. While not directly connected to Steam or PlayStation, it is just another level of personalization and branding which makes your forums stand out from others.

Discourse’s Customer Support

While customising the CSS I ran into a few snags. I emailed Discourse and their team was extremely responsive and very quick to offer help. It turns out I had discovered a bug in the system and it was quickly resolved in a matter of days.

Friendly, efficient and effective, I wish more customer service interactions was like this. Unsurprisingly this had a major factor in reassuring me that I had chosen correctly.

Community Reception

Our players have adapted to our forums quite quickly and without too much trouble. As previously mentioned, the majority have come from a Steam, Reddit and PlayStation background so they are already familiar with most forum technology.

Positive comments have come from the intuitive Discobot welcome tutorial for new users, as well as the clean design and responsiveness of the site as a whole.

 

The Verdict

We are very satisfied with our choice so far and I would highly recommend Discourse to any other game developer who needs their own forums. For the cost, the customization and branding options are excellent, not to mention the customer support which you receive as a client. It’s well worth your money should you go with their hosting package.

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