I was talking with one of my favorite people the other day. She runs a pretty well known MMO site, with commentary, reviews, guides, maps, humor, and more. But it's not MMORPG.com, or Ten Ton Hammer, or IGN - sites that are big enough to count as "sort of media" as opposed to fan media. I say sort of media because even powerful websites with millions of readers still wind up holding a bag of wind if someone inside the dev studio gets attention from a - gasp - print magazine.
Lest you think I'm kidding, I briefly wrote for a print magazine that never even got half of its issues to the printer, let alone sold. Somehow, I got my emails and calls returned from every studio with same day service if I was reaching out on behalf of the magazine.
Writing for the web, I only get that kind of love from a very few PR teams. Does that matter when I'm reviewing a game? No. Does it matter when I'm choosing my words during news announcements? No. Am I going to do things like edit unflattering screenshots and offer interview blooper do-overs when I'm talking to the PR people who treat web writers with decency? Hell, yes.
Anyway, back to my friend. She's not automatically on the development team's mailing list when it comes to invitations, press events, previews, or swag.
Two reasons for that. One, MMO studios are insufficiently visionary, and two, because she doesn't want to push. She's by no means alone. For every fan site that hits it big and becomes too big to ignore, there are dozens of sites adding tremendous value to the games they support and doing it without recognition. To take a fan/amateur site to the next level, there needs to be more and better collaboration between studios and players.
What does the studio have to do?
I know, crazy, right?
Okay, to be a little more clear: Someone needs to be responsible for interacting with fansites. That person needs to have a key to the swag closet, the ability to designate a player's account as a press account, and the authority to answer simple questions without first getting permission from fifty people in legal, marketing, and production. If this person can also be involved in development to the extent that they have a clue, great, but just being responsive is a good start.
There are lots of other things the studio can do, such as integrating fansites into the overall media strategy, planning local events, doing outreach, and working with fansites to create web content that reinforces the game. But it all starts with one person owning the contact with fan and amateur sites.
These days, almost every MMO has someone assigned to be That Guy for the fan media people. That Guy has a short list of things he needs from fansites, blogs, and up and coming websites in order for them to be taken seriously.
What do the fansites/blogs need to do?
If all you want is a pat on the back, the studio should be handing out that kind of love in wheelbarrows. It's FREE, for heaven's sake. Any studio who fails to acknowledge that you're alive doesn't deserve you. Unless you're doing it for love, or unless you have a definite plan to bring in enough readers that you can make money from either a product, your content, or ads, screw any studio that doesn't say thanks once a year. The minute you fall out of love or out of money, quit.
But if you want to be treated as a valuable partner, there are a couple of things to do:
Know Thy Readers. Want to sell ads? Want to sell yourself as an asset to the developers? You need to know your reader demographics. Age, gender, marital status, income level, average length of visit, and number of internal clicks a visit.
How many readers you have does count, don't get me wrong, but it's not everything - especially if your readers are a niche that's difficult to capture.
Side note: No offense, average single male gamers between 18 and 34, but you people are easy lays as marketing efforts go. The stuff you do for mere t-shirts is embarrassing. And visually, you're cheap. If it's got boobs or guns on it, you'll give it a try. But you're fickle. You're not ready to settle down. And that's okay. You're just not long term relationship material yet. Call us when you have a job. And incidentally, you should vary your play style while you're still young. If you get too used to death grip style gaming, you really do become unable to fully appreciate more subtle variations.
Fansite editors, bloggers, if you don't have millions of readers, find out what you do have. Do your readers skew heavily female? That's a tough group to reach with traditional marketing efforts. Are your readers older? Older almost always means more money and fewer ways to waste time on weekends thanks to family and work commitments. Do you have a following among guild leaders - people who influence the MMO buying decisions of hundreds of other people? You see what I'm saying - you may have a niche that is incredibly valuable to a studio trying to grow their numbers after their first wave of hype has come and gone.
Once you get this data together, communicate it to the studio. I don't know why people forget that part, but there it is.
If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get. It is not the developer's job to reach out to you with story ideas, interview requests, contest promotion, or other kinds of content. That's your job.
Oh, and hint - everyone wants an interview with Mr. Flashy Pants. Be creative. Ask who the oldest guy at the company is and ask if you can interview him. The oldest guy at the company did Infocom games, or coded one of the first MUDDs, or wrote some of the original D&D modules. He is a damn sight more interesting than the darling of the E3 press tour, and because no one realizes he exists, your article will be reprinted everywhere.
Reach Out. One of my all time favorite MMO blogs is Kill Ten Rats. They always have great perspectives and interesting writing. They've got a passion for the genre, and the writers are experienced without being too cynical. (And I know from cynical, from my dirty mind to my blackened heart.) If you look up "MMO influencer" in the dictionary, there's a picture of the KTR masthead. One of the guys, Zach (AKA Ravious), is doing a survey right now asking what studios want and need from bloggers. (If you work for a studio as a community weenie and didn't get his email, consider asking him for it.) Basically, KTR is doing one of the things I wish more sites would: If you don't know what a studio wants... ASK.
Take It Seriously. Update regularly. Identify your target audience and serve it. Make sure that you're building something you're proud of, for a game you're proud to play. Make a plan. Keep contact lists. Don't shy away from asking real questions, but don't get confrontational or insulting in your interviews just because a couple of your regular trolls think anything less than a pronging with a cattle prod is asskissing. In other words, don't act small time unless you're content to be small time.
In short: Unless the studio has a budget for television ads and saturation coverage in every major daily and weekly, and unless the fansite is being run by someone who made a killing back in the early days of internet advertising, both sides need each other. It's a relationship, not a war, and the savvy players have already caught on.