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Dana's Panel: Third Party Sites

Dana Massey Posted:
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AGC Panel: Third Party Community Websites

MMORPG.com Senior Editor Dana Massey reports and comments on the panel he was on

Editor's Note: I have filed this as an editorial since I was actually one of the speakers on this panel and have added my own opinion to rather imperfect notes. As most of what others said was reconstructed from memory, I have only included points I am 100% sure of and apologize to those who made points I was not entirely certain of and were thus omitted.

AGC 2006 offered me a new opportunity. Normally, I just cover the conference. This year, I got to participate. I was invited to speak on a panel called “Third Party Community Sites” put together and moderated by Craig Dalrymple (Editor in Chief, OGX.com & Grimwell Online).

Joe Blancato (Associate Editor, Themis Group, Inc.), Ryan Shwayder (Community Manager, EverQuest II), Ryan Bohnman (Director of Content, Zam Network) and Valerie Massey (Community Manager, EVE Online) joined me on the panel for a lively discussion of the role video game websites (fan and news) play and how we can better work with the gaming industry.

Most of us were new at the whole speaking in public thing, but overall it went very well. At times it got quite heated and at others light-hearted (I am pretty sure someone called Schwayder a communist). The discussion looked at how we as gaming press can better cover games and what the game companies can do for us.

Largely, the verdict was communication. Too often, I find game companies do not properly communicate what they want to do. Silence, rather than a simple no, sometimes is the order of the day. In reverse, the CMs on the panel and in the crowd wanted us to be more informed and clear on what exactly we want.

Our panel was, aside from the MMO Rant, easily the most spirited I attended. Our audience did half the talking and sometimes things got a little heated. We had Gordon Walton (BioWare Austin), Alan Crosby (SOE), Sanya Thomas (EA Mythic), Chris Launius (Perpetual Entertainment), Bruce Woodcock (MMO Charts), the ensemble cast of F13.net (who also reported on this panel) among the crowded room. All of them had something to say; including Gordon Walton who snuck in, heckled us and fled before I had a chance to take a swipe back at him!

Since I was on the panel, the only notes I have are things I wanted to say. Nonetheless, I will attempt to reconstruct some of the major points people made.

Valerie Massey - who some may remember as Pann from NCSoft and is not related to me – came armed with a laundry list of things she sees from fan and news sites that she thinks people need to avoid. Many are common sense, but they happen all the time. Some highlights include, not using the relationships to ask for jobs, being balanced, communicating clearly, etc.

Ryan Shwayder’s pet peeve was websites that disappear for six months, then return demanding Q&As. He also spoke of how he must balance being good to your loyal core of hardcore fansites and using the developer’s time efficiently. Everyone wants to talk to them and they cannot invest their time with everyone. Sometimes, smaller sites get the short end of the stick when that happens.

Sanya Thomas of EA Mythic chimed in on the importance of dealing with the little guys. She pointed out – rightfully – that quite often they become the big guys in years to come.

In this crowded panel, I was lucky enough to address the major points I came armed with.

The first came after Gordon Walton heckled the panel for complaining about uptight public relations specialists who make it their lives to muzzle developers. He told us we were whining. Always the showman, he may have been over dramatic, but I do agree. Ultimately, it is how these things work. Public Relations people are trained to control the message and journalists are trained to get people to the truth and off the trained message. That is the tug-o-war of any field, whether it is politics, movies or video games. Unfortunately, gaming has some of the best PR folks money can buy to do battle with a group of press who are just learning their craft. Nonetheless, that is the struggle and there is no use whining about it. In fact, without it, this job would be a lot less fun.

Later, in response to a question from Bruce Woodcock, I got to get my prepared rant out there. I’d written it out in advance, and while the actual delivery strayed a bit, I’m putting my originally intended version here:

“We [third party community and news sites] are the trusted impendent sources, but only if you [developers] let us be .It sounds like a contradiction, but when companies try to control factual negative press we [game press] must make a choice. Do we cave and cease to become a reliable independent source or do we risk no longer being a source at all? It hurts games over time more than us. If you never let anyone say bad things, the good things – earned or not – become meaningless. The only way to control your press is to make good games!”

The rant above stems from a not uncommon practice of companies who complain bitterly or – worse – cut off communication after an unflattering editorial or review. It happens, it has happened on MMORPG.com and our policy has always been to let them react that way if they want. To be clear though, this only applies to factual or fair negative press. We have a responsibility as well and should expect to loose our relationships if we unabashedly and unjustifiably attack a game simply because we were in a bad mood.

There was also some discussion of how far we should go in search of the truth. Someone drew a comparison to politics. In politics, they have PR handlers just like games, but journalists pride themselves on getting around these people. Does this apply to games? The room was split, but ultimately, I do not personally think the comparison is fair. If I am reporting on improprieties of a US Senator, which is very much in the public interest and the truth needs to be found. I do not think you can compare that to finding out the details of some game’s combat system. It is not worth the developer’s livelihood to tell you, nor would I feel entirely comfortable getting someone fired for something that is ultimately trivial. We’re only talking about video games, after all.

Other topics included how much secrecy game developers should employ, the role of small fan sites, hardcore fans on both the media and developer side and much more.

I apologize to all the debates I overlooked and would like to thank Craig, Joe, Ryan S., Val, Ryan B. and everyone who packed the room. It was definitely a fun and educational experience.

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Dana Massey