Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tips for Creating a Successful Enthusiast Game Site

Four years have passed since I founded Sega-16. Never did I dream that after so much time I would still be running a website and love doing it as as much as I did at the start. No, scratch that. I actually love it more now. I can safely say that my enthusiasm is as strong as ever, and I can't wait to see what the future holds.

Back when we had our one year anniversary, I mentioned in the retrospective that there are primarily two reasons why enthusiast sites fail: a lack of focus and a lack of motivation. Both can do in any site, but together they are a recipe for disaster. Take a look at any new site that hasn't updated regularly, and you'll see. Moribund and abandoned, they're just counting the days until they die. It's unfortunate but true, and it makes Sega-16's survival all the more impressive, at least to me. I've seen quite a few Sega sites come and go over the years, and they're mostly the victims of one of the two factors I mentioned. Yes, a lack of money or server space are also problems, but these two are the most notorious. Let's take a better look at them and see why so many young sites fail.

A lack of focus. A young fan and perhaps a few other people get together and decide to create the ULTIMATE fan site. They want to make their new creation the Mecca for everything related to their particular console/game of choice, and they could practically fuel a star with their collective energy. It sounds like a good start, but that star comparison really stops there. Stars take millions of years to complete a complex cycle of growth, maturity, twilight, and death; and they usually have long and full lives doing what stars are supposed to be doing. That is, they fulfill their function. Many sites don't ever get that far.

Yes, unlike the cosmos, game-related undertakings start with a bang, usually beginning with a flurry of forum threads and posts about potential ideas for the new site. Brainstorming can go on for weeks as staff and would-be contributors plan all the things they want to do. The problem is that a lot of the time, brainstorming is as far as it gets. Months, even a year after the URL has been bought and a free forum has been established, nothing of note has been done.

What happened? Well, a bunch of different things, probably. The creators couldn't agree on a direction for the site, people who committed to writing content upped and vanished, or the one person who was going to put it all online in some form has opted out, leaving the others in the lurch. Now, with no clear direction, the wind has been taken out of the other's sails, and they're now adrift and uncertain of what to do next. From my observations, this is what kills new sites the most. A lack of focus is the first big hurdle new webmasters face, and they often go down without a swing. The problem itself is a combination of smaller errors that could have easily been avoided but ended up killing a dream.

A lack of motivation. After all that enthusiasm and energy, many new webmasters lose interest after about the first six months or so. They look at their new sites a few months down the line and wonder why there isn't a server-straining deluge of hits coming in daily. No new content, the aforementioned lack of focus, and a desire to magically have the best site on the Internet usually do them in. Creating a quality site takes time. You'll need to be patient and continue forward, even when it looks like no one's reading the site but you.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid these problems:
  • Pick a direction and stick with it. All too often, aspiring webmasters try to do too much. Like it or not, it's simply not possible for your new site to compete with IGN, GameSpot, or whomever you wish to emulate. There's simply too many people and too much money behind them and not enough behind you. Look for something that isn't already being done by a hundred other sites. Otherwise, you risk becoming a drop of water in an ocean. This doesn't mean you should confine yourself to one thing, and allowing some room to grow is a smart idea. Just don't bite off more than you can chew at the start. For example, one of the key reasons I decided to start Sega-16 was the lack of comprehensive Genesis sites out there.
  • Plan ahead. Don't just come out and announce that you want to start a website. Think about it for a while, jot down potential ideas, discard the crap, and then tie together that which works. This is essentially what brainstorming is, so if you're going to do it, then do it right.
  • Don't count on others to make it work. Getting other people involved is nice, but after all is said and done, your website is yours and yours alone to run. Don't take contributors for granted, but don't assume that they'll keep you flooded with quality content all the time. I basically assume that I alone am responsible for content, and anyone else who comes along for the ride just makes my life easier. Other people might be motivated at the start, but they might not stick around. You're the one keeping things running, and they're going to operate under the mentality that things will continue without them.
  • Prepare for the long haul. How long do you plan on running the site? Can you see yourself doing this a year or more down the line? Can you fit the site into your real life plans? All of these are valid questions you'll need to ask yourself before you start. For example, Sega-16 is more than just a site I run; it's my passion. I spend at least 2-3 hours on it daily during the week and more on weekends. Not all of that is spent writing, of course, but researching and seeking out contacts often takes up more time than actually doing articles.
  • Content, content, content. Did I mention content? I don't care what your site covers, if the content isn't good no one will care. You need to provide quality articles to keep your audience interested and coming back, and lots of it. Along the way, you'll also need to decide what it is that your site does better than others in the same area. In my case, I feel that Sega-16 defines itself by its interviews, something no other Genesis site does with such frequency. You'll have to find your own niche, your "calling card" of sorts, and give readers a reason to return.
  • Forget about the design for now. I know, a lot of people think that clothes make the man. Well, we're talking about websites here, not men. It's nice to have a cool design for your website, sure, but that's not the most important thing. I'm a strong believer in NASA's philosophy of "form follows function." The design should conform to your needs, not the other way around, and even if you have a ghetto design, people will still come to your site if you provide them with consistent quality content. While this doesn't mean that you shouldn't strive to make the site appealing from the get-go, perhaps the one design item you should really focus on is making it manageable. A "three click" rule is mandatory. That means that nothing on your site should be more than three clicks from the main page. Everything else can really wait a while.
  • Get the word out. You're not going to see traffic spike instantly. Heck, you might go days without any hits at all! You'll need to promote your site, but please do it tastefully. Spamming other forums will do nothing but piss people off and close potential doors for making friends. Add your site to Google and other search engines and make friends where you can. Soon, things will pick up and you'll begin to establish your own readership. Unless you're willing to fork over some serious cash, word of mouth is the best way to advertise. Eventually, people will mention you on other forums and sites, and they might link to articles you've done.
Running a successful website can be a wonderful experience when it pans out. It takes a lot of patience and dedication, but if you start smart and stick to it, you should start to reap the rewards after about a year. Think of it like starting a new business. That first year or so isn't going to be about profit, but establishment of your brand. If you can stick to your guns and ride out the first few months, you should be in pretty good shape.

I've had a ball with Sega-16, and now that the site has been around for a few years, I can actually think less about filling it with good content and more about promoting it. It took four years to reach this point (I don't know what the average time frame is), and I eagerly look forward to working on the site each day. My sense of satisfaction is huge, and I hope others can look to Sega-16 as an example of a successful enthusiast site. If it can help others to aspire to make a site of their own, then even better. We still need comprehensive sites for more than a few consoles, you know!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I'm Sick of Gamers Being Labeled

Really, I am. It's quite tiring to hear gamers categorized as "hardcore" or "casual," and it's positively cringe-worthy to divide them by gender. It's bad enough that we have so slice up the male population into sub-categories, but now we have to place distinctions based on sex? Come on now.

It's been said that gamers are their own worst enemy when it comes to the public's perception of their hobby (passion?), and I tend to agree. The image of a nerdy, basement-dwelling fat guy who cares more about World of Warcraft than getting a job or laid seems to be firmly etched in the consciousness of those who know nothing about gaming. Many people still think that being a gamer means you're lazy and socially inept. As someone who juggles a wife and two kids, a profession, a writing career, and still finds the time to bring my Xbox 360 gamerscore to 45k, I think I can attest to just how full of shit this stereotype really is.

Then someone goes and writes an article about "how to get a gamer girlfriend" and fucks it all up.

Specifically, the article's title is "Kombo's Guide to Picking Up Gamer Chicks: Part One." Part one? You mean the process is complex enough to warrant turning the article into a serial? Geez, no wonder so many "guy gamers" are single.

Don't get me wrong, as my beef isn't with the author herself. Candice seemed like a nice person the few times we spoke over AIM, and I'm sure she's a splendid gal with a healthy outlook on life. No, my problem is with the way her article perpetuates one of the very stereotypes gamers profess to hating. For all of our ranting and raving, we always seem to shoot ourselves in the foot on this issue. It's almost as if we want the distinctions to be made, when there's no reason to. What constitutes a girl gamer? My wife likes Animal Crossing and Super Mario Bros. 3. Does that mean she qualifies? I sincerely doubt any of the suggestions from the article would have worked on her, and I'd probably still be single if I had ever attempted to show her how in awe I was at her Tetris skills compared to my past girlfriends.

This is just the latest example of how we carve ourselves up into little pieces, spending as much time on complaining about how many pieces there are as we do on the actual carving. Over the years, the gaming industry has arbitrarily attached labels to gamers, creating market segments that look lovely on a pie chart but mean little in reality. Are you "hardcore" or "casual?" Do you consider yourself a professional gamer or are you strictly an amateur? Can you list the differences between "guy" and "girl" gamers? There are so many terms for people who like video games (read: gamers), and I sometimes think that the backroom of my local GameStop or Toys 'R Us has game executives watching me through a one-way mirror, analyzing my purchases and classifying me accordingly. It's sickening.

Looking around the Internet, it's quite easy to google the term "casual gamer" (yes, google with a small /g/, as in a verb. Look it up; it's correct) and come up with all sorts of news articles with horrific titles. Christ, even Wikipedia has detailed articles differentiating what "casual" and "hardcore" gamers are. Not enough? How about checking out Casual Gamer, the website that, by its own description, was "created by a group a Casual Games enthusiasts." Thank you for that profound and informative explanation of your motives. I would never have figured it out otherwise.

Companies are jumping on the label bandwagon, with both Microsoft and Ubisoft even creating whole divisions directed at the "casual" gamer. A smart business move, considering that this new sector of the industry is worth a proported $2.25 billion each year. So big has it become, that there's even a Casual Gamer Association out there now! The issue that needs addressing here is how this affects the people who actually buy and play the games. Do the people buying Wiis and playing games for the first time consider themselves casual gamers?

The problem with labels becomes most painfully apparent when not even the biggest of gaming companies itself can decide whether or not they exist. Take Nintendo Europe's own managing director of marketing, Laurence Fischer, for example. In a prime example of brilliant marketing skill, Mr. Fischer told casualgamingbiz last May that he disliked the term "casual gamer." He said "“I don’t like the word casual. There’s a lot of meaning and interpretation of the word. For me you’re either a gamer or a non-gamer."

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Of course, being a marketing guru, it was only a matter of time before an outbreak of Foot-in-Mouth Disease set in. Addressing concerns about the Wii's limited storage space to Edge magazine, Fischer continued his blitzkrieg of brilliance and casually (see what I did there?) stated that only "geeks and otaku" would feel the need for a Wii hard drive. I guess we should have seen it coming though, as in that same May casualgamingbiz article, Fischer also explained away Animal Crossing's audience by saying "“It was really an otaku game – it had a small community of people playing a lot.” So much for consistency.

This is compounded by the tireless work of gaming journalists who latch onto these labels far too easily. Perhaps they feel that it makes them sound smarter or more in touch with their audience, but all it does is give serious journalists more ammunition for their argument about how gaming journalism isn't really journalism at all. You don't hear any other area of the business slicing its audience into separate categories based on how much news they listen to or how often they get involved with the subject matter. The closest I can think of is sports, and even then there isn't a clear breaking down of the audience by the press. I've yet to hear ESPN or Sports Illustrated refer to "fair weather" fans on a regular basis, even though the concept clearly exists around the water cooler. On the news and in sports periodicals, the kid playing baseball in the park by his house isn't "casual" compared to "hardcore" MLB players, and no one goes out of their way to make the contrasts between NBA and WNBA players apparent. Are their differences? Of course there are. That doesn't mean we have to constantly point them out. Some things forgo mentioning for fear of belaboring the obvious.

Perhaps if game companies, and more importantly, gaming journalists, took their audience more seriously, the need to use labels would disappear. Yes, people put things into categories on a regular basis, but that's just because this is the primary way in which human beings interact with their environment. Hell, I bet you placed this very article into a category as soon as you began to read it. We all do it, sure, but that doesn't mean we have to splash those categories all over the place for everyone to see them. If game publishers want to use their labels in the board room to discuss sales, then fine, just keep it out of the general vernacular. I'm tired of being classified under several sub-categories of gaming. It's dumb, divisive, and it only serves to keep gaming as the black sheep of hobbies despite its immense size and money-making prowess.

But as I said at the beginning, it would be unfair to place the blame solely on the corporations and the press. Gamers themselves are as guilty in this regard, and one need only listen to the vitriol spouted across the Internet about the Wii and how Nintendo has turned its back on "real" gamers. There are those who take pride in being labeled a "hardcore gamer" - I even wrote for a magazine named exactly that - but there's more than one definition of the term! The Wikipedia entry I linked to lists no fewer than five separate criteria for defining what a "hardcore" gamer is, and trying to understand it is more trouble than it's worth. Judging from the convoluted rationalization it offers, it might just be better to just stick with what Fischer initially said about it all: you're either a gamer or you're not.

My name is Ken Horowitz, and I am a gamer. And that's all.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoughts on "The King of Kong"

After months of trying, I was finally able to cat The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters on G4 last night. For those who haven't had a chance to see it, the movie is a great telling of the competition between Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell and unknown challenger Steve Wiebe. Wiebe, who plays religiously on the machine in his garage, manages to significantly beat Mitchell's two decade-old high score. He sends the tape in to Twin Galaxies, the official score keeper of video games, and has his score rejected because it was videotaped and not submitted in public. Twin Galaxies then goes on to accept a tape of Mitchell's after Wiebe beats his score in person at the New Hampshire arcade Funstop.

Although Twin Galaxies apologizes later on for its treatment of Wiebe and allows him to submit tapes in the future, the bias towards Mitchell is apparent from the get-go. While two referees are dispatched to Wiebe's Seattle home and proceed to dismantle his machine to see if the board had been tampered with (all while Wiebe isn't even home, mind you), no one questions Mitchell's taped run, which suffers from a mysterious flickering on the left side of the screen, conveniently covering his score just long enough for it to change.

Now that I've seen the movie, two things stand out to me. First off, Billy Mitchell comes off as an arrogant ass. He has amazing skill (he retook the Donkey Kong high score from Weibe a year after the movie was filmed and still holds it) and is undoubtedly the best professional gamer in history. However, Mitchell's skill is almost overshadowed by his attitude, and no matter how often he pleads his case in the movie - and it's a lot - you just don't want to take his side. Is this the real Billy Mitchell, or has he been unfairly portrayed? Other interviews with him that I've seen seem to point to the former.

Here's the best example. Numerous times during the film, Mitchell is interviewed and explains how the only way to prove someone is the best at a game is by playing in person. He makes several mentions about how only those who play in public can prove their skill and rightfully take their spot at the top of the mountain. On various occasions, Mitchell makes his position known, saying things like "To me, most important is to travel to a sanctioned location, like Funspot, that makes it official; if tomorrow Tiger Woods golfs a 59, big deal. If he does it at Augusta, that's where it counts."

The problem is that Mitchell is given three different chances to play against Wiebe head-to-head during the movie but always declines. When Wiebe defeats his score at Funstop, Mitchell already has a tape with a higher score en route to Twin Galaxies, which accepts it without question. For someone who is so sure of himself and thinks so little of Wiebe, he seemed awfully eager to keep from playing him head-on. Why not compete and shut everyone up once and for all? Mitchell eventually does put his money where his mouth is, but it's an entire year after the events in King of Kong, and while in public, it receives nowhere near the amount of buzz the movie did. Decidedly low key for someone who loves the spotlight as much as Mitchell does.

Second, I'm not entirely confident that Twin Galaxies was being fair here. Founder Walter Day has disputed the movie's portrayal of the situation, and he claims that Mitchell and Wiebe were on much friendlier terms than the film suggests. He also argues that he was never as biased against Wiebe as he's made out to be. Whether or not this is true, the fact that Day accepted Mitchell's video tape after disqualifying Wiebe's is controversial, to say the least. The board that Wiebe used to beat Mitchell's 1982 Donkey Kong score was provided by Roy Shildt, a longtime nemesis of Mitchell's, but it was never conclusively proven in the movie that it had been tampered with. You'd expect Twin Galaxies to at least treat Mitchell's low quality and questionable video tape with the same scrutiny as it had Wiebe's. It's only fair. I won't condemn Day and his organization, as he obviously tries to make amends with Wiebe during the film. I do think, though, that an organization that considers itself to be "official" shouldn't play favorites or consider anyone to be a "golden boy."

Overall, King of Kong is a great look into the world of professional video gaming, and anyone who is a fan of the industry should see it. The sense of competition between Mitchell and Wiebe is awesome, and now I have an almost instinctive urge to migrate to New Hampshire and play at Funspot. It's the place to go for this type of competition, and having now seen the movie, I can't help but wonder how many other neat little places like this there are around the country.

Personally, I love things like King of Kong, especially when they deal with the Golden Age of gaming and all those great titles from the early '80s. This movie is a treat for all retro gaming fans and should be in their DVD collections.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Delisting XBLA Games: The Latest Industry Blunder

In an effort to clean up the "clutter" on XBLA, Microsoft is going to delist those games that have been available for at least six months, have a metacritic rating lower than 65%, and haven't had a high conversion rate (the percentage of people buying a title after downloading the demo). According to MS, delisting said games will allow for a smoother and easier experience buying games for the service. To call this policy stupid would be an understatement. There are several things wrong with delisting titles, and none of them have to do with making anyone's experience more enjoyable.

Microsoft's reasoning is that this will help reduce the clutter on the Live marketplace. Say what? Clutter... on a digital store that has no physical presence? Why not just come out and tell the truth. These games are being delisted because Microsoft has gone batshit insane approving every turd proposed for XBLA, and now it wants to clean up by getting rid of the stinkers. The same company that denied Valve's Portal a berth on XBLA went and released Sudoku and Warlords (no good without a paddle!) just a few weeks ago. This is what I'm talking about.

The Xbox maker has made a great move by upping the maximum game size to 350MB, but there really shouldn't be a cap in the first place, just ask Capcom. This line of thinking is why we have a store filled with Frogger and Yaris, and no one's playing them, Jeff Minter be damned. We've heard developers complain about the glut of crap on XBLA before, and MS seems to want a quick band-aid solution to its blatant lack of quality control by sweeping the games under the rug - literally. All of the delisted titles will still be available for purchase via a friend's recommendation, and they're not actually being taken off the servers, just off the main list. You can even still play them online. So they're there... it just doesn't look like they're there. Brilliant.

There's a bigger problem than people not being able to find Dig Dug, one that almost no one is talking about. The threat of delisting not only plagues gamers who might be afraid that a game they've been meaning to buy might up and vanish, it also bodes ill for developers. Think of the company that wants to try something different. The whole selling point of services like XBLA. the Playstation Store, and WiiWare is that they offer developers a place to sell their games without the costs and pitfalls of retail distribution. Selling online allows them to take chances and go for that particular title that might never have had a chance to come to store shelves. If there's a threat of it being taken off the service, developers will be less inclined to think outside the box and take chances.

You might be able to argue that this will also keep them from making crap, but the glut we've seen so far is no one else's fault but Microsoft's. If it hadn't kept approving weak arcade port after weak arcade port, we wouldn't have so many of them. Telling game makers that their new titles have a chance of being delisted could be enough to make them take their wares to the Wii or Playstation 3. And let's be honest, making a game invisible to the general consumer is as good as eliminating it from the service entirely.

I sincerely hope that Microsoft rethinks this foolish policy. There's no need to take any games off the main page, and simply reducing their price a bit and assigning them to a bargain bin section would take care of the entire problem. Hey, if you're going to make it so that the general public doesn't even know the games are there, dropping their prices to 200 or 400 MS points shouldn't be a reach. The more games on the service the better, and one man's Mad Tracks is another man's Puzzle Quest. There's no need to eliminate anything and risk alienating consumers and developers alike.