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!

No comments: