Saturday morning. I'm in my home office with my cat on my lap, catching up with news on the internet. I go to check the comments on Friday's Times, and lo and behold, what do I see? A comment from Jagex in the discussion topic. At this point the cat nearly got a coffee shower as I almost choked on my morning java. Tip.It gave senior Jagex staff accounts on the forums as a courtesy a long time ago. They tend not to post much, but I'm led to believe they do read a fair bit of the forums, including The Times. I suspect they also keep an eye on the other major fansites, but probably cannot keep track of every last fan page out there – that would be a full-time job for several people. Even so, it's a bit of a shock when we hear from them live and in person.
In view of this interest, let's take a look at the relationships between some of the various parties in the wide, wide world of RuneScape and other online games. Any game environment has three main groups involved. First and foremost, we have the creators of the game, who with time and success becomes a company which might or might not include the original authors of the game. Without their original idea and implementation of the game, we'd all be doing something else with our copious free time. Next we have the players: a game without players is no game at all. The third leg of this triangle is the "aftermarket": fansites, third party clients, add ons (where allowed and applicable), T-shirt vendors, fan fiction authors, etc.
The relationships between these three groups are complex and change over time. There's no way that the full complexity of interactions can be covered in a column like this, though it might make a good thesis topic, or even a book. In theory, the game doesn't need the aftermarket. All that's needed for a complete "product" is a game and people to play it. You could play RuneScape without ever going near a fansite. A lot of people do in fact do just that and still manage to have a wonderful time. So why then, is there an aftermarket? What's the point of add-ons, fansites, user groups, and all those other extras? The answer of course, is added value. In business terms, the aftermarket adds value to the product. In many industries, the aftermarket is almost as important, in terms of money spent, as the industry itself. Look at the auto industry for example -- there's a huge market in custom goodies that you can buy for your car. Everything from decals to personalise an otherwise stock sedan, to accessories that improve performance to way beyond the manufacturer's specifications.
Why do Fansites Exist?
Fansites exist because they add value to the game in several ways: additional information, player community, and strategy development being the chief amongst them.
There is a huge amount of additional unofficial information available on a first-rate site like Tip.It. The game authors aren't going to tell you everything – because part of playing the game is finding out how it works. All the information that has been painstakingly collected by the members and staff of Tip.It is information that any one individual could, in theory, find out for themselves. But in practice, there's just so much of it that finding it all out is almost impossible. A lot of the information is pretty basic helpful stuff, like where the various monsters hang out, how strong they are, and what they drop when you kill them. This kind of information is essential, unless you happen to want the frequent flyer miles from all those one-way trips to Lumbridge, especially when taking on a new type of monster for the first time. Of course, you don't have to use this information, any more than you have to use the quest guides, skill calculators and planners, or the Items Database. But knowing what you're getting yourself into is always useful. Knowing when to take an antipoison with you can mean the difference between life and death, as I've found out to my great chagrin. And I don't think I'm the only player who's ever died an inglorious death for such a silly reason.
People seem to be hard-wired to share experiences. Every field of human endeavour and experience has groups of enthusiasts who get together to talk about their favorite occupation, hobby or obsession. Fansites promote the community of players – they encourage people to get together, form clans or less formal groups, and enhance their game experience through cooperation. This is, of course something that the games company could also do – but official clans somehow seem too formal, too organised, just too "official" for my liking. Of course in a fansite, you can complain about the game much more freely than you can on the official site – or so people seem to think!
Strategy development is something that's also easier on a fansite -- Tip.It encourages this through its various skill planners and guides to the various mini games and other activities.
Of course, the game company could do all these things itself – except it would cost it a huge amount of money. Fansites can only manage to do what they do because the staff volunteer their time and the members contribute a huge amount. It took Jagex several years from the start of the game to introduce the Knowledge Base, and while it is a wonderful addition to the game play, there's still an enormous amount of information out there that hasn't made it into the Knowledge Base. Fansites fill the gaps that are not cost-effective for the game company to fill by itself.
How should game companies treat fansites?
Having established that fansites meet a perceived player need, we can pretty much guarantee that they won't go away. Even without support or endorsement from the game company, any game worth playing has fansites. There are even fansites for games no longer played – just look up the original Colossal Cave Adventure game on the internet for example. If all the current RuneScape fansites disappeared overnight, in some strange computer catastrophe, fresh ones would be up within days – some new, some resurrected by their members with information they'd downloaded and kept.
So the game companies are going to have to live with us. Which then leads us to the question of how we are going to get along. A company can take one of three broad paths: it can accept and embrace fansites; it can look pointedly in the other direction and pretend they don't exist; or it can be hostile. A fansite, by definition, wants a good relationship with its game – we're "fans". We're here because we love the game.
Up till now, Jagex has been, for the most part, ignoring most fansites. Usually the only time we at Tip.It hear from them is when we've done or said something they don't like. I'm not sure that this is the best way to go. I have to admit some bias here though -- after all, I write for a fansite, and it's in my best interest for Tip.It to have a good relationship with Jagex. I have to admit, I'd very much like to have a better relationship with them. I, however, am not the person who makes those decisions, either for Tip.It or for Jagex.
It seems to me that the issue that prevents a closer relationship between any fansite and its game author/company is one of liability. If a game company endorses a fansite and that fansite is hacked and players' accounts or computers are compromised, is the game company liable for any losses? There's no point in suing a fansite – we're volunteers, we have no corporate cash to pay damages. A games company, like Jagex or Blizzard (to pick two names at random), is seen as having huge assets and thus could potentially be sued. While a court might not appreciate the value of a party hat, if a keylogger or trojan resulted in someone's bank account or credit card information being stolen and misused, that would be a real loss that they would understand.
Now I'm not a lawyer, I don't even play one on TV. But it seems to me that there should be a way for a game company to have a good working relationship with a fansite, without putting either party in jeopardy. There are all sorts of ways that the two entities can cooperate, to their mutual benefit, without increased liability on the part of the game company or loss of autonomy by the fansite. Non-disclosure agreements between companies and the press allow reporters to review products in advance of their release – they're an industry standard. There's no reason why Jagex couldn't have that sort of a relationship with fansites. Not necessarily all of them, by any means, as not all of them are as ethical as one might like. But this sort of "favoured nation" status whereby Tip.It (of course) and some of the other sites would get advance information from Jagex as long as we said nothing about it until after the release could well improve the ethics of all fansites – after all, who doesn't want to look cool by having all the information on the latest updates?
Fansites also have their finger on the pulse of the players in a very different way than the official sites do. We have a whole forum dedicated to suggestions and while some of them are rather far out in left field, there are many good suggestions which garner a lot of popular support. We can also do research – we already conduct informal polls – and we reach a lot of people who don't visit the official game forums. In a cooperative relationship, fansites can provide feedback, ideas, suggestions (and of course complaints) to the game company that they would otherwise not have easy access to.
It would be nice if 2007 became the year that Jagex and the fansites learned to work together. Such cooperation would be a huge boost to the game and everyone -- Jagex, players and the fansites -- would win. It doesn't seem all that likely at the moment…but it could happen. And I could finally get that half-shield I've been searching for all this time. Hey – I can dream can't I?
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