I have a confession to make: I’m obsessed with videogame music. More specifically, I’m obsessed with videogame music from Eastern composers. I bow to the talent of Yuzo Koshiro, drool at the mention of a new Michiru Yamane soundtrack and worship the ground Motoi Sakuraba walks upon. I also think Nobuo Uematsu is a hack, but that’s another article.

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Thankfully there is a haven on the net for people like me. In fact, there’s a haven for pretty much everyone on the net. I speak, of course, of fan sites, and these days there are fan sites for everything, from the Zelda franchise to cheesecake.

Acting as a sanctum for avid devotees, fan sites provide a service. They are the glue that holds together niche communities all over the world. Fan sites are the essence of that now over-used catch-all term, “the long tail.” What they usually are not, at least at their inception, is a business. So what happens when a site moves beyond simply providing a meeting place for people of like interests and starts trying to turn a profit? Gather ’round, friends – it’s time for a story of camaraderie, rivalry, vengeance and even a little tactical espionage.

First, a little background on how fan sites function. These sites are started by people who know their particular passion inside and out and have a vision of exactly how to present that information to other fans. If the site catches on, the workload eventually become too much for one person to handle and the founder will typically select a group of volunteers, usually from the site’s forums, to help with day-to-day operations. A passion and knowledge of the source material are required for these recruits. Punctuality, previous experience or even rudimentary social skills, however, are not.

My tale begins in earnest in 2002 in the heart of the Colorado where lived a young web developer with a love of videogame music much like my own. His name was Tim, and he took it upon himself to create a fan site dedicated to the company famous for producing some of the best composers the East had to offer: Squaresoft. Tim soon sought help with the site from a music theory major at Oxford who we will simply call “Chad.” And so was born the partnership that started it all.

Fast forward to 2003 when I entered the picture. I had just moved for the third time since starting high school to the sleepy little town of Salem, MA. I was tired of the social game, and instead chose to bide my time online instead of at the mall or weekend parties. (Back then, the irony of such a philosophy was lost on me.) I first stumbled across Tim’s site the following summer and quickly joined the forums. It was a small, close-knit community – my favorite kind of online environment. Most importantly, everyone seemed friendly and there were quite a few interesting characters.

I quickly built a reputation among the forum members and became good friends with both Tim and Chad. So when several positions opened up, I volunteered my meager experience with online journalism and took my place among the staff as a news contributor.

The objective was to promote constant interaction – to create a place where the discussions never become stale and the atmosphere always felt fresh and unique. In this respect, the site was a modest success. It was easy to become friends with all the regulars, including the staff. There were plenty of animated debates, the occasional competition and even a meet-up when it was announced the Dear Friends concert was coming to America.

Of course, creating such an environment requires a larger staff than just two people, which means more time spent making decisions. It also leads to a closer knit group of devoted fans; community members begin to take a personal stake in the changes and decisions made at the website. Real-world friendships and feuds emerge, and the entire community can become entangled in the resulting online drama. Furthermore, factions of site zealots inevitably form that can easily sway the morale of the other users.

It’s these idiosyncrasies that make running a fan site so complicated. Unlike face-to-face encounters, relationships formed online usually stay impersonal and require constant maintenance. You may think you like User17, but you only like what User17 has to say in his last post. Because these connections are so ephemeral, it’s easy for a newer, shinier forum to come along and steal your interest. That can lead to a stagnant community and a migration of the site’s users and workforce – precisely the scenario that unfolded on Tim’s site.

I woke one morning to find my inbox flooded with messages from members asking my opinion on the current situation – and a call to arms from Chad himself. Apparently there was a disagreement between Chad and Tim on how to distribute the money coming in from the site store. (Later, we learned that this was only one of many disagreements between the two that most of the staff weren’t aware of.)

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This particular altercation, however, was the final straw for Chad, and he began communicating with his friends on the forums, accusing Tim of hoarding an enormous amount of money that should have gone to the staff. It wasn’t long before the entire community was in an uproar, choosing sides and starting a whole new brand of flamewar.

Chad eventually decided to leave the site and start a similar one according to his ideas, something he had considered for a while and discussed in secret with other staff members. Tim had a fairly hands-off approach to managing the forums, allowing the site to evolve with its users. Chad wanted to create a site where the staff had a much more active role in the forums. What followed was a sort of bloodless coup that was over almost as quickly as it started.

Tim’s site suddenly found itself a victim of the “User17 effect.” Most of its most prominent members, drawn in by Chad’s promise of a videogame music utopia, rapidly migrated to the forums that Chad and company had set up. Regrettably, I was among them. I kept visiting both sites, but relinquished my staff position on Tim’s site for a moderator and review writer position on Chad’s.

Everything should have ended there, but Chad wanted to get a head start on his newfound rival. He made no effort to hide the fact that he was still in contact with staff members on his nemesis’ site. He also occasionally used Tim’s forums to advertise news about his own site.

These underhanded tactics worked. Tim’s site suffered so greatly that he was forced to call a truce with another former rival fan site and combine forums. Yet Tim never played in to Chad’s game, and despite a free-falling member count, the site lived on. Surely this wasn’t the behavior of a money-grubbing tyrant, as some of us staff members were led to believe.

What happened next was pure poetic justice. After months of tension, the community for Chad’s new site was growing at a healthy rate. Yet members were getting restless waiting for the videogame music Mecca they’d been promised.

Around this time, an ambitious new member entered the scene and became the catalyst for the next catastrophe. Let’s call him “Ian.” He was incredibly helpful, always volunteering to run events and offering suggestions for the site. But he was also very unyielding in how to execute his ideas and adamant about running events according to his own designs. Behind the scenes, Ian was also doing a lot of the design work for the website, which couldn’t have made Chad happier. Discussions quickly began about putting Ian in a high-ranking staff position.

Fearing Ian’s “my way or the highway” attitude would lead to a repeat of the power struggle that brought down Tim’s site, many of us advised Chad against hiring him. But Chad wouldn’t hear it. Ian took a staff position, and the next morning Chad’s own forum administrator posted his letter of resignation, encouraging other members to follow suit. After a brutal fallout with Chad, I haven’t been back to the site since.

What lessons can we glean from these two doomed operations? It seems after all of this that no matter how you manage a fan site, it’s doomed to an inevitable disaster. If it relies too heavily on the contributions of its members, the site’s ability to function becomes inextricably tied to a core group of users. Yet if everything remains in the hands of a select group of staff, decisions that lack significant community input can be potentially devastating. Perhaps a fan site’s biggest problem is that it can quickly evolve beyond the scope of plain fandom and into the realm of a tightly knit community more concerned with its own internecine conflicts than the creation of new content related to their passion.

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The solution to this dilemma lies outside the site itself; the site has to reach out to people beyond its own limited community. Create contests that invite new members, make friends with other similar fan sites and focus more on site updates than forum updates. Making sure a site constantly attracts new users will prevent any group of regulars or anyone community member from feeling too invested, and content will always feel fresh because new people will always bring new ideas. It may not be possible to stop the bickering and infighting that goes hand in hand with a close-knit group of passionate people, but it’s important to know where these feuds belong: as a sideshow, not the main event.

Dan Squire is currently studying marketing, and wonders if there’s a fan site for fans of fan site fans.

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