Everyone is the world’s foremost expert on something. This one fact is the cornerstone of much of the internet. How else do you explain elaborate web pages devoted to everything from shoelace tying to Slurpees? If you’re reading this, though, chances are your expertise falls in the realm of some sort of obscure videogame that only earns you derision when you bring it up in polite company. Not to worry; the internet is there to indulge your obsession and let you actively share it with the world.
Unfortunately for you, the key to making a successful fansite seems to be starting in the mid to late ’90s. It worked for my own fansite, Super Mario Bros. HQ, which started on a free, AOL-hosted member site in August 1997 and still lingers on today at smbhq.com (albeit with much less direct input from me – more on that later). In those early, untamed days before Wikipedia and Everything2, bored web users were just as eager for random information. While there were fewer web users, there was also less competition from other sites, meaning any fansite that started during the ’90s had a much better Darwinian chance of surviving into the brave new world of today’s internet. Getting an early start also gives a site an air of authority (“est. 1997”) and a backlog full of updates to discourage any pretenders to the fansite throne.
Which brings up a major challenge of starting a good fansite today: finding a game that isn’t taken. Just skimming the partial list of fansites hosted by Classicgaming.com is enough to give pause to any potential creator. Everything from Ninja Gaiden to the obscure Windows game Kye is already well represented online. And new sites are popping up constantly: The NES’ Ice Hockey seems to have just been taken. More popular series can already have dozens of sites devoted to them, which is no doubt discouraging for an expert such as yourself looking to share your unique and vital information. Will you take the weak-kneed approach and volunteer to work for an established site? Or will you be bold and wade into the internet waters of fandom on your own?
Competition among game sites can cause a destructive feedback loop, leading to a bunch of pages with the same information and resources linking back to each other in a big circle of “thanks to XXX for letting me use the contents of this page.” But competition can also be good for a site, forcing the creator to think outside the box for new content ideas. When I was starting work on SMBHQ, my major competitor was The Mushroom Kingdom, a site that actually started months before mine and had much better design and information. In an effort to avoid wasting time and web space, I tried to make everything on SMBHQ unique in some way – either by creating completely original sections or adding my own original writing to any totally repetitive sections. Knowing that TMK was around forced me to add my own spice to my content instead of just becoming an aggregator for information easily found elsewhere, a lesson that can apply to any game journalist.
That doesn’t mean everything on your site has to be original. One of the cornerstones of the fansite is the list – the comprehensive, anal-retentive chronicling of every little thing in a game or series. Some lists, like the items in StarTropics, are relatively easy to compile. Others, like the list of “virtually every character, item and enemy from the Mario universe,” are a bit more complicated. But a fansite just isn’t a fansite without them. Visitors love reliving memories through compilation, poring over the details they forgot they remembered or just skimming to see what they’ve missed. Don’t make the mistake of compiling a totally comprehensive list before launch, though. Starting with a small core and creating a feature like the “item of the week” is a good way to spread out what might seem like an overwhelming task as well as a way to get people to keep coming back to your site.
Which brings up another challenge of the fansite creator: posting regular updates. Unless you simply want your page to sit around as a static online reference, you need something new to put up week after week to keep people coming back. This can be tough if your game doesn’t have much back story or ephemera associated with it, but there’s always something more for the creative fansite creator to do. Write an editorial about some obscure element of the gameplay. Create a trivia quiz for other obsessed fans. Make up original stories starring your game’s characters. Regular updates are what separate the determined fansite creator from the bored weekend tinkerer
Keep up the regular updates long enough and you’ll likely attract the attention of a small-to-middling chunk of internet traffic. You may also attract the attention of the company that created your game, which may lead you to wonder whether they will appreciate all the potentially copyrighted information and images used on your pages. Not to worry, though, most companies turn a blind eye on these matters when it comes to sites that are actively promoting their products. Some even encourage these sites to flourish, creating elaborate fansite kits to get you started (though by now you must realize a true fansite comes not from a kit, but from the heart!).
Attracting fans also means attracting sometimes obsessive attention from them, which is something you’ll have to get used to as the webmaster of a thriving fansite. Some fans will e-mail you thinking you’re the creator of the game, begging you for a sequel or an update to their favorite franchise. Others will ask you nonsensical questions about a character’s back story (“Who is Mario’s favorite Spice Girl?”), and they’ll expect you to have an answer! By maintaining a site, you become a resource for the community at large – a locater of both in-game secrets and real-world Halloween costumes.
While fellow fans can be annoying, they can also be your site’s greatest resource. As the amount of reference information to post starts to dwindle and your zest for covering one game or series exclusively inevitably begins to fade, your fans can be your lifeline, providing content so you don’t have to. If your site is well established and popular enough, you won’t even have to work at it – the fans will come crawling out of the woodwork asking if there’s any way they can help with the site. You can actively encourage this community by creating whole fan-created sections devoted to art, fiction, even things like gameplay memories and cosplay. The really devoted fans might be motivated enough to spin off a whole subsection of the site, leaving you with more content and more time to actually play the games you enjoy instead of writing about them.
And this massive fan involvement often leads directly to the last leg of a fansite’s existence – the time where the original creator realizes he’s devoted years of his life to his obsession and decides to move on. Sometimes, this will happen quickly with a curt message on the front page announcing the site’s death to the world. Sometimes, the torch will be passed to a new generation of fans who will continue the spate of updates. Sometimes, it doesn’t happen at all, and the site’s original creator maintains his public service fandom for years. Whichever fate befalls your site, though, you’ll be able to look back and know that you’ve made your mark on the ephemera of the internet and that, because of you, someone can now google “Mario Trivia” and find something to occupy their time.
Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.