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The video game industry is an interesting beast. In the past twenty years, gaming has gone from being a child-focused market (running hand in hand with the toy industry) to one with an average age demographic in their late twenties and early thirties. Video games have gone from being something directly marketed children as a toy to something that draws millions of players from all age brackets, from the youngest child to retired senior citizens. They have gone from being part of a very specialized electronics market to being a full-fledged multi-billion dollar industry in its own right, gone from being something few people other than children and hobbyists thought about to being one of the most influential and ubiquitous staples of household entertainment in mainstream culture.

Along the way, game companies have, of course, required rather significant growth. They’ve moved from being solitary coders working on a game in their spare time to having sprawling full-time studios employing hundreds each. In their journeys to becoming real hobbies and pastimes, we’ve seen them turn into a true business of their own, with game companies mimicking every aspect of older entertainment models; full PR departments, production, development, executive, QA – the list goes on.

Like any popular market, product, or hobby, huge fan groups have formed, from local gatherings of tens to massive conventions of thousands, all to celebrate their love of games, collaborate, learn about current and upcoming games, and most of all – to play together. Given the popularity of these events, it wasn’t a very large leap of faith to assume that developers themselves would soon start hosting their own events. Who better to present an informed and influential view of current and upcoming games then those who produce them? After all, a fan based event is a far better tool for publicity than a commercial blitz or press conference.

This is, of course, always a move to be gauged with caution: those who have the most to gain from the publicity and propaganda of a fan event are, of course, the very developers of those games. Developers and publishers putting on fan events of their own, then, rather than the fans themselves, lends the possibility of extreme bias in not only the marketing, but also the publicity of their products. It allows the opportunity for developers and publishers to decide what information and opinions are heard about their products and which are not.

This was a fact very firm in my mind as I set out to Las Vegas for the 2010 Sony Online Entertainment Fan Faire at Bally’s Las Vegas. I was very intrigued to see how such a major player in the games industry as SOE would handle a fan event for their own products. After a few days of seeing what they had in store for their fans, I will say I was able to set my concerns aside and rest easy; here was an event truly for the fans.

Certainly, there was a lot of “for the press” food for thought – the announcement of House of Thule, the next EverQuest expansion, the new EverQuest II Expanded (Free To Play) service, information on the (long-) upcoming MMOFPS The Agency, the almost-here action MMOG DC Universe Online, and more. These debuts and hands-on opportunities are all well and good, and certainly worth covering. What stuck out to me, however, was the absolutely incredible amount of straight-from-the-fans Q&A panels available at the Fan Faire. Literally days full of developer-manned panels, not only taking questions from the players and fans of their games, but actually, well, answering them. On top of that, they were not only willing to accept constructive criticism, they actually asked for it.

Now if there’s one age-old adage I’ve come to realize is true, it’s that opinions are like assholes – everybody has one. The difference between the two, of course, is that when asked, most people will give you their opinion in a heartbeat, no dinner required. As a result, we’ve seen studios, developers, and (arguably most importantly) publishers go to great lengths over the years to do all they can to shield their dev crews from the unscrupulous suggestions, harsh criticisms, and often rage-filled rants of their player base, all the while putting their best face forward, saying “your opinion matters to us!”. How often have we seen entire forum moderation crews formed whose sole purpose is to filter out the anger and rage of the suggestion forums and then report back what they found to be useful? (My heart goes out to forum moderators everywhere; you have a tough and thankless job).

This isn’t exactly a bad practice, either – it’s a rare day when someone calls a suggestion line or posts on a game forum to say “I think you guys are doing a great job; keep it up!”. Those happy with their product aren’t taking time to thank those who gave them an awesome experience; they’re too busy playing the game they love. Having worked in IT for years myself, I can count on one hand how many times someone has called in just to say “keep up the good work”. Even still, that sort of disconnect between player and developer can certainly make the suggestion/support forum appear quite the barrier between your voice and those who have the power to make a difference.

So when I see entire panels full of developers, ready, willing, and able to take those game mechanics suggestions, those harsh criticisms, and yes, those rage-filled rants, my ears perks up, my eyebrow raises, I grab my popcorn, and I’m there. Imagine my delight to not only see the good and the bad of an audience, but also to see the developers take each and every question, suggestion, and rant cool and calm, not like a slick politician, but like peers, truly concerned to deliver the best game they can to the people who play it.

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Take the EverQuest II Battlegrounds and PvP Feedback panel. Straight from the program, it states “Bring your thoughts on what could be improved for both Battlegrounds and PvP. What’s good? What’s not? What suggestions do you have? We’ll take notes!” Such a call to arms seemed like a setup for a bloodbath to me – how could I resist? What I found amazed me and renewed my faith in game developers and my fellow gamers.

The room was packed; I arrived shortly before the start of the panel and still had to sit in the back. I set myself up with a nice view of the panel and the sea of EverQuest II players before me, and I knew fear. There were so few developers, and so many players! In my mind, blood could be drawn at any minute, and I was relieved to have a seat in the back, to make a quick escape should things turn ugly. When it began, I was shocked to find each question taken seriously, directly, and honestly.

They took notes, they talked amongst themselves, they made sure that the answers they gave were as open and honest as they could be. Suggestions poured in, and the panelists took them in, responded clearly and concisely, and did what they could to set the players at ease. This wasn’t simple placation, this was a display of true concern for their players’ desires and concerns. Questions ranging from class mechanics and balancing, to hacking, to buggy voice chat were voiced; all addressed in a sincere and straightforward manner.

Certainly, a few responses were not what the player wanted to hear; one player voiced their suggestion on the often-seen act of working your ass off to get a full set of top-tier gear, only to have a whole new set of more powerful gear released shortly thereafter, forcing the grind all over again. The player inquired as to a possible trade-up on items, so that all their recent hard work was not all in vain. The devs’ response addressed that concern, but also stated that on the other end of the spectrum, they have players who have been saying for months “I’m fully decked out – what do I do now?” No, this was not pacification, this was a serious attempt to give the best game they can to as many players as possible.

None of this is to say that developers don’t want to satisfy their playerbase; that would be ridiculous. Every developer wants nothing more than people to play and love their game. Given the walls often placed between the playerbase and the development teams in many games, however, it gets increasingly difficult to see that human side of development from the player sidelines. The SOE Fan Faire broke down that wall, and readily demonstrated the true focus of the event – not the publicity, not the money, but the fans themselves, the players of these games.

All of this doesn’t even mention the extravagant scenery that Las Vegas offers. Here is a town of glitz and glamor, of style and panache. Everyone is beautiful (or feels that way), and everyone is a celebrity (or wants to be). There was a pool party with an open bar and fire spinners, a closing ceremony grand banquet, and the entire event takes place right on the strip, smack in the middle of everything Vegas has to offer. Here’s the thing – I may know how to party, but I’m still a gamer at heart. Many a night I’ve spent not out at the club living it up, but instead in my room on my computer, on vent with my guildies, trying to down the next internet dragon. The people with whom I game are my extended family, and more often than not, I’d rather stay inside gaming with them than going out to a club and dealing with all of those who don’t share my interests. This doesn’t make me antisocial; far from it. It just shows that I know where my friends are, and I want to be with them.

Heading out to Vegas for a Fan Faire isn’t a small endeavor for any of these participants; it’s a huge investment of time, money, and effort. I can’t imagine many attendees being the super-casual type. That means a lot of nights spent killing internet dragons instead of partying like rock stars. The Fan Faire gives these people the rare opportunity to have their cake and eat it too – to live it up in Vegas, party like a rock star, and feel like a celebrity – all without having to sacrifice their preferred company to do it.

SOE, as a developer, has given their playerbase wonderful games where they can feel like heroes, and with the SOE Fan Faire, they’ve bridged the gap from game-world to real-world and given them a place where they can feel like heroes in real life; A place where they can meet, socialize, and go on adventures with their virtual families in the real world. Outside of all of the necessary trappings of publicity, demos, and advertising associated with any major gaming event, I walked away feeling happy to have been around so many truly happy people. Color me impressed.

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