In 2001, I was a game reporter, and I was broke. Holes in the soles of my shoes broke, rapidly heading toward ramen broke. I was so broke I could no longer afford long distance phone calls to interview people. Luckily, there was a tiny MMOG company just a local phone call away. I became a believer and used my creepy internet fame to get them a little attention from the blogosphere, five years before we called it a blogosphere.
The company was Mythic Entertainment, and they eventually hired me to try answering questions instead of asking them. I have seven years on either side of the interview table, and that gives me a bird’s-eye view of how web game journalism evolved from take-no-prisoners scrapping to the present day.
The story begins in 1999. By day I was a marketing cubicle slave writing snappy brochure copy, by night, an aspiring fantasy novelist complete with rattletrap typewriter. But it was damned hard to write anything, be it about the Future of Broadband or the Great Elven Adventure, over the constant caterwauling from my MMOG-playing roommates.
When one of the boys left his computer unoccupied for three days, the other roommates set me up with a pretty brunette avatar with a mean left hook. By the time my buddy returned, there were a lot of dead rats around the city of Freeport, and I had a backpack full of whiskers. Shortly after that, I had my own computer and my own EverQuest account.
The computer opened up all kinds of things for me. Every night, I was meeting people from all over the country – people who shared my interests. The in-game conversations turned into days spent exploring chatrooms and message boards; again, finding kindred souls. It was like going to nerd conventions without the smell.
And my writing career took off. I wrote special advertising sections, I interviewed local businesses for small city papers and I sold “personal essays” to a major market newspaper. Word processing instead of longhand composition tripled my output, and talking online with all my new friends made my written voice sharper, cleaner and funnier.
At some point, I felt the urge to give back to the gaming community, and I volunteered to provide customer service. These days, this concept strikes people as ridiculous, but at the turn of the century, in order to be the front line of customer service, you either had to train in Bangalore for six intensive months before being allowed near a phone, or you could do what I did and answer a questionnaire.
After weeks of not communicating with an actual company employee, weeks spent soaking up abuse from angry people, I snapped. I wrote out a rant and found myself laughing. I polished that little rant until it shined and posted it on my favorite EQ message board. I called myself Tweety.
I was used to writing for newspapers. If I was really lucky, my editors would write “nice!” on the check, but that was all the feedback I’d ever gotten. Writers of the wannabe flavor are essentially paranoid balls of neediness and insecurity. Those little editorial notes were like a single drag off a cigarette. The reaction to Tweety’s first rant was like snorting cocaine. People loved it. There were hundreds of responses posted in less than a day. And I was hooked. I wrote four more rants, and my roommate built me a website to bring the hits in faster .
Quite justifiably, I was fired from my customer service job. But the website only grew more popular. I joined the staff of a gaming news site poised on the edge of world domination. Fan mail started coming in from around the world. Some of the letters were from ordinary people like me, but others were from game designers, writers, even senior leads at tech companies.
I felt like a tremendous success as a writer. So I took the obvious next step: In the late summer of 2000, I quit my stifling bourgeois job to make my living solely through my skill with a pen.
Note: Kids, don’t try this at home. Never, ever believe your own hype. Especially when you have no health insurance, and you are living in a group house where you regularly find yourself relieving yourself in the back yard because the water is turned off for non-payment. Again. This is harder on the setters than the pointers, if you catch my drift.
Today, there are many gaming reporters who have no other means of support. Some of the most successful are exclusively web reporters. However, if I had done five minutes of research, I would have discovered that at the time of my grand experiment, most of them still had their day jobs, or a nest egg carefully hatched from years at very nice day jobs. If they didn’t have a job or savings, they were married to people with jobs and health insurance.
I didn’t know enough to care. Click-through advertising paid the hosting bills. I swore a lot. The editor I worked for was 17 years old, and it didn’t matter; if anyone knew, they didn’t care. All that mattered was the quality of the ideas, anyway. Boy, girl, fat, thin, dweeb, stud, disabled, jock – could you type fast enough to keep up with the conversation? Were you funny? Could you stand above the crowd? It was the brilliance of the internet and the potential and hope it gave to all of us who were there.
The trouble is potential doesn’t buy dog kibble. The site hosting bills got paid, but mine didn’t. My only income was from print media, and yet most of the work I was doing went online.
By failing to treat what I was doing as a serious business, I cost myself a lot of cash. I made a lot of long distance calls to interview sources without keeping track of the money they were costing. (In hindsight, I should not have called Waggaworld in Canada, or at least I should have asked them to call me.) Before long, my long distance service got turned off along with the water. I needed a story lead I could chase down in person without spending any money.
My best case scenario involved an MMOG company in my local calling area of Northern Virginia, and to my surprise, there was such an animal – Mythic Entertainment. Sony Online Entertainment they were not. I emailed the “Media” address and got a gentleman named Matt Firor. I emailed the “Jobs” address and got Hiring Manager Matt Firor. When I called the producer’s phone number and he answered, I started to suspect this was not a big outfit.
The nature of gaming news on the web was changing around this time. Pure ranting had reached a point of diminishing returns, both because reader expectations were higher, and the common themes had been done to death. Developers rarely spoke to anyone but the most widely-known sites, so it was hard to get in touch with anyone directly. We who were not mainstream enough to be “serious” but no longer niche enough to rely on swearing alone had to find a balance between the bile and real reporting.
Dark Age of Camelot was the first game I previewed with a hybrid approach. The people at Mythic had clearly played everything available in the genre and were looking for “evolution, not revolution.” They were refreshingly free of the rock star attitude that failed to deliver anything but fake tits at E3, and they took nothing seriously but game production. There were fewer than 20 employees at the company, a staggeringly low number, even for the time.
It was after my “Camelot: Revisited” article in 2001 that Mythic offered me a job. The job didn’t have a title when I interviewed, but they wanted someone to do grassroots marketing, manage the web media, process feedback, communicate the news and act as a liaison to the players.
They had added a handful of employees, but by modern standards, the company was still tiny. I had changed slightly, as well. By the time they called me to come in, I had to keep both of my shoes flat on the ground or my socks would be visible through the soles. When I spilled root beer down the front of my only remaining decent blouse during my interview, the CEO pointed and said “Ha Ha!” a la Nelson Muntz. With as much dignity as I could muster, I said, “Bite me,” and marched to the bathroom. When I came back, I had the job.
I was the 31st employee at a company launching their full scale MMOG in four months, with no marketing team, no PR team and no helpful best-practices pamphlet I could use. So I set out with three basic rules and a lot of caffeine:
Rule One: No website is too small. Small websites grow big, part-time writers go pro, and none of them ever forget who showed them proper respect.
Rule Two: If the line between news site and fansite is blurry, chuck ’em all in the beta and let the NDA sort ’em out.
Rule Three: Guild leaders are as much reporters as anyone else. They are better, in many ways, possessing the context and the culture to understand the implications of my actions.
There was more, of course – standards, guidelines, methods, common sense – but those three rules, plus a helping of “do unto others,” got me through six years, 200 identical Q&As, five E3s, dozens of trade shows, three videos of myself as the Iraqi Information Minister and one instance of being Photoshopped onto a cow taking it from behind. I’ve never had so much fun in my life.
Part of the fun was watching second tier web journalism change without having to struggle with it myself. I enjoyed providing support for feature articles that appeared in everything from print magazines to guild news pages. I watched in dismay as the interviews of the old days devolved into shallow, “10 question”-style Q&As, in part due to the industry’s stated longing to see hard questions, but in practice refusing to answer any but the simplest.
Of course, the industry was not entirely to blame. The last few years have seen the barrier of entry for potential web journalists drop to nothing. At one point, independent gaming news came solely from technically savvy people who could also write (or, like me, had a friend to handle the HTML lifting). With blogging software and simple toolsets, anyone can write, and everyone tries. Raw beginners ask designers dead-end questions that can be answered with “because the designer wanted to do that.” They also tend to post unverified gossip simply for the thrill of doing so. I was guilty of that more than once in my early days.
But the beginners from seven years ago are now coming of age and asking probing questions. The old struggle of finding the line between gossip and news is still alive, but in recent dramas (such as the rise and fall of Sigil, and the IGE ownership question), the choice has increasingly been to report the goods if it has a bearing on the business itself – after verifying the information with a direct source.
The MMOG industry is exploding, with dozens of products currently in the pipeline ranging from the quirky to the mass market. As the genre expands to become more mainstream, so too will customers consider mainstream factors such as budget, management style, production experience, brand and oversight. The top-tier media guys will deliver the news professionally, but the best of the rest will give the news real meaning.
Sanya Weathers is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.