The following represents my opinions and viewpoints only
I’ve just celebrated my personal first anniversary over at the LOTRO Players fan site. My first article was posted on July 5th of last year. In some ways it seems like just the other day, and in other ways it seems like years ago. One reason that it seems like a great deal of time has passed is because of how much I’ve learned in the past year. Games communities, volunteer journalism, informal networking, and even the business of gaming are things that I’m constantly learning about while feeding this hobby of fan site volunteerism.
Beware the Handcuffs
A couple of things happened in this past week that forced me to once again reflect on how I approach involvement in the site and news podcast. First off, Turbine held a press event where they gave select members of the press a guided tour of the next major update. #LOTRO Players was not at the event, but in working closely with my friends over at the #MMO Reporter network, I was able to post a story about the event (with LOTRO Reporter’s video of the tour) before any of the major press sites had posted similar synopses. It was a great arrangement that was both mutually beneficial and stood for everything LOTRO represents in my mind: community and working together.
I’ll admit, there are times when it would be kind of nice to see Turbine extend a hand to us, simply to legitimize the work we put into talking about and playing their game. However, the downside of that arrangement is that I’d have to be glancing at their extended wrist to make sure there wasn’t a handcuff attached to one side. After all, it’s their job to make sure that their product is advertised properly and shown in a good light whenever possible. It’s our “job” to write and talk about our honest opinions with the LOTRO Players community. It’s what our readers and listeners expect from us. Those two goals are sometimes at odds, and a too-cozy arrangement with the game developer could potentially jeopardize the integrity of our content. Just as a too-honest post or review could impact the game in a negative way. If we came to a point where we felt like we depended on a relationship with Turbine to provide quality content to our readers, that would put us in the awkward position of trying to make sure we didn’t “bite the hand” which might result in our invitations to exclusive events getting lost in the mail. As I said in a comment most over at LOTRO Players, I’m not suggesting that Turbine engages in these kinds of practices, only that the possibility to do so would be there. After careful reflection, I prefer the current arrangement where we are not treated as press, and therefore absolutely free to post our opinions without a potential dark cloud of reprisal looming overhead.
The Fine Line
On the flip side, as a heavily-trafficked fan site, there’s also a time to be silent, or at least to sit back and reserve judgement. The second thing that happened this past week was that Turbine’s Community Manager set off a veritable firestorm throughout the community thanks to some comments (and subsequent forum posts) he made regarding traditional end-game content during a live-stream event. LOTRO Players did not cover the comments from a news perspective, but one of our contributors did post an article dissecting some of the facts and statistics that were stated by the CM during the stream. Long story short, the assertion was that only a very small percentage of the LOTRO player base utilizes traditional end-game content, and that number is not enough to justify the development resources of something as complex and resource intensive as a raid cluster. It was a response to a question about raiding, which also happens to be the same question that has been asked repeatedly over the course of the last seven months ever since it was first hinted that there were no immediate plans for traditional raid content in LOTRO. Piecing all of the CM answers and posts together sounds very much like he’s making the statement: “there will not be any new instance clusters as long as they are only utilized by a minority of the player base”, although I’m still not convinced that he actually ever came out and said this. The community, on the other hand, has connected these dots for themselves and has reacted as you might expect.
It’s times like these that I feel it’s best to sit back and ride out the storm instead of pouring fuel onto the fire. We had a similar tumultuous period during the Helm’s Deep beta last year, when players were first introduced to the new skill tree system. Although it was under NDA, we received numerous personal messages, in-game tells, and lots of leading comments on the site from people who were off-the-hook ticked about the changes. Even after the NDA was lifted, I chose to be very guarded about my comments knowing the fragile state of the community. After all, one wrongly placed negative comment could have set off a firestorm and even possibly driven people away from the game I love to play. Not that I think my comment alone would hold that much influence, but it certainly could be the straw that caused someone to quit. Why play a game when even those who care enough to contribute to a fan site are down on the changes? It can become counter-productive very quickly. Without customers, there is no hope for improvement of these systems because without customers, there is no game. While I want to be honest, I do not want to needlessly drive people away due to a careless or ill-timed remark.
Perspective is Everything
Do the readers/listeners appreciate this tightrope that we find ourselves on? Of course, it depends on the player. We had a comment just last week about how negative we were on a recent podcast. Conversely, one of our first live-chat room visitors during the Helm’s Deep period last year actually rage quit the chat room because we were “nothing but #Turbine fanboys” or something to that effect. You read that right, he rage quit a chat room. I’d never seen that before, either.
One thing that’s difficult is that some readers don’t differentiate between fan sites and actual paid gaming press sites. For those who have been raised in the world of “new media”, the line between paid journalism and high-quality blogging can be extremely blurry. If they don’t realize that we’re just a bunch of players who have banded together for no other reason than to have a little fun and give a little back, their perspective may be one of inflated expectations.
As for me, I’ll just keep attempting to learn how and when to speak up. More importantly, I’ll try to pay attention to when I should sit down and shut up. It’s an interesting balance to strike, one that comes from years of real-life experience and (hopefully) accumulation of wisdom.
Featured image by jeffrey james pacres on Flickr Creative Commons