The Fansite debate: aftermath

Just a quick follow-up post after a very interesting few days debate on my take on the fansite issue. The main platform for debate has been a thread on the official forums, MMO Champion, and Game Banshee. Darth Hater has a small thread as well.

Summarising debate across a range of forums is always risky, but from my biased standpoint, opinions seem to fall into two broad camps:

1. Those who see the fansite agreement as being too prescriptive, with a focus of angst being the advertising ban. This includes those who didn’t read the intricacies of the argument and assumed things were worse than what they are.

2. Those who see it as a storm in a tea-cup / overreaction / rightful stance by Bioware. This includes those who felt Bioware should be left to do their thing as they see fit. There was even one person who was angry the issue was raised as it was taking Bioware’s community team away from valuable time working with the community.

So overall? The split to me seemed 70% concerned about the issue, 30% not fazed / in favour of Bioware’s agreement. As I said though, I’m biased and would love your thoughts in the comments. I think a debate on the issue is overall a positive thing.

What’s interested me the most about it all, is the near silence from the fansite community. TOR Wars and SWTOR-UK have mentioned it, but that’s about it.

It could be that most sites don’t have an issue with it. Or it could be that no-one wants to speak out for fear of repercussions. I don’t believe the latter scenario is one to be concerned about i.e. as far as I can tell, Bioware don’t mind dissent. They rightfully want to minimise it, but to date they’ve allowed the debate on their forums, and I can confirm no horse heads have appeared on my pillow. So if you’re a fansite that has a concern, then now would be the time to flag it prior to game release. The larger sites or smaller ones like these that take a journalistic bent, have some clarity i.e. we are treated as press sites. I’m not so convinced that clarity is there at a wider level.

As Spectus says on the SWTOR forums:

Rather than close off all such loopholes individually on a case-by-case basis, BW/LA simply takes a broad approach, and forbids fansites from generating ANY income from ANY source.

Is that wise? Maybe; maybe not. But that’s why executives get paid the big bucks — to make such decisions.

If you’re impacted by that broad approach, then perhaps you might like to speak up.

And for the cynics, here’s how much ad revenue I generated in the big bump in traffic over the past few days as the debate unfolded:

Maybe we should have signed the agreement after all 😉

Again – would love your comments / thoughts.

The Fansite Conundrum

This story is a difficult one to write, as it has some significant implications for this site more broadly, but it needs to be written. It’s a lengthy story but one well worth reading if you’re interested in the relationship between the media, MMO game developers and those who blog / tweet / discuss those games on forums.

The boundary between ‘media’ and ‘blogs’ has been blurred, if not removed, for years now. This site is essentially a blog, but its founder, and writer of this article, is a freelance writer / journalist of more than ten years standing. Over the past 18 months, Bioware have certainly fed information out to those interested on a regular basis, albeit with an unsurprising bias toward the US market. Over that time the word ‘fansite’ has sprung up repeatedly, used as a catch-all term for any site devoted to covering SWTOR. It’s fair to say I’ve struggled in a big way with the term ‘fansite’, as I for one am not sure I’m a fan of SWTOR – my job is to make that call when it’s released and report both the positive and negative aspects of the game and any wider issues surrounding it. Sure, I’m excited about its release and yes, we have writers even more excited about it – but to categorise broadly our discussions as those of a ‘fansite’ isn’t valid.

It’s in that context that I was a little surprised at an email I received from David Bass, Bioware’s Senior Community Coordinator.

Let me reproduce it in full, as sent to an unknown number of ‘fansites’ – essentially anyone that’s downloaded the fansite kit:

Details of email to fansites removed at request of Bioware

This agreement does contain a bunch of reasonable stuff around intellectual property, trademarks and hate speech etc. There’s no argument there and Bioware, LucasArts and EA absolutely have the right to protect their commercial interests at that level. What has surprised me with the email is the assertion that those who don’t sign the agreement will receive no official promotion from Bioware. They of course don’t have to promote anyone, but what they’re saying here is that even if you write the most glowing review of SWTOR in existence, if that review is on a site with advertising, then it won’t be linked to.

It also ignores the fact that most mainstream gaming sites are commercial interests, so I’m assuming Bioware will not be officially promoting IGN’s review of SWTOR, or a Wired Magazine feature on any impact SWTOR will have on MMO gaming culture. If such promotion does occur, then the so-called ‘fansites’ cop a double-whammy from Bioware. First. they have to agree to not make any money from their site and second, their larger competitors get a free run. Yes, I understand that for most ‘fansites’, trying to take on the big players is not the focus. It certainly isn’t for this site, but it’s probably safe to say most sites want as many people to read their work as possible. A percentage of those may like to at least cover their costs, or like yours truly, raise enough revenue to pay more writers and/or increase the very modest pay of the current writers. That’s my gripe – and the basis for me today shooting some questions off to David Bass at Bioware, with a very prompt response:

TOROZ: Are you requiring mainstream sites such as IGN, Wired etc etc to sign the agreement? If not, why do smaller sites with a journalist on staff such as mine, need to sign an agreement preventing running a game- specific site as a commercial concern? Put another way, aren’t you preventing competition by restraining small sites that rely on word of mouth when compared to the mainstream sites.

David Bass: There’s a big difference between press and fansites. Fansites are those who cover SW:TOR exclusively, as TOROZ does. IGN and Wired are press, and therefore they have a completely different process (and have to go through EA and Lucas in order to get anything). The benefit of being a fansite is that you get a direct line to BioWare (i.e. Me).

TOROZ: Given the requirement of signing the agreement in order for Bioware to link to a story, what mechanisms will be in place to ensure fairness in promotion i.e. isn’t there an inherent risk that sites critical of the game will receive minimal coverage officially anyway and those sites who unquestionably repost Bioware info get all the traffic?

David Bass: There are no “mechanisms” in place to ensure fairness; everyone’s entitled to his/her own opinion, of course. Clearly we’re not going to link to an article that’s four pages of non-stop bashing of SW:TOR. But if an article is detailed, well-written, and fair, there’s no reason why we couldn’t promote it.

TOROZ: Will sites who sign the agreement have preferred access to new information from Bioware i.e. different embargo times, earlier briefings etc?

David Bass: No.

__________

So there you have it. For what it’s worth, it seems I’ve already signed this agreement because I downloaded the Fansite kit. That said, TOROZ definitely doesn’t meet the benchmark for compliance given we run advertising (to pay our writers and cover costs). Therefore, we’ll have to work that little harder to keep up with those who are compliant as we’re not guaranteed the same degree of responsiveness from Bioware. That may not always be a bad thing.

Over to you: do you think Bioware’s fansite terms are reasonable? I’m particularly interested to hear from the already burgeoning SWTOR fansite community, a proportion of which run advertising. What will you be doing in regards to the agreement?

UPDATE: After some robust discussions with the ever-responsive David Bass, I can vouch that there’s a real willingness to look at these issues and in the case of TOROZ we’ve chosen to take the route of being classified as ‘media’. Every site is different obviously. The response overall to the story so far has been mixed, with around half of people saying we should have just negotiated to take the media route initially and that we obviously weren’t careful enough in reading the Fansite Kit terms. The other half agree with our stance and that sometimes the boundaries between the media and consumer aren’t as clear anymore. Either way, these are issues that are best sorted prior to launch so that the ground rules for coverage are clear. In our case, Bioware have now provided that clarity.