Commercialisation, and the appeal of an amateur fanbase

A lot of gamers will tell you that the opposite of pro is noob. It’s one opposite, I guess, but back in the meatworld the most common opposite of professional is amateur.

Amateur means a lot of things. It can mean bad (amateurish isn’t usually good), it can mean hobbyist, it can mean idealistic. For example, the Olympics is intended for amateur sportspeople, on paper at least. This idea that amateurs were purer hobbyists who did their sport/ game/ profession for the love of it, untainted by filthy lucre is starting to look rather old fashioned now.

So why talk about amateurs? In the wake of the EVE addon changes (which I wrote about yesterday, along with lots of other bloggers), I think there’s a backlash from a lot of people who just don’t like the idea of having their favourite game’s ecosystem commercialised. The amateur way is the purer fanbase, playing and making guides, websites, addons for the sheer love of the game.

The roots of the MMO hobby that I personally love come directly from amateur gamers. MUDs were originally based on  open sourced code, created and staffed by people who just loved them as a hobby. Things have moved on since then, become more commercialised, better in some ways and worse in others. The community itself hasn’t much changed, although it has grown a great deal. Yet the games themselves were once LOVED by their creators and their players, not consumed.

It may be that the majority of gamers would slaver over a more commercial ecosystem. They love wowhead, curse, EVEMon, and all the slew of professional quality player tools that have become available and would happily buy and use more if they existed. I do wonder though what gets lost in the transition.

Yet I think of the fan run scifi conventions I’ve been to compared to commercial conventions. I have seen good quality versions of both, but the fan conventions had more soul and connected with attendees on a much wider range of levels. People ran sessions based on what they personally thought would be fun and interesting, rather than on how many bums they could get on seats. It felt so much easier to connect personally with both other fans and people running the convention (who are of course also other fans), the power differential between producers and consumers just wasn’t there …

It’s on my mind at the moment since Arb and I are off to Comic Con in a few weeks time, which is easily going to be the largest commercial convention I have ever seen. I think it will be brilliant. There will be sessions that no fan convention could ever in a million years hope to match. But it doesn’t affect how much I want to get to Eastercon next year, which I think will feel more like ‘home’ (actually George R R Martin is scheduled to be at both, and lots of authors seem to enjoy the fan convention scene.)

Consolidation of the big fansites

Today brought the news that Curse Inc has added mmo-champion to their portfolio of popular gaming sites.

Curse, if anyone recalls, started off as an addon repository produced by a top WoW guild which then went commercial and has been picking up popular fansites and forums for a variety of games. For example, they own Warhammer Alliance and Aion Source. Now that LOTRO has announced that they will allow LUA scripting, we will probably see Curse expanding into LOTRO addons as well in the near future.

I have no issues with Curse, they provide a good gamer-centric service to players and to addon writers. I hope they turn a decent profit.

The other big player in the fansite-conglomeration world is ZAM (previously Allakhazam if you were around in those days). ZAM owns wowhead, wowinterface and tankspot as well as EQ2 Interface and mmoui, and they have a big Free Realms site. Their site also indicates interest in Final Fantasy Xi and XIV.

ZAM had a spotty reputation due to its association with IGE, known mostly for goldselling and buying thottbot (ZAM and IGE were both owned by the same asset holding company). That’s all in the past now and has been for several years, but gamers have long memories.

From the lists of sites, it’s clear that both ZAM and Curse are looking at similar markets. They’re looking to the addons, to the user communities, and to the popular databases. I assume that advertisers provide a lot of the funding – a site like mmo-champion or wowhead gets thousands of hits per day.

Amateur -> Professional

I always feel a sense of loss when an amateur run fansite sells up and goes pro. Sure, it’s great for the people who put all the work into it, and it’s probably even better for users if the new owners help create a better service.

It’s even a half decent business plan to start a site from the very beginning with the aim to monetize, look around for buyers, and grow a business. There’s nothing wrong with that. It also happens in every single hobby based endeavour – providing communities and services to fans is already big business.

And yet, something changes as the commercialisation takes hold. It isn’t necessarily bad, but it is different. It’s great to have access to software like the Curse client which takes so much of the work out of updating addons, and knowing that some of the money goes toward paying the addon authors. It’s great to have access to sites like wowhead.

But it’s also great to have the huge range of amateur writers and sites as well. I don’t hate that my hobby gets more and more commercialised, but I do value even more the people who hold out and speak with different, non-commercialised voices.

Long live our corporate masters! And vive la difference!