Monday, November 12, 2007

Burn RMT, Burn!

A little bird directed my attention to mmobux the other day. It's an interesting place in its own right (I, for example, now have an idea how much that meager amount of plat sitting in my vault is worth. The answer is probably a lot less than people are willing to sell it for but, still, my hundreds of hours of gameplay have added up to something, after all.). But although it's taken me a little while to getting around to it, what I was interested in was this article about IGE and their spectacular collapse from their formerly dominant position. Because, you know, I played a minor role in that story.

Now, For those that don't know me, hi. (For those that do, again, I'm sorry.) I go by the handle of Sausaletus Rex. It's a name I've used on various forums and boards throughout the gaming community for years now. The most well-known of which are probably the Guild Wars ones but even before then, I've been hanging around and delivering enormously long posts on any number of subjects. And although I've since withdrawn in large part from any number of boards and fansites, I've been around long enough to have been there when IGE was first making a splash. When, as the mmobux article says, they went around competing to buy up every community they could find because that was the only way they could get any advertising done. People weren't very fond of the RMT, after all. And then, when they bought out their competitor and created a massive, monopolistic entity lurking in the dark corners of the gaming scene.

Where I come into this story is indirectly. Because, at the time - call it summer to fall of 2004 - I was working as a moderator at a fansite. One of the ones, the Guild Hall, which gets mentioned in the article as having been bought out by IGE along the way. Not that I knew, of course, since I wasn't involved in the financial side of things, just a volunteer tending to the forums. Even if I had been, I suspect, it would have escaped my notice because of the hidden, shadowy, backroom nature of the deals IGE had been striking around the place.

Back then, of course, things weren't looking so good. This was before the release of WoW, of GW, and gaming hadn't quite yet made the jump to a mainstream activity. The people running them knew there was money to be made, somehow, but no one had really figured it out yet. Like the old South Park joke no one had figured out how to get from step one to step three, profit. And, the scuttlebutt from my site and from the people I knew who were working at several others was that they were mostly hemmoraging money. Big server costs, large bandwidth bills to pay, as the fanbase grew. These fansites were out there doing the lion's share of marketing for the game companies helping to create a lot of buzz and publicity and, really, they weren't compensated for it. With access, with prestige, sure, but not with anything like defraying costs (Because, then, the game companies would be, in some way, responsible if not liable for everything on those sites and that would open up a can full of nightmares. I'm not saying this is a bad thing or that the fan community is screwing the developers or vice versa or even that RMT is the root of all evil in the online world just that I've ridden this train before and there's a reason I'm not doing it now.) - they were reluctant to even buy some ad space to help keep these sites afloat. And for a lot of those site owners there was IGE or one of their subsidiaries with an offer full of zeros in their mailbox.

A lot of them took it. But they did so quietly. Without letting anyone know that they'd been bought by this shady company which danced in the gray areas of laws and morality. That now, they might just be mining data for IGE with every visit. Streaming ads to every eyeball. And the obvious concerns about editorial content and censorship and the rest. IGE had bought themselves a seat at the table but they hadn't bothered to let everyone know.

Among the ones who, well, sold out was a site - a network really - called OGaming. I didn't mod there although I posted infrequently. In those pre-release days there were several hotspots for the discriminating Guild Wars fan. I frequented most of them, if only to keep my finger on the pulse of things. OGaming was, if not the biggest, then certainly in the running - super special official status, marked out by ANet as a place to go if you wanted to know more about the game although I don't believe they'd yet come up with triple super official elite status or whatever gold star they pin on their favorites now just yet.

Ever since I'd become a moderator trying to right the ship at the ever-contentious TGH, I'd made a point of trying to get to know the people running them. Call it professional courtesy. Call it networking. Call it a lingering fear that I had no idea what I was doing and wanted to look to some others for guidance. But through IRC, through e-mails, through just general poking around I'd gotten to know them. The folks who ran GWOGaming, led by an awesome guy called THX, were my favorites (Outside, you know, of the ragtag family of GR and MeatMan and Cit and more that rode herd on the cool cats at TGH, of course.). We'd talk. He was a nice guy. Hardworking. Dedicated. Always gracious with his time and his advice.

So it came as something of a shock to me when he told me he was being forced out at OGaming. You see, this is the part of the story the aforementioned article doesn't cover. How IGE let these sites run on their own for a while before taking over completely. Before they stared reorganizing, start replacing the mods and admins with their own people, to put their own stamp on the sites and those communities. Didn't happen everywhere but it did at OGaming. And my pal THX was one of the people caught in the middle of it all.

It was a bit of a scandal at the time. People wanted to know what had happened. Why the board had changed hands. Why the sky was falling. The usual inane questions of the chattering masses that populate any gaming board. THX was silent in public. But in private? I and others heard the whole sorted story. Those of us who were the gatekeepers, the influence peddlers, who made up the elite in our floating world of devoted Guild Wars fans, we soon pieced it altogether. And the rumors, the innuendo began to fly back and forth. I wasn't the only one who liked THX, after all. I don't think I've ever met anyone who thought he was something less than a prince among men. ANet even took the unprecedented step of revoking the site's official stamp of approval - reasoning that it had been THX and the rest of the staff's hard work that had earned it in the first place.

For whatever reason it was a deep dark secret at the time. Etiquette, contracts, something kept all of us from posting a diatribe in public. But there was a flurry of whois and amateur sleuthing as we uncovered that IGE owned a lot more than OGaming. Including the very site I'd been working so hard for. How I hated them at the time. How angry, how bitter I was at their deceptions and secrecy. They'd cost my friend his job. They'd turned me into an unwitting shill. Claims of editorial freedom and hands-free guarantees weren't enough to placate me. Not at the time. Although, now, I wonder just what I was so concerned about because it all seems so trivial.

It's a bittersweet feeling to know that my old nemesis, the bette noir of years past, has fallen on hard times. That IGE turned out to be the fly-by-night operation built on starstuff and false dreams that I always knew it to be. But it's hard to feel too good about it. In the end, I'm grateful to IGE. Because you know what? THX landed on his feet after he was let go. He found the funding, the support, to go out and start a brand new site. A better site. A site that was, I think, and still might be the best Guild Wars fansite ever. And I was lucky enough that he asked me to come along. If it wasn't for IGE there might never have been a Guru. I might never have had that experience. It might have taken some burned bridges and flame wars to get there but I'm glad I was along for the ride. For all the regrets and poor tastes I carry around from those days, it remains, in the grand scheme, a joyful one.

Still, there's a small, sad part of me that can't help but smile when I see words like the "fall of IGE".

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