Guest Post: Industry groks geeks? Producers, fans, and an era of sudden interactivity

My student at the University of Kansas, Ryan M. Milner, recently finished an excellent Masters Thesis about fans of the game series Fallout and I’ve asked him to write up some of its many insights to share with you. Here’s his first of what I hope will be a short series of posts from him:

Geek, it seems, is in.

At least on some level. The very fact that another disc of Lost just arrived at my house via indicates as much. I’m young but I’ve watched enough Nick at Nite to suspect that a show like Lost (or Heroes or Alias) is the product of a market that recognizes the value of fans. There’s no getting this show if you haven’t watched every other episode. You could pick up with Dragnet or Full House midstream and be fine. But Lost requires a more devoted viewership. One that rewards producers with a niche group to market DVDs and digital games to (or in the case of Heroes, sell Nissans to), and rewards consumers with a full universe to expand on and explore, and a deep story to enjoy, one full of self-referential mysteries and clues. Therefore, this enjoyment may be directly correlated to the knowledge one has of the universe.

But this puts producers in a touchy spot, and a tenuous relationship can often develop. Fans, by definition of their investment, are more active, and demand more from a media text than the standard channel-surfing consumer. A slip up in the style, narrative, or plot of The Office, and my friends are all over it. The next time we see each other the debate is on. Deep, nuanced views on character, story, or tone are discussed at length, often with as many unique perspectives as participants.

The popularization of internet has allowed these discussions to widen in voice and reach. This is where things can get especially touchy for producers. If enough fans are displeased enough, and are vocal enough, that’s negative buzz. And it can be cancerous in this cluttered media marketplace. So it’s up to producers to interact with fans and find a balance between diverse interests and goals. Even if producers choose not to engage with fans, that sends a message of its own. And the messages producers send to fans are increasingly consequential in a marketplace where geek is in.

So how do producers and fans of media texts relate in this era of sudden interactivity?

That was what I wanted to understand as I began to examine how a specific group of digital-game fans engaged with producers and each other during a period of tension over the next installment of the game series. Fans of the digital-game series Fallout were active in voicing concern for the upcoming title Fallout 3 (set to release this fall), and did so on the forums of the game’s production studio, Bethesda Softworks. The heart of the tension was that Bethesda wasn’t the developer of Fallout 1 & 2, and was making drastic gameplay and narrative changes to Fallout 3. Analyzing forum interactions made for great study, since I had never seen research document regular producer/fan interaction so deeply, never mind the bombastic beauty of the forum’s confrontations. I’ve never seen such eloquent flames.

A few things impressed me. One of the first things I noticed was that even in a marketplace where geek is in, the producers still seemed to hold all the cards. It was Bethesda’s game. It was Bethesda’s site. It was their vision of Fallout that, whether valid or invalid, would hit the shelves. Fans, recognizing a lack of official ownership or control, acted as lobbyists and watchdogs, attempting to indirectly influence the integrity of Fallout 3 through pleas and petitions spread across thousands of forum posts. Bethesda employees, fittingly, treated fans like outsiders in their responses. Whether cordial or hostile (and different producers interacted in different ways at different times), the undertone was clear: we are the organization, you are the public. We’ll let you suggest, but we will decide. The text is ours.

Even more impressive, fans seemed to happily accept their role in the process. Despite many scholarly concerns over the exploitative side of fan labor, when fans on the official Fallout 3 forum lobbied, suggested, and expanded they did so recognizing that this was their most effective way to influence the integrity of Fallout 3. Exploitation was trivial in the face of such purpose. One poster summed up the general fan perspective on their role in the game development process:

Fallout 3 MUST be like Fallout…the best answer for every question on this forum besides “I have the holy sacred duty to watch over my beloved game”

So the idea that geek is in may not be as empowering to the geeks as I had originally believed. Sure, the internet has afforded fans voice and reach in the development process of the texts they esteem. Sure, many producers are actually listening to the suggestions of fans, and others (especially in the digital-games industry) are incorporating fan feedback and production into the official text. But the tone on the Fallout 3 forum seems to mirror the tone of many media producers. Fans are a great niche market to sell things to, and a ready-made audience to focus-group and beta test. But they are not productive partners in the development of media texts. They are still a rung down on the production ladder. I have to wonder what the media market would look like if producers forgot the words “audience” and “consumer” and began to think of fans as co-laborers in a community of enthusiasts.

Then, I think we could definitively say geek would be in.

Comments (8) to “Guest Post: Industry groks geeks? Producers, fans, and an era of sudden interactivity”

  1. Well, you know I have to respond to any post beginning with “Geek is in.” :)

    I think that the console video game industry still operates very much on an “old media” process, despite that many of us think of games as “new media.” The production and distribution process is still fairly centralized, and it still requires a big budget to create A-list titles. Perhaps we see the most “democratizing” effects of digital media in areas where fans and small-budget outfits actually have a greater capacity to create and distribute media of their own that rivals big-studio quality. Anybody can put their own show up on YouTube or float an mp3 EP around MySpace or Pandora, but what we get from the “indie games” scene is still a very different animal from gaming companies that can afford to develop cinematic games. Until console gaming somehow gets opened up to outsider talent the way that other media have been, you’ll see this kind of imbalanced negotiation by fans, still resembling what some earlier fan scholars described over the course of the ’90s.

    I’d love to see the thesis sometime if you feel like sharing it!

  2. As someone investigating the Fallout 3 fanbase as well (though from a different perspective), thank you for sharing your insights with the general public. :)

    Your comments about the ‘ownership’ of the text is particularly interesting – because to an almost unprecedented degree in video game culture, Fallout fans possess a strong sense of ownership over the text, and are willing to be vocal about it: the news media point to NMA as the mischievous ‘culprit’, but the fact is such fans make up a big part of the official Bethesda forums, too. The number of years since the original games seems to have only served to brew up a massive and strongly focused metatext of ‘Fallout’. Certainly, you are right that many fans are willing to eventually accept their role as a spectator and consumer, with discourses such as ‘don’t like it, don’t buy it’, but with Fallout, I would suggest that some fans have succeeded in negotiating, or at least challenging, Bethesda’s PR discourse and their definitions of what Fallout is about. Certainly, they’ve made the video-game news media take notice of them. Though it’s impossible to tell at this stage, the Fallout 3 saga might just be part of a general development towards fans with more ways to make themselves heard.

  3. It’s interesting for me to be the subject of a study, it’s usually the other way around :)

    Hope you’ll show more of your work Ryan, and I’m interested in hearing more about Sun-Ha’s “investigation”.

    Here’s my blogpost about this:

  4. Interesting stuff, I’d love to read it – and any study on the insanity that is us – some day.

    I’d personally find the BGSF a troubled subject to study, to be honest. One factor in that is that it is very hard to find relevant producer-fan interaction between an aggressive fanbase as is present there and an insular producer – which is what Bethesda is to exceedingly high levels (not exceeding Nintendo or EA, though).

    Another is that the thing has gone up and down from the moment it started. Unlike NMA, which is old and settled, BGSF still suffers under influxes of new users which tip the social balance one way or the other. It has gone from some developer interaction to scaring them off again, it has gone from traditional fan dominance at the start to the dominance of new fans that I think is visible now. And it’s always been a flame-fest amongst users, moreso than NMA.

    I made some more comments on NMA, but obviously I should hold off any substantial judgement since you only give a glance at the material.

    Jason T: I find your post interesting. Especially since the gaming industry lags not just in terms of open interaction on new media, but also in the way they cling to traditional publishing models when compared to the more open experimentation that music/film has done.

    Sun-ha Hong: I find ownership a troubled concept in this context, as you might well imagine. I certainly don’t feel any ownership myself, but on the other hand I do feel ownership “should” lie with the 6 original developers, moreso than with Bethesda.

    Also, I find it amusing how much NMA tends to get singled out in this process when DaC and the GameFAQs Fallout 3 forum are much more poignant examples.

  5. Thank you all for the comments. Great to see interest here and elsewhere on the internet. I’d love to further the discussion some.

    First of all, Jason, I’d agree that the game-development industry is built on blockbusters. It takes years and millions to produce a successful title. But I do think cooperation with fans is still possible. The easiest way is just to be open to fan activity and listen to their input. It’s everywhere. Also, accepting productivity (i.e., mods) can empower as well. Maybe an industry that encourages such behavior will help usher in that era of indie gaming.

    Sun-ha, like you, I was surprised at the tendency on the forum to accept that Fallout’s destiny was not the domain of fans. Whether fans felt that Fallout was hijacked from them, or from Black Isle Studios (the games’ original developer), or never theirs in the first place (I saw all three), they felt it was out of their hands. It was not theirs to own. They did their best to work around this realization.

    And Brother None, I know that the Bethsoft forums were extremely volatile. In my opinion, this made the research all the more valuable. In the face of such intense confrontation (and the occasional Bethesda fan), posters were compelled to address the issues more clearly; to make explicit the ideas that they had believed implicitly.

    Anyway, I’d love to hear more. Feel free to email Nancy on this blog, and she’ll forward it to me. We can discuss away. I hope to have more soon.

  6. Speaking of the game industry being built on blockbusters, that economic bit of it is actually an interesting part of the analysis: if you look at how music and film approaches the new media they tend to be more open and take more risks – or at least it is not as aberrant if such methods are used as it is with gaming.

    I guess part of this is the high-risk factor of gaming, and the fact that gaming has no back-up currency to fall back on (film has theatres, music has shows). That means if you experiment with the internet and it goes wrong, you’re out a couple of million.

    Bethesda – for example – can’t really have Fallout 3 fail. They’d survive, but they’re a one-project development house that spends 3-4 years and 25 million USD or more on such projects. Not exactly an investment taken lightly.

  7. I would find reading your thesis extremely interesting, as it’s a subject I’ve not much considered.

    I personally feel that the game industry needs to adopt a targeted development/budgeting buisness model much like Hollywood does. One where they budget the game and develop it from the standpoint of realistic possibility of penetration, rather than “We want a blockbuster!”.

    I mean, if I’m developing an RPG, I’ll get sales figures on RPG’s, and expect to sell the median figure. Sure, sometimes it’ll sell higher, sometimes lower, but I’ll budget for that median number.

    Too much focus is on every game to sell like gangbusters.

    On the direct topic, Fan/Developer interaction, I’d like to throw out two counter-examples. One on how a game can benefit significantly, and one on how it can be crushed.

    Asheron’s Call: Very significant Fan/Developer interaction to the point where some fans have become AC developers at Turbine.

    Over the years a number of issues have reared their heads. One of the largest being an imbalance between melee characters, and ranged/magic characters. At one point the imbalance was so severe that a melee character was actually shunned from participating. The fans pleaded with the Dev’s and they ultimately created a very effective plan on action that rebalanced the game in short order, while adding a highly interesting crafting system.

    This interaction has lead to many other events, like an extremely pervasive and ellusive bug being tracked down that never would have been found. Or the dramatic changing of policies. I’ll be happy to elaborate if anyone considers it worthy of discussion.

    Star Wars Galaxies: The Dev’s set-up a chain of fan feedback collection. One fan was chosen as a representative for each “Class” of characters, through which those characters funneled their feedback.

    It was a catastrophy of unprecedented proportions.

    The fan reps were given exclusive access to the Dev’s, who did not read the actual boards. In doing so, they set up the ability for the development of the game to be manipulated.

    Some classes had skills considered too “Powerfull” removed, then the same things given to other classes. Other’s were outright ignored as the Fan Reps weren’t as persistant as others.

    It all came to a raging head that melted down when some Fan Reps became fed up with a specific other fan rep.

    It seems the “Bounty Hunter” fan rep had been manipulating information trying to get the other combat classes reduced in power and his increased. He would tell the Dev’s, and provide numbers, that he claimed demonstrated the other classes were too powerfull in relation to his. He left out the parts that the numbers he provided required the same commitment as the “Bounty Hunter” class did, as well as other pertinent data.

    It became a firestorm as it became public and objective data was made available. But it was too late, the Dev’s had already made numerous changes based on faulty data from one Fan Rep, and large numbers of alienated Players quit en masse.

    At the same time, it became apparent another Fan Rep was filtering info to the Dev’s based upon that Fan Rep’s personal vision of the game, and ignored mass opinions. Which just accelerated the feelings of alienation and exodus.

    In my opinion, the Asheron’s Call model is best. Dedicated fans can know what’s best for a game, but they have to be considered as a group, not through a single person who can filter and manipulate information. It’s also my opinion that one should never abandon a fan base in favor of hoping to attract a new one. An event that occured to disasterous results with both Asheron’s Call 2 and Star Wars Galaxies, both of which suffered terrible losses.

  8. Brother None: Certainly, it is not ‘ownership’ in the sense that all such fans consider Fallout ‘theirs and theirs alone’ – though some *do* feel that way. To clarify, I would suggest ‘ownership’ in the sense that such fans feel they can and should challenge the discourses, factual claims or decisions made by the ‘legal’ owner of the franchise.

    Ryan: To that end, you appear to build towards the point that many, in the end, accept their role as a mostly passive consumer – while this is correct, would you not say that this ‘vocal minority’ (and for FO3, an especially visible one) will eventually have an impact? I think even Gatt’s spectacularly disastrous example of Galaxies, not to mention Asheron’s Call, says something about how developers and fans see themselves and each other. Your concluding remarks about ‘co-labourers’ – it is utopian, of course, to suggest a perfect harmony, but I think we are building towards it in some levels, and communities like NMA or DaC are providing a space that is very much necessary for this progression.