Having their cake

Over the weekend, BioWare announced a highly unpopular decision to enforce their pre-existing rules about fansites and media, and as usual, I seem to be the only one of my too-nice-for-their-own-good colleagues who agrees with the decision (except these guys!). Essentially, BioWare have determined that, to be classed as a fansite (and to receive the associated perks thereof), a SWTOR site may not accept money for any reason, including advertising revenue and donations to cover server costs. Sites that receive such funds, however small, are recognized as media sites, just like Massively is, and are routed through proper press channels rather than directly through BioWare’s community staff.

SWTOR sites spazzed over this announcement, and while I feel their pain in a “change sucks” sense, I still don’t think they’re in the right. I’ve not only been in their shoes but worn them at all levels of the issue. You’re reading this on a tiny, self-funded blog. My employer is a large, professional blogzine. And I spent a large portion of the last decade running a Sims fansite that shot from obscurity to superstardom and back again, accepting donations and feeling the crunch of the costs of server fees all along the way. In fact, the Sims community has been fighting over this very issue — if you take donations, are you a paysite? — for just about ten years now. EA have been saying “yes” for quite a while now, to protect their assets and copyrights. Why would EA do any less when LucasArts are involved?

At some point, all site owners have to buck up and decide whether their amateur site is a hobby or a job, because the instant they accept money for their work, they’ve gone pro. It doesn’t matter what they do with that money. It doesn’t matter that the donations they took paid only for their site hosting. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t bringing in enough donations to turn a profit. Going pro does not necessarily mean being successful or profitable. It’s not like BioWare have the time or ability to parse your tax returns to make sure you reported your hobby income and that you didn’t have any extra left over after paying your costs!

No, BioWare must simply draw a line between amateur fansites and professional media. There’s no other practical or non-invasive way for a company to do it. They cannot be expected to hand out exclusives meant for community sites to what they consider pro sites — that’s not fair to the actual little guys, the sites that really are going it alone out of a sense of community service. Borderline sites would prefer to have their cake and to eat it too; I get that. Is it a rough decision for those borderline sites, the ones that don’t really want to go pro but can’t really afford the traffic coming in from any BioWare exclusives they get? Absolutely, but that’s true of any hobby site anywhere, be it a SWTOR blog or a Sims mod site like mine once was. If those sites can’t throttle or otherwise control their traffic, they shouldn’t accept more traffic than they can pay for, or they should go pro. That’s the responsible thing to do. No one said this hobby and business were easy!

Gamers get tripped up because they think equality is the same as fairness (nevermind the usual anti-corporatism — everyone loves to hate on EA and Lucas). But not all sites are equal. The vast majority of these SWTOR sites will vanish not long after the game launches. It’s just the way things work in gameland. If they don’t hit it big or manage to sell up to a bigger site, the owners lose interest. We might lose a few sites now because of this issue, but BioWare’s not forcing anyone into anything. The idea that high-quality sites will all vanish if not subsidized by Bioware is ludicrous, as silly as it was when Simmers declared the same. The borderline sites could keep right on doing what they’re doing; all they’ll lose is a few perks that may or may not be necessary to their livelihoods anyway, especially since many of these sites are podcasts or aggregators that are not directly dependent on (or getting) exclusives from BioWare to begin with.

Either way, no site deserves to exist. They live and die on their own content, business savvy, and dedication. And we should mourn the passing of the good ones, but that’s evolution — not a reason for BioWare to bend the rules or play favorites.

If we really want to get angry about something, how about the fact that E3’s organizers deny press passes to sites that do not meet a specific traffic threshold. That has a far more significant impact on indie bloggers and ‘casters than the fact that BioWare may not tweet your posts anymore.

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