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Soapbox: About the Industry

Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!

by Sandy Antunes
November 13, 2001

Humorous title aside, this really is the 'secret operational document' of RPGnet. I sent this to Skotos and Allan Sugarbaker to explain what RPGnet is and why it came to be that way, as well as providing high level operational suggestions. In short, this is our roadmap to success, our 'brand definition', and the behind-the-scenes way we approach any topic when we work on RPGnet. Given that our mission is "showing how the industry really works", it seemed only fair that we then publish our own internal documents.
Sandy Antunes, sandy@rpg.net  

Our Mission

Our function is to be a border or window between industry professionals and gamers, as well as a gateway and proving ground for new writers. Our readers also create and report on our content.

In terms of approach, we are library, as opposed to a bookstore. A bookstore's job is to sell the popular stuff to you, and at best grudgingly supply less common stuff to lure you into buying the trendy stuff. Like a library, we choose to carry everything and give it equal shelf space.

Our job is to provide information so it is easy to find, and to provide a context for that information. You can browse us or go as deep as you want, we still have you covered.

We are also archival. When we formed, websites would last a semester under an obscure URL then disappear. We wanted to let creators do their stuff under our stable banner-- and if they then ran out of time or wanted to move, the _information_ itself would remain for people to enjoy.

So we ironically have a creator focus for getting content, and then provide an institutional memory for it so creators do not have to tie themselves down to support older works.

Our Stance

Most sites have 'attitude' and a 'hip editorial stance' where the 'editors in the know' inform the readers of 'what is up'. We eschew an editorial stance-- instead, like a window, we let the readers decide.

This means we don't project a bias nor weight towards one side or the other. No pro- or anti-d20: it's just another system. No pro- or anti-small press: all publishers are of equal notice. No 'staff writers' versus 'readers': our readers create our content.

Transparent Operations

Everything has a meta-message. A column is not a column, it is also an example of our thorough coverage. A reply to a bug report is not just a reply, but PR showing we're on top of things. Admitting a fault is not just civil, but shows we take things seriously and don't bullshit our readers. Everything is content.

Related to this, the operations of RPGnet itself are done, for most aspects, openly. We discuss upcoming changes with our readers, solicit for feedback, or explain cool back room aspects of it.

The operations of RPGnet really is an ongoing essay into how to run a gaming portal website. It is the ultimate 'Inside Scoop'. And after all, if we're going to tell all the so-called 'secrets' of the industry, we need to be honest about our own methods and plans. For example, I would like to publish this 'Overview' as my next Soapbox, since (as a transition document) it is perhaps the one place where all of RPGnet's history and philosophy is documented.

This also has the benefit that, Japan-style, no change ever hits our readers unawares. People fear change, even if it is for the better. By the time change comes to RPGnet, though, the naysayers have been smoothered by the light of reason and everyone is prepped, psyched even, for what is new.

With this comes responsibility. Put simple, don't lie. You can always answer "No" (politely) to an idea, or say "I can't talk about that yet". Duplicity _will_ be noted by the devout and have a negative PR hit, and you know, duplicity rarely provides an advantage anyway. We're the _nice_ site.

Meritocracy plus Annotation

This means "everything gets published and the cream rises to the top". It is also the source of criticism about the poorer content, by folks who don't realize that poor content is the price we pay for having great content as well. Because great content usually can be evaluated only historically-- and to a large degree, RPGnet is archival, letting history determine what is right. Today's maligned small press may be tomorrow's WotC, and RPGnet will have covered it even before it became big, guaranteed.

We don't aim to surprise people, we aim to delight them. Our only concession to poorer content is to provide better filters and tools so readers can decide what is important. Listing reviews with word counts and including the summary in the index, for example. Having a 'best of forums' page that anyone can submit to but only the site owner can approve is another. In short, annoted content and meta-content enhances the raw stuff that pours into RPGnet and creates even more coolness.

Columns are the interesting almost-exception. We do choose columnists. The criteria is simple.

  1. Is the column series relevant to our meta-stance? That means, is it a broad concept (as opposed to, say, "RIFTS creature-of-the-week").
  2. Is it a topic we don't currently do? If we have a columnist covering fantasy archetypes, for example, we don't want another to compete. That's reinventing the wheel. Each column series has to have a unique take.
  3. Can they write? Most can.

That's really it. It's a very sparse filter and it works exceedingly well, because it is a meritocracy at its core. Only those writers able to make a pitch, then follow through with actually delivering columns, get published. Eminently fair.

Focus

Focus is also important. We are the definitive industry-focused site. We don't publish people's RPG scenarios. We don't have columns about new rules for d20. We don't do exposes on the cool new product coming from White Wolf.

Instead, we publish how to create a scenario. We have columns about how d20 has impacted the industry. We write about White Wolf's marketing campaign for their new line launch.

And through this, our readers get the visceral pleasure of feeling that they, too, are insiders to this marvelously confusing gaming industry.

Psychological Profile

RPGnet is also patronizing, in the proper sense of that word. This means we don't condescend. We don't crow about how "we know more than you". We get information, and we share it-- without fanfare or bravado about how we scooped folks for it. Because we are the parental figure-- we already know all. (If we don't know it, we find it out. Ah, the joys of research!) And we inform people when that information appears.

We don't brag about how we know 'cool bit X'. We report on 'cool bit X' because it's currently relevant. We elaborate on 'cool bit X' if we see interest in the topic. With this, people get the sense that "my goodness, they _do_ know everything, the only limit is in the questions I ask."

Technically, we have no competitors. There are some neat gaming sites out there, and some portals. We report on them just as we report on any rank-and-file publisher. That's our role: to report on everything, to sit as the meta-entity for the industry.

Case in point, we opened up our press release relay _aeons_ ago so anyone could email 'press@rpg.net' and we'd post it. Now there are 'news' sites (whose entire job is to parrot press releases). So we put up the raw press releases (for archival value) and also embed other news portals into it (for commentary). Because we're above them, selecting what is relevant from their many voices.

Whenever someone mimics us, we reinvent ourselves one step higher on the ladder. Now that portals are trendy, for example, we've shifted to being a meta-portal.

Growth by Accretion

Our method is "never reinvent the wheel". We also emphasize creator's rights and ownership of their own work. These two concepts combine to make competition fairly pointless: being assimilated into RPGnet provides creators with the best of all possible worlds.

Historically, RPGnet was a demo product for Emma's web hosting and design company. If people thought RPGnet was cool (went her thinking) they'd hire Emma to design _their_ sites, too.

The initial content was Sandy's "Writer's Market Guide" (the core of the industry directory today), his previously published reviews, and his soapbox. We added the "submit your own review" and recruited some other columnists. _We_ pitched _them_. Erich Arendall was next on board, I believe, having already achieved (usenet) fame as "Shadow Sprite".

We also offered to host Prince Etrigan (Shawn Althouse)'s site, to build synergy, and Brian David Phillips's LARP stuff, because we were larpers (and to add breadth and scholastic merit). Our motivation was that both offered neat things we wanted our site to have, and so there was no point in making one to compete with them. On the other hand, they were languishing under hard-to-find URLs and had to worry about web space. We provided free support in order to gain content and thus readers.

Even now, we use the same general method. Our workers are all volunteer. They start up with us, and typically do a good run before deciding to move on to something new. They gained a following during their run with us, and in turn we keep the archive so it doesn't disappear from the web. As a result, we have slowly been creating the next generation of game writers, many of whom cite RPGnet as a strong influence in their early success. We like that beyond its simple PR value-- it shows we're doing our job correctly.

Today

Originally we published RPGnet only on Tuesdays; now we do daily updates with at least two 'things' published per day. A thing typically includes a column-thingee, or some reviews, or a link to the latest press releases, or a link to a newly updated section. We're pretty flexible, it just has to be two clickable links for each daily "What's New".

For handling email, you can see my 'form responses' for most queries. These also give you a good background in handling different aspects of the site. Our policy is to answer every non-SPAM email, within 1 week if possible (and within 1 day if feasible).

Operations

We run new reviews Tues/Thurs (for RPGs) plus Wed (for non-RPGs). There have been requests to shift reviews (perhaps to Mon/Wed/Fri). Editor's choice on that.

We try to do a new column or feature each day. If things are slow, we make due with another link.

We also try to update the Press Releases listing daily. We only mention this on the front page if we need a second "What's New" item for that day. Other things that get updated 'as needed' (like the Best of Forums listing) are likewise only noted when we're either short on stuff, or when the update was significant.

Our current main features are:

  1. Reviews
  2. Columns and Features
  3. Surveys
  4. Industry Directory
  5. Subsections and Corners (Humor, SF, Gallery, etc)
  6. Ads
  7. Forums (and Best of Forums)
  8. "Neat Stuff" like the Birthday tool, Chat, Custom homepage color/layout

Reviews

Reviews are submitted via the 'submit a review form' prominently placed on the Reviews listings and the front page. Reviews are vetted by the Editor and can be edited (typically to remove munged HTML, BODY and HTML tags left in by folks who composed them offline in html, and other problems). We don't do content editing of reviews-- part of the goal is for reviewers to be able to improve their writing through peer review. And without an editorial stance, content editing is problematic anyway.

How long a review goes from submission to publication is somewhat random. I use the criteria of

  1. group related reviews together, regardless of order received
  2. if there is a theme, run with it-- but also toss in a few non-theme items so everyone has something to read that day
  3. put longer or better written or more provocative reviews earlier in the list
  4. stop adding reviews to any given day's queue when they get to be more than 1-2 dozen, since people have complained that huge numbers get overwhelming
  5. try to ensure that the days are roughly balanced, i.e. that there aren't 20 RPG reviews on Tuesday then only 3 RPG reviews on Thursday.

So with all that in place, most reviews go up within a week of submission, and some lucky ones (or during slow weeks) get posted within a day or two. Almost never will an item go more than two weeks without posting.

Columns and Features

We currently do a column or feature each weekday. On slow weeks (when we don't have much of a backstock of material), we may skimp by having, for example, Friday's Survey, as explained earlier. A Column is "an edition in an ongoing author's series or a one-shot guest column by an industry or gamer person". A Feature is "the other stuff". For example, an Interview or Con Report would be a Feature, as are the "Buzz" and "Mighty Eye of RPGnet" items. This nomenclature is mostly pointless but I find it handy.

Columns are at least minimally edited. I always run a spell checker and a sanity check on them. When possible, I work with the author on revisions. Drew Meger does more intensive one-on-one work with authors for the specific columns that he manages.

Surveys

Currently, a new survey goes up every Friday. There is a web tool for this. Steve Darlington has been handling surveys for us, and is recruiting S. John Ross to take over when he leaves in December.

Industry Directory

The current industry directory is publisher and creator self-reported information, approved by a staffer to ensure no spamming or off-topic listings. It is current and in really good shape, I feel.

Subsections and Corners (Humor, SF, Gallery, etc)

These are currently static pages, and mostly out of date. Many were maintained by individual volunteers (James M did SF, etc) who were mostly alienated by the crew of 2000, which is why they are out of date. I favor putting these into the same tool as the Directory Index, and using the same criteria as the Index (i.e. self-submitted links that get approved or turned down by the editor).

Ads

A survey of our readers found that:

  1. sites without ads were seen as 'unprofessional'
  2. readers wanted relevant, targeted ads about new or cool game stuff

Ads are basically content for this site! Readers want them, and they want them to be gaming stuff. We love this. We currently run them free for business reasons. We used to charge, the crew of 2000 messed things up, and we lacked the manpower to restart the collections aspect of handling them. The ad tool is very primitive but works. We as of yet have not provided the free ad customers with their ad stats, since stats are all on one page. I would like to make that page public once as an 'insider feature', actually-- and as a way to show people that RPGnet ads are an effective tool for them.

Forums (and Best of Forums)

We originally ran forums years ago, and no one used them. Forums later became trendy so we embedded them with columns for commentary, with reviews for commentary, then launched our own industry-focused top-level ones. And they became one of the highest trafficked portions of the site.

Forums are of five types:

  1. Broad Industry Themes, like "RPGnet" or "Game Business"
  2. Specific for Column series (experiencing cyclical use, whenever a new column in that series appears)
  3. Transient, for a given Review (it will always be there, but traffic is temporary)
  4. Administrative, currently just "Trouble Tickets". This is a godsend:
    1. Once a problem is posted, it's known so you don't get 100 emails over it
    2. You can track problems, and also ask for more details
    3. People find out when the problem is fixed when you post a follow-up
    4. Our followups are good PR and show we care
    5. We can answer 'no' to issues raised and people accept it
  5. Offsite. Things like the "PTG,PTB" forums, where we host an outside friendly sites' forum, thus helping them and in return getting a 'door' from their site to ours.

"Neat Stuff"

This catch-all includes the Birthday tool, the Custom homepage color/layout gadgets, and the Chat. Basically, the 'other' category that increases the feel of community (more-so than providing content). TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

Go to forum!\n"; $file = "http://www.rpg.net/$subdir/list2.php?f=$num"; if (readfile($file) == 0) { echo "(0 messages so far)
"; } ?>

All Soapboxes

  • See What Sticks by Sandy Antunes, 06jan06
  • Simple Gifts for Pre-Gamers by Sandy Antunes, 09dec05
  • Col vs Blog by Sandy Antunes, 04nov05
  • Running a First RPG for Kids by Sandy Antunes, 07oct05
  • Making It Pay by Sandy Antunes, 02sep05
  • The Hazards of Non-Combat Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 05aug05
  • Just-in-Time Pre-order Hell by Sandy Antunes, 01jul05
  • Cassandra's Industry Report by Sandy Antunes, 03jun05
  • Fiction or Non-Fiction by Sandy Antunes, 05may05
  • I am not a Storyteller by Sandy Antunes, 08apr05
  • A Better Job by Sandy Antunes, 01apr05
  • Advice For Working Writers by Sandy Antunes, 04mar05
  • Startup Fever by Sandy Antunes, 04feb05
  • Why Blogging is Lame by Sandy Antunes, 07jan05
  • Being a Pro Writer by Sandy Antunes, 10dec04
  • Viral Marketing Invitational by Sandy Antunes, 05nov04
  • The 24 Hour RPG Challenge by Sandy Antunes, 08oct04
  • A Decade of Distilled Advice by Sandy Antunes, 03sep04
  • Go Ahead, Hit Me! by Sandy Antunes, 06aug04
  • Promoting Yourself by Sandy Antunes, 09jul04
  • 10 Hurdles to Selling Your Game by Sandy Antunes, 11jun04
  • Let's Team Up! by Sandy Antunes, 07may04
  • Beyond Role and Pla(t)y(pus) by Sandy Antunes, 08apr04
  • Slow Improv and the Post-Kilgallon by Sandy Antunes, 05mar04
  • Paradox Redux by Sandy Antunes, 06feb04
  • Mad Scientists and the Kilgallon Paradox by Sandy Antunes, 09jan04
  • It's Not Your World, It's Mine by Sandy Antunes, 05dec03
  • Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers by Sandy Antunes, 07nov03
  • Eigentesting by Sandy Antunes, 09oct03
  • Atomic by Sandy Antunes, 05sep03
  • Is Writing a Commodity? by Sandy Antunes, 06aug03
  • Designing Amidst the Tides of Gaming History by Sandy Antunes, 08jul03
  • Buy This Book by Sandy Antunes, 05jun03
  • Hobbies by Sandy Antunes, 08may03
  • The Websites That Wouldn't Die by Sandy Antunes, 10apr03
  • The Path to Atrocities by Sandy Antunes, 06mar03
  • Cattle Mutilation: The Game Design by Sandy Antunes, 06feb03
  • Gaming With Children by Sandy Antunes, 09jan03
  • How To Be An Industry Poser, Part 1 by Sandy Antunes, 05dec02
  • all i game with, i learned from kids books by Sandy Antunes, 19nov02
  • TCG: The Total Cost of Gaming by Sandy Antunes, 10oct02
  • Game Publishing & The Law by Sandy Antunes, 06sep02
  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Sandy Antunes, 01aug02
  • Buying Time by Sandy Antunes, 04jul02
  • April 10, 2002 13 New FAQs
  • March 1, 2002 Give Me A Closet
  • January 2, 2002 Let's Go Shopping?!?
  • December 13, 2001 Conflict, Ethics, Winning, and Money
  • November 13, 2001 Secret RPGnet Operations Document Leaked!
  • October 16, 2001 Leadership and D&D
  • September 4, 2001 Leading Industry Site Reports Secret: Sex Sells!
  • August 7, 2001 Any, Anyone Can Be an Internet Success-- Why Aren't You?
  • July 3, 2001 Fine Print, Part U
  • June 5, 2001 Fine Print, Part I
  • May 8, 2001 Pushing Limits
  • May 4, 2001 RPGnet State of the Union special feature
  • April 6, 2001 The Other Magic: Niche Hobbies and Other Markets
  • May 9, 2000 Running a Business as an Old Style D&D Party
  • April 14, 2000 First to Market
  • March 20, 2000 Labor Pains
  • February 15, 2000 One Trick Pony
  • January 6, 2000 Creativity is Bad, Hard to Sell, and Great for Business
  • December 14, 1999 Oranges versus Bananas: Entertainment Costs
  • November 2, 1999 Why Editors Lie
  • October 5, 1999 How to publish a quality game, accept criticism gracefully, and lead a happy life: Pick Any Two
  • September 7, 1999 It Takes a Village (to publish an RPG)
  • August 3, 1999 All Gamer Money Isn't Equal
  • July 6, 1999 Tides of Cash Flow
  • June 1, 1999 Ad-itudes
  • May 4, 1999 Who, What, Give me a Guiness
  • April 6, 1999 The GAMA Trade Show '99
  • March 2, 1999 Roleplaying would have saved Millions
  • February 2, 1999 Games That Won't Suck
  • January 5, 1999 Dangerous Games
  • December 1, 1998 Making Gamers the Old Fashioned Way
  • November 3, 1998 The $1K Company
  • October 1, 1998 So You Want to Start Your Own Company...
  • September 1, 1998 Holy Grails and Marching Morons
  • August 4, 1998 Gamers Must Die!
  • July 7, 1998 Profit versus Prophet
  • June 2, 1998 Acquire! Acquire!
  • May 5, 1998 Power
  • April 21, 1998 The GAMA Trade Show Report, Part 2 (eventually)
  • April 7, 1998 Schroedinger Games, or, the GAMA Report
  • March 3, 1998 Culling the Herd
  • February 3, 1998 Horatio Hornblower's RPG Company
  • January 6, 1998 Double Feature (Us and Them/A Clash of Images)
  • December 2, 1997 "How to Scam Games for Free"
  • November 4, 1997 "Women in Gaming?"
  • October 2, 1997 "Fear of a Gaming Planet" (Welcome to the RPG ghetto?)
  • September 2, 1997 "Rush" (fame and adoration in lieu of pay)
  • August 2, 1997 "For the Money" (convention mating rituals)
  • July 2, 1997 "Good Deeds" (the dearth of evil game companies)
  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
  • March 2, 1997 "It's All in the Timing" (on hype and late deliveries, and on genres)
  • February 2, 1997 "Insiders and Outsiders" (who's who and who uses the web)
  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
  • December 2, 1996 "Procastination Season is Over" (delays and new products)
  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
  • October 1, 1996 "Post-Con fallout and not that many new games"
  • September 1, 1996 "Our launch, news from GenCon, demos, new LARPS"
  • Our reason for existence

    Other columns at RPGnet

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