State of the Union: RPGnet Status Report
May 4, 2001presented by Sandy Antunes
Given that it's been a full semester since Emma resumed operations of the rpg.net property, a short summary and inside peek seemed worth doing. The goal of this piece is:
The legal defense of RPGnet[tm] is still being resolved in the courts. We thank Skotos Tech (skotos.net) for their continual free support of RPGnet (through providing hardware and bandwidth). And we are ever thankful to those who donated to the still-continuing RPGnet legal defense fund, run by our 'competitors' at GamingOutpost.com.
The survey on "when to do new reviews" showed a fairly clear split between options, with a likely majority favoring discrete days (of some form) rather than 'daily'. So we will try the "Tuesday and Thursday for RPGs, Wednesday for non-RPGs" scheme for a bit.
Having had at least one bit of new content (and often two) each weekday, we plan to continue this rate through summer. RPGnet will have at least one column, comic, or editorial Monday through Friday. We will put up new reviews thrice weekly, and run new press releases daily. The directory index gets updated daily and cleaned/purged bi-monthly. The 'best of the forums' page gets updated at least bi-weekly. The forums run around the clock.
Among the new features are "Buzz", where companies can provide prepress kits about cool new upcoming stuff, "The Challengers" (an online gaming game show), and "The Mighty Eye", where we'll take a peek at very cool non-RPGnet gaming content.
Columns this past week included an op-ed, a structuralist piece, an interview, a game, and this update. Plus many reviews, including a self-review by a publisher. And this was a typical week. (If I hear one more comment about our 'dearth of content' I'm going to start using naughty words.)
Sandy will be running games at Origins'01 in July-- two different LARPS and a tabletop, multiple runs of each. Sandy is also giving an open seminar on websites. Other than that, we have no formal convention appearances, though as usual we're looking to recruit a floor reporter for GenCon. Once the legal case is cleared up, we can have more concrete future plans. As Emma and Sandy are located in scenic Laurel, Maryland, near Washington D.C., we are always interested in meeting East Coast visitors for dinner.
We have revived the "Reviews Queue", wherein promotional copies of games are provided to reviewers in return for (ta da!) a review. We'll be shipping out the first batch this month (as usual, shipping is one of our biggest expenses). New items we receive will get listed, likely once or twice a month. This will ensure that reviews keep flowing in, plus it's nice compensation to existing reviewers for their continual contributions.
One of our recurrent tasks is cleaning the existing review database. With 3436 reviews as of this past April, we still have 22 missing reviewers (out of 826 listed authors), 98 missing email addresses for reviewers, and 321 (or approximately 10%) missing titles. So getting this data cleaned up is a high priority, and frankly we'd love a volunteer or four willing to slog through and do data entry to fix this. Having gotten to this 90% confidence level, though, we can at least update our "by Freelancer/by Company" indices and finally (for the first time since mid-2000) be up to date on our own contents.
Other neat things have been suggested and may be done, as time and inclination allows. A "best of reviews" and "best of columns" page was suggested. The humor and SF indices will be updated soon, and we're providing better tools for this sort of thing. The art gallery will be revamped.
We are looking into partnerships, largely with foreign sites interested in translating RPGnet contents for their local readers. More on this when we get a chance to evaluate the situation (probably post-legal).
Day to Day and Staffing
In terms of operations, there's currently one person (Sandy Antunes) doing pretty much everything, with Drew Meger assisting in editing two (and hopefully more) columns. Drew has tentatively committed to even more column editor work come summer. Steve Darlington is considering taking up the mantle of "Survey God", creating and posting the new surveys we run each week. Sys admin support is still courtesy of Shannon Appelcline and his crew, for which we are very, very thankful. Programming of new features is done as needed by Sandy. Meera Barry and James Maliszewski have reaffirmed their wish to maintain the humor and SF sections, respectively, once we can support that. So we are slowly restoring our volunteer base, which ultimately is what sustains the breadth of this site. In addition, we have a strong base now of over a dozen and a half regular columnists, and over 800 people have contributed reviews to date.
For the logistically minded, Sandy deals with, on an average day, 24 relevant rpg.net emails that must be read, 6 submissions received for consideration, and approximately 16 replies needing to be written and sent. Plus 14 email lists tracked each day, and tracking of relevant RPGnet forums. Plus spam, skips, notices, well-wishes, and fluff.
Therefore, it's safe to say email is still the number one time expense for RPGnet operations (bandwidth and postage being our two top fiscal expenses). Alas, we've had to revise our 1999 policy of 'all emails replied to within 72 hours'. Now, we endeavor to reply within 1 week, and almost always manage at least within 2 weeks. Fortunately, the "Trouble Tickets" forum provides a direct conduit for getting our attention on crucial matters.
Sandy, as prime operator, actually has no equity or ownership of RPGnet; it was started by his wife. He just somehow ended up operating the darn thing. He is also finishing his PhD as well as taking care of Ivy, age 2.5. He also has his own corporation to run. Therefore, RPGnet is clearly a 3rd/4th priority item. This is not a pre-justification for slacking off, rather, consider it a forewarning if you unreasonably expect a 24 hour response on an item. We operate 24/7, but we don't react 24/7.
Readership-- and Costs
RPGnet itself is serving over 21,000 pages per day (thats 152K 'hits' or 10,857 dog hits) to over 155,000 folks over any given month. In techie terms, we deliver 1.5 GB of traffic each day.
Looking at a rough cost structure, the average reader of RPGnet costs us about 4 cents a month in base network costs. If you factor in one part-time ops person, you're each costing us 20 cents a month. Note that's very basic costs, simply to operate, neglecting issues like hardware, programming and upgrades, and acquiring content. It's a neat number to toss around, but fairly meaningless in terms of most revenue models.
This raises a significant point: our revenue structure. Put simply, we have none. The original business model for RPGnet (business-to-business web hosting and design) was gutted in 2000, and all the clients lost. I am not aware of any models beyond 'ad revenue' which the interim operators in 2000 applied, but that is moot in any case; since January RPGnet has been heavily limited in its ability to function as a business, until the legal matters resolve.
However, it is useful to note the strengths of RPGnet in terms of the current difficult internet market. In particular, it is useful to contrast raw numbers (readership) with reader demographics (who those readers are).
Since any individual column only appeals to perhaps 1 in 25 RPGnet readers, again demographics are more important than raw numbers. In a way, 'readership' the coin by which we pay our authors; 'demographics' are the way we acquire our volunteer base. A third class, 'revenue audience', is what we'll need to develop.
For example, in an ad-driven model (which we've always stated was flawed), 'revenue audience' is 'readership'. In theory, this is ideal; in practice, the cost to obtain an advertiser and the difficulties in ensuring payment mean that ads are frequently undersubscribed and thus the model is insufficient. So we have no plan on changing our unofficial current policy, where RPGnet is running any publisher's ad banner for free as a service for our readers and for the industry. Readers said they liked targetted ads, and running them for free means our staffing, acquistion, and billing costs are effectively nil.
In a back end business-to-business model (i.e. our original hosting operations), 'revenue audience' was fairly independent of 'readership' or 'demographics'. To apply this to RPGnet now would require building an entire new back end business and acquiring a new client list. Ugh.
Partnering options can be based on 'demographics', but usually using an unknown demographic metric, so 'readership' is used with a lot of guesswork and hand-waving. For example, if "ID Software" paid to get a spot on RPGnet to test out "Doom IV", they would likely use the raw numbers to set their goals because the true demographic category of "RPGnetters who also play FPS" is initially unknown.
In a pay-for-play model, 'demographics' distill into a smaller subset of 'revenue audience'. Prudent pay sites must continue to keep their strong demographics to ensure a steady stream of "conversions" of a percentage of those into the revenue-paying audience.
PBS (reader-supported) models use 'demographics', mixing a few categories to determine what percentage of the readership will contribute at different levels. Micropayment schemes involve similar calculations. Enhanced content, likewise. These are the models Sandy (operator not owner) favors for possible future implementation. All of this is abstract-- as mentioned, until the legal issues clear up the entity of "RPGnet" cannot really enter into any legal or long-term contracts.
Currently, our operation currently harks back to our original founding goals. This is best stated in Emma's writeup for the original trademark application (for "RPGnet[tm]" and "The Inside Scoop on Gaming[tm]").
RPGnet is an industry-focused content-rich web portal devoted to the role-playing game (RPG) entertainment industry. RPGnet lets professionals in the industry interact with fans and players. It is a gateway for talented newcomers to gain exposure within the trade, and for established companies and writers to promote their products. Fans and players can also enjoy the large archive of game- and industry-relevant content, and community-based services.
Moving past her official statement, we get into ideology. RPGnet has always been about challenging the status quo. We provided a revolving door into the game industry while nepotism and Con schmoozing was the only avenue in. We removed the barrier between 'creators' and 'gamers'. We opened an independent collaboration-- not a house organ, not a mad solo effort, but teamwork. We felt madness thrived best when everyone could do it together.
We deliberately avoided an editorial voice in favor of a community voice, while other publications were spending money to 'brand' everything. All our work was and is creator-owned. We worked to promote everyone else; self-promotion wasn't our business.
We weren't in it to make money, but we weren't in it to lose money either. We thought fiscal responsibility was cool.
We wrote hyperbole about our site's vision long before IPOs became trendy :)
Actually, this section isn't about the future-- that's all implicit in the above. I just needed to include a wrap-up and, for the seventeen people who actually read this missive all the way through, to talk about why I do this. What I most enjoy is working with new writers and start-up companies. Both are the same: poised, ready to take a leap into the new world armed only with ideas and ego. I am seriously looking forward to 'the next big thing'. And I hope RPGnet can help you and yours achieve that. Good luck!