Thu, May 16, 2013 | 13:18 BST
The story of NeoGAF part two: scandal and control
Alex Donaldson continues his discussion with NeoGAF owner Tyler Malka, where they discuss the site’s often volatile relationship with the industry. Oh, hello there Denis Dyack.
Missed part one of Alex and Tyler’s chat? Be sure to check it out here to learn more about the history of NeoGAF’s existence.
One of the key contributing factors to NeoGAF’s astonishing growth since 2006 has been due to the site becoming a hub for a wide range of activity. It’s a primary source of news and traffic for many gaming websites, and a site visited by famed developers or their representatives.
Combine that with 100,000 members and some 50,000 posts per day and you have a recipie for anarchy and scandal. As part of my ongoing discussion with NeoGAF’s lone owner, Tyler ‘EviLore’ Malka, we discussed how on earth managing such a vast number of people works, keeping the boards free and functional without hitting legal trouble or turning the them into landfill.
For Malka, finding the balance hasn’t always been easy – but the path to NeoGAF’s current moderation handbook is one decorated with well-publicised bumps in the road – the most famous of which are a collection of damaged industry figures – a stark warning to others wanting to get involved on the gaming world’s most notorious message board.
For or Against
Malka and NeoGAF’s most infamous public feud was with Denis Dyack, the founder and CEO of Too Human developer Silicon Knights. The clash between the membership and administration of the board, and Dyack himself made headlines in the gaming world. After tensions boiled over, Dyack and Malka both made public statements about the actions of the other.
“When [Denis] Dyack joined NeoGAF, he did it in a promotional capacity,” Malka told me. “He was going to – ‘oh, here, I’m the CEO of Silicon Knights, we’re making this game, I’ll answer people’s questions about the game,’ that sort of thing.
He interfaced with the community, answered questions. All of that is fine, because he’s doing so in threads about the game that already exist due to interest – ‘interest’ – in Too Human. There were no issues there.”
What Dyack encountered in those threads didn’t please him. Many on NeoGAF weren’t too complimentary to the game, and he, of course, didn’t like that. For some time he politely did battle with detractors in Too Human threads, and then, snapping, decided to create a thread asking users if they were ‘For or Against’ the game.
It was a bet. After the game released, the votes would be tallied; if the game’s critical reception was positive, those who had voted against would have their accounts branded ‘Owned by Denis Dyack,’ and the reverse for Dyack if GAF opinion more closely matched post-release impressions. It was a rather amusing, if slightly melodramatic call to arms from Dyack.
“I was basically calling out people who had no way of assessing the game,” Dyack told 1up at the time. “All I wanted to point out to people is that this is so ridiculous.” Dyack was trying to do the impossible; call out the more ludicrous aspects of message board rhetoric.
Malka said he still has little time for Dyack’s attitude. He describes the ‘For or against’ thread as “incredibly juvenile and, honestly, a little bit awkward. I kind of played it hands-off because it was hilarious.
“But the breaking point was when he went on to the 1up Yours podcast and had an hour-long prepared statement about why NeoGAF was the worst website on the internet, and why it should be shut down by the FBI because people on there have a negative reaction to the preview coverage for Too Human and think that it’s probably going to be a bad game.”
Malka could almost live with that, but was particularly irritated when Dyack returned to NeoGAF after the podcast containing his comments had been released and continued posting and promoting his game as normal.
“I’m like, ‘No, I don’t think you have the privilege of doing this anymore after spouting that level of vitriol’,” Malka recalled. He put out a cutting public statement, putting Dyack down and announcing he’d be banned from NeoGAF. “You are Baldur, Denis,” he wrote, referring to the lead of Dyack’s ill-fated game. “You’re the poorly animated bald Norse technogod.”
“There had been so much juvenile drama up to that point that I didn’t have any sorts of regrets about having a sort of public hanging and tearing into him,” Malka says when asked if he’d do it all again.
“Of course, history proved one side the victor,” he added of the ‘For or Against’ debate. Too Human sits with a middling MetaCritic score of 65, and the planned trilogy will now almost certainly never be made.
Even after his banning, Dyack maintained his point had been made. “NeoGAF is considered to be the worst, and I would say is probably the worst forum,” he told VG247 in 2008. “And so, you might as well pick the worst one. Why not?”
Contributing to Society
Dyack wasn’t the first or the last industry figure to fall foul of NeoGAF’s members. Around a year before the ‘Too Human’ incident, Microsoft’s Corporate VP of Global Marketing, Jeff Bell, had been outed for going on the attack against a NeoGAF member in a private message.
Bell had put in a fairly awkward performance at Microsoft’s E3 2007 Press Conference a week before and had become a topic of ridicule on GAF, as so often happens after press conference performances.
Unlike Dyack, Bell had kept his presence and his GAF account secret. He didn’t really post. One user got his blood up, though, and he sent a simple private message: “And your contribution to society is… what?”
The user in question posted a thread about the strange message received from an inactive member with the username ‘Bell801.’ Bell’s Live gamertag was ‘BigDaddy801’ – the connection was made, and further NeoGAF ‘detective work’ only proved it further. It hit the news.
“The Jeff Bell incident was probably a turning point,” Malka revealed. “There at least appeared to be significant consequences for his employment. He did quietly resign after the incident played out, and it was a big scandal that hit all the gaming media and everything like that.”
“After that point, I definitely saw a shift on NeoGAF. Major industry figures were a lot more careful. They weren’t just interacting on a human level – they were sort of just sticking to very strict PR handler sort of promotional things. At a moment’s notice anything anybody can say on NeoGAF could instantly become a scandal, so … People were more careful.”
Finding the correct balance in this area is a major concern for Malka. He publicly referred to the Jeff Bell incident as “a mistake,” and said that user anonymity should be protected, even for public figures. Even so, he warned those wishing to remain anonymous should act with discretion so not to rouse suspicion from would-be ‘detectives.’
Because of that Malka doesn’t require or keep any sort of list of industry figures with accounts on GAF. “I let it be unless I have a reason to think otherwise,” he added. “For example, recently we had a Maxis employee who was running this incredible misinformation campaign… sort of trying to shape the discussion about SimCity by creating news threads where they’d damage control the SimCity problems – that would be the slant on things.
“This was actually figured out independently by the user-base. They were looking at his post history, and seeing a strange narrative, and we’re looking at your personal post history and seeing that you live where Maxis is located. They figured it out on their own, and at that point I have to take action.
“This is inappropriate behaviour, to try to anonymously try to influence the perception of these things. Information flow via the creation of new threads is an important aspect of NeoGAF. We want threads that are about news items to not have an editorial slant built into them if at all possible.
“Obviously, editorials of themselves are fine – but not when we’re just talking about news. Save that for the reactions. When that’s compromised, we take action. I don’t keep this master list of industry people or anything. That would be inappropriate.”
The rising importance of roles such as the community manager has of course had an impact on boards like GAF, and it’s something Malka notes he is acutely aware of. A need to not ‘owe’ anything to these people is why the site eschews all official publisher relationships, despite many wishing to get involved with the site.
“If you’re a community manager acting in an official capacity, you’re labelled as such, you’re not allowed to start new discussion threads about anything to do with what you’re representing, you’re not allowed to copy-and-paste PR material or anything like that. You’re not allowed to do any sort of direct promotional action. You’re allowed to interface with the community, answer questions, clarify things, help people out with any of their issues. Anything along those lines is fine.
“Beyond that, we simply don’t hesitate to remove them from the community entirely. It’s valuable to have a sort of official presence, but it’s more valuable to maintain the site’s integrity and neutrality. I’ve had to ban all sorts of people.” Malka laughed. “There was… well, I don’t need to get into specific names, I suppose.”
Offers do come. Malka detailed examples of the sorts of deals he’s offered to get involved with the usual video game promotion machine. “Publishers have come to me in the past wanting to – well – basically inviting me to different behind-closed-doors events, wanting to fly me out, or a representative out, pay for everything, you know, do the whole PR deal. I turn them down. That’s because I think it’s important that NeoGAF retains sort of… its neutrality.
“The point is we’re really minimalist. We don’t have any sort of publisher relationships. I think that’s important.” That’s true enough for Malka, but what about his moderation team, I ask? Some are game developers themselves, while others are particular pariahs of certain communities with close ties to the companies behind those games. He understands, he explains, but isn’t all that concerned.
“There’s always a potential for conflict of interests, right? It’s happened in the past. For instance, one of my admins works for a game studio, and it was standard practice for major gaming threads at the time to be stickied on the gaming side for clarity purposes. The Turok game official thread got stickied as well, and people were like ‘Er… we don’t really know if this is major enough’.
“So there was a potential conflict of interests there, so we decided to just do away with the concept entirely and set the line pretty clearly. We do have different backgrounds with the mod team; people from the videogame industry, people from the press, or people with very strong leanings in one direction or another.
“I think everyone does their best – and I’m overseeing everything as well. I talk to people if I ever see any problems, but there’s very little that I’m worried about on a day to day basis.”
Even with ties severed, some companies still try to exert pressure over NeoGAF when things they aren’t a fan of crop up on the site. It’s a song-and-dance any member of the gaming press is familiar with, but Malka refuses to join in with his site. His policy of neutrality, refusing to get involved with publishers, helps.
“We have been threatened with publisher blacklisting on many, many occasions. I don’t know if they’ve followed through with any of the threats, because I’m not actually on any of the PR lists to begin with; I wouldn’t know that I’ve been removed from any of them.” He chuckled at the concept.
“It was just things like news being leaked; the same sort of scenario where it’s on the entirety of the internet, and you still want to remove it. Things where they knew they had no legal basis with threatening the site, but decided to anyway, because that’s what they’re used to. Their normal interactions with video game websites – where they just threaten to blacklist them – that is their default avenue for these things.”
“That’s how ridiculous the whole scenario is. That happened more in the past – it hasn’t been as much of a threat lately. I think the publishers have a bit more awareness of what NeoGAF is, and perhaps have a little bit more sense about how to interface with communities than they did in the past, where they’d treat every website like the same sort of entity as they did in the past. NeoGAF is not a fan reviews website.”
The Long Arm of the Law
It was late 2011, several months before the final release of Mass Effect 3, when Microsoft made a cock-up of epic proportions – somewhere somebody’s finger slipped on a button, and a beta build of Mass Effect 3 intended for internal use was made available to thousands of users. The build happened to include a vast majority of the game’s near-final script, including the final decision and the controversial closing moments of the game.
Threats from publishers to blacklist NeoGAF from press lists it wasn’t even on are easy to brush aside, but not so easy to hand-wave away are threats of a more serious, legal nature. NeoGAF’s brush with Microsoft over the Mass Effect 3 leak – which was quickly dissected and posted onto GAF and many other websites – is the most recent and most public case of the board being legally threatened.
“It was already on the entirety of the internet at that point,” Malka recalls, clearly still fairly frustrated by the chain of events. “Microsoft attempted damage control and they sent their lawyers after me. They were some pretty significant threats.”
Malka believes Microsoft’s efforts to cover their mistake and most likely appease an angered EA was a mistake, as forcing GAF and other sites to remove the information just poured fuel on the fire.
“The damage had been done, the discussion had already gone its course,” he said. “Removing the leaked info after the discussion had already happened meant afterwards there was a lot of bad PR on Microsoft’s end. It’s entirely unrealistic to try to remove information from the internet after it’s already on there. It’s not going to happen. In attempting to do so, you look silly – it’s the Barbara Streisand effect, right?
“We don’t allow linking of or discussion of pirated content, pirate impressions of things or anything like that – but we did allow discussion of leaked information, which I think is perfectly reasonable. I think it’s pretty ridiculous to take legal action based on things like that – but these corporations have lawyers on staff that need to be suing someone or threatening to sue someone to keep their jobs. It is what it is.”
As bad a taste as removing the information left in Malka’s mouth, it is better than the alternative, which returns us to a running theme in my conversation with him – a clear desire to protect NeoGAF from harm and to ensure its long-term future.
“We’re a small, independent website – sometimes these sort of things need to be done to not get into a long and bloody legal battle where the site would be run into the ground. Even if we win a lawsuit, y’know, in some cases we’d still lose the website due to the financial pressures. Sometimes those things need to be done.”
With scandals, legal issues and moderation wrangles in its wake, NeoGAF appears to be at a point where its future is by and large stable. With success comes interest from larger companies, and bizarrely as he struggled for advertising deals on one hand, Malka was receiving multi-million dollar offers on the other.
More on that in our third and final part.