Influential, disruptive and notorious, NeoGAF has been called many things. Alex Donaldson sat down with owner Tyler Malka to discuss the site's birth, influence and growth over the years.
Tyler Malka likely isn’t a name many gamers are familiar with, and yet he’s a surprisingly influential figure in the video game industry. He’s the sole owner of NeoGAF, one of the most dominant gaming communities online.
In the world of invested gamers with a keen eye for news, NeoGAF is notorious. It counts among its members the likes of David Jaffe and Cliff Bleszinski as well as scores of gaming community managers, media and other industry alumni.
While other corporately-owned forums such as GameFAQs rival it on size, NeoGAF is the largest and most successful independently-owned video games community around.
GAF is a lot of things, but it never provokes an indifferent reaction. Some love it, some hate it. It’s a nightmare source of leaks, one publisher PR manager told me when I mentioned this piece. One fellow journalist described it as a ‘pit,’ and a developer from a major studio said there’s only one thing worse – their official forums.
“If it does not reform itself, it’s eventually going to crumble,” Too Human creator Denis Dyack said in 2008, as his game was slated by the board. He also described the forum as “hurting society and hurting the video game industry.”
I don’t quite agree with that. I rather like NeoGAF.
While its school playground meets old boys club atmosphere sometimes leads down unsavoury paths, the discussion there is often good, and few places seem to capture the imagination of industry figures like GAF.
Full disclosure – I’m a member, and I post there. I spend most of my time in a section of the community completely unrelated to gaming – the Doctor Who thread – but that’s one of the beauties of the site. Its scope is broad.
Love it or hate it, NeoGAF can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. It sits at number 30 on the Big Boards Ranking – and that’s despite GAF featuring a closed registration policy that only lets a scant few new members in every month.
More impressive, the site is currently serving some 70 million page views a month to 2.6 million unique users - numbers revealed to me by GAF owner Tyler ‘EviLore’ Malka as we sat down to talk shop for this article. That isn’t even counting the ridiculous server-crashing spikes the site sees during E3 and other major gaming events.
I first met Malka, age 28, on the evening of the final day of E3 2012. It was his first time at the show. I’d been run ragged by a slew of interviews, closed-doors demos and hands-ons, but over dinner I’m still roused from my near-dead state by fascinating conversation about a wide range of subjects, from what it’s like to run NeoGAF to a table-dividing debate about the quality of Mass Effect 3.
In February of this year Malka and I picked up our conversation once more, talking intermittently across a two-month period about what it’s like to be the sole owner of one of the most influential video game destinations going.
Malka himself comes across as smart and incredibly informed individual. Running GAF full-time means that he lives and really immerses himself in the industry, and listening to him explain where he feels coming years may lead is interesting.
He’s currently a Dota-loving PC-focused gamer who admits the only Xbox 360 games he owns are Dance Central titles. Several times our conversation veered off into gaming in general before refocusing on Malka’s mega message board.
Just what is it that makes this forum so much more appealing and successful than its rivals? How did it come to be? How does its single owner handle the pressures of policing and deciding the direction of such a beast? To find that out, we have to look back over a decade, and at a gaming news and review site called Gaming-Age.
A board like any other
Like most video game destinations online, Gaming-Age had its own community forums where users could congregate. Known as GAF – the Gaming-Age Forums – that subsection garnered a particularly dedicated fan base, but at what was arguably the worst possible time.
“In 2000, the dot-com bubble had burst, very little money was being made from advertising, and the man who was running Gaming-Age, Jim Cordeira, had to decide between the main Gaming-Age news and reviews site and the Forum,” Malka explained when asked to tell the story of the genesis of the boards.
“Server resources were limited and they were also at their limit financially. The main site was what he had been entrusted with, and the forum side of the site wasn't profitable, so he killed it off, but not before securing an arrangement with IGN to have them host the community.”
IGN hosted the site for some time, and the IGN-hosted boards retained their ties with the core Gaming-Age site, though even then GAF was showing signs of its independence. “There was no oversight from Gaming-Age itself, and no hierarchy within the administration,” Malka explained. “IGN was hands-off, only hosting the community and taking the ad revenue.”
That was an arrangement that suited all parties, until IGN decided to shutter the operation where the Gaming-Age forums were located. For a while, GAF and its members became nomads, first migrating to EZBoards and then to a dedicated server as part of the now defunct GameSquad Network.
GAF’s relationship with GameSquad quickly became strained, and the cause was a likely one for any site of that size in need of help and hosting: money. “GameSquad gave us a dedicated server, but a woefully underpowered one, and did everything they could to wring every cent out of the arrangement; Loading GAF with popup ads and malware ads and audio ads,” Malka recalled. “The site regularly slowed to a crawl and users were bombarded with bad ads at the same time. As you can imagine, GAF stagnated.”
It was here, in 2004, after a massive thread caused the database to corrupt, that today’s behemoth of a community very nearly collapsed. “There were no backups since the GAF administration did not have shell access to the server. Everything was lost.” It was a bad end to a rough couple of years for the GAF community, and Malka remembers the mood well.
“The administrative team was weary, after dealing with the constant migrations and subsequently the awful experience at GameSquad. Most of the key figures on the administrative team were resigned to letting GAF remain dead and moving on.”
It is here, at the brink of death and thanks to an enthusiastic teenager that the story of modern NeoGAF truly begins.
Back from the brink
“I was an eager 19 year-old at that point, and had been involved with GAF since 14 and a GAF administrator shortly thereafter,” Malka recalled. “I sprang into action.”
“I sent Jim Cordeira an email asking for his help in creating a news story on Gaming-Age, and he agreed. Being a dirt-poor 19 year-old college student, I had no financial power, but I did have a small but loyal community that would stick around in limbo for a brief while before moving on to browner pastures,” Malka joked.
“I put up a PayPal donation link on my personal domain, with an explanation: that there would be no guarantees, but I would do what I could to use money donated to revive GAF as an independent website.”
At the end of the short donation drive, GAF’s dedicated community had provided Malka with $2000 in donations. It says a lot about GAF’s current success that Malka downplays the number, “GAF was incredibly small compared to today's NeoGAF, so this was a significant amount,” he told me.
Even with the cash to make it happen, stemming the bleeding of an offline, crashed forum made Malka’s task an undesirable and stressful one, especially for a student with the pressing concern of studying. Every day that passed with the boards down meant the possibility of losing an old face or a potential new one to GAF’s rivals. It was a battle to maintain the momentum of the old, now-dead site.
“I didn't sleep for a week,” Malka enthused. “You have to understand that it was a ticking clock, that every day the site remained down was a day more people would emigrate elsewhere and not look back.”
“I talked to everyone I could within the community and found capable people in various fields who were willing to help out. I recruited a system administrator, coders, graphic designers, all in volunteer capacities, and I researched and learned everything I needed to in order to host and run the site myself.
“I leased a server, bought the software, and coordinated my team, and by the end of that week we had a new GAF online, on reasonably powerful hardware, with no bad ads, and with a Terms of Service that outlined a strict but fair set of user policies.”
The light at the end of GAF’s tunnel was shining brighter than ever – and under Malka and a part-old, part-new moderation team, the beginnings of what is today’s NeoGAF was finally up and running on the popular vBulletin message board software.
The site also remained as GAF, the legacy of its connection to Gaming-Age continuing. While Gaming Age couldn’t afford to host the rapidly ballooning forum, the pair had a common history that both appreciated – and so they remained linked.
In the end it wasn’t internal politics that bought that relationship to an end, but the pressure from outside forces – something most members of the gaming media have experienced at some time or another.
The Birth of New GAF
“In 2006, Jim Cordeira started receiving a significant amount of harassment from big publishers pertaining to leaks and discussions happening on GAF, since we were still linked tenuously in a friendly relationship,” Malka revealed. The connection to GAF was actively harming Gaming-Age, causing publishers to close doors on them, and that put both Gaming-Age and GAF in a more vulnerable position than Malka wanted.
Malka only saw one option – to finally completely break ties with the site that was its parent. It was time for GAF to fly the nest, but the name was too loved not to remain. Taking a cue from IGN, who had previously been ‘Imagine Games Network’ and kept the abbreviation as its name after a buy-out, Malka decided on NeoGAF – New GAF. Here, GAF didn’t stand for anything – it’s just a word.
“The name would be familiar, signify a new era for the site, and was a pronounceable word, all without having to stand for ‘Gaming-Age Forum.’ We had a new identity and Jim would stop being harassed and threatened with blacklisting.”
NeoGAF itself still comes in for its fair share of publisher troubles – but we’ll talk more about how Malka deals with some of those later. “I didn't have any reason to care about publisher blacklisting,” he mentions in passing in his GAF history lesson. “I let them carry out their threats to no effect.”
From 2006 on, NeoGAF has largely remained as it was when Malka finally broke it away from Gaming-Age, only offering minor upgrades to the site. While he has recruited scores of new moderators, updated the rules and policies and grown the hardware and the team behind it, the core of the site has remained the same as when Malka first picked up running it in 2004, something he explains is part of a wider philosophy; simplicity in the site’s design.
Asked how he sees his duty, Malka has a simple goal: to keep GAF growing. Rather than bold new gimmicks or ideas personified by putting a number after the word ‘web,’ his vision is refreshingly simple and has quite obviously been quite successful.
“Keeping NeoGAF minimalist, fast – mostly,” he says, adding that minor concession knowingly, “Completely free of charge, with unobtrusive advertisements, and with an emphasis on heated but intelligent discourse where people had to back up their positions with facts, and where there was no room for bigotry or typical internet shenanigans, all led to steady growth year to year.”
The Future of NeoGAF
Where next for the site? Expansion is always tempting, especially with success on the scale of NeoGAF. Malka has ideas, but largely intends to take it slow and play it safe to avoid rocking the boat.
“My focus is always going to be on nurturing NeoGAF and ensuring it prospers and continues to grow at a healthy rate – continues to be the, y’know, pre-eminent videogame message board,” he told me.
“I won’t do anything to undermine that – I’m not going to leverage NeoGAF its expense in any way. Beyond that, I have lots of ideas – but running the site takes up a lot of my time to begin with. I’m not going to create a reviews website or anything like that. There’s no unique selling point to a NeoGAF reviews or news website.
"It already is a news and reviews website – it already has the breaking news, and we get thorough impressions for every release that people value more, in some cases, than reviews from major publications. It’s entirely redundant to go down that road. Anything I did do would have to be interesting and different. I am willing to do something like that, and I have some ideas – but I do things very slowly and deliberately.”
A previous effort to give NeoGAF a blog-like front page stalled, failing to gain any real traction with users. The front page remained to help lure advertisers, but once it served its purpose, Malka spiked it.
“I'd put together an interview or some such, I'd get a page or two of comments and everyone would move on,” Malka explained. “My efforts were better spent with building a great moderation team and handling site policy and growing the forum itself.”
That desire isn’t entirely dead, but Malka has a dilemma. Most traditional gaming websites rely on constant contact with video game publishers to obtain access to the news and information they then disseminate to users.
If NeoGAF were to have that, publishers may attempt to exert pressure to shape the rules and policies of the forum, especially regarding NDA-breaking and news leaks, on which the membership thrives. Even so, Malka won’t rule out one day expanding the site beyond a message board.
“I'm already blacklisted by who knows how many publishers, so that's a good start, right? We'll have to see. I don't want to dilute the core experience or change what NeoGAF is, so I tread carefully.”
The major changes going on at NeoGAF these days happen on the back end. The site runs on a years-old version of the vBulletin software, and has been plagued with server issues thanks to its growth.
“The software we’re running on isn’t the most efficient, but it has the right feature set,” Malka admitted. “But this old, outdated version of vBulletin is a known quantity – we know how it works and how to address problems with it.
“There were problems, but we’re running on ridiculously powerful hardware right now – I even upgraded again after the Sony conference stuff. We’re at, like 64 cores, 160 gigabytes of RAM and this fast, cloud-based array. It’s still not enough to keep the site up 100% of the time, but we are one of the largest vBulletin sites out there and there are unique challenges along with that.”
With the site hopefully set to be steady through what is going to be a wild trade show season, Malka himself is getting ready to head on a round-the-world trip. “I can run everything remotely, I don’t need an office,” he enthused. “So why be in an office?”
Malka did admit he may make Los Angeles his first stop in June to visit E3. “I have my pass and it is a special year,” he says. Games are still in his heart, after all. Malka and NeoGAF may have secured their space in the collective mind of the video game industry, but the fight for that place wasn’t easy.
Advertisers would refuse to take GAF on board, moderation would become an increasing headache as posts near 50 million, and industry figures could easily cause scandal. On top of that larger companies were circling, interested in taking GAF off of Malka’s hands. Learn all about that tomorrow, in part two of this article.