RPG.net, Game Industry Friendliness, and Yours Truly

Steven Trustrum Commentary

Normally I reserve the Misfit Studios blog for press releases, product announcements, and the like, but occasionally I spice it up (or dumb it down, depending on your point of view) with my personal and professional observations, rants, and so on. Well, in the past few days I was involved in a discussion over on RPG.net that crossed over between both the professional and personal, and so I thought I’d toss it up here for you, the Misfits, to share in.

First Off, What is RPG.net?

For those not in the know (and, in this hobby, if you aren’t in the know you must have been living under a rock), RPG.net is, among other things, host to the world’s largest online role-playing game discussion forum. Gamers from all over the world go there to talk among themselves, sharing gaming stories, ideas, criticisms, and so on. One of the things that sets RPG.net apart from most other gaming forums, however, is the fact that so many RPG industry people  — publishers, writers, and artists — also hang out there, addressing fans regarding their products or just shooting the breeze. I have been a member there since the middle of 2002.

Gotcha, So Why Tell Us This?

Because so many industry people hang out there, RPG.net is a good place for gamers to not only have a talk with their favorite writes or the like, but it’s also perhaps the best single location on the Internet to generally find out what is up in the industry, such as what new products are being worked on or to tap into the rumor mill. The industry knows how big RPG.net‘s user population is, so they know how useful it can be, making it an ideal place to drum up fan interest, do some guerrilla marketing, or plug-in to the gamer mentality to bounce ideas off of.

In return, the gamers get access to these people. They ask them about the experience of creating a game, can ask for tips about how to break into the industry, pitch product, talk about their gaming experiences with a writer or publisher’s product, and so on. Overall, it’s a rather healthy, symbiotic relationship that helps keep RPG.net the biggest gaming community around.

Does this Mean the RPG Industry Adores RPG.net?

Despite its uses and potential for fun discussions with gamers, RPG.net is not without its problems.

Although RPG.net‘s forum moderation and administration somehow does not seem aware of this (as recent conversations with them would seem to indicate), a large chunk of writers, artists, and publishers have trimmed back their use of the site to purely business related functions, such as posting product ads and press releases, or they have stopped going there altogether. Increasingly over recent years, among industry people RPG.net has continued to develop a reputation as a hostile and toxic place (and not just for people working in the gaming industry but also, based on complaints, from general users too.) This isn’t to say it still can’t be fun and useful for industry people to frequent, and it’s not saying some people don’t deserve what gets said about them (such as those who have been caught using art in their products they have no rights to and similar less than ethical, if not outright illegal, activities), but the downside of going there has been getting steadily worse, if anecdotes, the insider rumor mills, personal experience, and actual “that’s enough for me, I’m outta here!” posts from industry people made on the site are to be believed.

To summarize: RPG.net generally does not have a good reputation in the industry.

What Bad Reputation?

For the most part, RPG.net’s posters are fine people. There are, however, some bad apples who ruin the experience for everyone.

There have been instances of posters who essentially stalk writers and publishers they don’t like — they will pop into any thread about them or their games and outright insult them for no other reason than to be insulting for its own sake rather than being constructively critical. This has become so bad in some instances that multiple users have been banned from participating in such threads at all anymore (if not banned from the site altogether.)

Aside from this extreme, industry people will tend to encounter a huge sense of entitlement from some customers. For example, in a thread I recall that was started in good faith about what is involved with publishing a game book, some posters started calling publishers greedy and thieves (no, I’m not using hyperbole) for trying to make a profit. I recall a group of posters not shutting up about how, if publishers were still truly gamers themselves, they would make their products available at cost and do away with all profit — the fact they were charging above their cost in order to make a profit was proof publishers were greedy businessmen and not actually “one of us”, meaning role-players.

It’s my opinion that an inflated sense of entitlement (“we are your customers, so shut up and take everything we have to say to you”, “the hobby would survive without the industry, so shut up and take everything we say to you”, and so on) is the root of most of these problems and people on the receiving end of such opinions, be they gaming industry professionals or otherwise, rarely want to stick around and take that kind of crap. In many ways, being a gaming professional and having that kind of crap tossed your way is worse than the average poster is subjected to on boards like RPG.net because professionals have to be worried about being representatives of their respective company and product and the impression they leave behind.

Still With You So Far, but Why Should I Care?

Not everyone should, but if you happen to be one of those people who enjoys being able to collectively speak with game industry people rather than having to go to their individual company sites (or with this particular Misfit specifically), read on …

Isn’t RPG.net Doing Anything to Deal With This if it’s an Actual Problem?

RPG.net recently acknowledged that game industry people need a degree of special acknowledgement (effectively meaning the mods will operate with a quicker trigger finger whe people start stepping out of line by insulting gaming pros or getting hostile towards them) after some posters stepped out of line and became insulting towards a professional who started a thread advertising one of their products/creations … that poster being Larry Elmore, an icon of the gaming industry.

I personally saw this rules amendment as a good step to trying to control a behaviour that has increasingly seen RPG.net becoming a place that is hostile to gaming professionals, but, believe it or not, some people actually argued against the rule adjustment.

(Surprise, surprise, as of this writing Larry Elmore’s RPG.net account hasn’t been used since the day the thread was shutdown.)

So Why Bring this Up Now?

Well, recently a poster asked RPG.net a question about copyright and a game he wanted to produce digitally and in print for free. Very altruistic and great of him, no? Well, unfortunately he wants to do this with someone else’s IP — using the universe they created — without permission while also using yet another company’s game rules without their permission, and presenting it all on a card design taken from another company while using art found from still sources such as the Internet (and yes, you guessed it, all without gaining the permission of the card designers or artists.) So, reasonably so, he asked what people thought of that and what the legal consequences may be.

I responded with my take on the matter, drawing on my experiences with using IPs and having to deal with people infringing on my company’s IPs in order to frame my answer.

Well, the thread went downhill from there. It was ultimately closed because of a Rule 9 violation. To break the Rule 9 reasoning down for you, it means “you people aren’t lawyers so we’re closing this down.”

As a result and at the suggestion of the moderator who closed the thread, I brought up the thread lock in Trouble Tickets, RPG.net‘s subforum for dealing with issues like this. Myself and some other people posted our opinions and the mods soon shut it down after essentially stating that the ruling and the reasoning behind it would stand.

Is this Blog Entry Just a Matter of You Being Pissed that the Moderators Didn’t Agree With Your Viewpoint?

Although I am indeed frustrated with how things turned out, it’s not why I’m talking about it on Misfits In Action. To distill the whole situation down to its most refined essence, what resulted from closing this thread and the resulting expressed moderator justification for doing so has, as I brought up on the boards, more sweeping implications.

If a dicussion where questions about copyright in the gaming industry is shut down because publishers replying to those questions are not considered to have valid relevant knowledge, that is not only insulting but also sets an incredibly bad precedent.

Publishers and freelancers discuss contract issues on RPG.net, throwing their questions and opinions out to the masses to hear what people have to say.

Copyright issues are frequently otherwise discussed on the board, including many discussions about copyright infringement in the gaming industry specifically as well as in general.

Publishers, writers, and common posters alike still discuss the legalities of the Open Game License and the like.

People frequently ask what their legal options are if they did work for a publisher and the publisher used the work in their products but did not pay along the contractually obligated fees.

… and so on.

Basically, I don’t understand why this particular thread was cherry picked as a Rules 9 violation, especially based on the justification the moderators gave for the ruling, while these other topics are allowed to go on. So, does this mean these other topics are going to be cracked down on now or is this specific situation merely an example of grossly inconsistent moderation?

As a publisher, what I walk away with from this situation is not only being told that being a professional who frequently works with copyright issues has nothing valuable or valid to say about copyright as it relates to games because that’s the sole purview of lawyers, but also that RPG.net’s rules are making the site less relevant to my needs as a professional.

I enjoy talking about copyright issues in the industry. I read up on copyright with great frequency because I find it an aspect of doing business that is fascinating. When I’ve had occasion to use copyright lawyers, I’ve always tried to squeeze as much information out of them as possible and, yes, some of that information covers the question that were asked in the thread that was closed down. I have on numerous occasions been involved in copyright discussions on RPG.net with typical posters and my peers alike. This particular thread was, despite what the mods seem to believe, nothing new or out of the norm for the board.

If the ability to talk about game industry copyright issues (and the like) from the perspective of a person who deals with those issues in a professional capacity is removed, the board becomes a less welcome place and gives me another reason not to go there as much because I do not want to (potentially) put my neck out and break the moderator’s interpretation of the rules regarding threads wherein people ask industry related questions. Inconsistent and unpredictable moderation on topics directly related to why the board exists in the first place — gaming — is not a great incentive for professional participation.

So, the point of this rather long-winded post is very simple:

RPG.net, the idea that gaming related copyright discussions have no place on your site is absurd and it’s not even remotely consistent. It’s sending the message that RPG.net does not really want industry professionals going there discussing things related to the industry beyond listening to yet another gamer tell a story about their level 12 orc barbarian.

Message sent. Message received.

As an Aside: Wow. The Original Thread’s Creator Seems to Not Like You. Why is that?

I had to think about it for a bit, too. I recognize his posting style enough to understand why he has a rep for often grating other users the wrong way, but I couldn’t recall stepping on his toes, so I thought a bit more about why he left me with the previously mentioned impression. (You may or may not see why this is if you read his posts in the threads linked to in this blog post.) After thinking on it a bit, I came up with the most likely reason.

This particular poster is known for being a rather loud, ignorant, and obnoxious advocate of a particular subject. And by loud and obnoxious I mean that it’s gotten to the point where other board members have on multiple occasions asked the moderators to ban this guy from posting about his raison d’etre because he gets so out of line. Well, three or four years ago this poster and I were the two principle parties going back and forth on this particular cause of his to the point where, if memory serves, he was throwing virtual tantrums that conjured visions of him putting his fingers in his ears while shouting “lalalala, I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

Other than that, I can’t recall crossing this guy’s path in any meaningful ways and he certainly hasn’t done anything significant enough for me to give him a second thought in the years since. So far as I was concerned, it was just an instance of yet another Internet loud mouth with a cause he, unfortunately, was not actually well educated about. Case closed.

Or not.

Because, be it for this reason or something else, this guy seems to have kept me in his thoughts, to the point where he filters and ignores my post without actually adding me to his ignore list for some reason, a simple act that would make my posts hidden when he views a thread I post in. (I find the fact he has not ignore listed me rather odd, considering he clearly has no problem ignore listing other people.)

So, that’s about the only thing I could come up with. There may be more to it from his perspective, but I clearly haven’t been putting as much thought into it as he has. Ultimately, however, his bias and statements about my objectivity likely served to help justify the Rule 9 decision because they created the implication of a hostile bias on my part, whereas more open minded participation on his part probably would not have even drawn the moderators’ attention to the thread in the first place (considering the moderators usually only show up after a report is filed about a post or thread.)

Addendum

Yesterday, after the Trouble Tickets thread was closed, I sent the mod who closed the thread a private message expressing why I felt the reasoning given for that closing was off base and missing the larger point. That moderator told me to address any further questions to the RPG.net administrator staff. I did so this morning and just received my response. So, what did the aministrator have to say?

To summarize and paraphrase: “well, I know you’re fired up about this topic but we don’t want to hear about it anymore. It’s been decided. Also, you shouldn’t have bothered me about this and don’t bother any more mod staff about it, that includes responding to this here message from me.”

Buh? Say what?

So, one moderator tells me if I want to pursue the matter the proper way to do so is through private conversation with an administrator, but upon doing so the administrator tells me it’s case closed and implies I’m out of line for still trying to pursue it with an administrator. Basically, shut up and go away.

So … yeah. Now I’m not only confused about where the line is drawn regarding what legally related game industry relevant topics I can and cannot address, but now I’m also unsure of just how I should bring up those concerns should they resurface in other discussions.

As I was saying. Rulings at RPG.net can be rather inconsistent and difficult to make sense of, and at times don’t exactly encourage industry people to stick around.