Alex Donaldson vividly remembers the moment he could tell every person who contributed to the website they’d co-founded, RPG Site, would be paid for their work.
“The day I was able to say in our IRC [internet relay channel, an old style of internet charoom],” said Donaldson during a recent interview with Waypoint, “that the site was going to start paying for every contribution is up there on the happiest days of my life.”
It’s been a brutal run for games media recently. The vast majority of the staff at Fanbyte, a video game and culture website only a few years old that counted former Waypoint managing editor Danielle Riendeau as its editor-in-chief, were unceremoniously laid off. Another outlet that regularly ran quality games writing, Input, went down days later. Running any website in ideal circumstances is already challenging, but in the midst of a complicated economic outlook with companies pulling back on advertising, it’s become even harder.
Last month, I reported on the challenges facing writers that specialize in game guides, the compilations of tips, walkthroughs, and puzzle solutions that many use every day. In that instance, a writer at one website accused a writer at another website of ripping off their work. This is an especially touchy topic amongst smaller video game websites, who rely on riding specific waves of traffic to keep the lights on and, ideally, properly pay their contributors.
“For RPG Site, guides are the lifeblood of the site,” said Donaldson, whose website started as a Final Fantasy fansite in 2000. “The site was successful before guides, but what guides allowed us to do, as a hobbyist site, was take our commissions and pay from a pitiful ‘nice to have’ to a competitive level with other B-tier websites. A lot of our peers in this space don't pay, or are giving people $10 for large thousand-word guides, and it was important for us to get beyond that. Guides have been the tool that have allowed us to do that.”
RPG Site is purposely niche. It’s not a website trying to attract every possible person on the internet. You’re likely to end up here, either by search or on purpose, because you like RPGs. The thing about genres, though, is you can always go deeper and more niche. That might sound nice for the people who are fans of that rabbit hole, but it’s not profit-making.
“We cover a lot of really niche stuff, Japanese games in particular,” said Donaldson. “To be blunt, there isn't always a huge audience or amount of traffic available for coverage of these games—but they are a vital part of our remit. A lot of that content is therefore a 'loss leader'. We pay out on it, and we lose money on it. But it's okay, because elsewhere on the site, guides for the 'big games' are offsetting that.”
Most websites make money through a seemingly simple exchange, in which readers scroll through content, and companies spend money placing ads in said content. But it’s more complicated than that, because they might earn more money if you click on the ad. Can you remember the last time you clicked on a website ad? That’s where volume and total time spent on a page are important, and it’s not hard to see why writing guides for popular games, the kind of writing that might have people scrolling and reading for a while, work out.
Donaldson declined to reveal specifics about how much RPG Site pays its writers per guide, or how much money the site makes on a monthly basis. But he did say guides typically make up “50-60%” of the website’s traffic, translating to the same amount of incoming revenue. The site also makes money by selling its internal CMS (content management system, aka what lets you post stuff on a website) to other websites. It’s the “lion’s share of our business.”
Game guides have existed nearly as long as the medium itself, one built around challenging players. Anyone who’s stood in line for a new game at midnight remembers a GameStop employee wondering if you’d like the strategy guide with it, too. The age of the internet upended matters, as websites like GameFAQs collected guides under a searchable roof.
“To some extent I pin this on the advent of smartphones with good browsers,” said Donaldson, who also speculated the rise of achievements played a role. “If you're sitting on your sofa playing Xenoblade and something stumps you, it takes you 30 seconds to whip your phone out and Google it. If you're playing Persona, and want to know the protagonist's canon name because you don't want to make up your own, you can find that information out super quickly. This combined with changes in the way Google started ranking pages (for better and worse) meant a lot more traffic was available to guides. And traffic equals money.”
“The day I was able to say that the site was going to start paying for every contribution is up there on the happiest days of my life.”
Logistically, Donaldson told me, RPG Site tries to ask video game publishers for multiple copies of a game ahead of release, which is sometimes difficult. (I can personally attest to this—looking at you, Nintendo.) But multiple codes means it’s possible to split work up between multiple writers. Unlike some of the biggest websites, like an IGN or GameSpot, RPG Site doesn’t view websites of its own size always as direct competitors, and admitted to sharing information pre-release with one another to make sure they’re getting details right.
“I also try to personally take a lot of the tedious stuff—SEO [search engine optimization], data inputting, article formatting—off the contributor and do it myself,” he said. “The buck stops with me, after all, so I don't mind doing the boring stuff—but I own the site.”
When Donaldson was a kid, money wasn’t really part of the equation. Nobody was paid for publishing a walkthrough on GameFAQs, for example, and a huge problem in games media, resulting in lots of talented individuals leaving the field, is the sheer inability to get paid well as people get older and take on more responsibilities, like having children or owning a home.
“We were just kids doing a Final Fantasy fansite,” he said. “We didn't really know what we were doing. We were always doing guides though, because that was just what FF/JRPG fan sites did.”
Which is true, and never better reflected on places like GameFAQs than one old golden rule: the longer the walkthrough, the better. Remember, GameFAQs is a place that not only hosts guides for games, but one of the key pieces of information it discloses about each individual guide is who it’s written by and how much space it would take up on a hard drive. Which leads to the second golden rule of GameFAQs: the higher the KB count, the better the guide.
To that point, RPG Site’s guides are typically not exhaustive tomes and are, instead, guided by what players are looking for, which itself is shaped by what results Google is surfacing. It’s a tool Donaldson wields as the head of the site, but these days, it’s useful for writers, too.
“We use SEO tools and our own knowledge to try to predict and analyze what people are searching for,” said Donaldson, “and then do comprehensive work on those topics, rather than trying to be everything to everyone.”
In other words, rather than having 50,000 words explaining how to get from one chapter to the next in a sprawling game like Persona 5, they write up how to avoid getting the bad ending, or how to raise your relationship status with a specific character as fast as possible.
“Google tends to do a few updates a year to various elements of its operation that impact search,” said Donaldson, “which in turn impacts how your website might rank. It's the domino effect from there—search equals impressions, which equals ad money, which equals budget, which equals content production—and so it goes.”
Talk to anyone about running a modern website and you’ll hear “Google” come up every few minutes, because of how important the company’s search engine traffic is to the bottom line. But Google and its search engine are not static; the company is constantly changing its algorithm and what it shows, rewarding and punishing websites who do and don’t play along.
“The nature of Google's stranglehold on the search industry and how it means they can kill a site—accidentally or not—is a topic for another time,” said Donaldson.
The big a-ha moment came during the original PlayStation era, and more specifically when games like Final Fantasy embraced spectacle, resulting in some spectacular cutscenes.
“This was pre-YouTube,” said Donaldson, “so if a fan wanted to rewatch a bad-ass scene, their best bet was a slow download of a .mov over 56k. But the hosting for this was expensive, and this was what drove us to put ads on the site. That was a holy shit moment though, right? We knew the guides were popular, but imagine us, early teens, suddenly realizing this was real money. Not loads of it. But, y'know, enough to pay site hosting and buy some games, and give the occasional kick-back to others who helped out. For me, it was also the point at which I realized: oh, man, I can get paid to write about video games.”
The moment my parents took me writing about video games seriously in my teens was when a paycheck showed up based on the generous ad revenue the website I was contributing for at the time was raking in. (It was the late 90s, a different time on the internet.) The paycheck was big enough that I was only allowed to spend a fraction—the rest went to a college fund.
“When I was 13 and doing fan sites,” said Donaldson, “everybody was doing it for free, for the love of it. So there was no expectation; life always came first. Even if everybody is paid now, there's a collaborative and fun energy from that era that I want to maintain, and so long as everybody is happy, being compensated, with the site in the black... it's cool. This might mean we never have an office and a full-time staff of seven, and can't afford big-ticket commissions the big sites can give out, but them's the breaks. I'm proud of what we have.”