Ask Massively: Why we cover what we do, part three

Fun fact: The only Brad who beats Brad McQuaid in our network tag system is Brad Pitt.
For this week's Ask Massively, longtime reader Avaera has asked us to do another round of "why we cover what we do," and I am happy to oblige. Avaera wrote,
Can I ask (with what I hope is genuine curiosity) what guidelines you generally try to follow when choosing which news stories to cover? I do understand that it just isn't feasible to cover every update, patch, developer's announcement, press release, expansion, research paper, Kickstarter project, or success/failure story relating to the thousands of MMORPGs out there, but sometimes the criteria seem opaque to me. As an example, since the start of 2014, I counted 22 news articles exclusively focused on Brad McQuaid's Pantheon Kickstarter. In contrast, the active and available MMOs that I am most interested in don't seem to make much of a splash at all. Is this just a reflection of the gaming community's hunger for something new and original, of hype and promises being much more satisfying and desirable than the tangible and playable worlds from which the curtain of hopes and dreams has been stripped away? Is it a reflection of the personal interests of the Massively team, who certainly can't be expected to take up much time with games that simply don't do anything for them? Or is there something unfortunate about the gaming media that unknowingly feeds the hype and disappointment cycle through disproportionate reporting of developer plans and marketing over actual development?
Complicated questions demand complicated answers. What do we consider when deciding whether something is newsworthy?

Reader interest. No one is going to be surprised that we, like most other sites on the internet, need page views (and by extension, ad impressions and click-through) to survive. Articles that will get hits are generally prioritized over articles that will not, and we watch our page views and comments to see what our readers are actually interested in hearing or talking about. This means that big, popular, controversial, star-power, or upcoming games are frequently more important to cover for us as a business than smaller or older games. That doesn't mean we don't cover smaller games; we have a staff full of indie freaks and classic gamers, so first-gen MMOs and Kickstarters wind up with what is probably more coverage than they are due. I think we have a solid reputation for covering more games than our competitors, albeit lightly. But if a game consistently gets poor responses from our readers, we trim back our coverage accordingly. We've only got so much budget to go around; we have to make it count. If we had unlimited money, we'd have an Ultima Online column, but alas: Reality gets in the way of our desire to cover our pet games.

Staff interest. We're less likely to cover games or stories our staff doesn't care about or lacks expertise with. We've tried to reduce our single-game columns as well because barring a few exceptions, most do not have the reach of generalist columns, especially post-launch.

MMOness. We don't cover fringe games (like MOBAs) in nearly as much depth or breadth as we cover MMOs. Similarly, whether we cover a specific industry story or human interest tale depends on how much it relates to MMOs.

Visibility. If a game isn't updating much or isn't updating with anything with broad appeal, it's a bit hard to report on it beyond saying, "Yep, people still play that game." That's something that makes more classic or small games particularly hard to cover outside of occasional anniversary pieces and relooks (which we also do!). Likewise, studios that keep their websites and RSS feeds updated with game content (rather than irritating self-promotions) and studios that keep the press releases flowing simply keep themselves within our field of view. I'm not saying spam us because over-saturation triggers our auto-delete urge. But there are a lot of studios that put out neat game updates and never tell anyone -- it doesn't hit the website, there's no press release, or the staff won't answer requests for information. That makes it hard to find and write about, even if we do think it's worth a post. (Just ask Beau, who covers a lot of our indie games, how hard it is to get in touch with the handful of devs at some of these itty-bitty studios!)

Tips. This one's an extension of visibility: If readers send us tips about a game or a topic, that usually has weight with us. A loyal reader who takes the time to let us know about a game obviously cares about us and the game and might represent a wider faction of players who care too. It's Monday as I write this, and today alone we've had three news posts that came direct from our tip line, one of them about a brand-new sandbox game we'd never heard of. On the flip side, sometimes we still don't think the tip will turn into an effective news post, but it might provoke a writer into looking at the game for a deeper article weeks in the future. A lot of our idea tips go on an ideas list that our writers can use for inspiration!

Randomness of the day. If we're overstaffed or it's a slow news day, we might cover more weird games. Understaffed or full day or the weekend? The opposite; we'll cut smaller stories from our news room in favor of bigger stories. Timeliness matters too. If we missed a story from a week ago, we usually won't report on it late just to have it. We'll try to find a new angle or skip it altogether.

Pantheon Let's go back to Avaera's Pantheon example. There are lots of reasons to cover Pantheon right now. It's hot. It's new. It's getting page views and comments. It's playing well with our audience, which has a lot of old-school MMOers. It has name-recognition and star-power in Brad McQuaid because of his stormy history in the genre. It's putting out frequent updates. Its game mechanics are incredibly controversial. And it's unlikely to fund, which could have an impact on the genre on the whole. We reported on the Camelot Unchained Kickstarter the same way, and after it funded, it settled down into a much quieter update pattern -- and so did we because there was nothing to report on but sporadic updates while the game is actually being made. When the game is in testing and nearing launch, it'll ramp up again. Eventually, after the game is made and is several years old and maybe not getting updates anymore, it'll quiet down again.

I personally wouldn't call that a hype cycle. The word hype is overused and has horrible connotations in this industry because it implies a circus of unfulfilled marketing promises. And I just don't think that reporting on typical development cycles constitutes hype. It's a cycle, absolutely, but it's not hype, especially when we couple news posts with skepticism for those promises. In the end, it's just news -- things that are new -- in the context of and proportionate to all the criteria I just rattled off. You might very well be right that readers are more interested in the anticipation than the delivery -- for what movie or book is that not true? -- but that's just human nature, not a specific failing of the genre or journalism. Given time, those games that exhibit true stickiness and follow-through eventually do get more coverage than Yet Another Mayfly MMO, dead in a week.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every other Thursday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!
This article was originally published on Massively.