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Losing influence with SOE: EQ2 Flames admin "LFG" tells all

Matt Warner

He is an EverQuest 2 player that rose to power leading one of the largest fansite communities. He earned the esteemed "Community Influencer" rank that opened the gates to game designers and allowed him to forge ties with prominent SOE staff. With his connections it wasn't long before the site he administrates, EQ2 Flames, served as a clandestine outlet for EQ2 developers to post on. Behind the scenes "LFG" played a role working with inside sources to leak information that resulted in the EQ2 Test Server scandal. The forum also resulted in leak of the news (almost a month before it actually happened) that former Senior Producer, Scott Hartsman, was to part ways with Sony Online Entertainment.

His actions wouldn't come without serious ramifications. Last week SOE terminated his "Influencer" membership, citing a lack of participation and misconduct as the reasoning behind their decision. In the destructive wake that followed an ugly entanglement by both SOE developers and EQ2 players has surfaced. Allegations of cheating, developer corruption, and other scuttlebutt permeate forum posts. This is a drama that pits community against community, developers against players, and more than likely developers against developers. It is a story that has shaken up a very large community and that has once placed SOE in a questionable spotlight. I contacted "LFG", the EQ2 Flames administrator, to help bring some clarity to it all.

In the interview below several allegations involving SOE employees are levied. These along with other accusations on EQ2 Flames also raise other questions regarding SOE's internal policies. At the time of this posting SOE's community team had not yet responded with an official comment. When SOE does respond we will post it in full.

Please tell us a little bit about the SOE community Influencer Program and your history as a member.

LFG: I have been a member of the SOE Community Influencer Program, formerly known as the Community Summit Program, since shortly before the first Fanfaire in 2005. Participation in that program involved access to a private web forum where we were able to interact with SOE employees, and where they sought our feedback. It also involved events, sometimes at SOE HQ and sometimes held at Fanfaires, where SOE flew us in and provided lodging and accommodations. I've been invited to three of these events. The first one I attended was at the Las Vegas Fanfaire in 2005, the most recent one I attended was again at the Las Vegas Fanfaire of 2007. SOE held another Community Influencer event last week in San Diego, but I wasn't invited to that one. I now understand why.

(Editor's Note: A little history on SOE's "Summit" program. It first started out as the "Guild Summit" for EverQuest players in June 2004. After EQ2 launched it was branded as a "Community Summit" where knowledgeable players from both games discussed development ideas and their respective concerns. This lasted for several years until 2007 when it turned into the "Influencer Summit" and took on a vastly different approach, such as invitation list that spanned a broader playerbase and more fansite representation.

According to various reports, the "Influencer Summit" served SOE's marketing and evaluation interests more heavily than past summits. One respected attendee and community representative went as far as calling these new summits "a dog and pony show."

In the following comments, Craig "Grimwell" Dalrymple, Senior Community Manager for SOE San Diego, states older summits that focused on productive discussion between developers and players would be billed as "Developer Summits." No date or time was specified.)

Now that we have a little history about your role in the program, tell us more about EQ2 Flames for those that are unfamiliar with its background. Some people hate your forums and others love it, but there is no denying its popularity.

LFG: To me and many other players, forums are half the fun of a MMO. I'd been an active participant in the private EQ forums that grew up around that game.

Private forums were widely used by players in EQ because there were no "official forums" when EQ first launched, until sometime later. But when SOE launched the Official Forums for EQ2 on the same day it launched EQ2, players flocked there, and all other attempts to launch private forums by EQ2 players failed. Players just used the Official Forums, and other EQ2 forum attempts littered the Internet like road kill.

The EQ2 Official Forum community thrived until the end of 2005, when Brenlo, who was formerly manager of the EQ forums, took responsibility for all SOE websites. Up until that time, EQ2 had an active community manager, who lightly moderated the forums in addition to reaching out to the EQ2 community and serving as the interface between players and SOE employees.

Brenlo came to his new position with the idea that the forums needed more moderation. I'd categorize his style as corporate, politically correct, and G rated. Before his time, free speech was usually tolerated on the official forums, but all that soon came to an end.

Brenlo decided to impose much heavier moderation and censorship on the official forums. The man is smart, and figured out how to do that without additional cost to SOE. His solution was to empower a group of incognito player-volunteers as moderators. These moderators began overrunning and micro managing the official forums to the extent that you couldn't get into a disagreement with anyone, or strongly criticize SOE or EQ2, or your posts would be deleted and you could be banned. The censorship on the official forums grew worse and worse, until all of my favorite posters and most of my guildmates were banned. People began being banned for reasons including "excessive negativity." The fun of the game was gone for me because nothing more than happy talk and roleplaying was tolerated on the forums I loved. The final straw for me came one day when an on-line friend of mine, Khalan, was banned for nothing more than daring to suggest that SOE devs would have a better understanding of the bugs in game if they actually played it. After complaining about this repeatedly and being told "if you don't like these forums, go make your own", I decided to do just that, against all odds.

(Editor's Note: Alan "Brenlo" Crosby is the Director of Global Community Relations for SOE)

It hasn't been long since the changing of the guard at the upper echelons in the EQ2 development team with Bruce "Froech" Ferguson taking over as Senior Producer. You were right about Scott "Gallenite" Hartsman leaving the company. Did his leaving the company play a factor in the relations between SOE and EQ2 Flames? Why do you think you were booted from SOE's "Influencer" program?

LFG: Once Gallenite left EQ2, relations between me, my site, and SOE immediately began to chill. Scott was a tolerant, creative person and free thinker. Gallenite's replacement, Bruce, is a politically correct, corporate thinker much like Brenlo. Grimwell is little more than a yes man to Brenlo. So once Bruce took over for Scott, there is no doubt in my mind that this trio began looking for an excuse to revoke my fan site status and boot me out of the Community Influencer Program.

They found that excuse yesterday, after a dev (Aeralik) complained to them about one of my users posting his ingame character and guild name on my site, which basically "outed" who he was as a player. But here's the rest of the story. A long time ago, I'd added mod rights to the SOE user group on my site, so that SOE employees could edit their posts if they wanted without me having to grant edit rights to them on demand, or on a post by post basis. My site has a 15 minute edit timeout, which I imposed back in the beginning after repeated situations where players would start drama, change their mind, and delete all their posts. That left a lot of unreadable threads and holes in my site, so we shortened the edit timer to 15 minutes, and that policy has worked well for us.

(Editor's Note: Chris "Aeralik" Kozak is an EverQuest 2 developer)

I'm not a technical person, I rely upon my partner (Niber) on the site to do all the technical stuff, I just add content and direction to the site, and enforce our Site Rules. So what I didn't know is that when I gave Aeralik global mod rights to his own posts, I was actually giving him the global ability to edit or delete any post on the site.

After the user posted Aeralik's character name and guild, Aeralik saw that post and deleted it. I was pretty shocked about that, because I wasn't even aware he had the ability to do that. So after he did that, Aeralik sent me a PM expressing outrage about what the user had posted, and said he deleted the post. Shortly thereafter, I posted that I was the one who deleted it, in a good faith attempt to keep the situation from exploding.

What Aeralik refused to accept was that we don't delete posts on my site unless they are in violation of a specific Site Rule. This has always been our answer to the over moderation of the official forums, and the reason for our popularity - you can't take things back. But there was no rule to cover what he did or to prevent a user from posting his character information. So I decided to cover the situation by amending my Site Rules, which according to my site policy, is done after user comment and a vote. I put up a poll asking the whether the Site Rules should be amended to prevent players from "outing" devs who play EQ2 by posting their player information, without even naming him. That's when Aeralik got angry, and accused me of doing what I did to embarrass him for the purpose of getting advertising revenue. And then I got angry at him in return - he created the problem by disclosing his identity to other players, and I was just trying to help him out. He refused to believe I'd acted in good faith, and said I should have done all this privately. I'm sorry, but that doesn't work on my site, we are not the Official Forums, we don't censor except based on our Site Rules. Aeralik then complained at SOE about this situation, and the very next day my fan site and Community Influencer status was revoked.

I am outraged that Grimwell has stated that I abused a position of trust and access to SOE devs by what I've posted on my forums. Nothing is further from the truth. The great majority of SOE employees seemed afraid to talk to me based on the culture of fear and repression at SOE headquarters. Of the few SOE employees I maintain ongoing relations with, we NEVER even discussed EQ2, we only had social conversations. I simply never wanted to put them into a position that would make them uncomfortable, and I would never and have never breached any confidence with a SOE employee or anyone else.

Grimwell's statements are based on the fact that I've successfully leaked several big stories about SOE on my site in the past year. For example, I was first to announce that SOE was purchasing Vanguard, and that Scott Hartsman was leaving EQ2. More recently, I broke the scandal involving the Test server where dozens of player accounts were secretly moved to a live server after some of those players had been involved in some outrageous exploitation and abuse. I obtained all this information fair and square from SOE employees who approached me with it for the purpose of wanting it disclosed publicly while maintaining their confidentially. I did not ask for this information, it was given to me by rightfully concerned SOE employees who wanted it leaked. Grimwell somehow believes that my honest conduct and investigative journalism amounts to an abuse of trust, and that SOE was buying my silence when it flew me to Fanfaires and gave me VIP treatment. He is very wrong, and I will not be bought or silenced by him or anyone else.

Thank you for your time and your story.

Massively readers, if you have your own questions for "LFG" please leave a comment, and I will ask him to answer them.

I felt this story was too important not to cover because it raises a lot of questions. EQ2 players, anyone playing a SOE game, should care about what is going on behind-the-scenes at SOE. We should question the policies between players and developers. Favorites will always be played, but please, also keep in mind that not every developer is leaking high-end strategies, or posting anonymously with ulterior motives on a player run forum. The majority are hard working, and conducts their actions and behavior in a professional manner.

As for the summits, I think they worked extremely well in the past, but there needs to be more transparency on SOE's end. The players from the different communities should vote on their representation when SOE holds a "Guild" or "Developer" summit. The last one that took place a week ago was called an "Influencer Summit." This is the wrong label because most if not all attendants represented fansites and not specific player communities or play servers. There is nothing wrong with different summits as long as SOE clearly communicates with their playerbase the purpose that summit serves and how attendance is decided.

At last, it is also important to question the actions of high-favored players and fansite media with inside connections to developers. "LFG" is a perfect example where a relationship between a player and developers was muddied and went horribly wrong. His removal from the program as a consequence for leaking information given to him by SOE developers comes as no surprise, and even if told to do so by those parties I believe SOE's decision was justified. In his defense, there was a bigger story than leaks from inside the company, and he has brought to light a truth, revealing a political climate between players and developers that is not often seen nor heard about.

Additional: In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that Massively lead blogger Michael Zenke participated in the most recent Influencers event.

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