The story of NeoGAF (AKA "a crappy club for jerks")
- 20 September, 2010 15:45
How NeoGAF rose to become one of the Internet's biggest and most notorious video game forums...
At the end of the 20th century, the word “Internet” had yet to bore into everyday vocabulary. Computers still weren’t a fixture in most homes, and mainstream opinion held that the machines were ticking bombs set to go off when the calendar rolled over to the year 2000. But at the same time, a young, enthusiastic cluster of game-loving writers realised the Internet’s huge communicative potential, and resolved to bring other gamers together.
The end result, NeoGAF, is arguably the most popular gaming community operating today. The sprawling boards shelter 50,000 members -— and not just game fans: Well-recognized developers, writers, and other industry veterans hang out at NeoGAF to discuss the state of gaming as a business, solicit opinions on their latest work, or just chill and talk about the latest big title. NeoGAF has brought the serfs and the lords of the industry on the same level, which has helped gaming preserve its human face as the pastime becomes more corporate.
But not every crevice of NeoGAF is about fun times with good friends. There’s drama, cynicism, and —- heaven forefend -— sarcasm. The community has been described as a gamers' Mos Eisley: but that’s not an entirely negative simile. NeoGAF may be criticized for its pockets of “scum and villainy,” but much like Tatooine’s cantina in Star Wars, the site is varied, lively, and always up for a good fistfight...
Fans Take the Wheel: The Birth of Gaming Age
NeoGAF wasn’t community-heavy when it launched as Gaming Age, which was conceived around 1996 to bring high-quality games writing to an audience that was still dependent on magazines.
“The Internet was still in its relative infancy and there weren’t very many destinations for gaming content and discussion at the time,” recalls Sam Kennedy, director of the 1Up Network and one of Gaming Age’s founders. “I was always a huge fan of magazines like EGM, GamePro, Next Generation, and GameFan, and I felt the Internet allowed someone like me to launch a publication like those —- just that you’d read it on your PC instead of via mail.”
Kennedy launched Gaming Age with a staff composed mostly of friends eager to work on a volunteer basis. “I wanted [Gaming Age] to be a launching pad for my friends,” he says. “I knew several extremely talented writers and I hoped Gaming Age would be a vehicle for them to get noticed.”
Many of the original staff writers did in fact progress to jobs in the industry, such as Brady Fiechter (editor in chief, Play magazine) and Greg Sewart (EGM). Other ascended staff writers include Che Chou (EGM, 1UP, and Microsoft), Patrick Klepek (1UP and G4), and Dave Zdyrko (2K, EA, and QuickHit).
Kennedy believes that “extreme passion” helped Gaming Age blossom, and has allowed NeoGAF and gaming in general to thrive. He points to the dedication of another Gaming Age founder, Jim Cordeira. “[Cordeira] has been running Gaming Age since we moved on," Kennedy says. "[He] has been overseeing it in his spare time because he’s so passionate about the games industry.”
Tyler Malka Builds Up: the Gaming Age Forums
When a site offers opinions, there comes a need for readers to shout back. Gaming Age offered a forum for fans who wanted to discuss the articles on the site, or just chat about games. In 1999, Tyler Malka shyly crept up to Gaming Age’s young message boards and followed the conversations for a while before deciding to join. Today, Malka owns NeoGAF.
“It was a little intimidating, as it can still be for new members today,” Malka says. “I lurked throughout the summer, eventually registering in September 1999 -— at the age of 14 -— to carefully begin participating in discussions. I became comfortable over the following months, but this would be the start of a tumultuous period for the forum.”
Indeed, the rapid growth of Gaming Age was beginning to strain the site’s servers, and the dot-com bust in 2000 made financing a separate forum server unrealistic. “Jim Cordeira, who had taken over responsibility for Gaming Age, had to make a decision for the future of the site,” Malka says. “His priorities were to the news site, but rather than killing the forum outright, a deal was made so that GAF [Gaming Age Forums] could continue on the IGN Snowboards system. We migrated.”
GAF would continue a nomadic existence for a number of years, during which Gaming Age’s writing staff would drift away from moderating duties. Malka remembers the transition well. “In 2001, a moderator I knew decided to retire, and in his last mod action he thought it would be fun to make me a mod in his place. That was my entry into administrative side of the forum.”
GAF would bounce from IGN, to EZBoards, to the GameSquad Network. Though GAF gained its own server on GameSquad, the forums were plagued with problems: banner ads and obnoxious audio pop-ups made visits miserable, and GAF’s ever-growing traffic continued to murder the server. “In May 2004 a thread about PuzzleDonkey became so large it corrupted the forum database,” Malka recalls. “We were screwed.” But GAF’s near-implosion presented an opportunity for Malka to rally the community and tighten the bonds between members of the group. “I asked our community, now in limbo with a dead forum, for donations to fund the creation of an independent GAF.
They came through. About two weeks after the database corruption we were up and running on my terms: powerful hardware and unobtrusive ads.”
In 2006, GAF was re-branded as NeoGAF to distance the forums from the Gaming Age news site, as Gaming Age was having some trouble with publishers who objected to some of the content in GAF’s threads. “By essentially making the forums independent from the main site [NeoGAF was] no longer beholden to any of these publishers and could operate by their own rules,” says Kennedy. “I think it was that independence that really benefited NeoGAF; there were no ulterior motives or outside influences impacting what went on there.”
"Why wont those idiots let me into their crappy club for jerks?”
Elitism is not uncommon in most clubs that require membership and NeoGAF is no exception. NeoGAF catches a lot of criticism for being the gaming equivalent of the Order of the Garter: you can apply -— the first step to acceptance requires that you sign up with a paid-for email address and not a free service like Yahoo! Mail or Gmail -— but you stand a high chance of rejection.
Malka believes NeoGAF’s strict moderation and entrance policy helps maintain a calmer environment than what’s typical for gaming forums, and therefore the community’s continuing popularity is ensured. “All the new members are let in by hand…and they’re let out at the first sign that they’re from the side of the Internet that posts comments on YouTube,” Malka says. “This ensures that people want to read NeoGAF just as much as they want to participate, rather than participation being the main draw.”
But attempting to gain membership at NeoGAF is an intimidating process that often ends with hurt feelings, particularly since rejection is delivered in a blunt email (which can take up to three months to arrive) with no explanation why the applicant was shunned. “This is like the third time in like three to four years I’ve tried to register an account [at NeoGAF],” complains a poster named Aszurom over at the Quarter to Three [QT3] gaming, media, and tech forums. “The first time I got an actual rejection letter; other times were silent ignore.”
Derogatory remarks about NeoGAF follow Aszurom’s complaint, punctuated by an anti-NeoGAF illustration or two. “WTF is a NeoGAF?” asks a member named Mightynute.
“Imagine the bastard child of QT3 and a Twilight fandom board,” responds a member named Kraaze.
The online community can can be a big bad place for the uninitiated. NeoGAF is no exception...
Even Junior Members who are cleared to post might find themselves booted for saying the wrong thing… at least until they clear the 200-post count and are a member of NeoGAF for two months. “If you f*** up, you’re gone permanently,” the rules state firmly. “There is a no-tolerance policy on Junior Members.” The rules also list memes that users are forbidden to repeat, and Sites That Must Not Be Named -— including Joystiq and Go Nintendo for “misinformation.”
Yet, despite NeoGAF’s reputation for elitism, membership application is as high as ever. Everybody wants in. Malka is aware that NeoGAF’s moderation policies are not popular, but he has no plans to change them. “The entrance requirements probably aren’t going to move toward an open system; most likely things will either stay the same or become stricter,” Malka says. “Most visitors are just viewing NeoGAF and not posting. And they’re reading because there’s material worth reading, and that can only continue to be the case if the members are heavily moderated.”
Malka acknowledges that NeoGAF can be an intimidating place -- but he doesn’t necessarily believe that’s a bad trait for the community. “Way back in 1999, I read GAF daily for several months before registering an account. It was intimidating even then. But because it was, I didn’t rush in and make a fool of myself. Instead, I got a feel for the discussions, started becoming more knowledgeable about what was being talked about, and then, when I did join, I made sure to justify any positions I took in my posts and to speak tactfully. It’s an atmosphere I can appreciate, and so trading that for ‘welcoming’ isn’t on my to-do list.”
Malka says he’s not a fan of warm cuddles for himself, either: other members can, and will, challenge his opinions. “Hell, I may run the site, and everyone values their accounts, but I’ll still get called out at the drop of a hat if I don’t back up my positions thoroughly.”
Not every rule is in place to intimidate new users, however. The air in NeoGAF can get a little blue at times, but members who use racist language are banned. There is also a no-tolerance policy for anti-gay language, a problem that plagues most gaming message boards as well as multiplayer matches over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.
“NeoGAF has a sizable gay community,” the community’s FAQ states, “and if that bothers you, go somewhere else.”
Developers and Gamers, Together at Last
One of NeoGAF’s biggest draws is that it’s an invaluable “neutral ground” where developers and gamers can meet. Brian Fleming, co-founder and producer of Sucker Punch Productions, knows why he enjoys soliciting the opinions of NeoGAF members. “I think the ‘gaming IQ’ of posters on NeoGAF is as high as it is anywhere,” he says. “Quality posts, diverse, intelligent opinions, and a large community -— it’s pretty special.”
“We really do appreciate all the energy and passion gamers have,” Fleming says. “Gamers are a big part of our inspiration. I’ve read the entire 7000-post thread on NeoGAF about InFamous and it’s incredibly energizing.” James Stevenson, senior community manager at Insomniac Games, has forged lasting friendships with GAF and NeoGAF community members. “Big industry events are always a blast,” he says. “We usually get to meet up with a bunch of folks we know by handle and avatar only.”
And sometimes there’s the opportunity for a unique brand of fun. “During the big Resistance: Fall of Man tournament, one GAF member, BobTheFork, was closing in on qualifying for the trip to New York as part of the 1-v-1 tournament,” Stevenson says. “We were able to watch his game live and it turned into a huge event, with tons of us watching and cheering on our ‘Internet friend from GAF’ in his qualification match.
Bob won the game, and I met him a few weeks later in New York City along with a bunch of other great players for what turned out to be an awesome weekend.”
Stevenson believes it’s that sense of community that makes NeoGAF special, but notes that the rapid pace of the community is attractive as well. “One forum to discuss games: may the most interesting stories and most-played games win.”
To Err is Too Human
Though some developers have learned to listen to criticism from gamers (even if said criticism sometimes has to be sifted from a fistful of swear words), NeoGAF has at least one documented instance of a game creator tangling with the community like a mongoose with a cobra. In mid-2008, Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights’ feisty frontman, became enraged at NeoGAF posters for what he perceived as too much criticism of his then-upcoming title, Too Human. He proposed that NeoGAF members should “stand and be counted” according to their faith (or lack thereof) in Too Human’s final performance.”
Too Human -- 65% on Metacritic.com
“I think it is time to draw the digital line,” Dyack posted. “Too Human will be out in August and I think there are going to be a lot of trolls crying here. Either way, when the game comes out this forum will likely be on fire. So in order to try to put some gasoline on this fire, I will ask those interested to stand up and be counted. When the game is released and everyone plays it all the speculation will be over. If I am wrong and gamers in general think the game is ‘crap’ then I am comfortable with getting tagged ‘Owned by the GAF.’” “However, if I am right and it is received well,” Dyack continued, “I would like to see those ‘Against’ to be tagged with ‘Owned by Too Human.’”
Dyack also spoke out against NeoGAF on a July episode of the 1UP Yours podcast, and claimed the community is poisonous for the industry. “NeoGAF and other forums like this that don’t have good management are not only hurting society and hurting the video-game industry, they’re in decline, and they need to reform quickly before people stop listening to them,” he said. “If the moderators and people who run the site think they aren’t doing any damage, they are sorely mistaken, and it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens.”
The “Dyack chronicles” raised questions in the general gaming community about the limits of video-game writing, forum moderation, and what counts as a tasteful reaction to criticism and what counts as merely throwing a tantrum.
Dyack was banned from NeoGAF after he told vg247 that NeoGAF is, plainly, “the worst forum.” NeoGAF moderator EviLore wrote Dyack an elaborate send-off that compared the developer to Baldur, Too Human’s main character. “You’re the poorly animated bald Norse technogod, the Übermensch with a thousand pointless book references misunderstood by the dirty proles who aren’t worthy enough to judge you,” the piece began.
The drama was exciting at the time, but like most drama, it didn’t age well in the memories of those involved. “The confrontation with Denis Dyack was a little troubling, as at its core it was about freedom of speech and the validity of a community coming to a harsh conclusion about a game prior to its release,” Malka recalls. “In another medium, like film, we’d just laugh, but in video games this perspective was actually lent credence by some gamers and members of the enthusiast press, culminating in a Dyack appearance on the very popular 1UP Yours podcast where he talked about the evils of NeoGAF’s existence and -— essentially -— free thought.”
Silicon Knights’ Denis Dyack is no longer welcome at NeoGAF forums
“That hit me hard. I could understand Dyack desperately trying to protect his doomed video game from negative buzz, but I hadn’t expected 1UP to take his side or remain ambivalent,” Malka says. “We also didn’t get any sort of presence in the discussion on the podcast at all, and I absolutely would’ve flown down there and defended my site and my ideals.”
1UP Yours host Garnett Lee likewise remembers the episode well. “We invited Denis to come on 1UP Yours to talk about Too Human and get some direct responses to the criticisms being leveled at the game,” he says. “Andrew Pfister, the show producer, prepared a number of questions for Denis gleaned from [Internet communities like NeoGAF] and we figured the interview would offer a place to cut through and really talk about the game.”
But Dyack wanted to run in another direction. “As we learned when he arrived, Denis had a much different plan in mind that took us by surprise. He brought reference materials with him and launched into an impassioned dissertation on the nature of Internet commentary and his hopes to, as I believe he put it, ‘reform’ it,” Lee says. “He went on to intellectualize the subject, veering into some very esoteric points. While not prepared to actively participate, we did our best to keep things moving and create a good talk show for the listening audience. It went down as one of the more unique guest appearances in the history of the show.”
Dyack isn’t the only outspoken game designer to unleash some vitriol on NeoGAF. Well-known creator of the Twisted Metal series and director of the original God of War, David Jaffe, has also appeared on the popular message boards from time to time. The most infamous of these appearances was when members posted and mocked a photo of the game designer in a thread originally about God of War III. Jaffe responded to the derision with all the subtlety of a nuclear bomb detonation.
Dyack wasn’t thrilled about the criticism leveled against his project, but other developers, including Sucker Punch’s Fleming, believe that NeoGAF is worth listening to, even if things get negative. “People are candid, and you should ignore their criticism at your own peril,” Fleming says. “At the same time, when people realize that real people were behind the decisions and creative work of a project, it can be a positive for everyone. In our case, there was one guy on NeoGAF who was very critical of a particular part of InFamous -— and we’ve used him as a test bed for some future ideas. It really does happen.”
Stevenson can also cite at least one example of NeoGAF criticism affecting the final product of a big-name game franchise. “Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction was considered by most [NeoGAF] forum-dwellers to be too easy,” he says. “For A Crack in Time, we added difficulty settings for the first time in a disc-based Ratchet & Clank title to accommodate our more hardcore fans’ desire for challenge.”
Megathreads have lead to over-taxed servers and missed nuggets of information
Megathreads and Information Overload
Popularity has a way of wearing down the gears of both machines and people. Malka has a few ideas ready in case a genie grants him one wish to “fix” NeoGAF.
“Aside from the constant struggle for more powerful server hardware to address our continued growth, I’m mostly content,” he admits. “[But] right now we’re getting to a point where ‘megathreads’ are all the rage, and every bit of information on a subject is being thrown into one all-encompassing thread, and that’s becoming a problem for the general flow of information. For example, the Gran Turismo 5 delay announcement was posted in the GT5 megathread, and didn’t receive its own thread. I only heard about it secondhand from one of my members elsewhere, and when that happened I immediately closed the 17,000-post GT5 thread and started a separate one for the delay.”
“Striking that balance of new threads vs. megathreads is going to be more and more difficult as NeoGAF continues to grow,” Malka says. “It’s not really something that can be won; only lost, or prevented day by day with active guidelines and moderation.”
Posting Far into the Future
NeoGAF’s continuing popularity indicates that gaming communities are still very relevant. But do they stand to deflate as more people turn to social networks like Twitter and Facebook for news and conversation?
Malka believes NeoGAF will endure, and in fact finds the diffusion of news sources beneficial for the community. “We have hundreds of ‘big-name’ members and many more visitors,” he says. “But these days they’re mostly content keeping a low profile and letting community managers and the like handle the day-to-day community interactions.”
“There are structures in place for big news to be officially broken in the gaming world, with the current endless cycles of hype, marketing dollars, and strict NDAs keeping everyone under wraps until the right moment,” he says. “But NeoGAF will keep having its leaks, finds, and breaking news, since we don’t have to pander to publishers to stay alive.”
At any rate, Malka is content to stay put and watch over the community he helped save and build. “The Internet keeps evolving, and message boards in their current form won’t always exist,” he says. “But while it’s viable, I’m content being here.”
Original illustrations by Andrew Yang