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GamesFirst! Three Point Oh-So-Good
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 12:00 AM Mon Oct 1st, 2001
last revision: 12:00 AM Mon Oct 1st, 2001

Three years ago, Rick Fehrenbacher and Al Wildey bought GamesFirst! Although founded in 1995, GF! had been left to languish after the previous editor, a friend of Rick and Al's named Zap Reicken, decided he could no longer maintain the site. At the time of the Rick and Al's takeover, dubbed GamesFirst! 2.0, the site averaged 300 visitors per day. I came on board as the site's first console game reviewer. As Rick described so eloquently in his editorial last year, the consoles section and GF! grew together. A few games trickled in from Activision and a handfull of other games publishers for console systems, and those kept me busy for the remainder of the year.

Rick (left) and Al (right) at E3 1999.

As we prepared for E3 1999, the site was already averaging a thousand visitors per day. Rick, Al, Sarah Wichlacz and I made the journey to E3, and on that first night of the world's biggest videogame trade show, as we sat around wondering what all the "real" gaming sites' staff were doing that night, Rick and Al asked me to take the consoles section under my wing. I was 24, entering graduate school the next fall, and generally unsure of my ability to create a successful section. That E3 provided the basis for a monumental addition to the site. The next fall, as the Dreamcast was released and we rode the crest of DC coverage, we saw our numbers top 1500 unique visitors per day. That number kept rising, and we began an unending struggle to figure out how to make money from the site. We determined early on that our readers expect a certain quality of coverage from GF!, and if we continued to provide that quality of service we should be okay. It was the old saw: If you want it badly enough it will happen.

Sarah (left) and Shawn (right) at E3 2000. Funny, funny people.

In a way it happened, and in a way it didn't. We never did have much success with advertising affiliates and other partnerships we entered into with the intent of profiting from our work on GF! We did have success convincing game publishers of our dedication to quality coverage, and we saw a dramatic increase in the numbers of games we received for review. We constantly struggle to add new writers to our staff, but needless to say we have high requirements for GF! writers. During this time, my good friend Jeff Luther began writing for the site, and he has done some phenomenal work since then.

Al (left) and Rick (right) at E3 2000 with friends.

E3 2000 came and went in a flurry. We had become much more industry savvy, took our very own Hunter S. Thompson character, Brandon Hall, along with us to cover the Promised Lot, and generally tried to top our previous coverage. We did that with no problem, and E3 became for us what it is for so many other publications in the gaming industry ? a time to firm up old contacts more than acquire new ones. E3 2000 was still dominated by websites who covered videogames, but we had begun to rise above the fold.

Sarah (middle) with Sgt. Kabukiman and Toxie at E3 2000.

The fall of 2000 will be remembered for the carnage that took place in the technology industry as well as the massive kill-off of gaming websites. We look at the process as evolutionary ? as we learned better how to value stock in tech-oriented companies we had to correct, and as the Web evolves changes are unavoidable. We have had three major partnerships with advertising affiliates. Game Fan and Game Glow are both now out of business. UGO, who never coughed up a dime for us, have now changed their focus from paying affiliates for running ads to charging affiliates for webspace. It became painfully obvious that we weren't going to turn GF! into a profitable business anytime soon, and perhaps never. The Web still hasn't figured out a way to make content-oriented sites profitable, and while we may be very good at writing about videogames, we are not so good at changing the economics of Web business single-handedly.

We have never been big fans of the business end of GF!, and not worrying so much about profits allows us to maintain our focus on games. It was never an imperative that GF! makes money. We enjoy a wonderful relationship with our hosting service, First Step Internet, and we do have an ulterior motive behind our interest in videogames. Rick and Al are both professors at the University of Idaho, located here in rural Moscow. I was enrolled in Rick's Shakespeare course when I first became involved with GamesFirst! Sarah (and the connection between Sarah and I will become clear in a moment) was pursuing an independent study with Al, who told her about the site he and Rick had just purchased. We came together as a foursome with overlapping academic and artistic interests.

Shawn and Yoda at E3 1999.

When Rick and Al took over GF!, job number one became higher quality games coverage. While we have many friends at other gaming websites, we still maintain that GF! has the highest standards for the basics of writing as well as the criticism of videogames. Our writers are not just interested in games as entertainment or diversion, but as the artform of the 21st Century. The industry has surpassed Hollywood in profits and appeals to an ever-widening audience. Technological and conceptual evolution in videogames has been inspired by art and literature, and games are now inspiring art and literature. Last spring Rick was one of the Univeristy of Idaho Humanities Fellows, and helped put together a huge symposium of some of the most important thinkers in the realm of technology. The symposium addressed "Technology and the Making of Humanity," and the vast majority of speakers mentioned the influence of gaming and games on the development and use of technology in our culture.

This is the point of view that we come from here at GF! We have a lot of fun doing what we do, but we also work from the premise that games are important and will only become more important as time goes on. Games are about more than the latest graphics rendering techniques or the latest control interface. Games take on a wide variety of tasks, from providing aesthetic experiences to creating narrative spaces where the gamer's imagination is as important as the programmer's. It has been said over and over again that playing is one aspect that humans share with very few creatures. Our need and desire to play is fundamental, and it is staggering how far we've taken things to satisfy this need. We feel that discussing and critiquing these games not only helps our readers pick and choose which titles to check out, but also helps us figure out why we even bother. The question is not just, "Is it good?" The question is, "Why is it good?" This point of view makes us a different kind of website. It is obvious in articles like Jeff's "The RPG Experience: Conventions and Not Beyond." It is also obvious in our reviews of games like Conker's BFD and Black and White.

This take on gaming has served us incredibly well. By the fall of 2000 we had cleared an average of 3000 visitors per day, and numbers were steadily rising. We watched as sites came and went and as companies cut thousands of jobs. Our unique business plan ? no overhead, no profit ? served us well. We caught a lot of readers who were left without their favorite site. Many of them stuck with us.

E3 2k1 From left to right: Jeff, Shawn, Matt, Greg, Sarah, Rick.
Al is behind the camera, as usual.

Last fall we redesigned the site, and Rick wrote a great editorial about it ? much shorter than this one and much funnier. The new design took us into E3 2001 with a full crew of seven writers and editors. We came back from LA with more coverage than ever before, and Sarah directed a short documentary about the ubiquitous Booth Babes of E3. While we work with no budget, we still find plenty of areas in which we can improve and expand.

Al and his buddy Gary at E3 2k1.

Unfortunately, we are limited in what we can do and how we can do it. Rick and Al, who have taught me more than I could list here, found that they could no longer maintain the pace required by GF! They have things like families and careers to worry about. I got a phone call a few weeks ago from Rick saying that I could either buy the site from he and Al or we would tear it down. As GF! grew and expanded, it became more work, and eventually it took too much of a toll on already full lives. I felt the weight of three years of determination and hard work on my shoulders. What do you do in a situation like this?

Hopefully you have friends to turn to. I had married Sarah Wichlacz this past summer, and together with our good friend Jeff Luther, we figured that, if we worked hard and approached the task with some strategy, we could keep GF! going with nary a hitch. Do not mistake this for a profit-motivated action on the parts of Rick and Al. They did more than sell the site to us ? they passed it on. Without moving into sentimentality, it should be understood that this is a major change in how we all view GF!, emotionally and intellectually.

GF!, however, will continue on as it has. We currently serve an average of 6000 visitors each day, keeping up with our tradition of more than doubling our readership every year. We will still pursue profit-generating opportunities, but our focus will remain the same ? great writing about games. Rick and Al will stay on staff as writers and will be remembered for changing the focus and feel of the site to the current incarnation. Sarah will take over parts of Al's role as Design Editor, creating banners and buttons, and managing the visual elements used in our coverage. Jeff will serve as Copy Editor ? he has been trained to maintain the quality of prose we expect from GF! I will now serve as Editor. It is a simple title, and carries a lot of responsibility.

We have begun some small changes ? dismantled our Cheatszone in favor of a more updated cheats search engine, added some broadband applications for our bandwidth-endowed readers. In general, not much will change for you, the reader. We will continue to post as often as possible, and continue to experiment with new content and features that we think you'll enjoy. We'll require feedback, which you have been eager to give in the past, to let us know how we're doing.

It is going to be an exciting fall for us here. The Xbox and GameCube, as well as second generation PS2 titles, will keep our console crew busy. We have a ton of PC titles coming out this fall, too, and we hope to increase our coverage of hardware and peripherals.

I can't close this piece without acknowledging the importance of our writers and readers. Our writers work hard for us because they love gaming and they love writing about games. They fit in GF! wherever they can, between classes, jobs, family, and, well, games. We do not accept less than great coverage, and they work hard to meet our standards. They are an immensely talented, patient, and passionate group who love videogames as much as anyone I've met. GF! would not, could not, be what it is were it not for our excellent writers.

And to our readers: I hope we continue to fulfill your game coverage needs. It doesn't carry the appropriate weight to put it in those terms ? this isn't advertising or marketing mumbo-jumbo. We want to be read; we need you. Without getting too sappy, it feels appropriate as the curtain falls on Act Two of GamesFirst! to leave you with these lines I learned in Dr. Fehrenbacher's course:

If we the shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.

-- William Shakespeare,
   A Midsummer Night's Dream