Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Pay Per View 

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out…"

Well, that's pretty much how it sounded when the first announcements were made that Consimworld was going to a subscription plan. The topic dominated the discussion boards for many days, and while a lot of the discussion has died down, we're now only a week away from the transition. Adding to the upheaval for ASL players was the announcement that ASL Forums moderator and founder Nat Mallet was going to have to step down from that position, leaving the future of the Forums uncertain, and possibly leading to a merger of the Forums into those provided at the Warfare HQ site.

I was going to comment on this a few days after the CSW announcement was made, but am glad I waited a bit before doing so. There was a great deal of furor at first, and predictions of the outcome ranged from "no big deal" to "the death of wargaming." The concerns are first that such a subscription service might drive away some of the more casual posters at CSW, thereby limiting the usefulness of the site as a repository of Consim information. Secondly, fewer new players are likely to join the site (and pay for the subscription) if they don't first have the opportunity to experience the community available there. There has been some talk that modifications to the subscription plan might be carried out to allow new players access to some of the boards to whet their appetites and also discussion of game companies footing the bill for that subscription. Indeed, John Kranz has just announced a delay in implementation of the subscription plan, presumably in order to continue exploring other options, but unless there are drastic changes, CSW will become more restricted in terms of access and some point in the near future. The ASL Forums transition seems a little uncertain as of this writing. I won't speculate on what motivations lie behind the plans. John Kranz has clearly put in a great deal of time and effort to keep Consimworld afloat, especially through what became a fairly tough transition to a new software package in the last year. It's his baby, and it'd be his right if he simply dismantled the entire thing. Likewise, I don't doubt Nat puts in a good deal of energy on the ASL Forums, although on a smaller scale. The question though is how these changes may impact ASL.

Restricting access to CSW isn't likely to have a significant direct impact on ASL. Until a couple of years ago, the major internet gathering place for ASL players was without question the ASL Mailing List. There were a few other forums available (including CSW) for those who didn't like the occasional tone of discussion on the list, but this was the major gathering site for ASLers in cyberspace. However, by late 2002, the server problems the list was experiencing (outages, duplicate postings being sent out, delays in messages appearing, etc.), combined with an increasing number of players who wanted to avoid the list altogether, caused many to begin looking elsewhere. CSW already had boards both for MMP and ASL itself, but traffic on those sites began to increase. In addition, other forums sprang up. The ASL Forum began in January of 2003, and the WarfareHQ site developed an ASL-specific forum later that year. There are at least a couple of Yahoo Groups dedicated to ASL as well. The net result is that there a number of sites available online to discuss matters related to ASL. CSW does not currently play a major role in this discussion. Occasional rules discussions and AARs may show up there, but this seems to be a small amount compared to the other sites. Severe restriction of access to CSW should not impact greatly on ASL's presence on the internet.

Where a change in CSW might have impact is on the ability to bring in new players. The mailing list and the ASL Forums are dedicated discussion sites for ASL players. CSW's advantage is that ASL players make up a small minority of those players who frequent that site. Having those players around allows them to become aware of new products like the Starter Kit, which might entice new players to finally give ASL a try and old players to think about trying it again. Based on comments at CSW, members of both groups have indeed given our beloved game a shot because of the Starter Kit. Would the kit have been as successful without CSW? It's hard to say. Going to CSW is like going to a large wargame convention. Not only can you become aware of different games that are out there, you can also find experienced players willing to tell you all about them.

Thus there's a "cross-pollenation" effect that CSW provides that can't be matched by any other Consim-dedicated site right now. Loss of this effect is probably more of a threat to companies like MMP than it is to specific games like ASL. MMP has diversified its product line in the last few years, offering (in addition to ASL) the Gamers line of games and now individual games such as Monty's Gamble: Market-Garden and the upcoming Shifting Sands. Discussion on the MMP company board at CSW is carried out by fans of all of MMP's games. Undoubtedly, dedicated ASLers have received exposure to the Gamers line through this board that they otherwise wouldn't have received (myself being one of them). Likewise, some of the dedicated Gamers players have indicated an interest in ASL once the Starter Kit was released. It's this crossover that MMP may lose if CSW doesn't thrive. ASL may not be directly affected, but anything that hurts MMP certainly doesn't help the system thrive in the future.

The ASL Forums merging with WarfareHQ wouldn't have a huge impact. Users of the Forums would likely make the transition without too much trouble. Speaking from the standpoint of personal preference, I just don't get into the WarfareHQ site as much. I don't know if it's the site itself, the usual posters there (a different group for the most part than on other ASL forums), or some combination of the two. If the merger happens, I'll probably make the transition too. If not, there is still the venerable ASLML to fall back on.

John Kranz and Nat Mallet deserve a great deal of thanks for what they've done for the gaming community. Free access to sites like these are emblematic of what the internet can provide. Unfortunately, as has happened so often in the last decade since interest in the "Information Superhighway" first exploded, the egalitarian nature of the net has run up against the realities of life, namely that sites like these cost a great deal to maintain, both in money and time. Nobody knows for sure what it is costing John to run Consimworld, but estimates tossed around on the discussion boards run into the thousands of dollars. Even if one doesn't wish to try to get rich off the internet (not a likely proposition anyway), there comes a point where compensation for services is required just to maintain the status quo. I can't begrudge the change to a subscription service, and it's probably an inevitable transformation at this point. But I will be sad to see it happen. We are a niche hobby. Anything that hinders the exchange of information in this relatively small community will end up hurting the hobby in the long run. I am hopeful that a new plan will be found that will allow fairly unrestricted access to the forums, and maybe this delay in starting the pay per view service is an indication that something is in the offing.

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