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Q&A: Affinity's Maffei Talks IGE Sale, MMO Media Future

Affinity Media was once know as the company that owned controversial gold seller IGE - but having sold it in April, it's now concentrating on its Allakhazam and Thottbot websites. Gamasutra quizzes senior VP John Maffei about the change, his views on gold

June 7, 2007

10 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan

John Maffei was a ten year veteran of Microsoft, and is currently the senior vice president of business development at Affinity Media. At the Online Game Development Conference, he spoke on a panel about the audience of online games, along with representatives of Microsoft, The9, K2, CCP, and Flagship Studios. Gamasutra took the opportunity to sit down with Maffei after his talk, to hear about how Affinity Media works, its ties to controversial gold-farming firm IGE (since severed), and the players of these online games. What's your background in the game biz? John Maffei: I was, most recently, at Microsoft. So I worked on all the digital media stuff. From April of 2000, to the end of 2002, I ran a startup called Rocket Pipe, which was very similar to what Google Desktop tries to do, with pushing out information. I have the impeccably bad timing of starting my start-up in April of 2000, and also the good fortune of leaving Microsoft in April of 2000, when its stock was at an all-time high. I closed that start-up, went back to Microsoft, and probably the most interesting thing I did at Microsoft was license all the video content from the studios for the Xbox 360 [Live Marketplace]. Disney, ABC, Lions Gate, Paramount, I kind of started up that project and did a bunch of that. And before Microsoft? JM: Earlier in my career I was a finance guy, so I worked in New York in finance. So from New York, to Microsoft, and that got you into gaming? JM: I’ve always been a huge gamer, in terms of an advocate myself. I love gaming. My favorite game, even today, is Rise of Nations. I had the best time with those games. I also loved Asheron’s Call when I was at Microsoft. My background is media, it’s not gaming, but I’ve always been associated on the periphery in the gaming space. Even when I was on the Xbox team, I was focused on media. But I’ve always been a passionate gamer. How did you end up at Affinity Media? JM: Microsoft’s a great place to work, but it is a somewhat challenging environment. People work five years on releasing Vista. I wanted something in the media space – because I love the media space – but I also wanted an environment that was small enough you could go actually make a very big difference. Someone told me about the opportunity at Affinity Media and I was very excited. Tell me what Affinity Media does? JM: Affinity Media is basically a holding company for different gaming assets. Clearly, there were three parts to the company. There was an IGE division, which everyone knows about. And while we’re not releasing the details, it’s common knowledge now that IGE is no longer a part of Affinity Media, that we’re no longer in that business. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Confirmation of IGE's new owner seems to come via Allakhazam's site owner, who commented in April: "A month ago, IGE was owned by Affinity Media who also owns us. Now, IGE is owned by Jon Yantis, who, I believe, was one of the original founders of IGE but had sold off his share years ago."] We’ve got a very strong auction presence in Korea. In Korea, it’s different, with gaming being part of the culture, people game all the time, and we own one of the larger c-to-c platforms in Korea. Very popular, and very different from some of the things that go on in the United States, in terms of the attitudes of gamers. And we have the ZAM content network, both in the US and China. The three brands that people know the best are Thottbot, which is obviously our database for World of Warcraft, Allakhazam, also a database, but with forums and a more qualitative experience, covering a full range of games, and MMO Interface. That’s our U.S. footprint. We also have a China footprint. We have a deal with Shanghai Media Group where we operate something called GamesTV which equates very similarly to G4. We show replays of the best gamers in the world playing each other. There are interviews. It’s a real 24/7 television station. It’s a joint partnership. We also run ZAM.cn, which all in Chinese, but it’s similar to the things you’d see in the US, where you have game fan affiliated sites. We take a lot of that video from television and repurpose it for the web, you can go an watch those on the web. So is that analogous to what they’re always telling us about, that in Korea there are television stations that play StarCraft tournaments? JM: That’s exactly right. In fact, there are other fun models. In China, we sponsor a team. It’s a big deal - these people really love it, it’s fun. We actually have – not huge arenas – but arenas that people come to once a week. So that’s been fun. How does television work in China? Is it cable based, or transmitted... JM: The one we’re working with is digital cable. They pass cable through, like any other business. We’re reaching millions of households today, but obviously it’s a very big place, and it’s an investment in the future. We’re hoping that it’s going to go. We’re getting in, in its infancy. When we first met, you said, ‘Oh, I bet I know what you’re going to ask me about.’ What did you think I was going to ask you about? JM: Oh, just everyone has been so interested in the IGE thing, because IGE is a controversial business. Very controversial, and we’d always kept this incredible differences between the businesses. If you go to any of our sites, you’ll never see a gold-selling ad. The guys who founded our business, guys like Jeff Moyer and Bill Dyess, they’ve got absolutely nothing to do with that other side of the business. So for us, it was a positive, in that we thought, for the people who cared, that’s no longer an issue. Since it’s a private company, a private transaction, we’re not releasing actual news on terms. But we’re no longer in that business. Although during the panel (see Gamasutra coverage here), you came off as pro-gold farming. JM: No, no, definitely not pro-gold farming. I’m very pro-consumer. I do think, regardless of the legal arguments, that if someone thinks, ‘hey, I put all this time into the game,’ that they own that character, and that’s just the fruits of their labor. If I use Microsoft Word to write a word document, even if I used Microsoft Online World or something, it’s the fruits of my labor. It’s my idea, it’s my creation. I feel like those guys who play feel like, ‘hey, that’s ours.’ Even if they’re not into selling and trading, fantastic, but it’s their choice. At least, that’s my opinion. What I think you said during the panel was correct, that regardless of what the EULA says, that’s how players actually feel. JM: Yeah. The thing was, Josh [Hong, moderator and K2 Networks founder] wants to keep things lively. It’s pretty funny because he points to me, as the ‘oh, you go be the secondary market defender.’ There are guys who are much better defenders than I am. As the guy who says, look, if you want to be successful in this business, regardless of if you’re in the content business, the gaming business, or the commerce business: you better do what your users want. You better make your users happy. You’ve got to go create an environment where your users are happy. That’s one of the things I feel very strongly about. I’m not going to judge you on what you do or don’t do, I would never do that. I just think publishers should just be cognizant that users feel very strongly that it’s their game when they play the games, and that it’s their investment. Don’t be cavalier about users feelings, because they have very, very strong feelings. We deal with the same thing on the content side. We run a content business, but we have to listen to our users, because they will give us grief – rightfully so – if we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. It was kind of funny, because Joshua didn’t have a staunch secondary market guy up there, so I got appointed the staunch secondary market defender. It wasn’t a role I particularly... I feel strongly in the rights of the individual. So, like any other media company, the money just comes from advertising? JM: Two business, advertising and subscriptions. Clearly we have a lot of users, and a lot of people come, so we have hundreds of millions of page views, well over ten million unique visitors a month. Eyeballs are important. People who like the sites spend a lot of time on the sites. The average person who is using our site are spending over twenty-two hours a week online. Well over fifty percent of them are college educated. The average mean income is about $50,000. Twenty-five percent of them are married. So it’s an 18-to-24 demographic, but it’s not the 7-11 kid that Eric Bethke mentioned in his keynote. He had this really great point. He brought up the guy you buy beer from at 7-11. In his spare time, he might be the number 13 WoW player in the world. What’s more impressive – the fact that he can kick everyone’s ass in WoW and has such dominion there, or the fact he sells beer at 7-11? I thought it was a good point. Eric is big on the value of the virtual world. It’s a diverse set of people, lots of different people play the game. One of the things I would say is people who come to our sites are the hardest core gamers out there, and we like that. They’re spending a ton of time on our sites, a ton of time playing these games, and they’re very passionate about the games. Right now, you deal exclusively with online games. Why don’t you do single-player? Why don’t you do game FAQs? JM: Well, you can get game information on different games, you know, guides and information. It’s really been a question of focus. Clearly, there’s a bigger console market than there is an MMO market. But just as IGN stuck its toe into the MMO space, and pulled it out... you’re good at one thing. You'd better master what you’re good at. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we think we’ve got the MMO space... at least a pretty good understanding of what we need to do. We’ve got lofty goals, things we want to do, so let’s go improve in that market. If it turns out we want to grow, we’ll always think about the opportunity with the console. There are so many cool games coming out that we want to go work with. Even walking around here, this has been awesome. We’re so psyched for the Marvel game. Pirates of the Burning Sea is going to be extraordinarily cool. Hellgate: London we’re super-excited about. There are just a ton of titles that we think are going to be super, super, super cool. EVE Online - amazing game. It’s not just WoW, there are so many other fantastic games. So far, it’s been a blast. I love working in the MMO space.

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