Who Builds Video Game Wikis?

And who profits?

The first time I played Stardew Valley, I made it one whole in-game day before needing to look something up. I wanted to buy some seeds with my tiny starting allowance, but couldn’t figure out which to buy. Without thinking, I found myself on the official Stardew Valley Wiki.

I compared sale prices for crops, figured out which would be the most efficient, and returned to my farm. Another in-game day later, I was back on the wiki. This time, I was trying to figure out the best places to fish, how to stop losing energy so fast, and where to get gifts so that Leah would like me.

I barely gave thought to how the wiki was created or maintained. Everything I relied on was the result of a network of dedicated community members that had painstakingly documented every bit of information. Thousands of volunteers put everything together, without being paid, recognized, or even thanked for their efforts. Maybe that should change.

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The Unsung Heroes of Data Collection

Anyone can go on a wiki and create a page or edit an article, but maintaining a project as a whole isn’t as simple. Some games require players to actually play and record as much as they can, while others conveniently offer workarounds. In the case of single-player Bethesda games, the Creation Kit modding tool available to mod creators happens to have everything from item details to otherwise invisible character stats.

“It has basically all the information about the game,” says Elder Scrolls Wiki administrator Atvelonis over a Discord call. “For the purposes of wiki editing, you don’t need to really understand 90% of the stuff in the Creation Kit. You just need to understand what specific information you want.”

Unfortunately, not all information is easily acquired. Game lore and character backgrounds may only be lightly hinted at, and require detective work to figure out. Documenting a location or a quest necessitates screenshots and actually playing the game. And online games like the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) don’t offer the player the luxury of reloading saves to document material.

“If I’m trying to write a quest walkthrough in ESO, I can restart a quest only from the beginning. And once I finish it, it’s done forever on that character,” says Atvelonis. “Documenting ESO content requires players to go into the game and just record everything.”

“I’ve personally uploaded maybe 1500 images of NPCs and locations, and many people have done more. Some have developed datamining tools to look into game files and see what’s lurking around. I have a text file somewhere with all of the game’s dialogue that’s almost impossible to use: just one gigantic CSV file useful for spell-checking.”

And Wiki staff do spend a lot of time checking spelling and veracity of edits. These volunteers take on roles in editing, oversight, and administration, working to make sure that all information on the wikis is verified.

“Every single day, pretty much all of the [staff] will hop over to the Recent Changes page and take a look through the edits,” says Atvelonis. “We like to think of ourselves as a library, so you do have to verify that the information is worthwhile, relevant, and correct.”

A Labour of Love

Every editor remembers their first contribution. For Atvelonis, it was Skyrim’s Woodcutter’s Axe item page, after he needed to find one for an achievement but found that the wiki only had a few locations listed.

“If you look on the Woodcutter’s Axe wiki page, you’ll notice there are like a hundred locations listed,” laughs Atvelonis. “That’s all me. I was going to make sure that anyone else who wants the achievement is going to be able to find an axe literally anywhere in the game.”

In all cases, editing starts out as a volunteer affair, as it did for Tom Katkus. He was a fan of the game Starbound and started working on a wiki for the game. Soon, the wiki got the attention of the game’s developer Chucklefish. At the time, Starbound was still in early access and complex to the point that developers started using the wiki themselves, leading Katkus to start interacting with them on a regular basis.

Now, he’s one of the rare wiki editors who gets paid for his work, as a Product Manager at Chucklefish. He’s involved in everything from assessing potential projects to helping out with partner support, and of course, he manages the developer’s many wikis.

“A lot of people I work with would never want to do what I do,” says Katkus over a Discord call. “For me, it’s satisfying, it’s like a game in and of itself. Taking these pieces of information and organizing them and arranging them. When you play a Zelda game, you fill in the equipment in every little slot, and you have this map of all the objects to find, and they fit nicely into this organizational structure. I think people who get that kind of satisfaction are the people who get involved in wikis.”

Many editors talk about trying to contact game developers for bits of information, but Katkus has direct access to the sources. On one particular occasion, he had to track down Stardew Valley developer Eric Barone for a new location that had been added to the game. Players would have to visit this new insect-filled area for a quest, but it didn’t have a name in the game’s files.

“I went to [Eric Barone] and said, ‘We have to call it something. We can’t just have this area that doesn’t have a name.’ He came up with a name on the spot, he was just like, ‘Let’s call it the Mutant Bug Lair.’”

Shared Responsibilities

Game developers and publishers like Chucklefish interacting with their game wikis are the exception rather than the rule. Very few developers are actively involved in wikis for their games, and Katkus thinks they need to consider how important they are.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” says Katkus. “It’s a really valuable way to see what players are excited about, and what they’re interested in with your game. Developers end up removing themselves from that and saying documentation isn’t something they want to be directly involved in. It removes a connection between the developers and the players.”

Depending on the game, the size of that connection can be enormous. Fallout’s Nukapedia gets around half a million visitors every day, more than six months after the last major release. The Elder Scrolls Wiki regularly gets between 700,000 – 800,000 views on a weekday, and up to a million on weekends. Around a major game release, that number skyrockets.

“When Skyrim came out we got 40 million page views in a week, and some incredible number of edits,” says Atvelonis. “From what I hear, it was a nightmare for the staff. When The Elder Scrolls VI comes out, the wiki is going to explode. There’s definitely a little bit of nervousness. If we let something slide and it’s false, that reflects poorly on us, and it reflects poorly on the wiki.”  

Understandably, game wiki staff can feel a lot of pressure when so many people start to rely on them for information. Before the rise of game wikis, and the internet at large, developers and magazines shared the responsibility of informing players about a game. In-game details, story backgrounds in manuals, and magazine features were basically all a player had access to. As Katkus points out, that experience has evolved.

“Things used to be done a lot differently back before wikis,” says Katkusyhf, “Developers would offer the only documentation that existed, aside from player-made facts. Games got a lot more complicated, required a lot more documentation, the internet arrived at sort of the same time, and developers just kind of tossed all of the work onto the internet and said ‘the community can take care of this.’”

Now, many editors recognize that game developers want players to figure out information on their own. The discovery of a hidden secret or ideal strategy is extremely rewarding, and part of the intrinsic motivation for playing through a game. For editors, game wikis are first and foremost community projects, and outside of being able to solve some headaches, direct developer involvement defeats their purpose.

In the case of some games, however, external information feels almost necessary. Vlad-Matei Mladin, co-founder of Blizzard fansite Icy Veins, points out that some games simply don’t provide enough information for players with varying levels of skills and time to invest.

“I think there’s a significant chunk of [any given] game’s population that is playing it or persisting because they have the assistance of wikis and fansites,” says Mladin over a Discord call.

“For a game like World of Warcraft, if your damage-per-second is low and you’re being kicked out of raids, there’s nothing in-game that will help you. A lot of people are at the brink of competitiveness only because of access to various resources telling them what to do.”

Who Gets Paid?

Wikis and fansites aren’t just useful resources — they’re also lucrative. Thousands of page views from a website with volunteer content writers is certainly enticing for website hosts, who get to keep all of the advertising revenue. Mladin says Icy Veins, which traditionally makes guides and news posts, is also set to enter the wiki market.

“We kind of realized very late that wikis are making a lot of money for very little effort because people just contribute,” says Mladin. “We thought we could make easy money by starting wikis and creating the content ourselves.”

Mladin believes there’s room for more than one wiki for each game series. However, the internet’s many game wikis are increasingly falling under one umbrella, the Fandom hosting platform. Almost every game wiki (and fan wiki in general) that isn’t independently hosted is a Fandom wiki. In December of 2018, the hosting site solidified its majority by acquiring its largest competitor Gamepedia from Twitch.

Last year, wiki communities struggled when Fandom added auto-playing videos to the top of popular articles. Many wikis, including Nukapedia, wrestled with whether to leave the platform, with the Runescape wiki ultimately following through. Others, including Halo’s Halopedia and World of Warcraft’s WoWWiki had already left many years earlier. Others still include disclaimers noting that they did not create the videos and bear no responsibility for their content.

Yet many editors appreciate the benefits of working with an established company, and across the board, they argued that wiki editors shouldn’t be paid.

“There are a lot of reasons that people have for disliking Fandom which they will never drop,” says Atvelonis, “but all things considered, it’s honestly a pretty good platform. We get more out of being hosted by Fandom than we ever could be being self-hosted, even if that meant a paycheck; amazing search engine optimization, almost no technical upkeep, and easy outreach to companies like Bethesda, among other things.”

The reasoning lies partly in the logistics. Wikis get thousands of editors to contribute to them for free because they enjoy it, and paying them all for edits of varying scope would be a nightmare. More importantly, however, is that for many editors, their wiki involvement isn’t seen as a job but a passion project. The long-term effects of the expansion of volunteer-run wikis over traditional guides on the online games ecosystem remain to be seen, but there is precedent — older fan-sustained walkthrough sites like GameFAQs.

“I don’t edit so that I can get paid,” says Atvelonis, “I edit because I enjoy helping people and because I hold an immense value for the freedom of information.”

When someone sees Atvelonis editing the Elder Scrolls Wiki in person, they might assume he’s just doing some programming. But if the wiki comes up, and it turns out they’re a fan of the game series, they’ll end up thanking him for the countless times they’ve used it. At the end of the day, that fulfillment is why he started editing wikis in the first place.

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