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Thunderbolt: the first ten years

Thunderbolt

Today marks Thunderbolt’s 10th birthday, a landmark in our history as a website, a community and as a group of writers.

To put this in perspective, when I started Thunderbolt, there was no Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr or even Wikipedia. Most websites and online communities falter after a few years, but Thunderbolt has grown and grown into something that I never would have imagined.

How we ended up here is due to the cumulative efforts of over 60 people, who in their time have dedicated some portion of their life, for free, to make Thunderbolt what it is. Their hard work, commitment and dedication has shaped the site you see today. This is our story.

Humble beginnings

On November 20th, 2000, my father and I sat down to choose a name and buy a domain for a website that I would start. I had no particular purpose for it in mind; it was merely an experiment, a chance to play around with web design.

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For a reason that I can’t recall, we chose Thunderbolt and I began putting a variety of content online. The design – if you can call it that – was elementary at best, but it was a start.

A stroke of luck

I updated Thunderbolt every few weeks for almost two years with little or no incident. Then on 8th June 2002, Jim Smith and James Frazer contacted me, asking to write for the site. It was difficult to believe that anyone would want to contribute to Thunderbolt, but it seemed like an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed.

Their decision to email me was the spark that set Thunderbolt in motion towards where it is today. Without that external interest, it’s likely that the site would have been abandoned a while later and it would have never gone anywhere.

Rapid growth

By the end of 2002, Thunderbolt had three staff members. Twelve months later, there were 17 of us. This extremely quick expansion, most of it in the first few months of 2003, proved to be vital for the site, both in the short and long term. It allowed us to reach a capacity where, even as volunteers, we could maintain a steady stream of articles.

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By the end of 2003, the site was already on its fifth version, a flat grey and white design. The sixth, launched on 29th July 2004, was the first version that when we look back, seems reasonably competent. It’s also the only that we’ve ever had professional help with; for a few hundred dollars, a graphic designer produced a colour scheme and set of visuals that served Thunderbolt well for three years.

Quietly establishing ourselves

Over those three years, we added only a handful of new writers, instead concentrating on developing the site. By the end of 2006, we had only hired another five writers. After such a large influx of people in 2002, we didn’t need any additional staff and concentrating on who we had paid off dividends in the years to follow.

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These days, every website is backed by a content management system (CMS), whether that’s WordPress or similar. Until 2003, Thunderbolt had no CMS whatsoever and it wasn’t until 2007 that we had anything more than rudimentary.

A second large expansion

That changed on 6th April 2007, when the first of what I regard to be ‘modern’ versions of the site was released. This seventh iteration of Thunderbolt featured not only a new visual design, but had an entirely new CMS, written from scratch. Every subsequent version has built on the foundations laid by this one, both visually and technically.

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This new site also coincided with our second large recruitment drive. At the end of 2006, 23 people had written for Thunderbolt. In 2007, we added 14 staff and in the following year, another 16. After two years of rapid growth, recruitment tapered off, with 12 additional writers hired in the last two years to date.

Becoming sustainable

At the same time, I had started university and many of our senior staff were in full-time education or employment. As a volunteer-run publication, we rely entirely on our writers’ and editors’ spare time. As people grow up, they naturally have less and less time to devote to spend on interests like Thunderbolt.

It seemed inevitable that we would run into the problem of not having enough collective time to keep Thunderbolt going. If each article must be peer-reviewed and published by and editor, then there’s only so much that hiring more people can do. Instead, we realised that for the site to continue, it must become sustainable.

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Doing so meant identifying the bottlenecks in our workflow and cutting back on the time some parts of it took. Some tasks such as finding and processing images required as much effort as the rest of the process combined. If such tasks were quicker and easier, then editors would be more willing to publish articles, rather than waiting until they had half and hour to dedicate to them.

Our third and current version of our CMS was a major step towards making Thunderbolt a viable website. Much of the work finding and processing images is now done automatically, reducing the time to publish an article from around 15 minutes to less than 5.

Ditching news

When the eighth version of Thunderbolt was launched in April 2008, there was something substantial missing – news. Ceasing to produce what had been around half of our output for years was a gamble, but it’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

For all of the years that we wrote it, news was a terrible, burdensome chore. No-one particularly enjoyed doing it, but it seemed that if you wanted to have a videogames website, you should cover the news. Our attitude was (and for many sites, still is) that if the larger publications do it, we should too.

The reality is that the vast majority of videogames news is simply an extension of publishers’ marketing and PR. They and the agencies they hire control the entire flow of information about videogames, so almost all news is transcribed versions of their press releases and announcements. Very little real news journalism is done in videogames and the first chance that anyone gets to report on the true nature of games is at the preview and review stages.

Cutting news allowed us to focus on what’s more valuable, what we wanted to write about and what we’re good at.

Co-founding the AIGW

In May 2009, I met Philip Roberts, who at the time was the developer at another videogames site, SquareGo. I had never talked to anyone else who had a similar role and it was enlightening. We had the same problems, the same concerns and the same views on many aspects of running a volunteer-run site.

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There aren’t many people doing what we do, but those that are rarely meet or share ideas. Yet doing so is surely valuable, as it is in almost every other industry and field. To address this problem, I co-founded the Association of Independent Game Websites in late 2009, along with editors at Gamestyle and DarkZero. Since then we have expanded our numbers, published a few articles and met a number of times. While it is still new, its future looks promising.

Into the future

Looking back at Thunderbolt’s early history, it seems preposterous to think that the site would have come so far. Between us, we’ve written over three million words; if printed as a novel, our combined work would be 62cm thick! Working at Thunderbolt has shaped careers and given us friendships and opportunities that would have never arisen otherwise.

Looking into the future, it’s impossible to predict where we’ll be in five or ten years’ time. Few volunteer-run videogames websites have lasted as long and so we sail into the relative unknown. What we have though, is a team of fantastic writers, strong principles and a plan. We hope you’ll join us on our journey through the next ten.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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