At 29, Sean Robinson has been teaching high school in Southern California for almost six years. He teaches 10th grade history. He tries, at least a little, to be the cool teacher. His short hair's spiked up in the front, a Fallout 3 lunchbox sits on his desk, and he conducts class in a casual, conversational style. And he's young, which makes it easy.
Robinson says being relatable is important for forming connections with students. If he's lucky, he'll really connect with dozens or even hundreds of students over the course of his career, changing their lives for the better. But none of those students would ever guess that he's already profoundly affected the lives of thousands of people across the world -- that he's indirectly responsible for at least eight marriages, two babies, and countless friendships -- all because, when he was their age, he really loved Final Fantasy VII.
In 1999, when Robinson was cutting class in 10th grade instead of teaching it, he created a message board and a tiny Final Fantasy VII fansite. These days, a single video-game message board would be lost in the endless sea of internet fandom. But in 1999, as teenagers flocked to the internet for the first time, one little video game fansite could change the world, in its own small way. Sean Robinson's site -- Eyes on Final Fantasy -- did just that.
Setting the Stage: RPGs and Fansites on the Rise
In late 1997, Sony's TV ads for Final Fantasy VII hyped it up as "The most anticipated epic adventure game of the year." But then they added a brilliant marketing twist, saying the game "will never come to a theatre near you." This game was so huge, so cutting edge, it was even better than a movie.
The tactic worked -- Final Fantasy VII sold more than a million copies in the US in the fall of '97. More importantly, it single-handedly created a massive fanbase for sprawling RPGs full of anime characters and epic CG full-motion videos. Soon, millions of teenagers were playing every RPG Squaresoft released. They were seeing heavy religious themes and romances and dramas play out in games for the very first time, like Final Fantasy Tactics' knock-off Roman Catholic Church, Xenogears' frequent allusions to Christianity, and, of course, Aeris' shocking death in Final Fantasy VII. And they wanted to talk about all of it.
The rise of the RPG coincided perfectly with a boom in internet access -- between 1998 and 2001, teen internet usage in the United States jumped from about 50 per cent to 75 per cent. By the mid 2000s the internet would be dominated by blogs; by the late 2000s, wikis and social networks. But at the turn of the century, fansites were the internet.
These sites thrived at a time when a Google (or, more likely, AltaVista or Lycos) search would return an endless stream of humble fanmade pages. Small communities clustered around free message board platforms that categorized forums into easily explorable directories. For every "official" website there were a hundred fansites dedicated to Zelda or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Final Fantasy. And most of them were made by kids. Kids like Sean Robinson.
The High School Student and the Final Fantasy VII Fansite
Sean Robinson posts online the same way he acts in Real Life, the same way he says he talks to his 10th grade students. Casual. Approachable. Though we've never before met in person, within about five minutes of shaking hands in San Francisco we're drinking beer and chatting like longtime friends. It's easy and natural and at least partially explains why his tiny Final Fantasy forum took off in late 1999.
Robinson didn't get a PlayStation right at launch, but Final Fantasy VII was still the must-have game in 1999. After playing the game, Robinson joined the forums at Final Fantasy Worlds Apart under the handle Cid Highwind, the gruff airship pilot from VII.
"I don't know how long I had been posting at FF Worlds Apart, which at that time was probably at like number two, if there was a ranking of popularity," he says, before reminding me (not for the first time) that his memory isn't very good.
By the end of the year, Cid Highwind was a veteran at Final Fantasy Worlds Apart. "I really liked the forums at Worlds Apart," Robinson remembers, but he wasn't completely satisfied there. "The endgame might've just been, really, I want a forum," he says. "Be in charge of something… I've always had kind of a voice in my head to try to do something."
On December 5, 1999, in his sophomore year of high school, Robinson started a forum of his own called The Highwind and advertised it on Worlds Apart. He used a service called ezboard that set up the various discussion forums automatically and hosted the community for free. Technically, ezboard had nothing on Worlds Apart's Ultimate Bulletin Board software, which cost real money to licence and was the premiere forum software at the time. People joined anyway.
Cid's advertisement drew a small group of regulars and lurkers from Worlds Apart. Those members would soon form the heart of his new community, becoming moderators and administrators and legendary figures in their small corner of the internet. Robinson tries not to claim too much credit for the site's overall success, but somehow, through luck, reputation, or charisma, he attracted a core group of people who just clicked.
Final Fantasy Worlds Apart.
13-year Eyes on Final Fantasy veteran Daniel Towns remembers the impression Robinson made on him when he joined the community as a teenager. "He would treat you as if he'd known you all his life," Towns says over Skype. "But at the same time, be very understanding of the fact that he hasn't, which is a difficult thing to do. But he pulled it off to a T."
Still, being in the right place at the right time was a big part of EoFF's success. In fact, serendipity seems to be a bit of a running theme in Robinson's life. We only have the chance to talk face-to-face because he's coincidentally spending one night in San Francisco, six hours north of his hometown Corona, California, with a gaggle of high school kids on a spring break trip.
Our talk also brings into focus how he spent his own high school years: Not taking spring break trips to colleges, but sitting at home on a computer.
"I just wanted to have a little community, even if it was just like these 25 people," he remembers. "It became intoxicating, you know, to see, everyday, how many people registered? … I was obsessed with watching this thing grow. Kinda like today I'm obsessed with refreshing my 401K… I wasn't making any money, or anything, it was just the passion. I pushed the domino, and look what's happening."
The Highwind started growing fast by 1999 standards, adding members in the single digits every day. Robinson attributes part of that growth to a companion page he made devoted to Final Fantasy VII. His unique feature, at the time? Downloadable screensavers that he made using FFVII images. This anecdote practically screams 1999.
A few months into 2000, Robinson formed a partnership with a new member on the strength of her graphic design skills. She suggested the name Eyes on Final Fantasy after Final Fantasy VIII's theme "Eyes on Me." The partnership dissolved quickly, but he kept the name.
One of EoFF's first members, Wesley Moore, joined at the age of 12, and it was actually his third Final Fantasy community. But it was the one that stuck.
"I actually came over from the originator of these Final Fantasy websites, which was Final Fantasy Online," Moore says over Skype. "People from there ended up spawning Final Fantasy Worlds Apart. FF Online had a reputation, in those days, for being very strict… FFWA did not exactly have a whole lot of rules back then. It was run by mostly 14 to 18 year olds, and it was created as sort of a reaction to the harshness of FF Online."
In April 2000, with a grand total of 199 members, the ezboard proudly proclaimed "Eyes on Final Fantasy is now the largest Final Fantasy Ezboard on earth!" Within a year, Robinson would buy an Ultimate Bulletin Board licence and transfer the bustling community to serious forum software. A year after that, they would make the jump to the more advanced vBulletin, which is still the go-to forum software on the web. When fansites had vBulletin communities in the early 2000s, you knew they were serious business.
Eyes on Final Fantasy on ezboard.
Cid Highwind, online ruler of a thriving community, was happy. But Sean Robinson, underachieving high schooler, wasn't.
"I was depressed, you know? In real life. Maybe not online, so much. I loved online. It's probably good the site's not in my life anymore. I wasn't social as much as I should've been. Not that I was some recluse, like, goth kid sitting by the vending machine hiding. I just didn't want to be there… I hated high school. I would miss a day a week at least.
"Looking back, part of it is I'm a teacher now. I see my students, I see kids like me and I'm like, 'You should be a little more involved. I know high school sucks. Let me make it not suck for you so much.' I look at kids who are into school, and I'm like, 'I should've been like that. You guys are happy.'"
Robinson's regret seems inevitable for a teacher looking back on his own school years. He sees where he could've worked harder, been a better student. "I'm [in San Francisco] with all these kids, we're going to Stanford, we're going to Berkeley," he says. "It's a college trip, and this whole trip is torture to me because I'm like, 'I'm such an idiot. I'm such a fool for screwing around.' I still could've done the site and everything, but realistically I don't think I could've done that and taken AP classes and stuff. It was my life for several years. I mean big time."
Then he says something unexpected. As much as Robinson enjoyed his online life, it was at least partially a cause of his depression.
"[The site] was kind of a big secret in my life. My friends didn't know. I was embarrassed… These were separate lives. I was just friends with 'normal' people who I thought would judge me… we're talking like, even family, [weren’t] really super aware. In particular I remember my best friend -- I tried to keep it private from him. I guess eventually I said something. When you go to hang out with someone for like a week at the river, it gets out a little. And he'd kind of bust my balls a little. But he also had no idea the extent, that it was like this. Nobody would get it, you know."
A couple people, he says, did get it. Two of Robinson's high school friends joined EoFF and became active members. And things got better out of high school. Robinson got married, started taking classes at the local community college, and kept devoting time to the site. Between 2001 and 2004, while he was still heavily invested, EoFF's member base grew from its original handful to more than 6,000 members. By 2007, that number would surpass 20,000.
Eyes on Final Fantasy, circa 2004.
More importantly, as the size of the community grew, members began banding together to add data about all of the Final Fantasy games to the main website. The community surpassed Final Fantasy Online, which Robinson once thought of as the monolithic competition. "There was a long time where we were number one, when you googled it," Robinson says. "We were dominant for the majority of the time I was very active."
If I'd asked 2004 Robinson whether he'd ever sell the site, he'd probably demur. At the time, everything was going too well. Why even think about selling?
Then something unexpected would happen: Eyes on Final Fantasy would start making money. And then, just as quickly, it would stop.
Golden Years: Eyes on Final Fantasy Grows Beyond Its Creator
If Sean Robinson is Eyes on Final Fantasy's Vito Corleone, Daniel Towns is its Michael. Like the youngest mobster son in The Godfather, it took Towns time to step into his patriarchal role. He joined the site in late 2000, at 16 years old, without really knowing what a forum was -- he stumbled upon it by searching for Final Fantasy V ROMs, which the site hosted at the time.
"Then something unexpected would happen: Eyes on Final Fantasy would start making money. And then, just as quickly, it would stop."
Towns joined and started posting slowly. At the time, EoFF had a "leveling" system that changed members' avatars until they hit 1000 posts, when they could choose their own. "I basically said around 13 or 14 posts: 'Hi, just so you know, if I post once more I'm going to lose my avatar, and all the avatars up to level 1000 are kind of crap as far as I'm concerned. Can't we just make it so you can keep the newbie avatar forever?' And they did it, and I was kind of surprised… Cid… replied to me directly, and I was very impressed about that."
Thirteen years later, Towns has never really left the place. His move from New Zealand to the U.K. as a teenager was inspired by his first internet girlfriend, who he met through Eyes on Final Fantasy. He also met his fiancée on the forums.
"We were the original dating site, before all the other ones. The one thing that all these other dating sites are missing is that they're not based on Final Fantasy," he says, laughing. "A lot of the gaming forums out there are very male dominated. I think because Final Fantasy appealed to females a lot earlier than other video games did, it's got a much more even sheer. And also because Final Fantasy is a much more emotion-based game, a story-based game, you could say that that sets a good platform for relationships to bloom from."
"We were the original dating site, before all the other ones. The one thing that all these other dating sites are missing is that they're not based on Final Fantasy."
Towns is bubbly and upbeat on the phone. He seems immune to the awkwardness of shifting text-based relationships into the real world, happily bragging that he's talked to more than 50 EoFFers on the phone. He has them all listed in an Excel spreadsheet on his computer somewhere. He has a lot of spreadsheets and statistics about EoFF -- people he's met and talked to, awards members have received from the community. "These things are important!" he says.
Towns fills a good-natured, fatherly role on the community's staff. When users register on the forums, they receive a welcome message from Daniel under his handle Loony BoB. His avatar is, eternally, a yellow chocobo, the icon of an EoFF newbie circa 2000.
When he was first christened a Cid's Knight (EoFF's moderator elite), Towns organised a major initiative to expand EyesonFF.com, which was, at the time, infrequently updated.
One of the biggest contributors to the site in its first couple years of existence was Mike "Big Ogre Umaro" Gonzales, who followed Sean Robinson from Final Fantasy Worlds Apart. "[Sean] was just a guy who was like 'Come on, be my friend,'" he says. "So I said yes!"
Gonzales seems constantly flustered on the phone, trying to reconstruct events that happened over a decade ago -- but when he does, it's with the same wit that shines through in his internet persona. To celebrate EoFF's first anniversary, Gonzales created an RPG Maker 2000 game called Sick Irony. It's full of in-jokes and references that were already dated a decade ago, but the irreverent sentimentality still shines through. In later years, Gonzales showed up at EoFF intermittently to post long, satirical screeds like "Does Being Superior Ever Burden You" and "Look, this relationship isn't working," in which he breaks up with his GameCube.
"Such a theme in my later work," he jokes. Just so up my own arse." Gonzales alternates between sincere reflecting and highlighting the irony of how important working on a fansite felt as a teenager.
"That was kind of a fun hobby," he says. "Anything where I got to write the… humorous descriptions of [Final Fantasy] job classes, anything like that, I would just do. It just seemed like -- gotta do it. Someone's gotta do it!"
He pauses. "Saying this all sounds super weird."
The work Gonzales and other members put into the site's encyclopedic content helped the site draw in more new members. "[GameFAQs] wasn't the first port of call at the time," says Towns. "When you searched for 'Final Fantasy walkthrough,' you wouldn't get taken to GameFAQs in the first few results. It would be a case of, you get a whole group of Final Fantasy sites, and most of them wouldn't have forums, either."
I ask Daniel what it is about the place, exactly, that made the community so unique, so addictive. "People just join up, and they get stuck," he says. "It must be the people. It has to be the people… I don't know how [Sean] managed it in the first place. The people just grow on you so easily."
Mike Gonzales and his wife had that kind of chemistry. They met on EoFF -- more specifically, when EoFF raided another forum over image leeching, where she happened to be a member. The two forums argued at first but became fast friends. "Add like eight years to that," Gonzales says, "and we're at this Catholic monastery… and the guy who I met by invading his internet forum is marrying me to my wife."
Daniel Towns and his fiancee will be the eighth couple to tie the knot when they get married later this year -- at least, the eighth couple that everyone knows about. If Daniel Towns has children, they will almost certainly be registered members of Eyes on Final Fantasy.
Online relationships and real-life meetups are commonplace for internet communities, but something about the site -- maybe it really is Final Fantasy -- has helped relationships bloom for 13 years and turned e-couples into real parents. Even when things got bad for the site in the late 2000s, as the active member base shrank dramatically, there were still couples flying across the world to be together.
The Money Always Changes Things
"I don't know when things started to decline," Robinson says as we finish our second round of drinks. "It was kind of like, there was a time when I just started losing my touch."
As EoFF raked in new visitors, Robinson set up Google AdSense and started seeing small profits from the site. In 2004, he was just finishing up community college and still had time to spend online. The Google AdSense checks started small. And then, one month, Robinson got a check in the mail for $2600.
"When you're working minimum wage on the side and you're in college, that's an enormous amount of money," he says. "And it was like, when you're so idealistic, I could make this every month, just from having this on the side."
I ask if this sudden influx of money created a moral issue. Dozens of members were dedicating hundreds of hours to making the site bigger and better, but he alone was making money off of it. He struggles uncomfortably over the question, but not the answer.
“Dozens of members were dedicating hundreds of hours to making the site bigger and better, but he alone was making money off of it.”
"There was very much a moral issue. " he says, after a moment. "I don't think I disclosed that it was doing that well… I [tried] to give back. I remember offering money for people to add more sections. I remember paying $200 or $300 for someone who would redesign the front page. But yeah, I did feel some guilt about it. But at the end you start to justify it… you start to talk yourself into why it's OK."
Before the $2600 check, a good month would bring in about $150, which Robinson and his wife found exciting. Unfortunately for Robinson, AdSense only paid out that much money twice.
The next month, when the check showed up, it was for $3. "It was nothing, absolutely nothing at all," he says. "By the end I started to rely on some of the income it was generating. So when it started to dry up… I won't lie, the money did change things. It became like I expected it. So when it went away, it was like well, now I'm operating in the red. My mentality changed."
Robinson's aspirations of forming a network of sites -- perhaps even expanding EoFF beyond Final Fantasy to cover other popular game series like Halo -- vanished. And money kept getting tighter. By the time he transferred to the University of California Riverside to finish a Master's in education, he was delivering pizza on the side to make ends meet. He and his wife lived in a mobile home that her grandparents owned. A few times, he even asked for donations to offset the costs of keeping EoFF running. The AdSense payouts never got better.
By 2007, he had almost no interaction with the website. That same year, someone interested in buying the site emailed Robinson. It wasn't the first offer he'd gotten, but this time he was broke and student teaching for a year without pay. After going back and forth with the potential buyer for a month, assuring himself that the site would be in good hands, Robinson signed it over.
The community would, for the most part, remain untouched. But it would never quite be the same.
The Slow Death of the Fansite
"I would say [it was] a phase of mourning," says Daniel Towns. "I think people, particularly who were working on the site side of things, lost an interest in trying to help, because they were no longer working for a friend."
I ask him if he hopes to someday buy the site and have it, once again, wholly owned by the community. He worries over the idea a little -- about people who may not want him to be in charge, about how money always changes things.
But of course he does.
Towns walks over to his fiancee and asks, "How much money am I allowed to spend on buying Eyes on FF? After the wedding? If I save it up myself? How much could I spend on it? … Five thousand? All right, I'd spend 5 thousand pounds on it, there you go."
"It's always in my head," he adds. "It's always in my head. If I could throw away some money and own it, I would. Just throw that money away."
The end of Robinson's ownership was the end of an era for Eyes on Final Fantasy, though it's hard to blame the site's subsequent decline on his departure. He'd rarely posted since 2005. The moderators ran the community as usual. But it was a symbolic change, and representative of what was happening at fansites across the internet: People were growing up, and moving on.
Final Fantasy Online grew by a million posts and increased its member count from 4,400 to 6,400 members between 2005 and 2006. After that, its growth slowed to about 100,000 posts per year, and its last Archive.org capture still shows "Most users ever online was 726, 01-05-2006." EoFF's stats tells a similar story: "Most users ever online was 1,228, 06-14-2006." Popular roleplaying forum RPG Chat, which swelled to more than 60,000 members by 2009, saw the same decline: "Most users ever online was 1,311, 05-04-2006."
Several members point out that the Final Fantasy series isn't the powerhouse it once was. Square Enix dramatically slowed down its major releases in the mid-2000s. Final Fantasy XII was in development for five years and came out in 2006. Final Fantasy XIII took another three years to arrive. Neither game brought an influx of new fans into the community.
Meanwhile, GameFAQs grew into the go-to source for walkthroughs. Gaming blogs and news sites began delivering news faster and better than fansites. Perhaps out of necessity, the internet has consolidated as its population increased. Facebook gained 800 million users between 2008 and 2012; Twitter has more than 200 million active users. Reddit has, for many people, replaced the need for niche forums with small sub-communities.
Fansites once specialised in their comprehensive coverage of focused topics and the specificity of their information. But now wikis do that, and they do it better. They're easier to update and maintain. The Final Fantasy wiki hosts nearly 14,000 pages and is more comprehensive than a fansite could ever hope to be, with pages dedicated to obscure trivia like the hidden Developer's Office in Final Fantasy IV.
It's hard not to look at the death of fansites as an inevitable evolution of internet culture. "I hated [Reddit] at first, [but] I'm just used to that now," Robinson says. "So when I go back to the [message board], I'm like, ugh, I can't reply straight to you… It's hard to follow. It made sense in the past, but it doesn't really make sense anymore."
Many of today's surviving fansite-based message boards are digital ghost towns. ezboard, which once hosted the fledgling Highwind, survives as "a social universe of communities" called yuku.com. Final Fantasy Worlds Apart is a dejected husk of its former self. Sites that Zelda fans may remember, like Kasuto.net and HTLOZ, have "recent posts" on their front pages dating back years. The latest at HTLOZ, from April 7, 2013, is in a topic titled, "Last Person to Post Wins."
Thousands of other fansites have disappeared altogether, their existence now relegated to the Internet Archive and the distant memories of 14-year-olds turned lawyers and nurses who still, now and again, find time to play a video game and post about it on Facebook.
Gonzales summarizes this loss -- the significance of those dumb ezboards and roleplaying forums and Final Fantasy arguments -- with a poignant finality. "The way that I made friends, no one had really done before," he says. "And it's basically gone now."
Eyes on Final Fantasy Today: 13 Years, Eight Marriages, Two Babies
Eyes on Final Fantasy survived its sale and was, before long, resold to another pair of owners (Towns says they're a much better fit for the community). Even before Robinson left the site, you can see activity beginning to decline in its monthly statistics. 40,000 - 50,000 posts per month eventually trickled off to under 10,000 in 2011.
Eyes on Final Fantasy, circa 2011.
Since then, it's gone through a bit of a resurgence, partially thanks to community outreach from Square Enix. The company has flown editors from fansites to its headquarters to check out new games, and they gave EoFF 25th anniversary Final Fantasy posters to give away to their members. Towns sent out an email blast to registered members, and accounts that hadn't been active for years suddenly showed up. Never underestimate the power of free stuff.
As we finish our drinks, I ask Robinson how much money he got for the site. He's uncomfortable saying, exactly. "Not enough to set me up or anything, but probably half a year's salary, which ended up being the down-payment on my house that I live in now," he says. "I was being selfish, a little bit, at that point, to take care of what I had done. To reward myself, I guess."
The money didn't dramatically change his life. Finances were still dicey thanks to California's meager education budget. He got “pink-slipped” his first three years teaching. "They're reserving the right to lay you off," he explains. "And I was, you know, flipping out. It was scary."
Eyes on Final Fantasy has been out of his life, almost completely, since he sold it six years ago. But in early March, he made a new thread in the same conversational style he's always used. "So how is everyone doing?," it asked. Hundreds of members returned to talk about their lives and about how EoFF affected them.
Wrote one member:
"This is how I think of it sometimes -- some of these people, here, and some who aren't here now, but with whom I have reconnected in other ways, saw me as the least likable version of myself I can thus far recall having been. And even before I had had a chance to learn equanimity, or tact, or break out of the tiny little backwards world I had grown up in, even at my most mercurial, insecure, and least stable, they were still my friends. I could come here and have silly, carefree fun, and also have real conversations about things that actually mattered, and no one would bounce me out the door for being the pathetic teenager I was."
It was, perhaps, Sean's Lawrence of Arabia moment. They were there for each other, and for the memories. But mostly, they were there for him.
So what's it like, I ask, to have changed people's lives? To have changed thousands of lives?
"This is the part that's the best," Robinson says. He can't stop grinning. "That's like the greatest thing on Earth. I love it."
He thinks about it sometimes, just during the day. "I love that people got married because they met on there. People had babies… It fascinates me. What, because one day I was bored and was like 'I'm going to make this stupid webpage?' That's so wild.
"I don't know if it fuels my ego or whatever, but it's just such a cool thing. I think the comparison I'm always making in my mind is like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. 'What if you've never been born?' It wouldn't affect my town at all. But like, cumulatively, it's really cool to think that peoples lives are completely different than they would've been."
Even if Towns never fulfils the dream of buying EoFF and returning it to a fan-owned community, it's fitting that he, and not Robinson, will probably be the one to turn out the lights and lock the door.
"If you look at my life between  and now," he says, "I live with different people, all my family is in a different country now, all my highschool friends are in a different country or I no longer keep up with them, all my work mates back then, I don't really know them, everything in my life has changed, absolutely every single thing in my life since moving over here has changed, except for one thing, and that's Eyes on Final Fantasy."
"I do feel like we bottled some kind of magic on there for a while," Robinson says as we pay our tab. "Back in the day, with my go-getter [attitude], I had the idea that I had the secret recipe. I don't think so, in retrospect, that that had anything to do with it… chemistry, you know, we had chemistry. Right place, right time."