NBI 2015 Screenshot Safari – Lothlorien

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The city in the trees, Caras Galadhon in Lothlorien.

This is my entry for the Landscape category of the NBI Screenshot Safari. One of the nice things about this event is that it’s given me an excuse to look over all my gorgeous LOTRO screenshots. It’s hard to pick just one view of Lothlorien, never mind pick just one landscape from the entire game!

I like this view because it both gives a sense of the essence of the place – otherwordly beauty combined with simplicity and naturalness – and also helps to understand how it’s physically laid out. It’s one thing to read about mallorn trees, flets, and a city in the trees, and another to visualize what Tolkien intended. LOTRO does a remarkable job of bringing it to life.

This post is part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015, a month of events to help new bloggers get off to a good start. Read more about the Screenshot Safari event here. You’ll find links to other screenshot posts in the comments at the bottom of that post, and via the #NBI2015Safari hashtag on Twitter.

Blogging: To niche or not to niche?

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The Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015 is upon us. Last year I asked “To blog or not to blog?”, this year I’m going to address the topic of what scope your blog should have, including such matters as:

  • Why do people so often recommend finding a niche?
  • What makes a good niche anyway?
  • If you have a niche, does it make sense to wander outside of it periodically?
  • When, if ever, does it make sense to start a second blog?

What’s so great about a niche?

I believe the recommendation to seek a niche started out being made with professional blogging in mind, and has almost by accident become standard advice even for people who have no such aspirations.

If you are blogging for professional reasons, either to make money directly from blogging or in support of your regular (non-bloggy) business or career, this advice makes a lot of sense. Most small businesses of any kind do well to find themselves a specialized niche and serve that market better than anyone else does. You don’t have the resources to be good at everything, and having the second or third best offering in several different categories is not a great recipe for getting sales for a product or readers for a site.

Many things can work in your favor when you’re operating in a niche. When people search for info related to that niche your posts have a chance of appearing near the top of the Google results, and you have a decent chance of being found and read. When sticking to a niche you communicate a fairly clear identity, and you may acquire an aura expertise. The chances are you actually will, over time, become something of an expert, even if you’re not one already.

I should add that if anyone is actually thinking of blogging about games as a way to earn a living I would strongly caution you against that. Most probably that idea is complete madness, not far off thinking that it would be a good idea to head off to LA and become a movie star.

However if you care about the same kinds of things that it’s necessary for a business to care about (getting traffic, connecting with specific groups of people, establishing your credibility etc) the same logic could mean finding a niche is the way to go for you.

What makes a good niche?

Finding a niche is standard advice not only in blogging but in business. Like a lot of business advice it’s also somewhat dangerous in being too vague and generalized. Finding a niche that is actually a good one is rather difficult for a number of reasons:

  • If your chosen niche is too broad, you don’t achieve any of the supposed advantages of sticking to a niche anyway.

  • If your niche is too narrow, while you may become the go-to guy in that area, too few people care about the niche for it provide you with what you need. (Be that customers, pageviews, comments, kudos, friends, or whatever it is you’d like to have.)

  • If your niche is a brilliant choice and just the right size, several people probably thought of it already, and they’ve got it sewn up with the head start they have.

However there are certain mindsets that will help you to at least recognize a good candidate if you should stumble across one, for example…

  • There is some problem you have, or some thing you want to know about, and you’ve scoured the net for info on it but couldn’t find anything satisfactory. Well, you have possibly found a gap in the market, and maybe it would make a good niche for you.

  • You come across some exciting new thing, but no-one else seems to be talking about it. Possibly it’ll get big, and it would be a good thing to get into “on the ground floor”.

  • You happen to be interested in two seemingly unrelated topics, but see a connection between them. Possibly fertile ground for a niche.

  • There’s a topic that is well covered, but you have a different take on it than anyone else. Maybe you see the humor in a topic that everyone treats seriously. Maybe you face unusual challenges in playing, and can comment from a different perspective. Such things might make for an interesting niche.

Why not a niche?

If you are blogging as a hobby, there’s a good chance that sticking to a focused niche will go badly for you. The things you’re interested in change over time, you exhaust what you have to say about a narrow subject, you may get bored of games and genres you used to love, it gets to feel all too much like work. It’s hard to think of a blogger that started out with a very particular niche who didn’t regret it afterwards and end up broadening out.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea to have one blog that wanders between highly disparate topics as the whim takes you. But it might be a good idea to make the topic as broad as “my geekish hobbies” or “my thoughts on popular culture” rather than anything more restrictive.

Nevertheless, even if you plan to go fairly broad, it might be worth considering having some kind of a niche to help provide a theme for part of your early blogging. That would likely help you get an initial foothold in the community and acquire some regular readers.

Going off topic?

Whatever your topic, and however broad it is, should you stick to it religiously, or allow yourself to wander off-topic from time to time? In my experience of reading blogs, occasional diversions off-topic don’t have much effect either for good or ill. But if a blog starts to often talk about subjects I’m not interested in hearing about, I will mentally downgrade it from “a must-read” to “one to check out sometimes”. I don’t know how much that applies to how other people react, but I’d guess it’s fairly typical.

There is however a special kind of “off-topic” that does work well. That’s the kind where the topic, though not related to the normal subjects covered by the blog, is still a shared interest between writer and reader because in fact that topic is of interest to pretty much everyone.

Almost anyone can relate to topics such as:

  • Dealing with a health problem
  • The excitement and hassles of moving to a new city
  • Sadness over a death in the family
  • A hilarious thing your child did

For me, and I suspect for most people, if you post about such things that will likely have me feel I know you better, and feel more sense of personal connection with you.

If you like your privacy or prefer a more reserved approach, that’s also fine. But if you do want to share such things from time to time, it certainly won’t hurt your blog and most likely will benefit it.

Two Blogs Good?

Given what I’ve said so far, you can probably guess what I think about having two or more blogs. If you’re going to write about a bunch of different things that nevertheless are often interesting to the same kind of person, you can and probably should do it all in one blog. I don’t know why people who love Tolkien also love technology, but they usually do. So you could probably get away with a blog that pored over the Lord of the Rings in detail while also discussing your favorite gadgets and apps. However as far as I know Tolkien fans aren’t known for having an interest in geology, so if you wanted to talk in-depth about volcanoes, you probably need another blog, Mount Doom notwithstanding.

Unfortunately in reality matters might not be so clear cut. The world is not divided up into neat categories and it’s easy to move in baby steps from one area to a closely related one and then on and on in that way until you end up somewhere far away from where you started.

Personally this an area that I’ve struggled with. It seems reasonable enough that people interested in reading my thoughts about MMOs are also going to be interested in my take on fantasy or science fiction. But once I start writing about fiction, what about detective fiction, or historical fiction? Once I’m doing a few types of books, why not nonfiction like history and biography? Or once I’m discussing science fiction, what about actual science and technology?

The compromise I’ve come up with is to have this blog (Thinking Play) which is about play in a broad sense, along with closely associated interests like fantasy & SF, and a second blog (Planet Pasduil) where in theory anything goes, and I can do a brain dump of any thoughts I deem worthy of writing down. The jury is out on whether this a good plan. But if you’re going to have two blogs, you probably want to mention that fact pretty often so readers will actually know about it! It’s easy for even people who’d be very interested to not spot the odd post or tweet where you mention the other blog.

Summary

In conclusion there are lots of advantages to finding a niche if you care about getting certain kinds of results, but for a hobby blogger that’s often going to be too restrictive to stick to over the long run. You might well want to name and design your blog with that in mind, so that you can wander over a wide variety of topics in the future, even if you don’t plan to do that right now.

Archery target photo by Ann Oro (flickr)

NBI 2015 Screenshot Safari – A Hobbit in Bag End

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When a hobbit finds himself in the home of the famous Bilbo Baggins, it’s a “Look where I am!” moment, and definitely time for a selfie. Bilbo and Frodo are no longer living in Bag End, but I managed to get past Lobelia and put my feet up for a bit.

This post is part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2015, a month of events to help new bloggers get off to a good start. Read more about the Screenshot Safari event here. You’ll find links to other screenshot posts in the comments at the bottom of that post, and via the #NBI2015Safari hashtag on Twitter.

Creative Blogger Award

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Blogging award memes seem to travel in packs. Recently I was tagged for the Liebster (read my post for that here) and now I’ve been tagged for the Creative Blogger Award.

Is it excessive to do two such similar memes in quick succession? I don’t know, but I’m going to go ahead and do this one, and for two reasons. Firstly I have two blogs, and I’m not sure a lot of people read the other one. So that means most people didn’t actually see my Liebster post, including even people I mentioned in the post. The second reason is that I was nominated for this one by the most excellent Braxwolf, and who am I to ignore a nomination from such an admirable quarter?

This meme apparently has certain rules, and one them is to share the rules, namely…

  • Nominate 15-20 blogs and notify them via their social media/blogs.
  • Thank and post the link of the person who nominated you.
  • Share 5 facts about yourself to your readers.
  • Pass on the rules.

However for all I know Braxwolf just made up those rules! It’s not as if I have carefully traced them back to their source and established their legitimacy. Of course Brax wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that, but it’s quite easy to imagine a bit of Internet Chinese Whispers developing with such things. And now that I think of it, it’s quite tempting to insert a rule for the heck of it. Something along the lines of “Share your favorite example of goat-based mime” I’m thinking. There are few things that make me laugh more than the concept of goat-based mime.

Anyway, back to the point.

Thanks Brax!

It’s nice to nominated for this award, and doubly nice to be nominated by Brax. Not only is he a great blogger and podcaster, he is also a fine human being. I’m in awe of how he manages to produce so much material of such high quality alongside of being a father of four, a major DIYer, and someone who takes their fitness very seriously. And those are just the things he does that I know about!

Like Brax, while I think I produce a blog of good quality I’m not sure that I should count as a “Creative Blogger”. I suppose writing is in itself a form of creativity, but then all bloggers should be considered creative by definition, and the term “Creative Blogger” would be a tad redundant.

Enough of quibbling about the definition, let’s press on with the meme.

Five Possibly Interesting Facts About Me

1)

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I’ve had a brief go in a 747 flight simulator. (That’s the real kind that pilots train in, not a piece of PC software.)

2)

Barcellona_ramblas_2004_09I was pickpocketed in Barcelona, but when the pickpocket realized she’d only gotten my passport she threw it down on the floor, tauntingly. (I’d suspected she was up to something and was shouting to make a scene and attract attention.)

I was reminded of this by Brax’s mention of an incident in Spain. Anyone might think the place was crime ridden!

3)

House_Fire_with_Fire_ChiefWhile I was at college I did some volunteering for a mental health charity. Among other people I met someone who’d set fire to his home because he’d believed his mother was trying to poison him.

Bonus fact: I was one of the designated fire wardens at one of my early jobs, so I’ve had some training in the matter of fires and how to handle them.

4)

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I was once interviewed by a Japanese newspaper.

5)

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I own a slide rule. Admittedly it’s not likely to prove of much use except in the event that I find myself in a post-apocalyptic scenario with no electricity and still need to do some trigonometry. However I think it’s cool and rather lovely and wouldn’t like to part with it.

Nominations

Although the rules say to nominate 15-20 bloggers that seems over the top. I’ll go with Brax’s lead and nominate five:

  • Tsuhelm. I nominated him for the Liebsters too, and you can check out his answers to my questions in the comments to my post. If there’s any such thing as a creative blogger it has to be Tsu, the Salvador Dali of LOTRO blogging. I wouldn’t be surprised if some actual goat-based mime turned up in his posts one of these days.

  • My Inner Geek. Another who was also Liebstered. Jo is very creative in a number of forms (writing, visual art, photography, game design and more). Lots of interesting thoughts on varied topics, and has invented post types like Celebrate the Small Things, a very neat idea in my opinion.

  • FlamingBard. Ranni blogs on her life as well as games, and it makes for fascinating reading, what with the grandbaby and all. Also lots of tempting giveaways. I resist them only because I know I’m not likely to get around to playing, so better to let someone win that will be able make the most of them. Not that it’s easy to resist mind you!

  • Ravalation. I Liebstered Rav but I don’t think she ever found out about it. A super-nice person who blogs on assorted MMOs esp SWTOR and GW2. I’ve not been talking to her as much of late because I’m playing those games even less than I’m playing LOTRO currently, so I don’t have much to say on the topics that come up.

  • I Have Touched the Sky. I Liebstered Rowan also, and I think he may not have seen it. Or possibly he was already Liebstered before that, being very prominent in the blogging community, and had already been there, done it and got the T-shirt. It does seem rather presumptuous that I’m tagging someone that everyone probably already knows! Anyway, an excellent, interesting and varied blog.

PS. You can see more blogs that I rate highly via the list in my post for the Liebster meme, and in the sidebar widgets of this blog.

Putting the “play” into “Free-to-play”

Kids play on beach - photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

Kids play on the beach – photo by Idban Secandri (flickr)

It seems Nintendo’s CEO has been pondering the term “free-to-play” and thinks it would be better to use another phrase to describe the concept, especially as it applies to mobile games…

“I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-play,'” Iwata said. “I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-start.'”

Fixing free-to-play’s image problem

Well I’m always pleased if a business wants to describe its products more honestly, but I think there are several problems with his particular idea. Firstly we already have a perfectly good term that means “free-to-start”. Such things are called “a trial”, or if you must underline the freeness of it, a “free trial”. Trialability is a good quality for any product to have, and free trials are usually a good idea whether we’re talking about test driving a car, trying a free weekend of an MMO, being able to level to 20 for free, or whatever.

However free trials don’t have the appeal of free-to-play, at least when that is a fair description of what is on offer, and not just a bait-and-switch tactic. Would I use Gmail or WordPress.com if they were truly free-to-start as opposed to genuinely free-to-use? Almost certainly not. Whenever I see anything that has a free trial, a free month or some such, my first question is always: “Well how much would it cost me if I were to really keep using this thing?” Often that simple info is made rather hard to find, and at that point my interest in the thing ends. Even when the info is clearly and fairly presented I’m usually not going to bother to take advantage of a free trial in most cases.

“Free-to-start” might be a more well-meaning and honest description of what a company has in mind than “free-to-play”, but that’s like a baker truthfully describing their offering as “stale bread”. Thanks for not trying to fool us, but we actually wanted a fresh and tasty loaf, not just for you to use the right terminology for what you’re selling.

Of course there is such a thing as bad free-to-play, and there are plenty of examples. However there are good examples also, and what’s good about them turns on it actually being fair to describe them as “free”, and it being fair to describe what you can actually do for free as “play”.

Whether something is free is relatively simple to determine. Lying about something that is not really free and calling it free-to-play is going to be found out pretty quickly. At best you’ll have bitter customers who resent how you conned them to get them hooked on your game. At worst you won’t have any customers anyway because people aren’t stupid and they can figure out the con before they ever download your game.

Whether what people get to do in the free part of your game is even really “play” is a big question however. Defining the essence of play is fascinating and important, but also difficult to do, though many have tried and come up with good ideas. (For example The Definition of Play.)

I’m not going go into any formal definitions, but there are certain qualities that to my mind are fundamental to something being play and it being fun. For example…

  • You should be able to immerse yourself in it, get lost in the flow, lose all track of time while you’re doing it.

  • You should experience a sense of freedom and possibility. There are many different things you could do, many ways to approach what’s in front of you, many ways to explore, many ways to express yourself.

  • You should mostly be enjoying what you’re doing in the moment, doing it for it’s own sake, not doing it solely in order to attain some other goal or fulfill some obligation.

Well, when you consider such things, the problem with some F2P games is that they are sorely lacking in actual play. There are exceptions though, and they are the ones that when reviewers discuss them they use phrases like “a generous free-to-play model”.

Freemium works very well in many tech-based businesses, and it can work very well in games also. But it’s critical to freemium that the free service is satisfying in itself and provides core functionality and an experience that more than adequately meets the needs of most people who give it a try. In a game, that means people can have lots of fun with it, for free. If you’re not going to provide that, don’t bother calling it free at all.

Why I’m not playing LOTRO much

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I’m not playing LOTRO very much at the moment, and a piece on LOTRO Players got me thinking about why that might be. Brax’s post is in the form of fanfic, an in-character letter, and I commented in kind…

It may be the cursed power of Sauron. The closer I get to his realm the wearier I feel and the more it seems my will to fight on is sapped. The loss of many of our brave friends and cheery kinfolk weighs heavily also. But I yet hope to press forward in this quest, little by little perhaps, resting as I must to gather my strength.

I hear rumors that the scattered forces of the Free Peoples will soon be rallied into several great armies. If this be true it may prove a great boon, and will raise my spirits much. With such combined forces we may hope to battle on and perhaps even live to see the downfall of Sauron. Or if that proves finally to be beyond our resources, at least to make an end worthy of song.

On reflection I think the reasons why I’m not playing LOTRO so much these days are more varied and complicated than what is implied by that comment, though what I said there is an important part of the overall picture too.

I’m not playing MMOs, I’m doing other stuff!

One thing to start with is that unlike some people it’s not that I’ve switched to playing some other MMO. I’m spending a lot less time playing MMOs overall, and since LOTRO was my main game, it’s most noticeable there.

Reading books and watching boxsets has been taking up a lot of my leisure time since Christmas. I’ve also played a fair bit of chess, and I’ve dabbled in a MOOC or two as well. I hadn’t seen any of The Walking Dead or Downton Abbey before Christmas, and now I’m totally caught up with both series. That’s probably well over a hundred hours of spare time accounted for right there! And there were a few other shows where I caught up a season, or at least watched a few episodes.

Streaming video is a newish thing for me, and has that extra excitement that comes with finding a whole new toy box to explore. It was about a year ago I got a Chromecast and that made the whole streaming thing much more attractive. Over time I’ve discovered more shows and more streaming services.

The hobby lifecycle

Hobbies and interests tend to have a lifecycle with me. I guess it’s not unlike the lifecycle of a relationship. There might be an initial checking-it-out phase, followed by a falling-madly-in-love phase, which leads to wanting to spend as much time as possible with the totally amazing beloved. And that can last for quite some time, but in due course it goes to a more mellow phase where I retain much love and affection, yet don’t want to devote my whole existence to that one thing.

MMOs – and LOTRO specifically – were that new love for me three and a bit years ago. I still like them now, but not in quite the same way as in the first year or two, where the game was the activity of choice for many hours on most days. Meanwhile the new hotness is The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD and suchlike. But diving into great boxsets will have its lifecycle too I’m sure, and maybe then I’ll return to more intensive MMOing.

It’s not just me, it’s you too…

All of the above are reasons why I probably would have been playing less now regardless of whatever had happened with the game itself. However it’s not all just about me and my hobby lifecycle, a good deal of the change in my playing habits has to do with LOTRO itself.

People are very important of course, and the banter and friendship was a big part of what kept me coming back regularly. But friends and kinnies have their own hobby lifecycles, or they have changes in their real world circumstances etc. So over time there are less and less of the familiar faces around, and they’re around less often. What’s more some of the people that still do play regularly have done their own DIY server merger by re-rolling onto more populated servers. Now I’d join them, but the very fact that I’m not playing so much now makes it difficult to re-roll and level-up all over again. If LOTRO had something like the technology in other MMOs where I could hop to another server easily, it would be a big help to me.

The proliferation of changes to game mechanics also don’t help. I still haven’t properly figured out all the skill changes that came in with Helm’s Deep, and I’m largely clueless about essences. Add in lots of small changes throughout the game, like changes to housing storage, making various crafting materials obsolete etc, and it’s pretty hard to really get back in the game and feel totally at home without devoting masses of time to working out the differences. After Helm’s Deep I rapidly went from feeling proficient with quite a few classes to not knowing what the heck half the skills do exactly on most of them.

Then there’s the grindiness that can be excessive. I’m not sure that LOTRO is really that much worse than other MMOs in this regard, but I guess the more familiar you become with an MMO, the more the repetitiveness of combat may weigh on you. The worst case is when you have to kill many mobs, the kills are time consuming, and yet there is no stimulating challenge in the fights. Too many quests seem to land me in this scenario.

Monetization Catch-22

There are things Turbine could do to get someone like me back and more active in the game. Easy and free server transfer is one thing I already mentioned. Another would be ways to insta-level my alts, or otherwise bypass unwelcome grind.

However to the extent that LOTRO has anything like that, it’s all by spending rather big bucks in the cash shop. $50 for the Gift of the Valar to get half-way to the level cap for instance! Or I could get rest XP by subscribing, and buy various XP and deed boosts to cut the grind some.

The problem is that those things might seem worthwhile to someone who was already heavily playing the game, but at a point where I’m not playing much, spending that kind of money seems ridiculous to me. It’s a Catch-22 situation. You have to spend money to maybe make the game as fun as it used to be again, but if you’re not having that fun already, why would you spend lots more money on the game?

We may yet, Mr Frodo

Let’s not overdo the gloom here! I still have good friends who play plenty of LOTRO, and it wouldn’t be surprising if I got back into it with them sooner or later. I’ve had quite long breaks before, and gone back with relish afterwards. It seems that Turbine are working on plans for server mergers, and the option of a free server transfer could be a real blessing. There’s still plenty of good content that I’d enjoy doing, and if it were easier to get caught up and play with the people I’d like to hang out with, I’d be glad to do just that.

I have plenty of love for Tolkien and LOTRO, and one way or another I’m likely to be around to see the end of all things, whenever and wherever that comes.

MMO Writing: Pros vs Amateurs

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Lately there’s been much discussion of whether sites like Massively are really needed, or whether bloggers do the same job just as well, or perhaps even better.

Many of the points raised reflect the underlying differences that arise between professionals and amateurs in many fields, and also the differences between for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations. (Semi-pros are a very interesting case too!) Much comes down to the key resources of time and money, and how they impact the work done, or left undone.

Time is Money, Money is Time

Professionals can in general devote a lot more time to their work than amateurs can afford to do. At one extreme, a full-time journalist presumably would spend 40 hours a week or more keeping track of events in the field they cover and writing about them. That means that in principle they’re able to be well informed, respond to unfolding events in a timely fashion, and provide a breadth and depth of coverage and analysis that a single amateur would find impossible.

There are other benefits of being well-resourced that accrue to professionals. They can more easily justify expenses that are needed to do their work, whether it’s high-quality audio equipment, travel expenses, or whatever. Another type of expense are the costs in time and money of the various QA processes that generally apply to professional work: editing, internal reviews, signoffs etc.

But the advantages are not all on the side of the pros. Ultimately pros have to “cut their coat according to their cloth” – the amount of effort spent on doing a piece of work has to be in proportion to the revenue likely to be generated by doing it. This is one of the major problems facing many newspapers nowadays, as their advertising and subscription revenue falls, they don’t have the resources to keep up the volume and standard of work they used to do in the past.

An amateur isn’t constrained in the same way. If a talented and passionate amateur has the skills and the inclination they can put far more effort into creating a single post than a professional could justify.

The Power of Crowds?

The question then is whether collectively a bunch of talented and passionate amateurs can be a match for the professionals. Sometimes the answer is clearly a resounding yes. Think of game wikis or Wikipedia itself, or think of open source software like WordPress, which powers this blog.

But that is only sometimes! For each WordPress or Linux there are thousands of open source projects that never got anywhere, or which built something useful only to stop being updated when the key people got bored of them. And even highly successful open source projects are often woefully short of well-written user guides, well-designed user interfaces and the like.

Probably there are certain kinds of amateur work that people find rewarding, and only certain part of the work at that. There aren’t many people whose idea of a fun leisure activity is writing user guides or checking someone else’s spelling and grammar. The crowd leaves gaps in its coverage, and often comes up short on aspects of doing quality work that are not inherently enjoyable to address.

On top of that the enthusiasm and commitment of amateurs waxes and wanes over time, as does the amount of time they can devote to their hobby, and their ability to pay for it. We’ve seen it happen often in the MMO blogosphere as many of the very best blogs and podcasts, which we loved for years, are are no longer with us.

Death from Success

A problem that is pretty unique to hobbies that create internet content is that a person’s work can be too good to live. Unlike almost any other leisure activity I can think of, the costs of the hobby are not fully within the hobbyist’s own control, but depend on the volume of traffic to their sites. While most people actively try to grow their traffic and are proud when it does, ultimately it’s not something that they can ever fully control. Posts can go viral, sites can gain a high-ranking in Google, and leaps in popularity can appear out of the blue.

When a site has no revenue, or has revenue sources that do not scale in proportion to traffic, a sufficiently large increase in popularity can kill it. It sounds paradoxical, but essentially it’s no different than a store that makes a small loss on every item it sells. The more it sells the faster it goes bankrupt.

The problem is most noticeable with hobbyists that use paid platforms, but it can affect professional outlets as well if the structure of their costs and revenues is such that more traffic pushes up cost faster than revenue.

God and Mammon

The Bible famously has it that “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Or to put it in a non-religious way, there are inevitable conflicts between making money and other, more important values, that you might have.

Pros depend on their work for their livelihoods, and the need to make money can sometimes have a dubious effect on their work. In online journalism, they might be faced with either writing misleading click-baity headlines or failing to pull in enough traffic to keep their work funded. Even the most reputable and serious news organizations are now facing this dilemma. Similar things can happen with stirring up heated controversies rather than measured debate, or fueling hype over product launches rather than keeping a sense of perspective. In the worst cases they might be unduly influenced by advertisers, freebies, junkets etc. But even at the best of times there might be some pulling of punches in order to keep cordial working relationships with those they must cover.

The conflicts may be less acute when funding comes directly from readers, whether it’s via subscriptions, donations or whatever. However, as any non-profit knows, what will bring the donations flooding in and what most needs to be done are often very different things. For one thing, people will donate to help the victims of disasters, but it’s much harder to raise money to prevent the disaster from happening in the first place, or even for containing it its early stages. Which is just one example of the phenomenon that hot-button, media-friendly issues tend to win out over things that would make a vastly bigger difference with less money.

I was thrilled to see Massively Overpowered and Blizzard Watch hit their funding goals so quickly. But part of what fueled that I’d guess were the understandable emotional responses in the face of a sudden disaster: “Helps the victims”, “Save our friends”, “Stick it to the heartless corporation” etc. In the future, there might be harder choices for the sites to make, for example if they wanted to take a stance that would anger parts of their donor base.

There’s no easy way to square the need to bring in funds with other goals. This means there are important freedoms for amateurs and semi-professionals, who can afford to be less concerned about the financial consequences of their actions.

Concluding Thoughts

I guess the upshot of all this is that I think it’s very valuable to have a “mixed economy”. It’s good that there should be professionals, amateurs and semi-professionals. They all have strengths which compensate for potential weaknesses of the others, and as with many things a diverse ecosystem is a healthy one.

tolkien

Maybe some of you wondered about the image at the top of this post. Perhaps you never see any significance in the pictures I use anyway. Or perhaps you tried to figure out for a moment what connection this one had with the topic in hand. Maybe you spotted it!

That photo shows Merton College, Oxford, where Tolkien was a professor for a large part of his career. The point is that writing fantasy fiction was not his day job, and that fact in part helped him produced something unique and wonderful. No one who depended on writing for their livelihood could have spent so long building up a deep imaginative world or gestating a single novel. By the measure of words per day, his output was hopeless. And the length of time to complete a novel which he wasn’t sure would even be publishable would no doubt make an editor weep. Work of that type could only have been done by someone who had the luxury of not having to rely on it for their income.

Food for thought perhaps, in the amateurs vs pros debate.