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.

Massively OP: The Bright Gleam of Victory

Last week Massively shutdown. This weekend the reborn Massively Overpowered got fully funded on Kickstarter within 48 hours.

Congratulations to all at MassivelyOP and the the wider MMO community that rallied round them!

I can sum up my feelings on the matter with a couple of quotes from Winston Churchill…

A Remarkable and Definite Victory

Now, however, we have a new experience. We have victory – a remarkable and definite victory. The bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.

Churchill November 10, 1942

The End of the Beginning

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Churchill, November 10, 1942

Hear the speech delivered in his uniquely powerful and humorous way here…

A Kickstarter for a blog is obviously not in the same category as The Battle of El Alamein. But in its smaller way it is a tremendously heartening and inspiring victory after a time of great adversity, yet as Churchill emphasized, only “perhaps the end of the beginning”.

Live long and prosper Massively OP. May the force be with you, and the hair on your toes never fall out!

Buy to Not Play

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I’m thinking it’s time to consider one of the most popular and successful business models there is for games these days, Buy-to-Not-Play, aka B2NP. The thought’s been brought on because yesterday I finally bought Guild Wars 2, despite knowing that in all likelihood I won’t play it, or at least not to any great extent. That follows not long after I bought a few things in the Steam Winter Sale, also knowing full well that the chances of me getting around to actually playing them were rather slim.

Of course that is the advanced level of B2NP, where you buy something actually recognizing that it’s a B2NP title for you. The basic level, which I indulged in for a couple of years before attaining my present advanced status involves buying things while telling yourself that you most certainly will play the heck of out them, and then not playing them.

The basic level of B2NP leads first to a period of exhilaration and excitement during which you are thrilled with all the great games you bought, followed by a period of feeling harried and anxious as you attempt to make progress with some of them, then a period of regret, disillusionment and upset as you recognize that they were in fact B2NP purchases. Finally perhaps you come to an acceptance of the situation, and move on leaving regret and self-recrimination behind. It’s like the stages of grief I suppose: grief for your departed time and money, and the embarrassing stupidity that caused it.

The advanced level of B2NP is a much mellower affair by comparison. You can congratulate yourself on your wisdom in recognizing the B2NP nature of your purchases from the outset, and for making sure that you only paid the price appropriate to B2NP. (Generally 75% or more off the regular price is a pretty solid B2NP deal in my book.) You can then gaze fondly at your B2NP collection, and think: “Well, who knows maybe I will even play some of them someday! Just look at all the things I have ready against that possible post-apocalyptic future in which it’s impossible to acquire any more games!”

There is maybe a slight drawback in that at the advanced level you may have understandable concerns about the sanity of your behavior. But fear not, it is easy to come up with excellent economic and psychological arguments to explain why you aren’t actually insane, albeit you might just be a teensy bit less rational that you would like to think or than would be financially optimal. But that is ok, because after all you’re not a Vulcan, and so you can wear small departures from rationality as a proud badge of your humanity. Which as Star Trek TOS repeatedly proved is much better than merely being logical.

A Year in Games and Books

As 2014 comes to an end, it seems like a good time to say a few words about what I’ve played and read this year that seems notable. If nothing else, maybe it will give people ideas of what they might want to grab in the sales before they close!

Games I Played in 2014

LOTRO

As ever LOTRO is my most played video game of the year, though I played rather less this year than last. Early in the year many of us were worried about the game’s future after a round of Turbine layoffs followed not long after the news that there would be no expansion this year. I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that Turbine did deliver new content as they’d announced though.

If I played less, probably that has less to do with the game itself and more to do with me. For one thing the first couple of years of any great new thing are more exciting to me, and after that I get somewhat used to it, less absorbed and generally ready to do other things.

Chess

Another reason my LOTRO time dropped is that my interest in chess got revived. That was mostly down to happening to read a book called King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game. Ironically for a book that focuses on the darker sides of chess and chess players, it brought back a lot of fond memories for me.

While I’ve never stopped playing completely, it’s probably getting on for twenty years since I played at all seriously or was a member of a club. But with my revived enthusiasm and starting to sharpen up my rusty skills, I might well do that in 2015 sometime. Meantime I’m having fun playing online, and reading bits and pieces about the game again.

Hero Academy

This is a rather nice turn-based strategy game that I play on iPad. It’s entirely PVP, and has some of the flavor of MMOs (tanks, healers, debuffs, AoE effects etc) and some of the flavor of chess as well, in calculating possible moves and counter-moves.

It’s very enjoyable, and if I don’t play as much as some other games, that’s only a matter of what I have time for.

King of Dragon Pass

Another iPad game, and a unique one, so it’s rather hard to describe. Something of a cross between a full-blown fantasy novel and a turn-based resource-management strategy game. It has one of the best worlds and most interesting cultures that I’ve come across not only in a game but in any form of fiction.

Like Hero Academy I only wish I had more time to play it and explore its depths.

Others

Other games I played and enjoyed but spent even less time on include..

  • The Secret World, lots to love about this, but I haven’t got very far into it yet.

  • Guild Wars 2 (for a trial week, see also), maybe I’ll get into this in the future

  • Skyrim, Enjoyable in lots of ways, though I think I prefer games with more of a social aspect for my RPGs

SF & Fantasy I Read in 2014

I’ve read quite a few books this year. Some of the SF and Fantasy ones that stand out are:

  • The Last Policeman Trilogy – A fascinating an entertaining series set in a world that knows it’s going to be devastated by an asteroid impact in a few months time. (The three books are set IIRC six months from impact, three months from impact, and last week or two before impact.) It’s hard SF in that the asteroid and its effects are well researched and accurately portrayed, it’s also a series of mysteries and criminal investigations. Most of all it explores how people and society cope with knowledge of impending doom. For example, why is it even important to catch murderers now when everyone will be dead soon anyway?

  • The Farseer Trilogy – I wrote a review of this, in short a very fantasy good series, though it could do with some trimming!

  • The Liveship Traders Trilogy – This is a follow up to the Farseer Trilogy, though there is only one character in common, and it deals with events in another part of the world some time after the first series. If you know the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, you will find this rather like that – told from many points of views, lots of characters and story arcs, lots of themes, a good deal of politics etc. Like GoT the author probably bit off more than they could chew, but unlike GoT at least it’s finished and has a proper climax! (Though there are even more trilogies after these, but I’ve not read them, as I was sated with Robin Hobb at this point.)

  • The Game of Thrones Series – Technically the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. After five huge books we still don’t know much about the Ice and Fire aspects of the world and probably never will! The world and the stories are fascinating, though I’m by no means convinced the series will ever be concluded successfully. Which makes it like a mystery story in which you never do get to find out whodunnit, or an epic quest story in which in which our heroes only got half way to the destination.

  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke – I haven’t read all the stories yet, because there are a lot of them! It’s a great book to dip into, and I read it especially in between longer novels. Reading a collection like this you do start to see various themes and patterns that repeatedly show up with the author, more than I did as a kid reading the odd Clarke book as and when I saw one in the library. There’s a nice range with comic stories, tragic stories, thought-provoking stories, very short and snappy stories, novellas etc. A good read if you’re new to Clarke or have not read him for a while.

As ever I could write a lot more, but then it would be 2015 before I got finished. Since an end of year blog post should arrive precisely when it means to, I’ll leave it there.

A Happy New Year to all!

Bloggy Christmas: Unexpected Parties

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Community.

The thought of it fills me with a warm and fuzzy glow, which makes it rather hard to think of what to say about it. It’s something pervasive and intangible, part of the atmosphere of life, but hard to home in on in concrete terms. Maybe it’s a little bit like the music that plays in our MMOs, something that provides a background that shapes and enriches our experience without our always being aware of its presence or importance.

I certainly wasn’t expecting to find any of that when I first started playing MMOs a little over three years ago.

Beginnings

I was a latecomer to MMOs for various reasons. For one thing, I wasn’t all that keen on paying recurring subscriptions; for another I’d heard the stories about people getting hooked on World of Warcraft and I could well imagine that could happen to me. But another reason, and the most relevant to the topic of community, is that I didn’t know anyone who played an MMO. Now that certainly seemed like a barrier to playing and enjoying a genre which as far as I knew required a lot of cooperative play over a period of months or years.

In time I gathered that MMOs were becoming more solo-friendly, and when I discovered that LOTRO had become free-to-play, being a big Tolkien fan I felt the time had come to go take a look.

When I started I wasn’t expecting to group much at all, nor to join a guild, let alone discover a community. I remember researching which classes were the most solo-friendly, and that if anything I avoided the busiest servers. It wasn’t that I had anything against grouping, I just assumed everyone was playing with their friends, and there’d be no particular place for me in their circles.

I did have my first taste of the LOTRO community though, even before I ever grouped. That was via Googling for information and coming across the wonderful, now shuttered, mmorsel for Lord of the Rings Online and Lotro-Wiki, which is thankfully still going strong! I got a sense that there were people out there who loved the game, enjoyed pondering it, and liked sharing their know-how. This was still a “read-only” experience however, I didn’t imagine even the possibility of interacting with these folks any more than I would imagine interacting with someone I saw on TV.

Groups and Kins

I can’t remember how I first found myself in a fellowship. Did someone invite me to group? Did I take the initiative? I don’t know any more, but I wasn’t long in LOTRO before I had a lot of fun playing in ad hoc duos with people who were going through the same areas as me. It probably helped that there were a number of designated group quests included in the Epic storyline, which naturally led people to find others if they could.

And of course, completely contrary to my expectations, I got a lot of random invites to join kinships. Since I was enjoying grouping when I could, it seemed a good idea to give one of these a try. Unfortunately my first kinship experience was not such a good one. The person that recruited me was nice enough, and so were many of the other members. But it was hard to really connect with an in-group who already knew each other so well, and on top of that there were a few members that were pretty childish and at times obnoxious. (Turned out that one actually was a teenager, so perhaps the childishness was understandable.) So after a short while I dropped out of that kin, and went back to my soloing and ad hoc grouping.

Eventually I lucked out. After ignoring lots more invites to kinships, one day I did respond to one. Maybe it was worded in a way I liked, I don’t know why I actually started chatting that time instead of ignoring it like all the other random invites. It was an enormous stroke of luck! I became part of a wonderful small kinship, hit it off with the others, and never looked back.

There’s not a lot more to say about that. Though I met them in-game, this is how I imagined people played MMOs, with a small group of good friends, enjoying the company and the laughs as much as the game itself.

Eventually I did have characters on other servers and in other – larger – kinships as well. Maybe I got better at picking which to join because I only ever had that one not-so-great experience in a kinship, and even that was not really so bad either.

To anyone that is hesitant about guilds and kinships, my advice is go try, and if at first you don’t succeed, don’t worry. Go try a few until you find one you love – it really makes a game.

Out of Game

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For a long time, “community” would have meant mostly my in-game community to me, my friends, my kinnies, the people I ran into in PUGs and so on. I did gradually become aware of a few blogs, especially when I went looking for information about various parts of the game. It was probably Pineleaf’s Skirmish Guides that first led me to Casual Stroll to Mordor (CSTM).

CSTM became the hub of the out-of-game LOTRO community for me. At first I’d visit to get info on the game, later I dropped by every day, and soon it became the place to discuss the game.

It’s hard to pay proper tribute to CSTM in the space I have here. Without it, I wonder if there even would be a true LOTRO community? Certainly any community that arose would have been very different than it was. Merric and Goldenstar were the couple who started the site and hosted the podcast. I’ve referred to them before as the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of the LOTRO world, such is their superstardom! They helped bring the community into being not only through their own posts and podcasts but by providing a welcoming venue for others such as Pineleaf to get started. That created a critical mass so that there was plenty for everyone to talk about, and a lively and friendly place to hang out and discuss the game.

As with all things, time moves on, Merric and Goldenstar’s priorities changed and the CSTM site is no more. However because of the kick start it gave the community, its influence lives on. Many of the contributors to CSTM went on to create LOTRO Players, which now has a similarly important role as CSTM formerly did.

Perhaps this is the key thing about community: It has a life beyond that of any individual. We can all contribute in ways large and small, and our contributions become part of the evolving stream of community life. Some like Merric and Goldenstar make a huge and long-lasting contribution, so even after they’ve moved on we remember and salute them. I daresay it is one of the most satisfying and enduring accomplishments that a person can have.

Which brings us to another esteemed community member who has done much for us all, and is about to reduce his own participation.

Blogging, Podcasting, Twittering

Roger has not only created a thoroughly enjoyable podcast and blog, he has directly helped many of us get started in our own efforts. Without the Newbie Blogger Initiative of 2013, this blog would not exist, and nor would I be participating in Twitter today. Therefore without Roger’s drive and commitment to make the NBI 2013 and 2014 happen I wouldn’t have the delightful community that I have today, which is not only the people that I play with directly, but even more so the people I’m connected with via blogs, podcasts, Twitter, WordPress.com, and other networks, many of whom don’t even play the same games as I do.

This community is, as I said earlier, a little like the music playing in the background of our MMOs. Without it maybe life would go on much as it is, and would be pretty enjoyable regardless. Nonetheless its constant presence adds an extra layer of richness, enjoyment and sheer fun that would otherwise be lacking.

So many many thanks to Roger, to Merric and Goldenstar, and to all those who’ve helped create our community, to make it what it is today, and make it welcoming to all. Thanks also to everyone who participates in the community in ways large and small.

I couldn’t have foreseen any of this when I first decided to give LOTRO a try. My experience in the world of MMOs has truly been of a series of wonderful, delightful, and completely unexpected parties!

Happy Christmas to you all!

Roundup: The Bloggy Christmas Series 1-5

Bloggy Xmas

I’ve been looking for a place where all the Bloggy Christmas posts were collected together in a nice list and easy-to-click format. There probably is such a place, but I haven’t stumbled on it, so I thought I’d make my own collection of links, with a few taster snippets from the posts together with the odd comments of my own.

Originally I planned to cover all posts to date, and then keep the list updated as new ones came out. But it’s turned out that the way I liked presenting the list, that is really going to be too long for anyone’s comfort, so I’ll try to gather around ten posts per roundup. Here goes with Dec 1st to 5th…

  • Dec 1st… Telwyn at GamingSF: Gaming and Community
    “…there is some je ne sais quoi, some mix of ingredients that online gaming brings and I think community is a central part of that… Interactions with real players can often be fleeting or negative, but they can also be very positive and memorable”

  • Dec 1st… Ikralla at Grimoires of Supremacy: Community
    “I’m not the most social of people… Without World of Warcraft, without this little blog of mine, without that behemoth that is Twitter, I don’t think I’d have met (in a manner of speaking) so many awesome people.”

  • Dec 2nd… Talarian at Gamer by Design: A Family Like No Other
    “So getting into a guild that was LGBT friendly, and active about it, was immense for me. I could be myself without having to worry about what other people think. Folks to talk to in cases when I felt I had nobody else, really.”

  • Dec 2nd… Aywren at Signus.org: Self Discovery and Personal Growth in FFXIV
    “This game was pushing me out of my comfort zone, and I wasn’t giving up. I was succeeding!…I was also learning things about the community and other players. I discovered that there were other people who were new to the dungeons, who seemed relieved to hear me announce “Hey, this is my first time.” Many times I heard “Yeah, mine too.” Or “My first try on a tank. Please be gentle.”…These people weren’t those raging leetists that I feared. In fact, I saw very little of that at all… “

  • Dec 3rd… Tremayne at Tremayne’s Law: The Faces Behind the Avatars
    “Insofar as there’s a moral to this rambling tale… think about maybe meeting up with some of the faces behind the avatars…. it’s not nearly as scary as it might seem”

  • Dec 3rd… Izlain at Me, Myself and I: A Sense of Belonging
    “Just knowing that people read my opinions and care enough to comment or write retorts on their own blogs makes me feel like I belong to something greater, and that’s been my goal for a long time.”

  • Dec 4th… Scree at The Cynic Chronicles: How Gaming led me to my Wife
    “Gaming and the communities it created for me has been an enormous personal blessing to me… It gave me my best friend… It gave me a brother-in-law… It gave me happiness…Best of all, it gave me my wife.”

  • Dec 4th… Ranni at The Flaming Bard: Community is Family
    “When I think in terms of my ‘gaming community’ I think “My PEOPLE!”. People who get me, people who make me laugh, people who take an interest in the same things I do even outside of gaming. I’m included in this wonderful bunch of geeky gamers and it feels incredible”

  • Dec 5th… Asmiroth at Leo‘s Life: An Old Soul
    “With so many games available for our attention, the odds of a single community in a single game are long gone. The bonds last across games but you still need a mechanism to share stories. Blogs are an amazing way to do that.”

If you’ve not read the posts, there is much more to each of them than is conveyed by the short snippet that I chose to give a flavor of them. So do go ahead and read them!

Looking at the collection as a whole I’m struck my how much community has meant to everyone, and the sheer number of extraordinary stories people have to tell. Seeing them all in one place brings it home to me even more than reading them individually did.

There really is something magical about true community.

Play is more than just fun

I’ve mentioned before that I think play is an important and much underestimated part of our lives. Here’s a TED talk by Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and researcher into play, that has lots of interesting things to say on that topic.

Some points that struck me

There’s a useful transcript of the talk on the TED site, and here are some key points taken from that, which were interesting to me…

  • “So what does play do for the brain? Well, a lot…. Nothing lights up the brain like play.”

  • JPL, NASA and Boeing, before they will hire a research and development problem solver — even if they’re summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal Tech — if they haven’t fixed cars, haven’t done stuff with their hands early in life, played with their hands, they can’t problem-solve as well.”

  • the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression

  • “So I would encourage you all to engage not in the work-play differential — where you set aside time to play — but where your life becomes infused minute by minute, hour by hour, with body, object, social, fantasy, transformational kinds of play

  • “And this is where my chasing animals for four, five years really changed my perspective from a clinician to what I am now, which is that play has a biological place, just like sleep and dreams do.”

I’m going to be looking more into Stuart Brown’s work, so expect more posts about this in the future.