Where to Blog?

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The Newbie Blogger Initiative (NBI) for 2016 is fast approaching. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s an event run by experienced game bloggers to encourage other people who want to get started blogging themselves, and also to help those who have already started in the last year and who could benefit from some advice or exposure.

I started this blog back in October 2013 as result of the NBI, and you can read my thoughts on that experience in Reflections on the NBI. The next year I wrote an article that addressed some of the worries people often have when they’re thinking of starting a blog, To Blog or not to Blog? Then last year, I wrote an article on deciding how broad or narrow to make the topic of your blog, Blogging: To niche or not to niche?. I guess I’m very slowly building up a “Lessons Learned” series on blogging, based in part on my own experiences, and also drawing on what I’ve observed happen with the rest of the community.

This year I want to look into the topic “Where to Blog?” I think it’s good to get into this early, so that people who have yet to actually start their blogs for NBI get some input while they’re still mulling over the options.

Basics of Blogging Platforms

If you’re actually thinking of starting a blog, you probably know some basics about blogging platforms already. But just in case you don’t here’s a brief guide…

Free Options

There are many free options for blogging, but the following are the big two:

  • WordPress.com powers this very blog, Thinking Play, and many others such as The Ancient Gaming Noob and Gaming Conversations. It’s completely free-to-use, though you can pay for extras like doing advanced customization of the look of your blog, or getting rid of the ads that sometimes appear. I personally don’t pay a penny, so you can see that the free service provides pretty much all that you need for a fully-featured blog like this one.

  • Blogger powers blogs like Gamer By Design and I Have Touched the Sky. It’s also completely free, and as far as I know there are no extras that you could pay for even if you wanted to.

Both of these will allow you to quickly and easily create a very nice blog. The startup process will be simple and probably take less than five minutes. You can choose a “theme” to get a look and layout that you like, and perhaps tweak it in various ways to make it your own. Then you’ll be all set up to start writing posts, easily including pictures, YouTube videos etc if you want.

Paid Options

The free options are very good, but there are two paid options worth mentioning.

  • Self-hosted WordPress – is like WordPress.com, but instead of using the service provided by the company, you create your own independent website, and have complete control over how you customize it, and what you do with it. However this means more work, takes more tech savvy, and entails paying ongoing costs, usually at least a few dollars a month. An example of a self-hosted WordPress blog is Herding Cats.

  • Squarespace is supposed to be a hassle-free paid option, in which you pay a monthly fee, and don’t have to worry about technicalities. The current version of Contains Moderate Peril uses Squarespace, though in previous incarnations the site was a self-hosted WordPress one.

So… does it matter which?

As you can see, all of these free and paid options are perfectly viable, and you will be able to express yourself to your heart’s content whichever you choose. For many people, just picking the option you like the look of will work out perfectly well. However, there are various issues that might become important in some circumstances, and that are at least worth knowing about in advance.

WordPress v Blogger

Both WordPress and Blogger are capable, and most likely either will meet your needs well enough. There are a few possible gotchas though, depending on what exactly you’re planning on doing.

  • You can customize Blogger sites much more than those on WordPress.com, without paying anything. To make large scale changes you might well need to understand HTML, CSS and Javascript though. Something you can do without too much knowledge is to embed “Javascript widgets”. For example you could embed a chess puzzle like this in a Blogger blog, or a self-hosted WordPress, but not on WordPress.com, even with paid features.

  • WordPress.com’s social and community features seem to be far better than Blogger. It’s very easy for a WordPress.com user to keep track of all the conversations they’re having in comments on blogs there for example. It’s also easy to “Like” posts, and follow blogs with the built in WordPress.com Reader. This extends to many self-hosted WordPress blogs as well, as they can choose to use plugins that hook them into the same ecosystem.

  • You’re allowed to put advertising into Blogger sites. In fact Google makes it easy to put Google Adsense ads in there, as they would get a slice of the money. However in practice putting ads into hobby blogs is largely pointless, and the sums of money made are usually tiny.

  • WordPress is focused on WordPress, while Blogger is just a small part of Google. Some worry that means Blogger doesn’t get updates and new features too often, and even fear that someday Google might decide it’s not important to the company, and pull the plug entirely, as they did with Google Reader and numerous other services.

Why Pay?

Let’s focus on self-hosted WordPress versus the free WordPress.com as a way to understand why anyone would consider paying, when the free services seem to be excellent.

  • WordPress.com comes with a large selection of themes for the look of your blog, and “widgets” and “plug-ins” that add extra features. For example in my sidebar you can see a bit of my Twitter feed, provided by a so-called widget. For many people this selection is plenty, but out in the world at large there are vastly more themes, widgets and plugins available for use in a self-hosted WordPress, and which have not been approved and made available on WordPress.com.

  • On a self-hosted WordPress, you can change the very workings of WordPress itself. This is exactly what many of the plugins do, in some way or another. If this sounds powerful it is… If it sounds complicated and potentially dangerous, yes it can be that as well!

  • You have total ownership and control over your site. For example WordPress.com doesn’t allow ordinary users to put advertising on their blog, and it has fairly strict rules about affiliate links to Amazon and such like. Similarly on your own site, you can say what you want, without any consideration of anyone else’s rules about what is acceptable content.

Why Free?

There are many articles out there that extol the virtues of going for a self-hosted blog. They claim that you can thereby make a properly professional site, perfectly in tune with your own needs, and with so little hassle and expense that it’s hardly worth thinking about the free options at all. They’re the blog equivalent of gamers who speak dismissively about noobs, casual players and F2P games. So are free platforms just for noobs and losers?

Well there are some big advantages to free that may not be obvious at first glance.

  • The cost of hosting a blog is proportional to your traffic. It might be a few bucks a month to start with, but if you happen to get a lot of readers, it can go up considerably. Also bear in mind that you have no control whatsoever over how many people decide to read your blog, so ultimately you have no control over your costs.

  • The cost goes on as long as your blog continues to exist. Many wonderful blogs and podcasts have been taken offline because the owners didn’t want to carry on paying the recurring costs, especially as they may have moved onto other hobbies themselves, perhaps because of life changes. It’s rather sad if something that you may have worked on for years vanishes from the world like that. It’s also a little antisocial, as others contribute to your blog in comments, link to your posts from their own blogs, engage in debate with you, and so on.

  • If you’re blogging as a hobby, “professionalism” is overrated. Do we regard Wilhelm with less respect than Jessica because one is on a free platform, and the other self-hosts?

  • There is a middle way, which may be appropriate for some. For example like Braxwolf you could use WordPress.com, but pay a little extra for your own domain name. Or like Wilhelm, pay to stop advertising appearing on your blog. With such things, it is possible to enhance the “professional” look of a blog, while keeping costs low, and ensuring that the blog could stay online with no cost at all, should that become necessary.

  • It is possible to move from a free blog to a self-hosted one later. This becomes even easier if you were using your own domain name from the outset.

  • With a self-hosted blog, you will likely need to worry about keeping things up to date, as there are frequent changes to WordPress itself, and to the themes and plugins which you’re using. While this is not too hard, you probably already have far too many computer things you need to keep updating, and extra work is not something you need.

  • The unusual plugins that are not available on WordPress.com, and which might be your reason for self-hosting in the first place are also the most liable to get broken by changes to WordPress.

Final Thoughts

Personally I highly recommend that people stick to free platforms, unless they have very clear and specific reasons why they simply can’t do what they need to do there. If for example your blog will be pointless without the use of some specialist plugin that is not available on WordPress.com then you will have to bite the bullet and self-host. Otherwise, I say don’t risk that someday – due to cost reasons of all things – you have to let your words become lost, like tears in rain…

Careers, Hobbies and Fun: Brain Dump, Part 1

Fabiano Caruana

Career change is a perennial interest to many people, me included. I’ve made a number of career transitions in my time, and seen plenty of other people try switching careers, sometimes with astonishing success, other times with depressing outcomes. Over the years I’ve pondered such things a good deal, talked to others, and read a bunch about it. In this post I’m going to attempt a brain dump of my thoughts and findings on the topic.

Before we get into all that, you might wonder what the heck such a post is doing on this blog, which is supposedly about play. Well, the answer to that is in three parts…

  • The topic, while always fascinating and often in the air, was brought to mind by the latest Beyond Bossfights podcast. Braxwolf seems to be considering a career change, and seems to be looking to base his new direction on some hobby or interest.

  • One angle I want to talk about in this post is whether and when it’s a good idea to look for careers based on things you love, as Brax seems to have in mind.

  • Another theme is going to be: What makes work work, and play play? Is turning your playtime activities into work going to take all the fun out of them? Conversely, can you turn something that is “just work” into something actually enjoyable?

Follow Your Passion?

In the past you used to pretty often hear advice to follow your passion, do what you love, and epigrams such as “If you get a job doing what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. Such sayings have become a lot thinner on the ground since the global economic crisis hit a few years back, and nowadays people tend to be pretty cynical about such ideas.

What do I personally think of this nowadays? Well this is a brain dump, which means it is not going to progress in a nice linear fashion with well structured points! So before I answer that we’re going to make a little detour into economics.

On supply and demand

If you ever took an economics class and didn’t doze off, you heard about supply and demand. If you never did any such thing, that is possibly unfortunate for you because unlike a lot of things you learn in school it’s actually pretty useful for making good life choices.

Long story short…

  • Demand – The more people want a thing, the more badly they want it, the greater the quantity of it they want, the more money they have available to spend, the higher the price of that thing will be

  • Supply – The more people are offering to sell a thing, the more of it they have to sell, the greater their desire to sell, the lower the price of that thing will be

  • Where the pushes and pulls between supply and demand even out, that’s where the price for said thing ends up

When we are talking about careers, the “thing” in question is your work, and the “price” is what you get paid for doing it.

When passion doesn’t pay

One upshot of all this is that something that a lot of people enjoy, and a lot of people would love to do for a living, is likely to be something that is going to be relatively low paid.

Let’s think about acting for a moment. We know big name stars make a lot of money, but what about actors generally? Well, in the first place it’s remarkably hard to actually get a job, because lots of people want to act, and plenty are good enough to do it too. Second, even if you can get to do it professionally at all, for the most part the pay is pretty bad, and working life is very insecure.

The same kind of thing applies to the majority of fiction writers, to sports people and even things like college research jobs. It’s also why a career as a game developer is often not such a bed of roses, comparatively.

Good news for geeks!?

But plenty of people reading this site are going to be in luck. If you have a passion for something that is in big demand, and which relatively few people are able or willing to do, it should pay well. This applies to many tech fields at the moment, and likely to for a long time to come.

There’s many times when following your passion is a very good plan indeed, whereas what might seem like “playing it safe” is not such a good idea. Sometimes people ask “Should I focus on this niche skill which I love, or go for something mainstream where all the jobs seem to be?” It turns out that with niche skills, frequently while there may be relatively few jobs going (demand!) the number of people who can do them is even smaller still (supply!). So paradoxically it’s often easier to gets jobs in a niche you love than in something less interesting.

Scalability, the Double-Edged Sword

“But wait a minute,” some of you are thinking. “What about those actors and writers and sportspeople and YouTubers that do make it big. Maybe I can make it big too in my field of choice?”

Maybe you can indeed, and far be it for me to pour cold water on such notions.

But let’s talk some about “scalability” first. Some activities are “scalable” in the sense that the same amount of work by you can be pretty easily scaled up to serve or benefit a large number of people. Other activities are not scalable in this sense, and some are in-between-ish. Let’s think about some examples:

  • You are a fantastic cook, and you make the most amazing meals. For better or worse however you can only feed so many people in a given day, so what you can earn in a given day has an upper limit of what can be made from providing that number of meals, more or less.

  • You are a fantastic actor, and you make the most amazing movies. Well, now your day’s work can be enjoyed by millions, or even billions of people. No wonder you can earn astronomically more, potentially, than the incredible cook can.

  • You’re a brilliant surgeon, and you save lives every day. However you can only do a few operations per day, and though you will most likely be very well rewarded for your work, you’ll never be in the movie star league.

So, clearly scalability is a wonderful thing? Well, no.

The flip side of scalability is that the world doesn’t need many movie stars. One movie star can entertain hundreds of millions, so the entire population can have their movie-watching needs largely fulfilled by a handful of actors. Whereas the population needs legions of cooks to make enough meals for their special nights out, and a pretty hefty numbers of surgeons to be available to operate on them in their hour of need.

Hyper-competitive fields

High scalability necessarily means there are very few jobs in the field. It means it’s extraordinarily hard to become one of the few who really makes it, that most of the people in the field are actually pretty low paid, and that most of people who badly want to get into the field work their socks off, bang their head against the brick wall time and again, and eventually give up and do something more commonplace instead.

You have of course heard the stories of people who suffered failure after failure, almost gave up, but didn’t and finally got their break. So, that means if you just want it bad enough, and never give up, you will eventually succeed right?

Unfortunately that reasoning is flawed. Yes, most all the people that made it were very talented, passionate, persistent and got a break somewhere along the line. The bar is so high that all that is a requirement. However there were countless equally talented, passionate and persistent people who never did make it, and we don’t get to hear their stories of trying, trying, trying but never succeeding, because they’re nobody famous.

As logicians like to say “It’s necessary, but not sufficient”. Everyone that won the lottery bought a ticket, but that doesn’t mean buying a ticket will make you a winner.

Never say never!

Yet there are still circumstances in which I’d encourage people to “Go for it” if they want to get into such a field. Some of those factors are…

  • They can afford to fail. Maybe they’re young, and if it doesn’t work out, still plenty of time to do something else. Or maybe their spouse’s income is enough to pay all the bills, and it’s not going to be disastrous if the dream doesn’t pan out.

  • It’s a field where the experience is valuable even if you don’t make it to the big time. If you throw yourself into some tech startup idea, the chances of it turning out to be another Google are pretty remote. But even it goes nowhere at all, that experience will still help get you a good job.

  • You are extraordinarily good, and it’s not just you and your mother that thinks so. If for instance your sports coach says you’re the best he’s seen in his whole life, it could well be worth taking a shot at that pro career.

Putting it all together

Where does all this leave us?

I think passions and enthusiasms are an important indicator of what you might be able to succeed in. Apart from anything else, major life changes take a lot of time and effort and come with plenty of setbacks along the way. If you weren’t highly motivated in the first place, you wouldn’t be able to stick the course anyway, so things that you are highly motivated by are at least worth sizing up for their potential.

But as well as yourself, you need to consider the world at large. How much demand is there for what you’re thinking of doing? How much competition is there? Given the level of competition, just how good would you need to be to have a hope in hell of being successful?

Given some pragmatism and creativity, ideas based on enthusiasms can often be tweaked this way and that and finally turned into something workable.

To be continued…

Since the post is already over 1500 words, and I haven’t got to most of the topics mentioned at the beginning, I think it’s probably best to make this Part 1, and continue another time.

Top photo by Przemek Jahr via Wikimedia

Don’t underestimate science fiction…

I came across a great article by Neil Gaiman on what science fiction, reading and exercising our imaginations via daydreaming can do for us. Here is a very striking quote:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed? It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls. Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

This certainly rings true for how science fiction and fantasy helped to make me the person I am. Though being the person I am, I also have to wonder how far the causality goes the other way…. are the kind of people who would anyway have been drawn to creativity and innovation, esp of a technological sort, also just the kind of people that will get into reading SF&F if it’s around? My guess is it’s probably a bit of both. One issue I’d take with the article is the wording “an obligation for all citizens”. Obligation is a killer of playfulness, and it’s playfulness that is the most fertile ground for creativity. In fact too much emphasis on the value that can be gotten from things like reading, daydreaming and playing is going to undermine that very value! (see also)

Do it, encourage it, but don’t get overly serious and worthy about it I say!

The Age of Backlogs

Plex Deck Snap 2

Are we living in the Age of Backlogs? Or is it just me?

The thought is prompted by the latest round of tempting Steam sales. It’s hard to resist buying more stuff, yet most of the stuff I found so irresistible in previous sales has remained unplayed, either entirely or in large part. And not because it’s not good or I wouldn’t like to get into it, but because of the vast mismatch between the amount of media readily available to us these days and the amount of time available to partake of it.

I’m not talking only about games here, because one of the chief reasons that games have gone unplayed is that I’ve been spending a good deal of my R&R time on catching up with TV boxsets and reading books. And I have large backlogs of those too.

Captain’s Backlog, Stardate 2014.0627

Games Backlog

Games that I’ve played a fair amount, but not as much as I would have liked lately:

  • LOTRO
  • Chess

Games that I’ve played some, and would like to play a lot more if time permitted include:

  • The Secret World
  • Skyrim
  • Civilization V
  • Hero Academy
  • Star Trek Online

Games that I haven’t tried yet which sound tempting if time allowed include:

  • Neverwinter
  • Guild Wars 2
  • Hearthstone

I can’t bring myself to go look at the games that I’ve actually bought via sales and Humble Bundles and have not played at all or possibly even downloaded yet. There are a fair few of those too.

And nor will I mention the umpteen games I’ve dabbled in that are lower down the priority list than the ones above. SWTOR, Rift and such would be on there.

Shows Backlog

Is it part of the backlog if you’ve started watching it? Or if it’s a rewatch in the first place? Or if it is airing now and you are more or less up to date with it? I’ll leave such question to the lawyers and philosophers, and just look at what is stacked up waiting to be watched…

  • Star Trek – The Next Generation – I started a rewatch of the series, but am not actively watching it at the moment, because if I did. where would I fit everything else in?

  • Star Trek – Deep Space Nine – I’m currently watching it. This was partly a rewatch as I’ve seen some of it before, but it looks like while I saw most of Season 1 before, I may not have ever seen much of Season 2 or later seasons. DS9 is something I’ve been wanting to catch up with for a long time, so it’s at the top of the backlog queue right now.

  • Elementary – I am still half way or so through Season 1. Liking it a lot, and would want to see all of it, time allowing.

  • Game of Thrones – I’ve watched a few episodes of Season 1, but I’m reading the books now. Probably won’t watch any more til I’m caught up with all the books, and then I’ll come back.

  • True Detective – Not started watching it yet.

  • The Wire – There’s a rewatch going on in a community I’m part of, and I’d like join in, but I don’t think I can fit it in. (Have seen it all before).

  • Fargo – I think I’m only one episode behind! Yay!

  • The Good Wife – I am somewhere in the current season. I may even be up to date now? Confused, but not too far behind!

  • The Bridge – Seen one episode, plan to watch it all at some point.

Books Backlog

The very concept of a books backlog may be verging on the ridiculous in my case. If I were to count the amount of unread books that I have at hand, both physical and in ebook form, and consider the rate at which I have actually been getting through them, it’s quite possible I already have enough to keep me going for the rest of my lifetime.

So whatever I mention here is the tip of the icebeg really. Mainly books that I have acquired fairly recently, or titles or series that I have started in the not too distant past and not yet finished. Or in other words, mainly things that are actually loaded on my Kindle and Kindle apps.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire, aka Game of Thrones. I’m in the third book, A Storm of Swords. Unless the standard drops off I will likely read all of them over the summer.
  • King’s Gambit – Hard to describe… it’s part autobiography, part an investigation into the culture and psychology of chess. Asks questions pertinent to all games and sports about whether the thing brings out the worst in people that play it.

  • The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 – a selection of short stories by various authors. Frankly it is a stretch to categorize most of them as mysteries per se, but good short crime fiction, often by well known authors. I read the odd story now and then.

  • Samurai – A History – A history of Japan, esp the Samurai, most of all their encounter with the modern world and ultimate demise. The era portrayed (not with too much of an eye to accuracy) in the movie The Last Samurai. Fascinating for fantasy readers because of its exploration of feudal societies, warrior codes and the like. I am slowly working through this. It is readable and enjoyable, but “put-down-able”, so gets displaced in the queue by the likes of Game of Thrones.

  • The Last Ringbearer – This is a highly-rated fanfic novel that tells the story of The Lord of the Rings from the perspective of Mordor. The idea being LOTR was one-sided propaganda or the victor’s mythology, and this is the other side’s story. Yet to start it.

  • Aid on the Edge of Chaos – Should be fascinating as it’s about the intersection of some things that I’m very interested in. Not started it yet. It’s the kind of book I feel needs attention and thought, so I wanted to read it when I have the energy to really concentrate, but that feeling has delayed me even starting.

  • Quantum – Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality – Maybe this should be demoted from “the backlog” to the category of “books I probably won’t get around to really”. It is a topic of interest to me, and was a very cheap offer on Amazon one day. But I’ve read somewhat similar books before, watched TV shows on such matters etc, so what I’ve read so far in this one has seemed like going over stuff I already heard about.

That will do for now, there are plenty more I could mention.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

In the last few years as we’ve entered the era of iPads, Kindles, Netflix, Chromecast, Steam sales, Humble Bundles etc, we have gotten easy access to vast libraries of games and media. On the one hand it’s wonderful to have it all, on the other it puts quite a strain on our time, our wallets and our self-discipline.

Maybe other people are further down the line in learning how to live in this new world. Personally I’m just now recognizing that there is something here that might need to be figured out.

I might need different habits and different ways of thinking about things than I had just a few years ago, when the amount of great and tempting stuff that crossed my path could easily be fitted into my life, with plenty of room to spare.

Survey: How old is your game PC?

abacus

I’d assumed that among people who blog about games I’d be one of those with the lowest spec PC. So I was surprised when I saw that some people who play a lot more than me and are a lot more knowledgeable than I am about games and gaming tech said things like these on Twitter:

I think this is an interesting thing to investigate for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s always a comfort to know that you’re not alone in your situation. Secondly I suspect that game companies and developers would be very surprised that people like us who play a fair amount of games, and even have game blogs and participate in game communities have quite such old and low spec PCs.

Maybe we can do a little to correct that impression, and perhaps get them to think about serving this part of the market better. Because as business people they will know that we are potentially rather good customers, and they’ll miss out on sales if they don’t properly cater for our needs.

So with that in mind, I thought a simple survey would be enlightening.

With both these polls, feel free to give more info or explanations in comments.

Since I don’t have a huge following for this blog, I’d appreciate it if you would also share this survey more widely so we can hear from more people.

The survey is obviously not going to be “scientific” in any sense, but it should be interesting, and maybe it can be useful in triggering a needed debate that can come to the attention of game companies.