A Writing Process

As part of Blaugust quite a few people are sharing writing tips. Now I’m in no great position for offering tips on getting blog posts written because a) I don’t get that many posts written myself! and b) I have no process for doing blog posts, at least that I am aware of consciously.

However while I don’t have any process when it comes to blogging, I did have a method for academic and business writing that I often used, and which worked well for me. I only remembered this when I saw a piece by Telwyn describing something which has strong similarities to what I used to do.

What problems does this solve?

Before getting into the method, it’s worth explaining why it was useful to me.

While I’ve always been a pretty good writer and generally enjoy writing, I used to run into some frequent problems:

  • Procrastination brought on by staring at a blank page and wondering where and how to start.

  • Feeling befuddled by the complex mass of stuff that seemed to comprise the topic I was supposed to cover, and wondering how any piece of it could be explained when every piece seemed inter-related to everything else.

  • After actually starting, quickly getting bogged down in excessive perfectionism. Not making much progress on the whole because of trying to get the first few bits just so.

Due to these problems getting things written was often quite stressful. It was hard to predict how long anything would take, and it wasn’t uncommon to end up pulling an all-nighter at the last minute to get the thing done.

Finally I evolved this method which made things a lot less fraught.

The Method

1) Jot down headings or phrases for all the matters that should be covered to deal properly with the overall subject. Don’t worry too much about the order of things, or finding the right words for anything, even the headings. This is somewhat of a brain dump, and could look vaguely like a mind-map, with some lines between connected topics. As you might guess from this description, I often found it better to do this step on a large pad of paper first rather than electronically.

2) Expand on one of the headings, putting down what you want to say about it. (This bit is now electronic! No actual writing prose on paper.) Don’t necessarily go through headings in order, if stuck for what to say on one section, just go to another. Or just work on the one that grabs you first. Equally don’t worry about such things as phrasing things well, a proper flow or any other writerly concerns, Just get down what needs to be said about each subtopic. Keeping going until all the subheadings are done.

3) Review whether the structure makes sense. Often after things have been put down it’s clear that the most logical order is a bit different to the one you first came up with. In electronic documents, especially Word docs, things can easily be restructured.

4) Now polish up to make the thing well-written and readable. Improve the clarity, expand on things that might not be self-evident to readers, put in those nice segues from one section to another, add explanations of how what we discussed in Section 4 applies to Section 5 etc.

5) If appropriate to the type of piece write conclusions / recommendations / management summary etc that sums up what you had to say.

6) If writing to a word limit, trim or expand as needed. In my case I normally have to work to make things more concise. Even if there’s no word limit, it’s useful for me to check if I can say things in a simpler and more readable way.

7) Finalize, pretty up, sort out things like a Table of Contents and publish.

Applicable to Blogging?

I suspect that while I don’t do any of this consciously for blog posts, I used the method enough times before there even were such things as blogs that to an extent it’s become semi-automatic for me, and I do use elements of the method unconsciously.

Blog posts are usually short enough that the “headings” don’t have to be set out explicitly but are just “jotted down” mentally. I then feel comfortable banging out a first cut confident that there will be another pass or two to bring sanity to the mess later on. When everything seems publication-ready, there is that last check, and while there are no Tables of Contents and the like to add, it’s at that point I think about things like tags. Finally I hit publish.

Optimistically you could say that maybe my writing skills have gone through those three classic stages of development: 1) Conscious incompetence, 2) Conscious competence, 3) Unconscious competence.

Thinking about blogging? A TL;DR for Newbies

Over the years I’ve written quite a few posts designed to help people who were thinking about getting started with blogging. Here is the TL;DR version of those rather long thoughts!

What could I get out of blogging?

You can have fun talking about things that interest you, feel part of the community, and make lasting friends.

See Reflections on the NBI and Bloggy Christmas: Unexpected Parties for more about this.

Can anyone be a blogger? Can I?

Yes you can.

See To Blog or not to Blog? for more on this, including why whatever reasons you think you can’t are not really a problem. And discussion of my hangups before starting!

Where should I blog?

I recommend going with a free WordPress.com blog. Just like this one!

If you want to know more about the pros and cons of different options read my post on Where to Blog?.

What should my blog be about?

Keep it pretty broad.

You can read more detailed discussion in Blogging: To niche or not to niche?

What should I call it?

I have no clue.

You can read about my lack of a clue in more depth in Thinking Names. Maybe you’ll be inspired by some of the great names mentioned!

Can I make money doing this?

Hell no. But it is fun.

Explained in greater length in the sadly unfinished series on Careers, Hobbies and Fun (Part 1, Part 2). See also MMO Writing: Pros vs Amateurs.

But what about…?

I deliberately kept this post very short as I think that is more helpful to newbie bloggers. If you read any of the links, you know that keeping things short doesn’t come naturally to me!

If you have any questions that I didn’t cover, you can try asking me in the comments section below, or on Twitter (see sidebar widget). No guarantees I will have a good answer, or even time to answer at all. But someone in the community probably will have!

I wish you good luck in your blogging adventures.

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.

2018 Update: I now say use WP.com, don’t use Blogger. See below for more info.

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.

2018 Update:

  • Bhagpuss has put in a lot of effort to explore some major issues with Blogger that I happened to mention in passing. Given his discoveries, I now strongly recommend that new bloggers go for WordPress.com rather than Blogger. Using Blogger is very likely going to make it much harder for many people to comment on your posts, and your site may get somewhat mangled on mobile devices.

    All of this can be seen as a by-product of the point mentioned above that Blogger is not important to Google, and there is minimal effort to fix any problems or keep up with the changing tech landscape.

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.

    2018 Update: This “middle way” has become a lot more expensive. If you really want such features and also really want to keep costs down, a cheap self-hosting plan might serve you better than using WordPress.com.

  • 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…

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.

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!

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!