Careers, Hobbies and Fun – Part 2

chihuahua-1378374417jQtThis post continues on from Careers, Hobbies and Fun: Brain Dump, Part 1. While I haven’t included “brain dump” in the title this time, this still is one, so don’t expect highly polished structure and an orderly linear flow!

Hears audience cries of “When do we ever? It’s not like that’s normal around here!”

Pretends not to hear and carries on.

The Ground Floor Effect

Last time around I talked about the concept of scalability, and how that leads to hyper-competitive fields in which success is nigh on impossible to come by. If your aim was to become a movie actor, a rock star, a bestselling fantasy author and suchlike, that would be about the end of the story. However when we think about blogging, podcasting, YouTubing and such, there is more to be said.

The point about say blogging is that not so long it didn’t exist. Therefore there was a time in its infancy when it was not in fact a hyper-competitive field, and all kinds of unlikely people were able to get a start and establish themselves. Of course at that time since not many people were reading blogs either, it was still not particularly viable as a career. However as the web in general grew, and blogging readerships grew, some of those people that had “gotten in on the ground floor” were able to grow with it, to the point where it could be a decent livelihood, or even in exceptional cases something of a business empire.

If you were thinking of emulating those people, now it’s (very probably) too late. The field suffers all the problems caused by scalability, plus you’d have to overcome the competition of all those little empires that have already been built!

Do I mention these things just to cause you angst at missed opportunities then? Not entirely, mercifully. Given the times we live in, there’s new stuff coming along all the time… Blogs! Podcasts! YouTube! Phone Apps! Twitch! And the type of people that read this blog are perhaps more likely than most to become aware of whatever is going to become the future next-big-thing while it’s still a teensy-little-thing. Should you have a hobby or passion that fits this description then it could well merit looking into as something that might have serious career potential.

It’s only “might have” though, because of course not every teensy-little-thing becomes a big thing. Plenty stay teensy, or indeed become pretty-much-non-existent-thing. The problem is to know which pretty-new and pretty-teensy things have a good chance of becoming big or at least biggish. You do have a couple of things going for you though. If you have geeky tendencies then you may well be an early adopter of new stuff as it comes along. Based on what got you excited in the past before most people got into it, you have a chance of telling if what you’re excited about right now is just a personal enthusiasm, or something that might catch on in a big way. Also since we’re talking about hobbies, most likely if there is anything that fits that bill, chances are you are naturally spending time exploring it for fun, without having to invest extra time or money on delving into it.

Scalability vs Niches

Despite the problems of scalability, quite a few people do manage to make at least a modest livelihood doing things such as writing books. This is possible because while a pretty small number of authors can easily meet most of the entire planet’s demand for say young adult fantasy fiction, there are a large number of specialist interests and tastes out there with smallish audiences that writers can cater to. Such writers can never hope to make it big like J K Rowling, but sometimes they can do reasonably well.

I’ve written before on the topic of whether it’s a good idea for hobby bloggers to stick to a niche, and many of the same points apply here too. Including alas the fact that “Finding a niche that is actually a good one is rather difficult”. I won’t go over the same ground again, so if this seems relevant to you, check out the older post.

In the context of turning hobbies into careers, I will add one thought though. Most of us have a number of things that we enjoy and/or know a lot about. You might have a couple of hobbies, and maybe there are aspects of your job that you enjoy as well. One place to look for potential niches is in the combinations of these different parts of your life. For instance if you like (among other things) playing video games and working with children, and your day job is in the field of mental health, you might consider things like:

  • Therapeutic uses of games for children
  • Gaming advice site for parents (e.g. reviews of children’s games from the parent angle – age appropriateness, side benefits for learning, suitability for parent and child to play together etc)

It’s not enough though to come up with something that appeals to you, you also need to determine if it’s a viable niche for you to inhabit. The types of questions you need to ask yourself are:

  • How many people would want such a thing?
  • How much would people pay? (e.g To buy a product you’ll make, to hire you to provide some service you have in mind, or to advertise on the kind of site you’re thinking of making)
  • What is the competition like?
  • Is there room for more people to do this?
  • What’s going to be different or better about what you’ll do that enough people would choose that over the other options?

If you have good answers to such questions, there is hope for your plan.

Also bear in mind the possibility of combining the “ground floor effect” with a niche. The Chihuahua podcast market may be saturated, but the time may yet be ripe to get into the Chihuahua-wearable-devices industry. Or it may not, see above.

To be continued

Looks like this is turning into a mini-series. I can only hope that a mid-season break is not needed.

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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

The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

When I was pretty young I happened to come across the word “Stylite” in the dictionary. Mind-bogglingly enough a stylite is a member of an early Christian sect which used to live on top of pillars. I’m afraid my teen self couldn’t stop laughing for quite some time, and even now the concept brings a chuckle.

What does all this have to do with MMOs, I hear you ask? Well… it goes to show that people find worth, meaning and virtue in some rather strange activities. Much as people find meaning and worth in some rather strange MMO activities1, and consequently get excited about whether their exertions are devalued by the possibility of others by-passing them and reaching similar goals via the mere spending of money.

It is therefore in a spirit of religious tolerance and anthropological curiosity that we turn our minds to the great pay-to-win debate…

The Great Debate, Part 284

If you’ve been around the MMO blogosphere a while, you have seen this topic come around a number of times.

The current flurry of posts seems to have been kicked off by a piece on Massively OP, The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?. This is a sample…

a quick perusal of the ArcheAge forums invariably turns up posts by thirtysomething I’m-too-busy-to-play types admonishing their anti-P2W counterparts for daring to suggest that games should be played through instead of paid through.

From my perspective, paying for your gear or any sort of character advancement is an extremely short-sighted way of approaching MMORPGs. But I’m seeing it accepted more and more often in games, on forums, and in the blogosphere, and it boggles my mind to see just how many people are falling in line.

Personally I have a good deal of sympathy with the idea (not a new one, but repeated in that post) that if people are willing to pay good money to not have to play some part of your game, that’s a pretty sad indictment of that part of the game. As I’ve said before, too many games contain too many elements that don’t really deserve to be called play at all.

Of course, not everyone likes the same things…I guess it’s understandable that not everyone wants to take part in every aspect of an MMO, and maybe considerate of the game designers to not force that on people. This is something that MMO Gypsy makes much of in Today in P2W: Gamers are getting older and that’s okay!

… obviously there are many ways to find pleasure in games. I’ve played MMOs in the past just to dress up my characters and yes, buy exclusive clothes from an ingame store. Likewise, P2W-players do very much also play the games they invest in, duh – it’s not like they’re just paying money and then never spend any time on actual game play. They just play differently.

Sadly though, the kind of things that come up in the context of the pay-to-win discussion are typically boring grinds that pretty much no-one actually likes, and which nevertheless make up 80-90% of the time spent “playing” in MMOs.

Yes, if people mostly want to skip the crappy 80% of your game to get to the enjoyable 20%, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what a great game you made.

What is winning anyway?

Liores (who coined the “Part 284” line I used above) has a lot of interesting things to say in her post The Eternal Payment Model Debate: part 284. A notable theme is the question of what “winning” means in MMOs anyway…

MMOs don’t have a consistent win condition. It varies wildly from game to game, and from player to player. Perhaps you feel that you’ve won an MMO by completing the hardest group content, or maybe you’re an ArcheAge player and you “win” by being dominant in PvP.

I like collecting cosmetic items, and I evaluate my gaming success by getting the “best” hats and mounts and such.

A similar point is made in a somewhat different way by Tobold

I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn’t involve money.

This raises the question of why exactly do people care whether their own “win condition” involves money. There seem to be two separate aspects here…

  1. No-one can “win” without paying. e.g. You can’t get the best cosmetic hat or the finest PVP gear without paying, because it’s only in the cash shop.

  2. While you can “win” without paying, other people can get the same thing through purchases. e.g. The best gear drops in raids, but can also be bought.

Some people seem to object to (1) and I’m finding it hard to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they think something that seems essential to them should be included with the sub or the box price or whatever, and it’s not fair to charge extra for it. Maybe they’re the type of people for whom the game doesn’t even really start until you’re geared up for endgame raiding.

Many more people seem to object to (2) though. Most of the Massively OP post is about skipping grind after all, and you do hear a lot of objections to insta-level items and suchlike. What is going on there? I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine various types of feelings that people might have…

  • “It’s not fair that I had to work so hard for X, when someone else can just buy it”

  • “My sense of achievement in getting X is ruined by the fact there’s an easy alternative way to get it”

  • “The kudos that should be mine because of what I’ve achieved is undermined because other people have all the outward appearances of what I have earned without any real achievement on their part”

My guess is that a lot of this stuff is wrapped up with people’s self-image and the qualities that they value in themselves. Some people seem to see virtue and character in manfully doing the grind, as the Stylites saw virtue in living on top of a pillar.

Personally I thoroughly dislike excessive grinding, and I can’t see a lot to be proud about for having done it. But neither am I willing to pay big bucks to avoid it. Bad news game designers: I have a ton of other fun and interesting things I can do with my time instead of playing your game if those are going to be the only options you offer me.


  1. Collecting hats? Hmm… 

Blogging: To niche or not to niche?

archery target

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)

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing free-to-play’s image problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MMO Writing: Pros vs Amateurs

merton-oxford

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!