Eventually every MMO blogger worth their salt ponders the impact that blogs have on the MMO industry as a whole. Of course we’d like to think we are somehow making a difference and it’s an admirable goal in a world where blogging has become a big part of the Internet and is intertwined with the social networking movement. Today, it seems that everyone has a blog. And why not? It’s a great way to revel in one’s passion for a particular subject or hobby. It’s also useful to have a permanent record of one’s writings as opposed to the black hole that is otherwise known as discussion forums. All of us who blog in some way do so because we feel that our opinions *matter*.
The question is: do our opinions have any impact on the people in the MMO industry that can effect real change?
Why We Blog
Most of us who blog like to feel that what we are writing will have an impact on the MMO community. Nothing can describe the feeling that one gets when you discover that there are other like-minded people out there who feel passionate about the very same issues. Whether it’s a discussion about the latest nerf to your class or some small esoteric part of your favorite MMO that you really enjoy, it’s reassuring to know that other people are in the same virtual boat as you. Blogging has become a great community building activity that helps keep fellow enthusiasts in-touch and motivated about their MMO.
Now it’s all fine and well to look at blogging as something that helps bring a sense of community to MMOs albeit in an offline capacity but what about the importance of blogging having an impact on the MMO industry? Is there any evidence that MMO devs are reading and listening to the opinions expressed on the literally thousands of blogs our there? Should they care? Should we care if they don’t care?
The Reality of the Video Game Industry
I remember when I was putting in 12-16 hour days in the video game industry. Back then my focus was so intense on my current project that I really didn’t have the time nor the energy to read other people’s opinions as I do today. It’s not that public opinion didn’t matter, it’s just that it wasn’t a priority. Sure we cared about game review scores but we found ourselves absolutely loathing professionally game reviewers. After all, how could they possibly understand what it takes to make a video game? In the end you don’t need the distraction and inconvenience of other opinions (especially from outside the industry); if you are a developer the only opinion that matters is your own and your bosses.
During my time working in the industry, my own blog shamefully suffered during those 2 years. I would go months without publishing any articles. Somehow keeping a blog updated wasn’t a big priority when you are giving every ounce of your energy to the creation of a video game. Back then I recall thinking how irrelevant blogs and discussion forums are to the whole grand scheme of things. I used to think of the public: talk is cheap…you really want better games? Make them!
On the occasion when I had a few minutes of free time, I would dutifully skim through various discussion forums and official MMO company websites but that was about it. Therefore I can honestly appreciate devs who work for MMO companies like Blizzard who aren’t very vocal on discussion boards or blogs. Yet given the social nature of MMOs as opposed to single player video games, failing to build in time to allow your devs to communicate with the public each month is a terrible mistake.
Blogs Are a Good Predictor of the State of Your MMO
After being out of the industry boiler room for a while I have had the luxury to re-think some of my positions. I would venture to say that to the discerning reader there *is* great value in what is being written in blogs and in the comments in the blogosphere. Often big trends and glaring problems usually surface on blogs months before the MMO company is even aware of what is going on. Bloggers have a unique perspective in contrast to the typical over-worked MMO dev in that they are a fresh pair of eyes unsullied from the rigors and demands of working in the industry.
While the average employee slaving away at a video company can’t be expected to spend 4 hours a day reading and discussing issues on forums or blogs at the very least MMO companies should be hiring people who’s sole job it is to be taking the temperature of the community, the commentators and the pundits. These employees should be giving feedback directly to the people in power so that issues can be addressed before they spiral out of control. How often have we seen companies ignore the warnings of beta testers on their forums and ship an MMO that is doomed to fail? Too damned often.
Don’t Ignore Your Community
Video game companies need to understand that MMOs are an entirely different creature then a single-player video game that you sell once. Never before has an industry ever had such vocal customers who are so passionate about the products and services that they consume. As customers, we should be heard instead of “managed”. Woe to the MMO company that fails to listen, consider and acknowledge all of the voices in the community. Case in point: the official Blizzard Wrath of the Lich King Profession forums. Months went by before a Blizzard rep even bothered to post on those forums. The forums themselves were a terrific repository of expert players offering sage advice to Blizzard. As for the Blizzard lead dev responsible for professions Jon “Where’s Waldo” Lecraft he’s been conspicuously absent. The last anyone has heard from him was a Blizzcast earlier this year. Who knows, maybe his face will soon be making an appearance on California milk cartons?
Digression – People who are involved in the creation of video games are a very opinionated lot; they are not easily swayed by the opinion of the “street”. You have to be ultra-opinionated to survive in the industry as failure to have an opinion that you can logically defend will end up in you being steamrolled by the alpha males during the endless stream of meetings that one must endure during the course of an average week. An interesting aside in the industry is that the more you get paid, the more your opinion seems to matter. People who have entry level positions don’t really need opinions — instead they are the worker bees that implement the opinions, ideas and dreams of the people in executive positions of power.
Rolling the Dice With Opinions
I wish I could definitively say that blogging has an impact but I’m really not sure as it would be impossible to measure without some actual evidence. One would like to think that in a perfect world that a well expressed idea *will* have some kind of appreciable impact; it’s the chance we all take as bloggers. Sometimes we get lucky and we strike a chord with the community, sometimes we strike out but that’s ok too. My heart goes out to many of the posters on official MMO forums who write with such unbridled passion — they earnestly hope that their post will hit pay dirt, grab the attention of a “blue” (WoW player lingo for “company employee”) and get their issue addressed. Some do get lucky and the devs seem to wake from their sleep-deprived stupor and actually implement some changes.
All of us who dare to put pen to paper whether real or electronic do so because it’s a part of human nature to express oneself and want to be heard. As bloggers and posters, we need to be realistic. While what we do may not be changing the MMO world with great fanfare, we are making an incremental grassroots impact nonetheless. We need to be satisfied and delight in those small sparks of recognition for our observations. Just knowing that our opinions are out there for the world to read and evaluate keeps me blogging. Often I will get comments and emails from my readers expressing how much they enjoyed the article. For me, that’s all the impact I really need.
Nicely stated, Wolf. I ran a similar tangent with my “Catering to CoWs” article.
One thought regarding the “put up or shut up” concept behind the oft-used dismissal of those with opinions who aren’t in a place of power to enact them: If game development were something that anyone with an aptitude could do, the industry would be very different. As it is, money talks, and more often than not, great ideas are left out simply because they don’t come from someone with the money to make them real. Game dev isn’t a meritocracy, in other words.
Complimentary to that is the litiginous society we have. Great ideas from outside the company more often than not are out of bounds anyway, thanks to the fear of lawsuits and copyright complaints. It makes for a vicious little inbred society that only looks to itself out of habit, but also because to do otherwise is to court disaster.
Follow the money.
If it were easier to make games, say with a great suite of cheap middleware, we’d see a lot more of the “rank and file” making a difference, more innovation, and better games. We’d pay for it in the promotional backing and bleeding edge graphics that AAA titles get, but to my old school game design purist mind, it’s worth it.
(Plus, if I could find some good middleware, I’ve got more than a few designs I’d put together. I’d love for the industry to have a lower barrier to entry; more competition makes for better products.)
Amen! If you have an opinion, the only thing that matters is the money to back it up. Curt Schilling is a good example where you have someone who’s 1) passionate about MMOs, 2) has a definite opinion on how they should be run and 3) has the money make it happen. For the rest of us, it takes many long years in the industry to rise to a position where your opinion is deemed to have merit enough to get a game made — at least in the AAA+ world of video game production.
Another insightful point Tesh. Most gaming companies are very insular because of this and actually discourage people sending them ideas. Blizzard has a “suggestions” forum but states that devs will not comment on any suggestion for fear of litigation ensuing. Crazy world we live in!
I think we’re going to see the democratization of MMOs in our lifetime as the barrier to entry gets lower and lower. At some point passionate people with good design skills will triumph over the industry stranglehold and produce amazing new virtual worlds. It’s just a matter of time.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Love, Wolf, but it’s a step in the right direction. Yes, the guy behind it is brilliant, definitely not the rank and file designer, but the mere fact that what he’s doing is even possible is a great thing to my mind.
I keep thinking of Mark Jacobs. Apparently, in WAR’s design ethos, a familiarity with WoW is a liability on his design team. Putting aside the near impossibility of ignoring the 800 pound gorilla while trying to unseat him, it’s a great illustration of the insularity of design teams. Not only do they not want player feedback, but they don’t value other developers’ work.
I’m not sure what prompts it, but a lot of design teams seem to want to reinvent the wheel. As such, player feedback is irrelevant, and the work of other devs is irrelevant. It’s a bizarre sort of badge of honor for some people to be able to code something or design something “from the ground up” without outside influence or help. I really have to wonder if it’s the old guard, the “two guys in a garage”, that are fostering this sort of mentality. It’s certainly indicative of poor business practices, and there are plenty of those in the industry.
It’s strange, because the democratization of game design is leading back to that in a way (see World of Goo; two guys did that one), but in the more modern iteration of the small team, middleware is acceptable. It’s even ideal, considering the costs to develop software. The open source movement democratized things like OpenOffice and Mozilla, and games are finally starting to catch on. In an increasingly unstable economy, I think that big budget games will be fewer and farther between.
Hopefully, we’ll see a crosspollination of ideas as a result. Bloggers, as some of the most opinionated of the bunch (and sometimes the most literate and eloquent), will always have an audience. With rapid prototype middleware, some of those opinions can be tested as practical betas, and maybe even hit the market as self-published pieces of work. At that point, if they are successful, the “big boys” will have to take note, because the little guys will be impacting their bottom line.
There’s another rant in there about the difference between private and public companies and the business strategies that heavily affect game design (like Activision’s canning of Brutal Legend), but I’ve rambled too long already. Suffice it to say that the bigger the company, and the more beholden to the shareholders, the less likely they are to listen to the bloggers or the customers. It’s a perverse byproduct of our “investment” economy.
If bloggers do have impact, I have yet to see that impact. I am patiently waiting. Wolf, funny you mention 38 Studios as I made a post about them as my dream little dev team that has the opportunity to really change the face of MMO’s. How much the bean counters influence them remains to be seen. We have barely seen any screenshots yet.
Blogging for me started for fun, and just by my thoughts and some rambling were introduced to other likeminded blogs and have learned a lot and even shaped some of my thoughts based off of reading blogs like this one. If anything it has been like a AA meeting for me – it is nice to know I am not alone in wanting to see change in the industry – and maybe someday that change will be realized. I don’t for one second think my ideas would “fix” the industry as I don’t have the background experience in building games – but I do have a fair gaming history and long to see more. Let me rephrase – see something different.
Iis it odd the fear of failure for multi-million dollar budgets causes that failure?
Interesting article Wolf. Regarding don’t ignore your community, do devs really think they can create and market a game without community support? In my mind that might answer the eternal quest, how dumb can you get.:)
Curtis, communities can and should be cultivated. This was the point I was making in a previous article which put forth the idea that communities are probably one of the top assets any MMO has.
If Blizzard were to start promoting good citizenry among it’s players and allowing players to help make a difference in how people within the community are evaluated the we’d see a potentially great community as a result. Players could actually take some ownership of their server.
There are many things that could be implemented that could help make better communities both in the forums and more importantly online. For example, Blizzard could implement a good Samaritan program that rewards helpful and kind players. Titles could be bestowed to those players. Players that role-play with other players and even NPCs could be rewarded.
Conversely players that continually abuse certain chat channels could have their rights to use those channels removed or curtailed. A public humiliation system could be devised to shame repeat offenders.
As it stands right now we have the wild west in Azeroth — everything seems to be allowed with no mechanism for the community to police it’s own server except via contacting a GM.
Much of the misbehavior is directly attributed to the fact that there is very little freedom in WoW. The forums and chat channels exist as kind of a pressure value as one of the few places for players to express themselves. If Blizzard were to allow for more player freedom and consequences then a community could police itself and create for itself it’s own unique identity.
If I was in charge of WoW, the first thing I would do is ensure that players who remove all of their clothes and start dancing are immediately flagged for PVP by their own faction. Trust me, there would be few “strippers” on mailboxes on most servers if that happened. 🙂
Great idea! Do you think the reason Blizzard don’t police activity like this is because they go after the teenage market and want to keep them? When Dark Age Of Camelot came out we need had things like this happen, the player base at that time seemed to be older, well more mature anyway.
On a side note 2 weeks ago I went back to play Dark Age Of Camelot, hadn’t been there for four years and was amazed at the maturity lvl of people in the guild I joined and the alliance over all. Very healthy pvp activity with many alliance people commenting in chat if you need help just give us a holler. Is very refreshing to experience compared to WoW.
Thanks for the link Tesh, very interesting.
Thanks for the link Tesh. Love does look very interesting! I think the title of the game/world is a bit quirky — he may want to choose another name to avoid misconceptions. I am amazed at what he is trying to do and the philosophy about creating a living, breathing world. Let’s hope he suceeds and paves the way for an alternative to the current MMO industry juggernaut paradigm.
I’m of two minds on this issue. I can understand why Mythic is trying not to create a WoW-influenced MMO in order to differentiate themselves in the market. As a student of music, I have been fascinated by how artists can end up sounding like other artists if they allow themselves to be influenced by them. The power and influence that WoW has currently is so pervasive and dominant that I believe it’s worthwhile to try produce something that is different.
On the other hand, it is foolish to ignore the lessons that WoW has taught us: a culture of polish and “concentrated coolness” just to name two. Also many lessons can be gleaned from Blizzard’s operational structure such as: the benefit of being your own publisher and controlling the shots as to when your produce is released, owning your own IP, etc.
Agreed. The failure of Vanguard is one example of this kind of arrogance and intransigence — they wanted to do too much on their own and could have saved millions by using existing technology and tools.
We can only hope this will happen 🙂
Well said. Every day I hear more stories about corporations in American laying off workers in profitable companies just so they can raise the price of their shares in order to keep the “shareholders” happy. It’s a disgrace. I hope someday we can see video games move away from the nefarious influence of the investment economy.
Y’know, regarding Mythic differentiating their product, I think you’re right, they have to bring something unique to the table. At the same time, if you’re not aware of what is already on the table, and why it’s so popular, you’re not going to make your differences useful. To extend the metaphor, if you see cranberry sauce on the table getting all the attention, and you believe “different is good”, it’s not necessarily going to be good enough to bring sweet potatoes and try to bank on the difference. Your offering has to be different for the right reasons, in the right ways, especially if you’re using the same business model in a saturated market.
The sweet potatoes are different from cranberry sauce, but they won’t appeal to the same people or for the same reason. It all comes back to understanding what you’re doing and why, and how you define your target audience. Making better (or just different) cranberry sauce might be the best thing to do sometimes, and other times, maybe what’s really needed for the market is some sparkling cider.
Mark Jacobs just seems to be too beholden to the “we’re doing it my way” to really take a look at what the market wants. He might be making the world’s best sweet potatoes, but if the customers want cranberry sauce and a drink, it really doesn’t matter how good the sweet potatoes are.