Upside Down Cake: Contrived Controversy in the MMO Blogosphere

This week a well known MMO industry blogger and community manager Cuppycake posed a “controversial” question. Let me paraphrase:  do game designers who blog know what the heck they are taking about? I’m frankly suspicious as to the motives of her question which I’ll explain later. Could we not ask the same about any discipline? For example, how do we know that we can even trust the credentials and worthiness of the people who write for Time, Newsweek or the New York Times? What makes someone an expert that they should be listened to and believed?

Since we’re all playing the game now I’ll take her bait and take a stab at answering the question.

I believe that in a free and open society that opinions whether vocal or written are part of the marketplace of ideas. No matter if you are rich or poor, famous or unknown, designer or player — all that matters is if someone believes in what you are saying has a sense of value for them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Theory versus Practice

I’ll tell you this much, professional game designers don’t have all the answers, nor do they posses all of the wisdom of game design by virtue of being employed in the industry. What they do have though is practical experience gained from designing and creating an actual bona fide video game. When you work in the video game industry you are introduced to certain sobering realities that the armchair designer may not take into account.

Steve Danuser makes a good point about comparing theory to practice:

talking about theory is one thing, but implementation is quite another. That’s why incredibly smart and articulate people can fail at actually having to make games, and why some people are more famous for what they say than for actually producing quality work. It’s also a reason why many players can write blogs that are every bit as thoughtful and compelling as people in the industry–because blogging doesn’t have the accountability of meeting deadlines and budgets.

Why Most Game Designers Don’t Blog

The truth is that most game designers don’t blog because they are busy designing and scripting games.  From my own experience I can say that the amount a game designer blogs is inversely proportional to the amount of time he’s working on designing games. A good game designer that prodigiously blogs is probably neglecting his work.

However for those designers that love to blog we should be appreciative that they have taken the time from their busy day and their families to share their thoughts with us.

Enter the Vox Populi

There is a down side to only respecting the virtue of experience. Game designers get locked into a certain way of thinking due to the limitations of how the video game industry currently works and they bring with them the influences of the popular games that they liked — the same is true of the motion picture industry. When you know what is seemingly impossible and “can’t be done” it prevents and limits you from doing what could be possible. History is full of inventors who were told their inventions were “impossible” by the entrenched status quo. Shattering the complacency that orthodoxy breeds is exactly why we need both actual designers and armchair designers to keep blogging.

I would agree that a person who blogs about game design who has never worked in this area has a credibility disadvantage due to their lack of experience. But nobody has the monopoly on good ideas and genius. There are plenty of amazing MMO blogs full of thought provoking ideas and commentary that would put many game designers who somehow just managed to finagle their way into the industry to shame. And let’s not forget the alumni of MMO commentators that ranted/blogged their way into their current design jobs. Once upon a time they too were just lowly bloggers trying to be heard.

I think a more useful question is this: do MMO bloggers have any impact on the industry that they are writing about? For the record last year, I and readers of my blog attempted to find some answers to that question.

There’s No Such Thing As Bad Publicity

I suspect the part of the reason such an open-ended question was posed was that Cuppycake — a master of self-promotion and social networking — needed to drum up some publicity for her blog which due to political crusading hasn’t dealt much with MMOs lately. Looks like she wants back in the game. To be fair, writing about MMOs has been a bit boring lately due to the creative stagnancy and predictability that has overwhelmed the industry of late. Top marks for Cuppy for getting her name mentioned again on various MMO blogs. Nicely played.

P.T. Barnum

Following in the footsteps of other MMO commentators she rose from relative obscurity and became a MMO personality by frequently posting on various discussion boards. She started a blog and before you know it she was a MMO expert like many current industry people before her. In the parlance of the Internet SEO world this is called authority blogging. To her credit she then proceeded to leverage her online persona into a job as a community manager for Raph Koster’s MetaPlace. She has now cleverly elevated herself into the good graces of the upper echelon of the MMO blogosphere.

Obligatory Bartle Reference

I’m rather protective of Richard Bartle’s contribution and legacy to MMOs and virtual worlds. I’m getting a little sick and tired of the constant coddling of self-styled pundits that show him no respect. In her article, Cuppy claims that she knows game designers who’ve never heard of Richard Bartle. Well if they are MMO or virtual world designers and they haven’t heard of him then I seriously doubt their competence and professionalism. Part of knowing your craft is studying and examining the wisdom of those pioneers that came before us and blazed the trails.

A wiser man then me once said: those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. You don’t have to agree with Bartle but you should at least understand his theories. But as we have seen lately, it’s rather fashionable to dismiss Bartle in some corners of the MMO blogosphere.

The Plot Thickens

Then at last her true feelings come out when she said this on Broken Toys:

What I wanted to say was – design bloggers….you’re all full of shit, and relevant people in the industry making kick ass content aren’t reading a word of what you say (and if they are, they’re laughing).

If we are full of crap then prove it. Consider yourself lucky and fortunate that game designers do take the time to share their ideas and theories in blogs. Given your logic designers should stop authoring books on game design and MMOs, after all how can we really trust them to be experts?

All I see here are hollow words and naiveté coming from an insecure person with an entry level job in the video game industry that is desperately seeking attention — someone who now sees fit to lecture MMO design bloggers – someone with no professional design experience and who’s never worked on an AAA title.  And just who are the so-called relevant people that you know that are not reading MMO design blogs? Given your pittance of experience and wisdom, who are you to judge who is relevant?

Who cares if they aren’t reading MMO design blogs, just you apparently. Therefore if these “relevant people” aren’t reading these blogs then the assumption is that the rest of us irrelevant fools shouldn’t be reading them either. I suppose we should all (except for you) crawl back into our caves and stop thinking, stop blogging, stop discussing — let the experts make those “kick ass” games in their ivory towers — after all they are the priesthood that knows what’s best for us ™.  Not bloody likely.

Conclusion

Enlightened game design is about going beyond the boundaries of what is possible. Cutting yourself off from the ideas, experiences and theories of others is terribly stifling and is certainly not the qualities that I would attribute to a game designer who should be a torchbearer of creativity, curiosity and innovation. No man is an island.

This contrived controversy aside, I believe in the intrinsic value of good ideas and opinions; they *are* worth publishing and discussing even if the industry is not paying attention. Even if blogs have no real measurable impact on the MMO industry at least they are a noble catharsis for those of us that want better MMOs and virtual worlds. For me blogging is about daring to dream and finding the courage share those dreams with like-minded folk.

-Wolfshead

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