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.
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.
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.
Harsh, but on the money. Cuppy is certainly no designer, and judging from the blog, she’s no writer either.
Maybe you are right about the self-promotion. Her blog entry was very vague and full of contradictions, and her later comment at Brokentoys was a bit offensive, but still not clear about what she actually meant.
Just wonderful, this is exactly the reason why I as a mere gamer read game design blogs.
By the way – what is the job of a “Community Manager”? I was talking to a former CM, and he said it varies widely from studio to studio, and also depends on the personality of the CM.
I, as a MMO gamer, usually felt totally disappointed by them. I was horrified that some CMs who often did not really play the game were supposed to communicate ideas and concerns of the community (in 99% this means the forum community) to the developers.
“Hail thee, designer, hear the words of thy people!”
I just wonder why they do not read the forum themselves once in a blue moon.
The only CM that does a good job IMO is not a CM, but a game designer:
Blizzard’s Greg “Ghostcrawler” Street.
While I do not like many of his WoW design ideas, I liked the way he communicated his ideas to the community. I think a lot of the success of the really well designed Death Knight class can be attributed to a very good communication and exchange of ideas between the testers/community and Ghostcrawler. I also sometimes fear the negative aspect that they are a bit too good in comparison to other classes, too. DKs and Paladins are the top played class at level 80 nowadays, both have 14% share, according to armory scans.
OK, I am talking too much… again. I somehow just got the odd impression that Tami Baribeau interprets the role of a CM as being some kind of “MMO Socialite”.
“The truth is that most game designers don’t blog because they are busy designing and scripting games.”
Really? In my career industry I see very busy people blogging up a storm, writing articles for magazines, presenting at conferences, and writing books. Successful people are by nature very busy people, doing lots of different things, and especially communicating and thinking about what they do.
Most game designers don’t blog because most people don’t blog. There’s nothing particularly special about working in the game design industry that makes it more (or less) likely they would blog as compared to other industries.
Ouch. Nicely put. I’m glad someone actually brought this to the forefront who HASN’T worked for SOE 😛 I actually started to wonder if I was just being stupid for blogging on my site (since I have no industry experience) and trying to come up with new and innovative ways to look at stuff, but people like you and Tesh and a slew of others remind me that these people probably just view people like us as iconoclasts.
I know it’s tough to have an original idea that no one’s at least thought of, but if they don’t get discussed and talked about, someone can have a great idea that just falls by the wayside because they don’t think it’s worth anything.
To be perfectly honest I started out just hoping that people in the industry would read my ideas and think some of them were good, implement them and make games I’d like to play again. There’s been a rash of games that just … suck (to me, anyway) and I’m just not excited about gaming much anymore.
But then I started my company with the hopes of making it a bona fide studio one day to bring my ideas to life because I figured that industry people were so protective of their own ideas and so egotistical that they’d never accept ideas they didn’t think of on their own. Not saying everyone is like that, but apparently if you haven’t shipped 6 AAA titles, you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Game design is not a magical priesthood. It is an art and a science, and it can and *should* be dissected, studied, analyzed and yes, blogged about.
Also, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, those currently in the game industry aren’t necessarily the best and the brightest. They are more likely to be those with more “passion” and tolerance for crunch (so, those willing to be abused for their interests, rather than those demanding fair compensation for their competencies). The industry needs people like Nick Yee (his Daedalus Project blog is brilliant), but even he’s off doing something else.
It may just be that some of these “armchair” designers are those who *would* be expert designers, if they could put up with the industry, or if it were a meritocracy, rather than an inbred “good old boys network” of little boys who aged without growing up.
Oh, and tangentially, it’s been my experience that the best college/university professors are those who manage to stay on top of their field by researching (*doing* the work in their field), teaching, studying and *writing* papers about their work. Given that game designers are ostensibly all about communicating ideas in a professional manner (otherwise, an artist or a programmer could do their job), it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar habit for those at the peak of their game; design, study, teach and write.
Then again, we’re still a young industry who once praised John Romero (one of the classic examples of a “rockstar” designer), and who still has an annual party to worship ADHD, bling, blood, bo0bs and superficial *digital celebrity* worship. (E3, or even PAX.) That too many game devs buy into their own hype and the “mystique” of the industry only fuels the HR stupidity. It’s the worst sort of inbred self-reinforcing lowest-common-denominator culture.
Points have been well made. Whatever Cuppy’s motivation it would seem to be off the mark. Heck, how can all of those game developers attend GDC, shouldn’t they be building games or something? Or, better yet, working their staff to the death during crunch time? =)
@Tesh – love the “rockstar designer” comment. In the book, Good to Great, the team analyzed “rockstar status” CEO’s and found that their stocks, performance, and the performance of the company fared far less than CEO’s who were brought through the company and had a true humility and passion for their companies – instead of the ego-centric self promotion traits. The latter traits focused on good things for the individual, bad things for the company. They also discovered that pay scale for CEO’s had absolutely no bearing on their performance or the performance of the company. They found that CEO’s with humility and passion, who were paid far less but had reasonable vision and the capability to execute far outperformed the insane multi-million dollar rockstar CEO’s.
Sadly – I am butchering an excellent book for any organization (or person thinking of starting an organization) with early morning, lazy paraphrasing.
Point is, look at all the “rockstar” game designers and their recent titles.
The industry’s “best and brightest” won’t work through the industry until compensation and working conditions mirror effort, talent, education and experience.
Sorry for being so far off topic.
Game designers need not blog if they don’t want to – but painting them with a brush to those who do as somehow lesser than the ones hiding in their ivory towers is absolutely rediculous and irresponsible. In ANY industry, transparency and communication – from a straight business perspective – is paramount in today’s Gen Y consumers who live their lives texting, twittering, blogging, and being in constant communication with one another. Maybe they aren’t your core consumer yet, but they will continue to grow up that way. Ignoring how they communicate to one another and the businesses they wish to associate with is the most common and idiotical of errors.
Case in point – we are working on an email database for our customers. In the old days we had people fill out ballots, snag their emails, and provide them with information and extra value. It’s hard to get people to take that time anymore, everyone is in a rush. Now, in a location, you can text message to number code to a specific number and you get signed up automatically. Takes 5 seconds, and the information is rolling in… because that is how our customer base communicates now. Instant, easy, convenient, electronically. Before we had to rely on staff to approach people at the till to ask them to take the time. Now there are table tents and small signs throughout the store that they can do while they are browsing. Heck, people sign up without ever entering the store because there is a poster in the window too. The world, although resistant to change by us old fogies, is rapidly doing so all around us. Those who adapt will end up winning in the end. Those that play ostrich will not.
In 5 years, every designer worth their salt will be required to have a public blog so customers can relate, understand, empathise, and promote them. Consumers don’t just buy a product because they like it, or find it useful – they need to relate or respect the company that produces that product first. Something as easy as 20 minutes a week can accomplish that without a 100M marketing budget. It will catch on. Especially in an industry that is built around technology, social gaming, and cutting edge crap.
@ Tesh: “Also, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, those currently in the game industry aren’t necessarily the best and the brightest. They are more likely to be those with more “passion” and tolerance for crunch”
So true. So very true.
Wrong, the reason more game designers don’t blog is because of one thing and one thing only: the NDA. Pretty sure if you were employed by say Blizzard, EA, Bioware etc. you would *not* be able to have this blog right now. Maybe if it were about some different subject matter. It’s very difficult to have an objective and interesting blog as a game designer without divulging trade secrets or “criticizing” a competitor’s product.
Another huge problem is when you start a blog you immediately become the mascot of the company, and can either make the company look better (rare) or worse (common). Because of that risk, companies demand you do not have a blog or interact with anyone at all. In fact, most game companies restrict their developers from ever talking to the press or even e-mailing anyone using their company e-mail without first having it cleared by PR.
Regarding the quality of dev blogs, they’re mostly meh. Most of them are independent game designers, or ex-community managers or armchair designers. That said, we do read blogs and they are interesting for their POV. Most of the time bloggers just don’t understand why what they crave is not realistic or good design.
“Most of the time bloggers just don’t understand why what they crave is not realistic or good design.”
That strikes me as rather egotistical and categorically unsound.