Threading Needles In Front Of A Live Studio Audience

Thanks to the magic of Bloglines, I noticed that SunSword updated his blog tonight. And it’s a doozy. Basically, he hasn’t updated his blog because, well, I’ll let him say.

Now, there are some people at the producer-level and up in the industry who really say what they think in their blogs, but I’ve found that the most active/interesting posts are by people who aren’t directly responsible for the kinds of things they comment on.

Most of the really interesting blogs out there are by people who are independent of censorship, either because they’re at the very top of their organizations, or because they aren’t directly responsible (or aren’t generally perceived to be) for the kinds of things they comment on.

And of course, some of the most popular and respected bloggers in the online game industry don’t even deal in reality. Most of it is academic bullshit and spin. Which is understandable, because again, if people dealt in reality, they’d probably get censored by their organizations. Unfortunately, it means that most of the audience for this kind of material is having a very confused discussion fueled by misinformation, hype and guesswork.

Hard for me not to take that personally. Let’s see, am I full of beardy bullshit, a spin doctor, or merely irrelevant? Choices, choices.

However, the dilemma he posits is a real one, and one I’ve dealt with ever since registering this domain name (5 years now, if you’re keeping score somewhere). Basically, posting about something that I have direct experience with is usually not a good thing. Why?

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  • It’s not public knowledge. My current project, for example. It’s not announced yet. It may not make it to the point where it gets announced (lots of projects are canceled before you ever hear of them). The MMO industry is a competitive one, and despite all of us being gossipy old hens in person, it’s a little different when you have, you know, stuff out on the Internet getting sucked into Google’s search engines. So while I’d love to tell you about all the bad craziness I’ve been furiously typing away at for the past year or so, that’s not gonna happen. At least, not yet.
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  • It’s not something you’re responsible for. SunSword refers to this in passing, but honestly, there’s no one really who is 100% “responsible for everything” in an era of 100+ person dev teams. My time with DAoC is a good example of this. I worked on a lot of stuff when I was there, some of which directly impacted players visibly, most of which didn’t. But even if I discussed something I *directly* touched, say, line of sight fixes for Necromancers, there were still Producers who mandated the change, Designers who wrote up how it should work, Programmers who implemented it, QA testers who let us know that everyone in the above list was on crack, and Players who wondered when the hell we were fixing LOS for necromancers. Anything I say about the subject? Has the possibility to blow back on everyone else in that above list. And one thing about live MMO teams – you tend to be loyal to the people you work with. You don’t particularly want to cause them heartburn for the sake of a witty blog post.
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  • It’s something that could reflect badly on who you work for. RMT is a good case in point; many times I’ve thought that my flaming certain large companies could blow back on the people I work for. Thankfully, they seem more worried about Vanguard fan sites than lil’ ole me. But legal liability is something most people don’t want to touch – at all.
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  • And finally, the one SunSword briefly hints at – office politics. Honestly, this never fazed me that much. Both at Mythic, and especially at NCsoft, it’s not like my blog is some kind of secret that is waiting to be discovered. If I say something about my coworkers in public, it’s probably not going to bitching about the guy who keeps kicking my tail at lunchtime Company of Heroes matches. (Which, really, is all the office politics I’ve got going on at the moment. Sorry!) But again, this falls under the heading of “none of your business”. If I’ve got personnel issues at work, I’m not going to post about them on my blog. That’s just, well, kind of silly, really. Those things are best left for venomous lunchtime rantings!

So, there’s all the self-censorship I indulge in. What about the other kind? Has anyone ever lowered the boom and said “You can’t go there, girlfriend”? Not really. Really risky topics I usually run past a friend or two (/wave Sanya) but it got to the point that if I was asking, I knew it was out of bounds. After 5 years of this, you get a pretty good meter of self-censorship that nips anything else in the bud. If I *didn’t* have that 5 years of experience, I could see the boom being lowered a few times. Most companies have “blogging policies” now, which mainly consist of “don’t talk about stuff that is secret, and don’t talk about stuff that you aren’t the point man for”. In other words, the points above.

However, that leaves a lot of room to talk, and it’s certainly not academic bullshit. The MMO industry right now is faced with something of a crisis of innovation, or to be more precise a lack thereof. We’ve done the hit points and levels thing. And we’ve done it again. And again. Because, well, it works. (Damion Schubert – another one of those hopelessly irrelevant designer bloggers – gave an AGC talk on that topic, and it’s highly recommended for a good review of why we do the same things over and over again, hopefully he’s put the slides online somewhere. Poke.) And game companies tend to have no institutional history, at least that they’ll admit to. Talking points in blog format help to address this lack of memory. God only knows something has to.

Because lord love a duck, it’s not like there’s a single person in this industry, from Mr. Koster to Mr. Smedley to Mr. Jacobs to Mr. Garriott, that couldn’t learn a thing or two or twelve from the most important bloggers in our little blogosphere fiesta – the players themselves. Most of whom have blogs refreshingly free from academic bullshit.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Me But Now Do And It’s All Raph’s Fault

No, really. Like Raph, I’m not sure if there is anything left about me that isn’t already an open book, but let’s give it a go.

1. I was a high school dropout. No, really. I was a fairly troubled adolescent, and I spent more time reading in the local college library than in school. It helped that I literally lived across the street from said local college at the time. Eventually I just quit making a pretense of showing up to school, as it was getting in the way of my actually learning things. It didn’t seem to hinder my career overly much, but it’s still not an educational path I’d recommend.

2. I was in the military for 60 days. No, really. The US Navy, to be precise. And I never left RTC (the naval version of boot camp). Women had just been made drill instructors when I was there in the early 80’s, and the highlight of my brief career as Seaman Recruit Jennings was having two female DIs ambush me as I was going somewhere and harangue me for about 10 minutes about how I was a disgrace to the United States Armed Forces. And they said I’d never accomplish anything! Eventually the military and I came to a mutual understanding that we weren’t really suited for each other.

3. I am rodentophobic. No, really. Full blown phobia and everything. I freak out, have an anxiety attack, etc. It’s really kind of embarrassing. I’m to the point now where I can stand to be around a mouse in a cage BUT DO NOT MAKE ME TOUCH IT, and with rats, all bets are off. Comes from two things: when a small child, entering a dark garage/pantry and having a flying rodent aimed loosely at my head, and somewhere about the same time lying in bed listening to my parents detail all the things about rats that basically make them into the Terminator. You know, chew through metal, form intricate civilizations, can smell fear, etc. Anyway, I. don’t. like. rats. Suffice to say that any game I work on will not have rat-killing as part of its advancement schema.

4. I rode cross-country on a freight train once. No, really. And it was filthy. As in, covered in grime looking like you just walked out of a factory in a Dickens novel dirty. It’s one of those things you should (only) do once, I guess. At any rate this was over 20 years ago and I suspect security is a mite tighter now. But when I did it, the train crew didn’t really care. Which I really wish I would have figured out closer to the end of the trip when I finally upgraded from a coal car crevasse to one of the engines. When I popped in my new seat, an engineer just poked his head in, yelled “DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING” and kept going. But it was great for one reason: the train took a wrong turn in Texas (I was trying to go from Georgia to California) and I ended up in Arkansas, which took me a solid hour to figure out. By that time I was tired of train travel and settled down there for the next decade or so. And whenever anyone asked how I ended up in Little Rock, I always answered “By accident.”

5. I’m a really, really, really bad public speaker. No, really! Unfortunately this is something more and more of you are learning as I get dragooned into public speaking. It’s a lot easier to write than speak, y0. I tend-to-talk-really-really-fast-and-follow-a-script-and-not-look-up-and-forget-to-breathe.

So, I suspect the main reason Raph tagged me was to spread this insidious meme further into the bloodstream. So… the following people are now free to not respond, and feel guilty! Abalieno/HRose, Cosmik of n3rfed, Jeff Freeman, Amber Night and Damion Schubert, – step right up, and bare 1/5th of your soul. Or not.

I Really Need To Make A Second Life Icon

It may be the holidays but the metaverse drama never sleeps… from the ongoing war between Prokofy Neva and Something Awful (my bets are on Neva, the USSR was far more grieftastic than any goonfleet) to the article that may well have some ramifications into the new year: Clay Shirky analyzes the funny numbers Linden has been spoonfeeding the uncritical media, based in large part on his earlier Terra Nova pieces. Second Life brings back MMO investigative journalism – whoulda think it!

Raph Koster Interviewed

Pretty standard, really*.

AN: On your website you mention that “we’ve got a cool world or two incubating on the back burner.”\’c2\~ Does it make your investors nervous that you don’t know exactly how many worlds you have?

RK: Upon occasion they ask me about it, but then I dazzle them with doubletalk.

* Not.

This May Not Be The Best Use Of Public Relations

Something Awful writes about how all the Web 2.0 lusting PR firms jumping on Second Life are discovering the joys of… Something Awful, would be my guess. Or, as CNet put it,

Unfortunately, as the interview was commencing, the event was attacked by a “griefer,” someone intent on disrupting the proceedings. The griefer managed to assault the CNET theater for 15 minutes with–well, there’s no way to say this delicately–animated flying penises.

Chung refused to continue the interview in the CNET theater but agreed to go on in her own space.

Once restarted, the interview was attacked again, and the protester even managed to crash the entire server on which Chung’s theater is held.

So the takeaway: don’t hold press conferences in areas where people can, um, conjure virtual genitalia to rain from the heavens.

However, CNet managed to move beyond the VICIOUS PR0N ATTACK and actually ask a decent question of the former Shadowbane guildmaster:

There are plenty of skeptics about Second Life who simply can’t accept that someone could have a million dollars’ worth of virtual assets. So how do you come to that figure?

Graef: First, you need distinguish between three different things: real money in Ailin Graef’s bank account. There’s no million dollars in any bank account now. Second, the value of Anshe Chung Studios. That number was independently assessed in August by (some) investment firms and was already clearly more than $1 million.

The third thing is the value of what actually is owned by the avatar, which is 550 simulators–some unsold, some with profitable business tenants earning money every month–and the far more difficult, to assess value of content, content rights and stakes in other Second Life businesses.

To liquidate everything without leading to the price of Second Life land or the value of Linden dollars (the currency of Second Life) dropping by more than 10 percent would require up to eight weeks. I am very confident in saying this because in February and March, we cashed out $150,000 because of our investment in setting up shop in China, at the same time that IGE sold off about $100,000 Linden dollars.

At that time, the LindeX volume and the size of Second Life economy was much smaller. Yet even such large liquidations of Linden dollars did not lead to any serious issues. The Second Life economy is so large that I would not be surprised if, in two years, somebody has a net worth of $10 million.

Surprisingly, Karl Marx Had Little To Say About RMT

As seen on Zen of Design, the Chinese are seeing the South Korean moves towards RMT legislation and saying “hm, got to get us some of that“. Of course, the stereotype of China is being part of the problem with RMT, to put it mildly, but now that the Chinese have domestic MMOs as well, their own operators are all over having the People’s Republic handle CS issues!

These recommendations made by the Ministry of Culture have gained quite a bit of positive feedback and support from major online game operators. Shanda CEO Jun Tang and Netease Market Director Hua Huang both commented on supporting the ban on private trading among gamers and via online trading platforms. According to Jun Tang, it is currently impossible to execute complete prohibition on such virtual trading at the technological end, but should be feasible with regulative support and actions taken by the police.

China has had no qualms about dictating how games should be run and even designed, insisting on state-mandated time-outs to break unhealthy World of Warcraft raids, making sure all account creation is backed by proper ID (probably to try to police the previous link), and banning strategy games that dared to (correctly) depict Manchuria and Taiwan as Japanese-occupied areas in 1936. Chinese companies are going even further, with one enterprising MMO developer enforcing proper gender selection when you create your character.

Playing female characters is always popular in MMORPGs; the characters have no shortage of gold and always wear armor several levels beyond their status – all gifts from their male admirers. The gift giving phenomenon is not unique to China, only more pronounced due to the mass acceptance of online games by both sexes of China’s younger generations.

Well, that’s certainly one way to describe it

So, what does this all mean?

  • Don’t expect to sell 4 billion copies of your next MMO in China; not only is a home-grown industry far more localized than you could ever hope to be, but they will also be far more adept at dealing with the traditional Chinese bureaucracy (which far, far pre-dates Mao Zedong).
  • Government will continue to intervene in RMT sales as a cheap and easy way to “do something” about those wacky horror stories about online game addiction, backed in many cases by short-sighted gaming companies eager to offload their CS problems onto governmental oversight.
  • It won’t help and will only serve to drive RMT further underground than it already is. It may put companies like IGE out of business (pause for the shedding of a single tear) but companies operated out of a garage or by teens looting the guild treasury will continue to operate as a black market.
  • What *will* solve the RMT problem is when companies finally either incorporate controlled versions of interplayer sales into their own games (the SOE solution). Or design around/for direct gold microsales (as Puzzle Pirates does with their doubloon microtransactions). Or just say “screw it! We’re selling gold! Come get some!” (which seems to work for Project Entropia, despite some dodgy PR). Or, maybe, in some alternate universe, games will have such punishing CS “enforcement” that RMT is stamped out entirely. Call it the China solution. Or, most likely, that RMT is eliminated by simply eliminating, you know, any player economy whatsoever.

I’m starting to come around to the get-your-gold-from-the-company-store viewpoint, even though as a hardcore gamer my inner being recoils at the prospect, simply because it’s going to come from somewhere, and having the game company exert some control over it implies that it’s being handled by people with an enlightened self-interest in maintaining a healthy in-game ecosystem – something which third party gold farmers couldn’t give a rat’s arse about. There will be some significant pushback from users about this, because, especially given the recent trend to slap advertising on everything in online gaming, they may see this as yet another money grab by the MMO developer.

Which, of course, in many ways? It is. I didn’t say it was a *good* solutionl But, as China is discovering, the child-like idealism of socialism tends to melt in the light of day, and the enlightened self-interest of capitalism often tends to be the best solution in an imperfect world.

Considering the last RMT story I posted still has an active discussion, I suspect this will provoke some thoughts as well.

Next, France Discovers Fascists Are In Second Life

Just in case Joel Stein’s search for his special purpose wasn’t enough of a PR hit for the Lindenistas, another one may be brewing, at least in Europe: The French National Front’s Moselle youth league‘s opened up a recruiting office. I suspect this will be met with considerably less fanfare than Mark Warner’s flyby.

As the article notes (translation assisted by Google and twenty-years-old French class):

A priori, nothing prohibits a political party, even an extreme right wing one, to use Second Life. The general conditions of use specify that it is forbidden to behave in a manner that is \’e2\’80\’9charmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, causes tort, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable\’e2\’80\’9d there, but does not defend the ability to create political propaganda.

Of course, the surrounding lots immediately sprouted impolite derision in French. Perhaps they should have joined an Anshe Chung subdivision. Here’s one Messr. Le Pen may fit in with comfortably.

Next, Margaret Carlson Discovers Orcs Are In World of Warcraft

Joel Stein actually logs into Second Life and wanders outside the Green Zone.

I thought I’d want to have lots of sex. Meaningless, multipartnered, degrading sex. After all, if Second Life is a virtual community in which you can look however you want, do whatever you want and use the fake name you want, then I could make all my fantasies come true. And as I quickly learned, having sex is exactly what many of the people on the site spend their time doing. Occasionally, it seemed, with characters that look like giant fluffy squirrels\’e2\’80\rdblquote which is wonderful, because there is nothing like the warm flush of superiority you feel when discovering a fetish you don’t have.

Yes, this is the best (and most accurate) writeup of Second Life, ever. Make sure you’re not drinking a beverage when you get to the end.