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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.